Conflict, the Constitution, and Compromise: Six Takeaways from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Many Americans are frustrated by the gridlock and lack of cooperation in Washington. Some blame Republican “obstructionists” in Congress, while others point to an insular and dysfunctional White House. There have even been attempts to lay our current troubles at the feet of James Madison, Father of the Constitution. But does it really have to be this way?

Last night I heard Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison speak at Roanoke College. The talk was part of a series on the Constitution, the question: “Can the President and Congress work together?” The answer was a predictable “no.” However, the lecture did shed light on several important issues. My six “takeaways” include insights from Senator Hutchison, as well as my own reactions to her points.

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  1. The tension between the executive and the legislature is built into our Constitutional process, for good reason.

It would be extremely misguided to read the last six years as proof that we need to radically amend or bypass the Constitutional process. The first three articles of the Constitution lay out a separation of powers with checks and balances wisely designed to prevent too much power from being concentrated in too few hands—the definition of tyranny. Yes, it’s inconvenient and cumbersome at times; however, the tension between the executive and the legislature is necessary to prevent rule by an elected king. All presidents are tempted to overstep their bounds. It is the prerogative of all Congresses to rein them in.

Senator Hutchison recalled her experiences with fledgling democracies, including former Soviet republics. The freedom fighters always think it’s about the vote, she said, but they are wrong. Voting is the easier and less essential piece to building a strong democracy. More importantly, a good Constitution is needed to provide the structure through which free and open debates can play themselves out.

The Senator provided many historical examples of the tension between the President and Congress, including the War Powers Act. All presidents have used executive orders. However, President Obama cannot be judged on the number of executive orders alone, as he has greatly expanded the use of executive memoranda, directives to agencies that have the practical effect of law without the benefit of the legislative process. Also, not all executive orders are created equal; some represent minor changes, while others radically alter policy. Recent examples include Cuba and immigration.

Nevertheless, Congress has stopped President Obama from carrying out some of his plans, including closing the Guantanamo Bay prison. The judiciary has stepped in as well, declaring Obama’s “recess” appointments to the NLRB unconstitutional, as the Constitution clearly gives Congress the power to confirm appointments. Thank you, James Madison.

  1. It is important to build relationships with members of the other party.

Despite the tension between President and Congress, and despite the tension between the two major political parties (which the Constitution did not even envision), our elected leaders still have an obligation to handle the nation’s business. This requires negotiation and compromise.

But in order to achieve anything involving two competing sides, there must be a basic foundation of trust. You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t even have to like each other. But you do need to respect each other.

According to Senator Hutchison and other sources, President Obama does not seem to have invested much time or energy in cultivating open and collegial relationships with members of Congress. Even Democrats complain that he doesn’t invite them over to the White House. He doesn’t solicit their opinions. He doesn’t call, unless he wants something.

Senator Hutchison recalled one telling example—the so-called “fiscal cliff.” President Obama was getting nowhere. Neither were Harry Reid and John Boehner. Congress had been recalled after Christmas for the third time in history, the other two coming after the Pearl Harbor attack and the JFK assassination. In the end, it fell to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell to hammer out a deal with Vice President Joe Biden, the two having developed a good relationship in the Senate.

  1. It is important for public servants to have private sector experience.

Two questions during the Q&A portion were particularly telling. When Hutchison was asked if term limits would help for members of Congress, her answer was a resounding yes. Our Founding Fathers were against the idea of career politicians. Congressmen should have to do something else other than make rules the rest of us have to live by. The latter results in detachment from the concerns of everyday Americans and the desire to stay popular at any price to keep winning elections.

I thought Senator Hutchison’s best answer came when she was asked what advice she would offer a young man or woman who wanted to be a U.S. Senator. Hutchison advised against simply hopping from local to state to national office. She claimed to have been often struck by how disconnected politicians can be from “the real world,” and the business world in particular. If most congressmen had actually run a business, they might not be so eager to saddle them with burdensome regulations.

“Do something else first,” she suggested. Get a job in the private sector. Volunteer in your community to gain a better sense of their needs, so that if you ever get the honor of serving in elected office you can be a good representative.

  1. We need to move away from “comprehensive” legislation.

Why does it seem so difficult to get stuff done, even when a proposal enjoys overwhelming support from both parties? Hutchison explained how popular ideas are delayed by quests for “comprehensive” solutions. For example, both sides agree the corporate tax rate should be lowered: Republicans to 25%, Democrats to 26%. What keeps this from happening is the insistence by some that nothing be done on the corporate side (where there is some agreement) until a deal is also reached on the individual side (where there is far less).

Popular solutions should not be held hostage for more controversial or contentious ones. I personally think pieces of legislation should be limited to 50 pages or less, the shorter the better. Anything over that is likely to have been written by lobbyists, to include wasteful spending from both parties, and to be unnecessarily complex when the simplest rule is often fairest.

  1. There is a unique hostility between the Obama Administration and Congress.

Both Clinton and Bush made much more of an effort to reach out to the other party in Congress, while the opposite has been the case with Obama.

President Obama is uniquely bad at compromise due to a combination of inexperience and narcissism. Some have observed that he seems to dislike politicians, much preferring the company of close friends, celebrities, and professional athletes. He thinks negotiating is when you explain your position to the other side for as long as it takes for them to concede that yours is the only reasonable view. If they still can’t see the light after repeated attempts at persuasion, they are either ignorant or malicious. So you move on without them.

Before assuming the office of President, Obama never brokered a deal. He never had to run anything, other than a campaign. It is very unfortunate that in first two years of his administration, Obama didn’t have to compromise due to Democratic supermajorities in Congress. Thus, he made little effort to include Republican ideas in the stimulus, Dodd-Frank, or Obamacare. This understandably left a bad taste in the mouths of Republicans, who were more than happy to spend the next two years blocking his proposals.

This is not to let Republicans off the hook entirely, but they haven’t had much to work with. According to Hutchison, Republicans read the 2014 midterm elections as a mandate from the American people to work together on important issues like the economy. Unfortunately, the White House does not seem to see it this way, and is instead proposing additional liberal policies like free community college that are unlikely to get any traction in Congress.

  1. It is still inspiring to see strong female leaders.

Maybe we should be at the point in history where seeing a strong female leader is no more remarkable than seeing a strong left-handed leader. However, it is still inspiring to me to meet a woman with such a wealth of experience who manages to embody both strength and conviction. Whether or not you agree with her on every issue, Kay Bailey Hutchison is a role model for this reason.

Conflict is built into our Constitution, along with the need for compromise to overcome it. Wisdom lies in knowing when to stand your ground and when to sit down and work with the other side. As our politics becomes more polarized, there is even greater need to elect leaders with the experience and maturity to know the difference. Those aspiring for ideological purity would be better suited for philosophy or religion, as politics remains the art of the possible.

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