Our elected lawmakers at both the state and national levels return to work this week, and partisanship will be a driving component of what happens in both Jackson and Washington.
Congress reconvenes today, while the Mississippi Legislature assembles for its annual 90-day session in Jackson on Tuesday.
Party lines are drawn on a number of issues in both places, but there are signs that our elected leaders are beginning to get the message that the people want progress toward solving problems, not stalemate based on maneuvering for political advantage. This is particularly true in Washington, where party divisions have produced dysfunction.
The imperfect budget agreement reached in December and approved by bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress at least offered evidence that when they put their minds to it, Republicans and Democrats are capable of reaching a compromise – something that was once a given in the nation’s Capitol but that in recent years has come to be considered heresy by some.
A big issue that has been rattling around recently and that has seen a stark partisan divide is the expiration of unemployment benefits for some 1.3 million Americans at the end of 2013. Most of these workers lost their jobs in the recession.
Democrats have seized on the curtailment of these benefits as cold and heartless. Republicans have emphasized the need for fiscal restraint and have suggested continuation of unemployment benefits indefinitely may discourage some people from looking for work.
But could there be a compromise in the works? Some Republicans have suggested they’d go along with an extension of unemployment benefits for three months if Democrats agree to spending cuts elsewhere to offset the $26 billion expense. Democratic leaders don’t want to cut anywhere else, but again, a compromise that prioritized unemployment benefits and cut in areas with lower priority would seem reasonable.
This is just one example of the types of decisions that have to be made in an era where a new level of fiscal restraint and responsibility is an absolute necessity.
Of course the huge fiscal issue remains the entitlements that aren’t limited to the temporarily unemployed or those in transitional circumstances. Medicare and Social Security affect everybody at some point, and only with reform in those politically touchy areas will our debt be brought under control.
That will take a political will not yet evident, but lawmakers need to start by taking the small bites of modest compromises.