- - Friday, August 1, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Congress is going on break, and they’ve left the American people in the lurch. On big issues, from the crisis at the border to corporate tax inversion to budget and fiscal matters, the two parties are overwhelmed by their differences — even though both have more common ground than they seem willing to acknowledge.

Put simply, there is a huge amount of agreement that can be found between Democrats and Republicans — but absolutely no certainty about whether any serious legislation will get passed.

This highlights the larger issue in our democracy: the strong desire from vast majorities of the American people for bipartisanship and compromise, and the complete failure of both parties to deliver it.

It follows that we, like millions of other Americans, find it difficult to identify with most politicians in Washington. Their deference to partisan political machines at the expense of the national interest leaves us befuddled.

All the more so since, while Republicans and Democrats in Washington are divided, the American electorate, broadly speaking, is not.

Recent polling shows that 86 percent of all voters think political leaders are more interested in protecting their power than in doing what’s right for the American people. Eighty-three percent think the country is run by an alliance of incumbent politicians, media pundits, lobbyists and other interests for their own gain.

The Pew Research Center’s study of political polarization shows that even registered Democrats prefer by a 2-to-1 margin “elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with” over those who “stick to their principles.” Republicans are evenly divided on the issue. These figures certainly suggest room for more compromise — and immigration and budget reform are instructive examples.

House Republicans submitted a counterproposal to President Obama’s $3.7 billion and the Democratic Senate’s $2.7 billion packages addressing the crisis at the border. It failed to get to the floor on Thursday — no great loss. Their $659 million proposal was a stopgap solution, at best, and their new proposal, which brought on more Tea Party support, is a far cry from a compromise.

Democrats say Republicans are fixated on boosting border security instead of addressing broader immigration reform. Republicans say that Democrats want to give amnesty to everyone who crosses the border, while also granting citizenship to the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.

Yet 60 percent of the American public wants comprehensive immigration reform.

Democrats want humane treatment for illegal immigrants who are already here and those who have yet to arrive. As Republican Sen. Rand Paul said himself, the GOP is trapped in the word “amnesty,” and it’s not doing them any favors.

Weeks ago, Mr. Obama signaled that he was ready to meet the GOP in the middle. Republicans should have granted him his $3.7 billion in border aid in exchange for amendments to the 2008 trafficking law to ensure that we can responsibly and humanely deal with the influx of Central American migrants. Then we could have turned to a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, one based on mutual concern for Republican emphasis on securing the border and Democratic emphasis on creating a pathway to citizenship.

Today, comprehensive immigration reform is a pipedream, even though everybody could have won if we had looked to the center. That’s true on fiscal issues as well.

Our own polling shows that more than two-thirds of Americans support a bipartisan compromise on budget proposals that cut wasteful spending, reform our outdated tax code and make changes to entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, that will sustain them for future generations.

Americans are prepared for shared sacrifice to address our fiscal woes. Polling from around the last government shutdown bears this out. The public wants entitlement reform and may even be willing to pay higher taxes to get it. Shared sacrifice for the good of the majority — and the promise of a sustainable social safety net — is important to them. It’s an integral piece of moving toward reducing our debt and deficit and actually balancing the budget.

Earlier this year, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray forged a “minibudget” agreement that showed how compromise could be reached. Neither side got everything it wanted. That’s the kind of model that will be needed to achieve broader budget reform.

Mr. Ryan, in fact, is an instructive example: Known widely as a committed conservative, he has lately been demonstrating his ability to appeal to the other side.

His new anti-poverty plan, which he presented at the American Enterprise Institute recently, won some applause from the left. Mr. Ryan proposes to double the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless, low-income workers and to raise the income cutoff for eligibility — up to $18,070 per year, up from the current $14,790. EITC reform would encourage more low-income Americans to enter the labor market and thus, Mr. Ryan argues, would be a real aid to the poor.

Our politicians must stop thinking of compromise as a dirty word. There is also room in the middle on gun control, women’s issues, the minimum wage and on social-outreach efforts, such as Mr. Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to help young black and Latino men.

Happily, we’ve seen at least one recent indication that the two parties can work together: the passage of a compromise agreement drafted by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, on Veterans Affairs reform, which will make the VA more accountable and help to recruit more doctors, nurses and health care professionals.

Of course, making such centrist, common-sense agreements more commonplace will be easier said than done in a hyperpartisan Washington environment. That doesn’t change the fact that centrist politics are the answer, not the enemy. Given the urgency of the current moment, with crises nearly everywhere one looks, centrism is an answer whose time has come.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist, Fox News contributor and the author of “The End of Authority” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). Jessica Tarlov is a political strategist at Schoen Consulting.

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