Bargaining with Pirates

The Republicans are playing hardball. They want Democrats to cut the budget, repeatedly, without raising taxes, and without cutting military expenditures. And in return they’re willing to give nothing.

The story is that the Democrats cave. But it’s more insidious. Democrats want expenditures – for competent government, to regulate, investigate, control the economy, enforce the tax laws, inspect food, negotiate with the drug companies, provide clean air, clean water, sewage treatment, affordable power, medical insurance and social security, to name a few ways government could make this a better world for everyone. 

Republicans want to keep their tax exemptions, the ones that mean that the wealthiest Americans and companies pay much lower tax rates than you and me. Indeed they sometimes avoid paying anything at all – although you wouldn’t know it from all the bellyaching. And they want to prevent action on everything else. 

So why can’t we trade? Most of what Republicans want is either in the laws already or in the absence of law. Either way Democrats would have to change it by law. That takes majorities in both houses. Republicans can howl but they have little to lose by just saying “no”. They don’t need Democratic votes because they don’t have to pass laws to accomplish most of what they want. The Democrats need votes in the Republican House to get anything done. For the most part, Republicans don’t need votes in the Democratic Senate; they just have to say “no”. 

That makes a very one-sided negotiating session because of the way the laws are written – it’s the Democrats’ programs that are on the line, not the Republicans’. Could the oil companies get their tax breaks put into the law if they weren’t there already? Much harder. But with tax provisions in the legislation until repealed, all they have to do is block any action – a much easier job. 

There is a literature developing that suggests ways of fashioning proposals that work for both the left and the right – a “win-win” approach. The right, or the wrong, likes to be able to choose, to consent. Now what consent meant to the Founders was consent to our system of government followed by consent of the majority, not individual consent to each and every program. But the conservatives insist that no one can tell them what to do. They argue they have the right to say no to everything that government, of the people, by the people and for the people, decides is the right way to handle public problems. 

So this understanding of how to fashion programs so that everybody wins turns out to be like buying off the pirates. The folk that put themselves in the way of real progress, preventing society from dealing effectively with global warming, safe foods, and products, creating jobs, actual jobs, by hiring people, not imaginary jobs by giving yet larger tax breaks to people who pocket the money and hire no one, and providing a safety net when the people running Wall Street turn the economy into a shake-down racket, the folk who put themselves in the way of all the admirable things that real public servants are trying to do, have to be bought off. Yep you can have oil drilling in the Ocean, the Arctic and the Gulf. Yep you don’t have to pay taxes at the rate ordinary folk do. Yep you don’t have to cooperate so everyone can have health care. Anything else we can do for you? 

Then there was that president who promised millions for defense but not one cent for tribute. Wonder which pirates he had in mind? 

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 17, 2011.

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