As it raced to finish business before Christmas, Congress proved once again that bipartisanship is possible — when legislators come together to increase the debt and the deficit.
That makes it all the more remarkable to come across a politician who shows it is also possible, at least on the state level, to face up to hard problems in a responsible way. More about her in a moment.
We should give thanks in this holiday season, I suppose, that Congress did not shut the government before leaving town. Former and current House speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) both deserve some credit.
That’s a low bar, though, and all the congressional self-congratulation is a bit hard to take given the lumps of coal bequeathed to subsequent generations.
Legislators managed to pass a five-year transportation bill, but only by raiding the Federal Reserve and selling off a few family jewels (part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) in a desperate scramble to avoid raising the gasoline tax.
They kept Obamacare going, but only after stripping it of two elements designed to help pay for it and to restrain the growing cost of health care: a medical-device tax and an excise tax on gold-plated health-care plans.
In all, they extended and made permanent various tax breaks to the tune of $780 billion over 10 years, including interest, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. President Obama and Congress together have put the deficit and the national debt on track to resume an inexorable upward path shortly after Obama leaves office, as Congressional Budget Office projections show.
Governors tend to be more responsible, in part because they have to be: State laws and the bond market impose some fiscal discipline.
Even so, they often find ways to force future generations to pay for politically pleasing decisions today. Republicans such as Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Sam Brownback in Kansas slash taxes so radically that the state can’t pay for basic services. Governors of both parties promise state employees unaffordable pensions, knowing the bill won’t come due until they’re long out of office.
The effect in both cases is to hurt the next generation, by starving schools, clinics and colleges of needed funds.
One year into office, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island is trying a different approach.
Raimondo stands out on a number of counts: a Democrat elected in a year when even Massachusetts was choosing a Republican governor; a woman, when 44 states are led by men; perhaps oddest of all, a Democratic reformer of state pensions. During four years as state treasurer, Raimondo infuriated Rhode Island’s public employee unions, but she nonetheless went on to win the 2014 Democratic primary for governor and the general election.
As treasurer, Raimondo persuaded Rhode Island’s heavily Democratic legislature to adopt a reform plan that protected benefits already earned but scaled back future ones, at least until the woefully underfunded pension grew healthier. She managed this by meeting with just about anyone who would sit down with her across the state. She argued that it was unfair to employees to make promises the state couldn’t keep — and unfair to everyone to shortchange schools, libraries and parks as retirement obligations consumed the state budget.
Everywhere she went she tried to make clear that she wasn’t hostile to unions, which she says “are just doing their jobs.”
That didn’t keep them from mobilizing against her election, nor from fighting the reform plan in court. But Raimondo says a lot of teachers and other rank-and-file union members voted for her, because they are citizens as well as employees.
“They don’t want a system that’s bankrupt,” she says . “They don’t want a state that’s going nowhere. They want to build schools.”
After 18 months of negotiations, almost all of the unions agreed this year to a court settlement that preserves most of the reform. And Raimondo’s first budget directed much of the savings (about $300 million per year) to programs that will help the next generation, including more prekindergarten classes, school construction and a scholarship fund for community college students.
Raimondo, who is backing Hillary Clinton for president, doesn’t try to sell voters on fiscal responsibility for its own sake. She says she wants the Democratic Party to be the party of growth and innovation, to be pro-business and pro-government.
Given the anger many voters feel, she says, this isn’t easy, “but I just am of the view that we have to focus less on everyone holding onto their piece of the pie, and more on growing the pie for everybody.”
Rhode Island is tiny (just over 1 million people), and maybe politics that work there can’t work on a larger stage. Still, you can’t help wishing that a bit of her philosophy might rub off on Washington: “Don’t ignore big problems,” she says, “and don’t try to pretend that problems are smaller than they are.”