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Please Back Away From the Partisan Brink

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Flickr user Nicolas Raymond

U.S. presidential elections have historically served as fulcrums of national renewal. They bring new energy and fresh ideas to the often enervating business of governing, satisfying the drive for reform and continual self-improvement that are central to the American character. As Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Every four years we consider our faults anew, and decide which candidate is best equipped for the job of repair.

Yet increasingly our politics of hyper-partisanship, deep division and permanent campaigning are grinding that cycle of national renewal to a halt. New presidents are immediately confronted by an opposition party unified in obstructionism. The zero-sum, all-or-nothing dynamic of campaigns -- where there are only winners and losers -- never really gives way to the necessary “win-win” of governing, where progress is only achieved through coalition-building, mutually beneficial compromise, and consensus. Our faults go unrepaired and big problems fester, whether it’s a crumbling domestic infrastructure, dramatic declines in U.S. military readiness, or the unsustainable accumulation of debt. Signs of such decay are already clearly evident.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this dangerous predicament, across the political divide and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Policymakers and government officials in Washington must recognize the very real threat partisan paralysis poses to our nation’s welfare, and live up to their oaths to protect the republic. Even after a turbulent and often controversial start by the Trump administration, there are still positive steps that both Republicans and Democrats can and should take to reach common ground, and put the nation and its institutions on a firmer footing.

A good place to start would be rapidly accelerating the staffing of federal agencies, which are collectively hanging out “help wanted” signs. While President Trump has had 18 members of its Cabinet confirmed by the Senate, he has made very few nominations for the more than 500 vital posts that form the second and third tiers of government leadership. These officials traditionally make the wheels of bureaucracy turn. Reports are rife of leadership vacuums at major departments such as State, Defense, Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. Federal employees are alarmed not only about the rudderless drift at their agencies, but also about their jobs and livelihoods.

There are a number of causes of what has been described as the slowest personnel staffing of a presidential transition in decades. These include the surprising nature of President Trump’s electoral victory and a subsequent lack of advance planning; a transition hampered by restarts and resignations; a five-year lobbying ban that has discouraged some qualified candidates from considering government service; a Trump loyalty test that has eliminated many potential candidates who have been critical of the president in the past; and a presidential managerial style heavily reliant on a tight circle of family and trusted aides. Senate Republicans have also blamed Democrats for foot-dragging during the confirmation process. “Democrats are slowing [the confirmation process] so much that it’s almost irrelevant whether we get the names,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said. “It’s the slowest process since Abraham Lincoln.”

Whatever the causes, this leadership vacuum in the upper reaches of government is dangerous. Presidents often face crises early in their tenures, frequently within their first year in the Oval Office: think George H.W. Bush launching an invasion of Panama; Bill Clinton dealing with the Black Hawk Down debacle in Somalia; George W. Bush rocked by the worst attack on the homeland since Pearl Harbor; and Barack Obama confronting a global financial meltdown and a losing war in Afghanistan. Today multiple potential crises lie just beyond the visible horizon, from North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and provocations, to Russian and Chinese aggression in their near abroad, to a war against ISIS in an unraveling Middle East. If the White House and Congress cannot work together to accelerate the staffing of the federal government, the ship of state will soon enter perilous waters with an inexperienced captain and only a skeletal crew on deck.

President Trump has made a priority of quickly destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and affiliated Islamist extremist groups, which has already resulted in his sending more U.S. service members into harm’s way. Trump should thus ask for, and Congress should grant, the authority that was wrongly denied his predecessor -- a congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS. Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have already proposed a bipartisan authorization that should be dusted off and vigorously debated.

U.S. troops deploying to combat deserve to know that the American people and their representatives in Washington are united behind them, and a wartime commander-in-chief armed with congressional authorization is less likely to be second-guessed when inevitable setbacks occur. The exercise would also provide an overdue reminder that the Founding Fathers gave Congress the sole power to declare war and “raise and support armies” for a reason. With a White House so willing to test the boundaries of the separation of powers, Congress should recall the wisdom of the words of Constitutional Convention delegate Elbridge Gerry in 1797, who said he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the executive alone to declare war.”

President Trump has wisely proposed spending more on defense to address a creeping readiness and modernization crisis, but he would pay for it with draconian cuts in non-defense agencies. Once it becomes clear that this unbalanced budget is “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill, in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the administration and Congress will run up against the constraints of the 2011 Budget Control Act, with its automatic sequester spending caps on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending.

The Budget Control Act is a testament to legislative gridlock, a poison pill designed to be so toxic that it would force compromise on Republican and Democratic budget negotiators whose stubbornness had shut down the federal government and threatened a default on U.S. debt. And since 2011 the inability of politicians to do their job and find common ground has forced that bitter pill down the Pentagon’s throat, triggering arbitrary spending caps and wreaking havoc on U.S. military planning and readiness even in a time of war.  

Virtually every plank in the Trump administration agenda -- tax cuts along with major tax reform, a large infrastructure bill, increased defense spending, building a border wall -- will require a deal between Republicans and Democrats to move beyond the Budget Control Act. The potential for new streams of revenue in a major tax overhaul could be the wrecking ball that finally topples this monument to Washington’s partisan dysfunction. That alone would be a worthy signal of national renewal.

James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and co-editor of the recent anthologies, Triumph and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency and Triumph and Tragedies of the Modern Congress. He is also a former senior correspondent at Government Executive.

Photo illustration: Flickr user Nicolas Raymond

James Kitfield

James Kitfield a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a Defense One contributor. He is a former senior correspondent for National Journal and has written on defense, national security and foreign policy issues from Washington, D.C. for more than two decades.

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