Guest Column

Compromise works in sausage-making and politics

November 21, 2014
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As a high school senior, I took a short stint as a sausage-maker in a Cascade butcher shop. Ten years later, I found myself involved in another form of sausage-making as a staff-person on Capitol Hill: understanding Otto Von Bismarck’s famous maxim that it’s best not to witness sausage-making or lawmaking.

My work at the market involved a number of tasks involving blood and hauling Ada Beef carcasses from a truck to a freezer and large cow parts into the cutting room, weighing and then wrapping marbled cuts of beef for the waiting customers. Running low on sausage, my supervisor one day ordered me to prepare more and, as a lover of all things sausage, it was an unpleasant education. Shoving cow parts into the manual hand crank grinder — just enough meat with white, greasy fat and a few spices — and then watching the product ooze into the casing was enough for me. It was a necessary task, but I vowed to never eat sausage again.

Like making sausage, lawmaking begins with identifying friends and allies (red meat), then negotiating and even compromising with your opponents to accept the less savory to your political base (grease and fat). It is sometimes necessary to give up some ingredients in order to win. Albeit unsavory to some, the Constitution actually promotes this process as a tool for incremental change and discourages one-sided victories like Obamacare.

With their sweeping victories, Republicans have the chance to be a steady force for sound legislative and economic policy. As the 114th Congress is sworn in Jan. 3, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner may move quickly on base issues ranging from oil and gas exploration to outright repeal of Obamacare and Dodd/Frank financial regulations.

Moderate Republicans in the House and Senate will urge them to focus on issues like highway funding, free trade, tax code overhaul and other areas of potential bi-partisan agreement. This worked to everyone’s advantage during the ’90s when welfare reform and volunteer liability protection were passed by solid majorities on both sides.

In reality, the 114th Congress will be fortunate to see a small handful of bills signed into law. Each party’s extremists will likely dig in their heels to prohibit any substantive legislation from sailing through Congress to the president’s desk. Heave-and-lurch governing and heavy-handed parliamentary chicanery serve no one well, especially the citizens. That is why Congress now has an abysmal 20 percent approval rating.

There are pragmatic Republicans looking ahead to 2016, and they don’t want to be seen as the party that shut down the government over budget allocations and avoiding default on the debt. This wing of the GOP, the kind of lawmakers in the tradition of Grand Rapids, find honor in steady, silent progress in policy. I grew up in Grand Rapids revering our tradition of serious lawmaking, and doubt our lawmakers of old would have countenanced the economic imprudence of debt default and budget brinksmanship.

But in the words of historian Barbara Tuchmann, “Honor wears different coats to different eyes.” Ambitious first-term Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, holds sway with a significant portion of the Republican Senate (and even some House members), and he has indicated he will oppose his party’s leadership on issues as well as tactics. This bloc will push for a short-term stopgap spending bill (Continuing Resolution) to get some leverage over the president next year. While they try painting a clear contrast to President Obama’s policies and abuse of executive orders in hopes of aligning ordinary Americans to their cause in 2016, the political left wants them to overreach and further alienate the electorate as they did during last year’s government shutdown episode.

We can expect there to be a war cry of “no compromise” in the political atmosphere over the next two years, resulting in more gridlock. This would be a gift to Democrats that will keep on giving all the way to Nov. 8, 2016. Will the Republicans overreach, heave, lurch and fracture, or will they remain steady and unified? Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Boehner will have to tread carefully in the hopes of “saving the country” without engendering the epic disappointment in so many politicians who were never able to fulfill lofty promises.

To me now, von Bismarck was partially right. Over the years I have come to welcome the sausage-making of policy development. When the process is done right and without the desire for cheap, quick, political scorekeeping, legislative sausage-making can lead to the kind of progress that the public is craving.

As for the real thing? I am still a loyal Yesterdog patron — and you can find me visiting Dog ‘n Suds when in Whitehall (extra chili, please!).

Steve Carey is president of Potomac Strategic Development Co. in Washington, D.C.

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