Comparing the national and local political scene

For Kauaians, events of the past few weeks have offered a very interesting comparison of the operations of the Kauai County government and those of the federal government.

In both cases, election of our representatives — the county mayor and council and the president and members of Congress — is by citizen vote. But there are some basic differences.

On Kauai, representatives are chosen, at least nominally, by a non-partisan vote. Election results are based much more on popularity of the candidate than his or her positions on public issues. Federal elections are essentially partisan, are often issue oriented  and personal popularity of the candidate is a more limited factor. These disparities have some far-reaching effects.

Over the last few months, clearly the most active local governmental affair has been the consideration by the council of Bill 2491 relating to pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Public participation in the bill has vastly exceeded any other pending matter. The council has provided numerous opportunities for citizen testimony, public hearings and parades have been held. There has even been some limited interchange between witnesses at council meetings and the members of the council.

Although there are differing views among the council members, the council committee should be commended for its thoughtful consideration of the various topics involved and the compromises made, like the adoption of a proposed amendment to be submitted for full council approval. The end result is naturally not pleasing to everyone, but it is surely better than total acceptance or rejection of the original bill.

Let us consider, in comparison, the federal government’s handling of the questions on the budget for federal operations and the enactment of a new debt ceiling. The last elections have awkwardly created a divided government with the president and the Senate majority being of one party and the majority of the House of Representatives being the another.

The ostensible issues concerning Obamacare and federal spending being presented in the discussions as to the budget and the debt ceiling matters, while real, are in a deeper sense interfaces for basic philosophical differences between the president and most Democrats and the majority of the Republicans.

The core Republican views call for limited government, fiscal responsibility and controlled spending. The basic orientation for Democrats is that government should be the primary remedial factor for social and economic ills. Both parties recognize and seek economic stimulation, but vary greatly as to the optimal way to achieve it. These partisan differences have strangled governmental ability to resolve important public issues.

Is it partisanship itself that should bear responsibility for the current intransigence? In good part, yes, because our elected representatives should understand that partisan beliefs have become venomous and principles must  be limited when they become adverse to the national interest, and they haven’t. When one party accuses the other of responsibility for the current standoff instead of seeking resolution, that is destructive political maneuvering at its worst.

In the past, strong differences between partisan views have been bridged by a mutual recognition that a stalemate is disserving. An illustration of a means to break down barriers has been constructive communications between President Reagan and Tip O’Neill and President Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

There does not appear to be any such pathway to a negotiated resolution at this time. Unfortunately, President Obama’s declaration that he was not open to negotiations on the issue of Obamacare did not aid the functioning of the governmental process. While he may have been justified in his initial position that he would not engage in discussions as to defunding, his posture in rejecting any dialogue on delay or exclusion of certain exemptions of the law, in my view, was not consistent with his duty to serve the public interests. Parties who do not talk together have no chance of resolving their differences.

The comparison I have made between the functioning of county government and the breakdown of national government is not intended to illuminate some undiscovered point about governmental operations.

Rather, it is offered to urge that partisanship becomes destructive when it reaches a result of governmental paralysis. For some, the point may be difficult to accept, but some government is better than no government.

The conflict in basic tenets in national politics between Democrats and Republicans as to the role government should play in our society is sharp and real.

In a democracy, a fundamental directional decision can only be made by an informed public. To date that has not happened, but our massive public debt and continuing deficits make it imperative that the necessary issues be addressed in a timely manner. If they are not, the opportunities for a rational solution may well disappear.

• Walter Lewis writes a regular column for The Garden Island.

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