Middle Ground in 'Grand Bargain' Debate

Politics versus policy.

That age-old debate surfaced again earlier this month concerning the motivations of Democrats and Republicans as they assess  the so-called "Grand Bargain" pushed by Governor Kitzhaber to make deeper cuts in the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) to boost school funding, while reducing some business taxes.

A proposal along those lines failed in the 2013 legislative session, but some supporters have not given up on the idea. The governor will decide by August 26 whether to call legislators back into special session to try to do what they failed to do in the regular session. The key to getting the necessary Republican votes in the House and Senate may revolve around some form of business tax cut.

Media coverage has suggested some Republicans who want to regain control of the House and Senate may take a pass at further PERS cuts, so they can campaign against Democrats in the next election for failing to control PERS.

Democrats appear open to supporting the Grand Bargain if it puts more money into K-12 schools and avoids teacher or school year cuts, which they view as a winning election theme in 2014. 

The political calculations over the Grand Bargain, while not surprising, do raise questions about whether there is middle ground in this debate.

In “The Mindsets of Political Compromise,” political science professors Amy Gutmann from the University of Pennsylvania and Dennis Thompson from Harvard University suggest that compromise is more difficult in the United States today because of "permanent campaigns."

"The increasing incursion of campaigning into governing in American democracy — the permanent campaign — encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult," they wrote. "The resistance to compromise is a problem for any democracy because it stands in the way of change that nearly everyone agrees is necessary, and thereby biases the political process in favor of the status quo."

That quote could describe Oregon's situation today. Republicans see political advantage in keeping the status quo, which as a matter of policy they oppose. Democrats are wary of doing harm to a key political constituency — public employees — but see an electoral upside to cutting retiree benefits to bolster school funding, which is more widely supported. Republicans might agree to a PERS change they have howled for, but only if they secure a targeted small business tax cut, which they can tout in the next election to a key constituency of theirs.

Policy considerations of a further set of PERS cuts, increased K-12 funding and a small business tax cut are almost secondary in the debate. By and large, the constituencies most impacted by elements of the Grand Bargain — public employee retirees, parents and children in school and small businesses — aren't sitting around a table trying to find common ground.

The politics of a special session may get even steamier if a proposal is thrown into the mix for Oregon to take over sole control of the new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. The Oregon-in-charge plan is intended to seize victory from the jaws of defeat by keeping the project alive so federal funding allocations don't disappear. But the proposal may face far stiffer scrutiny than the decision during the regular session to commit $450 to the bridge project if Washington's legislature did the same, which it didn't.

How bridge politics blend with Grand Bargain politics is anyone's guess. 

And then there are bubbling initiatives, including a union-backed measure that could revive the political divisions generated in Measures 66 and 67 to raise taxes on wealthy Oregonians and corporations. Some business groups have pleaded with lawmakers to find a common ground to head off another testy ballot measure battle. There also is a referral attempt of the legislatively approved driver cards for citizens without a legal presence in the state and an initiative campaign to legalize same-sex marriage, both with the potential of galvanizing the political bases of both parties.

Oregon finds itself, like many other states and the country overall, steeped in the "permanent campaign." The only question is whether lawmakers can see their way clear to take a time out from the permanent campaign for a couple of days in September to find a compromise on serious policy issues.