- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

With the new Congress well under way, perhaps we can now move beyond the hyping of Washington’s changed political climate.

All that really has changed this year are the parties’ precarious political places. Republicans relinquished relatively narrow congressional majorities and Democrats gained even narrower ones. What hasn’t changed in this new Congress is the old problem of a limited ability to govern — particularly if constant confrontation continues.

Congress’ enduring political stalemate increasingly resembles World War I’s Western Front. As the political entrenchment deepens and extends, both parties have increasing difficulty making more than marginal political or policy gains against it.

That just a party switch of 8 percent in the House and 6 percent in the Senate could be ballyhooed as a political earthquake is evidence enough of how conditioned we have become to elections’ marginal changes. The 110th Congress’ tenure will mark 14 years without a predominant majority in either the House or the Senate — the longest and most pronounced such period in congressional history. Neither party has been able to unilaterally determine policy and as a result, Congress has had difficulty summoning the necessary majorities to pass legislation.

While anything but quiet, the persistence of this marginal control and marginal electoral change recalls the Western Front of World War I where opposing armies became progressively more entrenched. By 1917, the Germans’ Hindenburg Line was miles deep in entrenchments and both sides’ entrenchments extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Neither side could dislodge the other from these. Yet the expectation remained that, if the same tactics simply were used on larger scales, a breakthrough would occur.

The nadir of this mindset was 1916’s battle of Verdun. The Germans’ goal was not a strategic point but attrition itself with the intent to “bleed France white.” From February to December, German and French forces attacked and counterattacked opposing trenches in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war — and in history to that point. At the expense of almost 1 million casualties, both armies essentially ended in the same geographic positions where they had begun.

Congress’ resemblance to this futility is as unhappy as it is uncanny. Entrenched ideological positions and trenchant rhetoric have been extended to more and more issues in a war of political attrition.

Both parties have expended vast sums and energy for increasingly marginal results. Each party continues to believe the next election will deliver a knockout blow — either to their opponent or to themselves. So the campaigns lengthen, the money expands and the rhetoric increases.

However despite the election hyperbole, politics isn’t war — though observers could be forgiven that misapprehension. Exhaustion will not deliver victory to one side. And the knockouts in American politics — like those of 1860 or 1932 — have been the result of actions beyond the benefiting parties’ control. Yet, today’s political parties continue to behave as though they can be premeditatedly precipitated.

Today’s political environment calls for at least a strategic change, if not an armistice. The parties must realize every issue should not be delivered to the government for a solution. Of those that are, not every one should be politicized with conflicting positions. Every issue does not yield a strategic advantage — and the focus and the contest should be limited to those that do.

The electorate would also benefit from the realism that government cannot and should not be expanded into every sphere via politics. The desire for and acceptance of this ever-expanding government simply facilitates what they profess to despise.

There are hopeful signs in both parties and ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that a cease-fire along parts of the political front is possible. Montana’s Sen. Max Baucus, the incoming Democratic chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee brings a longstanding penchant for cooperation with his Republican counterpart Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Incoming House Ways & Means chairman Charlie Rangel of New York has been vocal in his desire to have a more collegial process and his new Republican counterpart, Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana is a model legislator.

From the administration, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Office of Management and Budget Director Robert Portman have both expressed a desire to work with Congress without preconditions on entitlement reform.

An all-out armistice such as that which transpired on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 is out of the question. However, all combatants would do well to recall the words written about it by Edwin James of the New York Times and replace “God” with “the electorate” to understand the public’s current frustration: “They stopped fighting at 11 o’clock this morning. In a twinkling, four years of killing and massacre stopped as if God had swept His omnipotent finger across the scene of world carnage and had cried ‘Enough.’ ”

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget 2001-2004 and as a congressional staff member 1987-2000.

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