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May 12, 2014

An Empty Spring

By John Carr

This spring in Washington, the cherry blossoms came late and quickly faded, but partisan posturing for coming elections is in full bloom. What is missing is Congressional action to deal with a stagnant economy, divided nation and a violent world.

I left our dysfunctional capital for a trip to the battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam, with their stark reminders of the savagery of war and the courage of men with a cause more than 150 years ago. At the same time, three presidents came together in Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. That long century, from the emancipation of slaves to the equal rights and political empowerment of their descendants, was a battle for the soul of America. As Lincoln insisted at Gettysburg, it still is “unfinished work.”

In late April the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action. Last year, the court struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required preclearance of voting changes in several states and localities, just as some states are enacting measures to make voting more difficult. Bipartisan efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act are languishing.

Washington seems incapable of acting on immigration reform, the minimum wage and measures to combat widespread unemployment and poverty. Congress is more partisan theater and less a place for debate and decisions. The House makes empty threats to “repeal and replace Obamacare” with no chance for repeal and no plans to replace measures to insure the uninsured. The administration grants waivers and delays as it overcomes a disastrous start-up, with recent reports of enrollment up and costs down. Apparently, the courts will define religious ministries and conscience rights as Congress ignores the overreaching Health and Human Services mandate.

In the Senate, the filibuster has transitioned from a weapon of last resort to an everyday threat and permanent fixture in the legislative process, requiring 60 votes to move forward. The Senate is full of recriminations and nearly empty of legislative accomplishments, except for passage of immigration reform.

The House has not even accomplished that. It is paralyzed by the Hastert Rule, which requires majority support in the Republican caucus before legislation can be considered by the House, which empowers the most obstructionist members. Senate immigration legislation could pass with a bipartisan coalition, but so far Speaker Boehner will not permit a vote because it lacks majority support within the G.O.P. caucus.

Special interests, with unlimited political money, are far more effective at stopping things than advancing them. Congress can barely pass extensions of unemployment insurance, much less devote serious effort to creating jobs. Moderate voices leave in frustration or risk defeat in often gerrymandered districts. Both parties are more disciplined, ideological and intolerant of bipartisan collaboration.

Republicans can barely contain their disdain for the president and hope to win both houses of Congress. President Obama, with low poll numbers and unrelenting partisan opposition, has all but given up negotiation with Republicans. He advances his agenda with the “pen and the phone,” taking executive action where possible and convening leaders to make incremental progress on his priorities.

Establishment Washington is looking beyond the 2014 elections. They have a “back to the future” strategy, promoting Hillary Clinton’s inevitability and Jeb Bush’s electability for 2016. While “Clinton vs. Bush” sounds all too familiar, this would mean the first woman president or first Hispanic family in the White House. Nonetheless, too many in Washington would rather get ready for the next election than try to move forward with the results of the last one.

Still, spring is a time of hope and renewal. Strong leadership and clear priorities are required. Pope Francis is revitalizing the church by demonstrating that true power is service, genuine strength is expressed in dialogue and humility and the moral measure of every institution is how it treats the poor and vulnerable. That would be a start for Washington. It would also advance Lincoln’s timeless call that still echoes at Gettysburg for “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”