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Digging a Hole

 On the vast majority of significant public policy challenges facing the country and Colorado, the problem isn’t that solutions get adopted and prove to be ill-advised. It’s almost invariably that no solution can gain enough favor in the corridors of power to get adopted. Congress can’t pass a federal budget of any size, much less one that reduces the annual deficit, so it repeatedly passes continuing authorizations enabling the government is operate as it has for a few more months. The federal debt grows to a size not seen in generations, an increase that has occurred under both Democratic and Republican presidents.  The federal government’s perfect credit-rating is yanked. Federal immigration law hasn’t been changed in more than 30 years, cheating the economy of some of the best minds in the world and trapping the country and its non-citizen residents in a stalemate benefitting no one.  Tax policy hasn’t been significantly changed in decades. The cost of college increases every year well beyond the rate of inflation, and thousands of students graduate every year with crushing debt loads that keep them from pursuing their dreams. Everyone agrees that Medicare is going to break the back of the federal budget; nothing is done.  Social security will by itself start generating deficits  well before most Baby Boomers retire; nothing has done been since the Eighties.  Energy policy is stuck between the advocates of expanding old sources and the advocates of developing new, an outcome that leaves us as dependent on foreign powers that promote their interests at the expense of ours. Any attempts to change the way federal lands are managed gets stuck in a seemingly endless series of administrative and court appeals, with the combatants doing everything they can to delay, hoping their fortunes turn in the next presidential election

 Progress in the statehouse in Denver is incremental at best. No serious attempts at health care reform, energy or tax reform are even considered, much less approved. And truly significant changes – such as civil unions – often get snagged in partisan gamesmanship.

 The only significant legislation of the first-decade-plus of the century at the federal or state level is the federal health care legislation passed in 2010, and whatever it is, it isn’t reform because it doesn’t change the way the health care system works, it merely expands access to insurance by using tax funds to subsidize the costs for a larger number of Americans. However laudable that outcome, it isn’t reform. Only reform can bring down the cost of health care and health insurance. But there is no prospect of reform in DC or Denver. None.

 In small ways, there are at times some winners and some losers from this public policy stagnation. In most cases, the winners and losers change seats after a presidential election. 

 On almost every significant issue, however, there are no winners – ever – because stalemate accomplishes nothing except perpetuate the status quo. It advances the interests of no one except those satisfied with the direction of the country.

 Americans know little gets accomplished in government. Many respond by not participating in the political process. In a 2012 poll conducted by Suffolk University, those who said they didn’t pay much attention to politics were asked why not. The most common explanation by cited by 59 percent of those surveyed: nothing ever done gone; it’s a bunch of empty promises.

 The political landscape in Denver is not much different than in DC. The legislature shies away from tackling any of the significant problems facing the state even though other states have proven the value of state-level leadership when the federal government is tied up in knots. On issue after issue the partisan jockeying in Denver blocks problem-solving or prevents considering proposals on their merits. In 2012 thirty bills approved by one chamber couldn’t even get floor votes in the other after a partisan dispute over civil unions flared.  You don’t have to be a supporter of civil unions to recognize that no issue should become so polarizing that it ties the legislature in knots and thereby blocks bills from up or down votes on their merits.

 The consequences of the stalemate in DC and Denver are an economy in the doldrums with no end in sight, an electorate with no confidence that any of the country’s significant problems are going to get solved anytime soon, political leaders in each major political party pulling their hair out in frustration, a judiciary filling huge holes in a system that’s supposed to rely more on laws and legislation than judges, and a country with a gargantuan debt that cedes power to other countries that purchase its bonds, even power over its own domestic affairs. The economy will go up and down, and during the up-swings the stench from the public sphere will recede. But it will come back again and again – because problems are being glossed over, and they will continue to fester.

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