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What's New on Your Watch?

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan was “Change You Can Believe In,” and he vowed to change the way business gets done in Washington, DC. If at the time you thought the theme seemed vaguely familiar, you had good reason. Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a “New Deal” for the American people and John F. Kennedy set our national sights on a “New Frontier.” It wasn’t that long ago that President George H.W. Bush campaigned as an “agent of change” and spoke in his 1989 inaugural address of replacing the bitterness of politics past in a “kinder, gentler Nation.” Even as recently as 8 years ago, the 2000 presidential campaign featured a GOP standard bearer – George W. Bush – who promised to “change the tone” in the Nation’s capital. So “change” as a campaign or governing theme isn’t as much new as it is a time-honored political tactic aimed at creating the impression if not always the reality of leadership – of bringing disparate people and interests together in pursuit of the common good.
 
Now that we’re six months into the Obama Administration, it does seem reasonable to ask, given the magnitude of the agenda the President and his legislative allies in the strongly Democratic 111th Congress have aggressively pursued, “Well, has he changed the way business is done in Washington?”  And even if you believe six months isn’t sufficient time to provide enough evidence to judge, you can fairly ask, “Has he even begun?” In light of the political polarization that took place throughout the preceding administration’s tenure, for which President Bush and the Republicans were so loudly condemned by the partisans of those now in power, let’s ask it another way: “What’s new on your watch?”
 
Sadly, the answer seems to be precious little. Substantively, the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress have charted a course “back to the future,” a vast expansion of the size, scope and cost of government, big new taxes (especially on business), and big new deficits (the size of the national debt is projected to double over the next 5 years and triple over the next 10, reaching 82% of our gross domestic product in 2019). Lawrence Kudlow, the noted economist, commentator and host of CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company,” writing about “Barack Obama’s politics and policies” in an op-ed that appeared last spring in The Washington Times, observed, “This looks very much like a war against investors, businesses and entrepreneurs … this is the wrong direction for economic growth ...”
 
Clive Crook, writing on July 4th for National Journal,had this to say about the Obama Administration’s fiscal policies and the seeming unending insistence on blaming the previous administration for its failure to right the ship:
 
“Just how bad is America’s long term fiscal position? The numbers are scary and getting worse … although it is true that the Bush administration grew the budget deficit to where it is today, the Obama administration proposes to do almost nothing about it. Even after the recession ends, even after years of running the economy at full employment, the new administration’s deficits are still so big that the public debt keeps growing faster than the economy.”
 
Is this the “change” candidate Barack Obama was marketing when he talked about “Change You Can Believe In?” Is this really what the American people voted for eight months ago?
 
It is also regrettable that a quick look at the votes NAW’s government relations team has thus far identified as “key” for wholesaler-distributors, illustrates how polarized Washington remains.
 
When Congress left town on June 26th for its week-long July 4th recess, the House of Representatives had cast 8 key votes. Of the 256 Democratic Members of the House, 202 (79%) had yet to cast a single correct vote and just 7 (3%) had voted correctly at least half the time. The record of the House Republican minority stands in clear, favorable contrast to that of the majority: 127 GOP Members (71% of the 178-member House Republican conference) had compiled perfect voting records while just 1 went the wrong way on half (4) of the 8 votes.
 
The partisan contrast in the Senate is just as clear and compelling on the 9 votes identified to date as “key” to the wholesale distribution industry by the NAW government relations team. Of the 59 Senators who were members of the Senate Democratic Caucus at the July 4th break, 31 (53%) had yet to cast even 1 correct vote and only 1 had gone the right way as many as 5 times. Of the 518 votes cast by Democratic Senators on the 9 NAW key votes, just 46 (9%) were correct votes. On the GOP side, 24 (60%) of 40 Senators had perfect records while just 4 (10%) had been wrong more than once. Of the 355 votes cast by Republican Senators on the 9 NAW key votes, 331 (93%) were cast on the right side.
 
The bipartisanship for which everyone, the President included, seems to yearn is a less than precise term and thus appears in the eye of the beholder. For the Democratic Congressional majorities, the massive $787 billion economic stimulus bill, which passed the House with no GOP support and gained just 3 Republican votes in the Senate, apparently fit the majority’s convenient definition of “bipartisan.” And there doesn’t seem to be much if any interest in any measure of bipartisanship when the majorities are comfortable that they can prevail on their juice alone. A single example is instructive:  the Federal budget passed both houses without a single Republican Member of Congress on board. Rather than work out a consensus budget with ideologically diverse, bipartisan support, the majority decided to simply go it alone.
 
With several big-ticket items that will profoundly impact the economy generally and the business community in particular now in the legislative queue or soon to be – a “cap & trade” climate change and energy bill, health care reform, reform of the financial sector, tax, employee benefits and workplace issues among them – wholesaler-distributors have every reason to be concerned about where the Democrat-dominated political branches of the Federal government want to take the country. And with the arrival on the scene of the just-seated Senator Al Franken (D-MN) taking the Democrats’ dominance of the legislative branch to the next level by giving the President’s party a nominally filibuster-proof 60 to 40 margin in the Senate, only time will tell if President Obama will demonstrate any more real interest than he has to date in that elusive goal of changing the way business is done in Washington by engaging Republicans, centrist and conservative Democrats and the business community in something other than pleasant but ultimately fruitless chatter. And even if he is, will he be able to prevail on his allies on Capitol Hill to cooperate, or will they blaze their own partisan path?
 
Without real input with tangible results in a truly bipartisan legislative process on Capitol Hill, Congressional Republicans must continue to stand their ground and offer meaningful ideas of their own to set themselves apart from their majority Democratic colleagues on things that matter to the American people and issue by issue, like-minded pro-business Democrats must be encouraged to collaborate with them. “Bipartisanship” cannot and need not become synonymous with “surrender.” And sometimes “no” is the right answer.