CNN host, author and 2012 presidential debate moderator Candy Crowley, pictured above, offered her views on national politics and policy issues during her keynote address, delivered on the first day of SHRM's 2013 Employment Law & Legislative Conference, held in Washington, D.C., March 11-13.
"In Washington, it's big news when the president and Republican representatives actually sit down together and try to figure out where they're coming from," said Crowley, host of CNN's popular "State of the Union" public affairs show.
"Obama wants to be a transformative president who changes the direction of the country," she noted. To do that, he either has to strike major deals with Republicans on key issues such as the budget and immigration, or keep up his campaign-style attacks on the GOP in an effort to return the House to Democratic control in the 2014 congressional elections so he can pass the agenda he wants. Many Republicans assume he is posturing at wanting to find areas of agreement but has no real interest in good-faith negotiations, Crowley said, while many Democrats see the Republicans as dominated by Tea Party activists and unwilling to compromise.
In short, "Democrats and Republicans are mistrustful of each other's motives," a development Crowley links with the decline of socialization across party lines which, once prevalent, is now rare in the nation's capital. "Many members of Congress draw a blank if you ask them to name a single person who is a friend in the other party," she noted. "Compromise is seen as the other side coming to agree with you."
Another cause behind deadlocked politics is the partisan manner in which state legislatures draw congressional districts "so that a vast majority of House members are elected with over 55 percent of the popular vote," Crowley said. That gives them little incentive to seek to compromise or to move toward the center on contentious issues.
The atmosphere is so mistrustful that many in Congress, in both parties, have lists of representatives from the other side of the aisle with whom they won't appear on Crowley's show. "How can you get to where you're going if you don't understand where someone is coming from?" asked Crowley. "Imagine trying to fix problems with your business if you couldn't get people with different ideas and viewpoints to attend the same meeting."
Overcoming Partisan Gridlock
Still, Crowley expects that there may be movement on some long-standing conflicts. For instance, when it comes to immigration reform, both parties have an interest in striking a deal. "Over 70 percent of Latino-Americans voted Democratic in the last election, and Republicans are aware that we are becoming a minority-majority nation," she observed. "Republicans know that they need to build a bridge to that community."
Areas where the parties might come together on immigration include easing the way for undocumented workers who overstay their visas to remain in the country, particularly those who have received a U.S. education and who work in areas where there is a demand for their knowledge and skills, such as in the high-tech field.
She believes a "pathway for documentation" and guest worker status, if not a "pathway to citizenship," may be achievable.
On the budget and taxes, Crowley expects that the $85 billion in sequester cuts are here to stay. "The Senate may agree to pass legislation providing federal agencies with more flexibility on implementing the cuts, so that specific nonessential programs might be eliminated rather than cutting all programs across the board."
Tax reform may re-emerge as an issue, Crowley predicted, if an agreement could be reached to close corporate loopholes in exchange for lowering corporate rates. However, on broader reform of the immensely complicated tax code, a sticking point is that "Republicans want any savings from tax reform to go toward debt reduction while the White House wants new revenues spent on investments" by the government, such as stimulus projects involving infrastructure and research.
The growth in entitlement spending is another area where solutions have been stymied by a fundamental conflict between the parties. Republicans tend to believe that the budget deficit and national debt cannot be brought under control without altering benefits that future retirees would receive, such as by raising the retirement age or means-testing benefits. Many Democrats don't want any cuts to recipients of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, Crowley noted, although they might support reductions to the amount that health care providers are reimbursed.
On gun control, Crowley said the issue wasn't so much partisan as regional: "In rural areas, guns are part of the culture. In urban areas, they're part of the problem," she said.
On a more hopeful note, "Neither party wants to see the government shut down due to lack of funding. And there is a bipartisan recognition that government by crisis is not endearing either side with the voters and isn't helpful in solving the nation's problems," Crowley concluded.
Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.