Partisanship: The new model for Congress

“I’m sure in your profession that you often consult your colleagues about certain procedures and are able to sit down and collectively determine how to treat a patient, knowing that there is no absolutely right or absolutely wrong solution. This is almost impossible to do in Congress,” admitted former Ways and Means Subcommittee Chairman and BlueDog Coalition co-founder John Tanner. Mr. Tanner spoke to a “PAC”ked audience at the AAOS Orthopaedic Political Action Committee luncheon on Wednesday about the country’s political predicament that has led to what he called a “structural deficit.”

John Tanner

Mr. Tanner admitted to feeling liberated in his role as a civilian, describing the current partisan atmosphere in Congress as a hostile arena that prohibits anyone from presenting an opposing point of view or even changing their mind without being shunned by the extremists in one party and being labeled a flip-flopper by the other party.

Mr. Tanner blamed gerrymandering (the practice by which electoral districts are apportioned to give one party a political advantage) as a key reason that the two-party system has become so polarized. Incumbents appeal mainly to their political base and have no incentive to reach across party lines, which makes solving even the simplest of problems impossible.

Budget basics
“Everybody knows what to do, even many of you know what we have to do to get our country back on track, but we would never be able to get more than 10 cosponsors out of 435 members to do it, and we would probably not be re-elected,” reflected Mr. Tanner.

According to Mr. Tanner, the road toward economic unsustainability began in 2001, when the country’s budget surplus prompted a sense of economic invincibility. Subsequent events, however, such as 9/11; Hurricane Katrina; and the housing, automobile, and banking crises, undermined that surplus. Instead of reining in spending then, Mr. Tanner acknowledged, Congress continued to spend, to the point where the nation’s expenditures now exceed its gross domestic product by 24 percent.

Mr. Tanner indicated that the commitment made by Congress, and most recently by the President, to cut nondiscretionary spending will do little to tackle the nation’s debt. A balanced budget can only be achieved if Congress and the nation find a sustainable solution to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security and are willing to make significant cuts to defense spending. However, cutting programs, Mr. Tanner affirmed, is not the “be-all, end-all” to a successful future.

The United States, he said, will fall behind other industrialized nations without significant investments in infrastructure, education, and a viable healthcare system. According to Mr. Tanner, banning gerrymandering could reduce polarization and provide for a more open-minded electorate that could not only acknowledge these ominous problems but find viable solutions.

“The longer we are in this ditch, the more entrenched we get in a structural deficit. Unless we get to the root of the problem and it dawns on people that fragmentation will not achieve solutions, we will continue down this destructive spending path,” he concluded.

Prepared by Madeleine Lovette, communications specialist, office of government relations.