Tuesday, October 11, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Who wants gridlock?

Gov. Mike Beebe made a few off-the-cuff remarks last week at a Lions Club meeting that ought to resonate with everyone interested in good government, regardless of their political persuasion. He worried that the Arkansas Capitol might become like Washington, where party hatreds have begun to produce gridlock that prevents the government from doing the people’s business.

The partisan bitterness in Washington began a quarter-century ago and has now reached its zenith—make that its nadir—where even casual friendships between members of the opposing parties are forbidden and any effort at collaboration is punished. The rivalry nearly caused the government to renege on its debts for the first time since the War of 1812, and it has impaired the nation’s ability to rise from the economic abyss created by the financial collapse of 2008.

So who likes Washington, and who wants to see the example replicated at Little Rock? Well, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr sort of likes the idea, but, really, who else?

Beebe’s little homily should have brought nothing but cheers, but it got condemnation instead. The Republican leader of the House of Representatives, though he and his party had not been fingered by the governor, protested that Republicans had not been partisan at all beyond raising some new ideas and that Beebe was just wrong. Beebe had said the Senate had worked through disagreements amicably, although the partisan division there was about the same as in the House of Representatives. Republicans are three members shy of a majority in the Senate and seven short in the House. But the House got bitterly partisan and Beebe said it “scared” him. He said it was the governor’s job to get legislators to overcome their natural partisan jealousies and solve problems.

Then the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette weighed in. Its lead editorial Tuesday castigated Beebe for wanting harmony and collaboration. Beebe is just scared of Republicans and their emerging force in the legislature, the paper said. It implied that Beebe longed for the good old days when Democrats ran everything without dissent and the governor could demagogue the race issue whenever he needed to be re-elected. The paper insinuated that Democrats now are left to scare people about Hispanics rather than blacks. Our recollection is that this was not a Democratic but Republican tactic, although the GOP’s peerless leader, Mike Huckabee, never subscribed to it.

John Burris of Harrison, the House Republican leader, said he never detected partisanship in the lower chamber. Let’s remind him of one example.

Republicans everywhere, as far as we can tell, oppose the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the big health-insurance reformation law that Congress enacted in 2009, which is perfectly proper. Three Republican U.S. senators had been working with Democrats to craft a bipartisan bill based on the Republican health bills of the 1970s and ’90s and the system adopted in Massachusetts under Gov. Mitt Romney. They were ordered by party leaders to retreat and leave it as a Democratic bill. Not one Republican voted to allow the bill to even come to a vote in either house.

A central provision of the law is the creation of insurance exchanges where individuals and businesses can go in each state to buy a private insurance policy that fits their needs and pocketbook. But Republicans, mainly in the House, have blocked any effort by the state to set up its exchange despite pleas from the governor, the medical establishment, the state surgeon general and the state chamber of commerce. If Arkansas does not set up its own exchange, businesses and individuals without insurance will have to shop for a policy on a federal exchange—in Washington—where the premiums might be more expensive and the rules harder to live by.

The obstruction has only one objective—to make the new system unendurable for Arkansans if that is possible, simply because if it works Democrats might get credit. Nothing the Arkansas legislature does, on the exchanges or anything else about the federal law, will have the slightest effect on whether any or all of the provisions of the law go into effect. That is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court—and the Congress if it so chooses. But the Republicans can make things much harder and costlier for the people of Arkansas by forcing them to go to Washington to satisfy their needs. Maybe they will then get mad at Democrats. That seems to be the hope.

Does that qualify as needless and pointless partisanship? Only a few years ago such obstructionism was unheard of, by either party. Remember only five or six years ago, a Republican governor was getting nearly everything he sought from an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Huckabee frequently complained about the Democrats, but they worked through nearly every one of their differences.

Which way do you think is better?

—Ernie Dumas