Ken Plum: From polarization to compromise

kenplum2The outcome of the most recent elections demonstrates once again how divided we are as a nation and as a state. The clearest winner is gridlock as it is hard to see how progress can be made by Congress on important issues that await resolution.

The Senate has not moved closer to a balance where a meaningful debate can occur and issues can be resolved. Rather, the Senate is polarized between opposing points of view with a willingness to compromise being seen as a sign of weakness. The current circumstance is much more complex than simply Democrats versus Republicans. There are at least three parties in the Congress: the Democratic, Republican and Tea Parties. On the Democratic side, the number of old-time liberals can be counted on your fingers. There are some Democrats who gravitate to the middle leaving themselves neither fish nor fowl in the eyes of their constituents.

The “damn the torpedoes” Tea Partiers run the Congress. Old-time moderate Republicans defer to them for fear of a primary challenge from the right in the next election cycle. The goal of the Tea Party leaders is to stall the operation of government functions which they do not support.

My concern is that the same kind of election results we have seen at the federal level has permeated Virginia state elections as well. I am convinced that there are enough Democrats in the House of Delegates and enough moderate Republicans to pass Medicaid expansion in Virginia if it were not for the influence and threat of Tea Party primary challenges. Rather than realizing the fate of two Republican committee chairs that were defeated in primaries last election cycle, moderate Republicans are playing it safe and going along with Tea Party priorities as absurd as some turn out to be. The consequence is that Virginia leaves $5 million in federal money on the table each day just so that some politicians can continue to be elected. It seems like a high price to pay!

The other major factor affecting federal and state election outcomes is the incredible amount of money poured into campaigns. Americans for Prosperity, funded in part by the libertarian Koch brothers, are active in Virginia and were major players in refusing Medicaid expansion. They will keep the pressure on their Republican charges in next year’s Virginia General Assembly elections.

I recently attended a workshop featuring one of my greatest heroes–Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus fame. Sister Simone is one of the most effective spokespersons for the poor and those in need of medical services. She is harsh in her criticism of Congress for not raising the minimum wage and reforming immigration laws and of Virginia for not expanding Medicaid. She is insistent, however, that both sides must engage in a conversation in order to find common ground and reach compromises that are so important for the public. As tough as it seems, I am going to take her advice and get myself in that frame of mind for the General Assembly session starting in January to help it be productive.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.


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