To The 115th U.S. Congress – Shut Up And Dance

By Thomas Armbruster:

Since the consensus this year is that we live in a divided country, why not figure out what little common ground is left and build from there.  Gridlock has us all sitting on the sidelines while the music is playing.  It’s frustrating!

It used to be that politics ended at the water’s edge.  Foreign policy was bipartisan.  The Cold War was an effort requiring Democratic and Republican participation, although the Vietnam War sent dividing lines through the parties and within the parties.  Now perhaps, politics end at the atmosphere’s edge, as space is one of the few domains not politicized.  There is no “Republican Space Policy” or “Democratic Space Policy” and both parties have states that benefit from space research and exploration.

Foreign policy wasn’t the only bipartisan issue.  Republican President Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency.  President Reagan backed some restrictions on automatic weapons.  Democratic President Bill Clinton went to war with Republican-backing and Republican George H.W. Bush with Democratic-backing.  Compromise in Washington worked for all the major issues, even if the process was sometimes slow and incremental.  Now, health care, immigration, environment, education policy, energy, firearms and trade are all political battlefield issues with clear lines of attack and defense by both sides, so they are hard to target as priorities for bipartisan cooperation, but there is some room for compromise on the less sexy issues.

The American presence in space has helped to shape our understanding of the universe and our own planet.  There is one ideological landmine, in that some lawmakers do not want NASA to research global climate change, but the benefits for navigation, agriculture, urban planning and forestry are too great to ignore.  So, space.  Let’s chalk that up as non-denominational issue and agree to fund NASA robustly and give private space firms the subsidies and incentives they need to invest and take risks.

Agriculture is another non-partisan issue.  Ideologically, we all want there to be fresh, abundant, and healthy food available for us and we want policies that allow us to export our products.  Republicans and Democrats can agree on fully funding agricultural research that benefits everyone and supports the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extension programs that help inform farmers, the agriculture insurance programs, and the agricultural lending programs that provide access to credit in order to buy supplies.

There is an ideological divide on the military to an extent, with Democrats in general favoring less military spending if it looks like social programs could be endangered by fiscal realities, but both parties agree on helping veterans.  Funding the State Department and other agencies involved in international affairs, from Peace Corps to the U.S. Agency for International Development, to the CIA should also be non-contentious as it is a dangerous, busy, unpredictable world out there and there are a lot of American interests at stake from Mexico to Mongolia.

There seems to be a consensus now on trade, as both parties are afraid of trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), thereby ceding influence to China and letting them write the rules for international norms.  That does not seem to be in America’s interests, but if both parties agree that TPP is not what they want, then perhaps they can work together to figure out what we do want.

Education also used to be bipartisan, but now with school vouchers and a divide over high student debt rates, Washington is unlikely to take on comprehensive education reform without a real willingness by both sides to drop some of the rhetoric and get to work on ironing out compromises.

Currently, the big bipartisan issue is infrastructure.  Highways, bridges, airports, and dare we suggest mass transit systems are all in need of repair and that means money for every Congressional district.  Again, it is a unifying political issue and one that should allow this new administration and new Congress an opportunity to go to work and show us what they can do.  Gridlock and positions written in stone may have short term political benefits for one party or the other, but the impact for the nation is negative.

So, for 2017, there is political homework including getting started on space, agriculture, the foreign affairs budget (1% of the U.S. federal budget by the way), crafting a new trade direction and infrastructure.  Five big issues.  Republicans and Democrats, shut up and dance.  Tackle one every 20 days and the first 100 days are done.  Then, we’ll get to the hard stuff.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.


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