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“Work together” and “play nice.” That was the parting counsel offered to federal lawmakers last month by Missouri’s long-time, now-retired Republican Senator Kit Bond. In the days after he spoke those words, Bond’s colleagues seemed to listen. The Senate ratified a new arms control treaty with Russia, while both chambers of Congress reached agreement on issues such as tax rates, allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and medical care for 9/11 first responders.
President Obama characterized this bout of productivity as evidence that quote “we have the capacity not only to make progress, but to make progress together.” Even so, Congress’ track record last month was far from perfect. Among other things, its members fell short on one of their most fundamental responsibilities: funding the operations of the federal government. Temporary funding was approved, but a longer-term spending bill was defeated, due primarily to outrage over pet projects known as earmarks.
Illustrating this feud are the positions taken by Missouri’s Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and new Republican Senator Roy Blunt. McCaskill generally opposes earmarks, while Blunt has suggested they can play an appropriate role in the federal budget process.
Granted, earmarks are such a relatively small part of the deficit-spending problem that perhaps lawmakers like McCaskill and Blunt should stop debating them. On the other hand, if they and their colleagues cannot even agree on the small parts of the problem, how are they ever going to agree on the big parts, including the future of tax rates, Medicare, Social Security, and national defense?
Either way, Congress will soon have another go at these issues, with its members facing a vote as early as next month about raising the federal debt ceiling. They could also be asked to reconsider proposals made last year by President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission.
None of the related choices will be easy. Special interests stand entrenched on both sides of the aisle, arguing against tax increases and spending cuts, even though our nation probably cannot find a sustainable path forward without some of both – without some people paying more and others getting by on less.
To reach the painful compromises that will be required of them, federal officials will once again need to listen to Senator Bond’s parting counsel. If there ever was a time for them to work together and play nice, this is it. Fortunately, Senator Bond has more to offer his former colleagues than mere words of advice.
When he returned to Jefferson City in 1981 for his second term as Missouri’s governor, Bond walked into a deficit-spending situation, facing a state legislature controlled by supermajorities of the opposing party. Speaking late last year with the St. Louis Beacon’s Robert Koenig, Bond recalled meeting in 1981 with the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly and presenting them with a list of possible spending cuts – asking them to indicate what they could and could not stomach. “I did my part and they did theirs,” Bond said, deeming this accomplishment his quote “most successful bipartisan effort.”
Yes, the federal budget is far more complex than a state budget like Missouri’s. Still, I have to believe our leaders in Washington, including the President, could benefit from Senator Bond’s prior experience as Governor. Let’s hope they do.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.