Thursday August 30, 2012

Partisan gridlock: The issue was raised consistently by Eagle readers, who are understandably frustrated by Congress' apparent inability to agree on anything.

The concerns are in line with public opinion polls, which show the public's job approval of Congress is at an all time low of about 10 percent.

"We need bipartisan cooperation to expedite the business of governing," wrote one Eagle reader. "Stop the bickering and get it done!"

In the absence of any Republican contenders in the redrawn 1st Congres sional District, the Sept. 6 Democratic primary between incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Middle Berkshire Register of Deeds Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., and writer-activist Bill Shein will likely decide the November general election.

In this installment of our Citizens Agenda series -- election coverage directed by readers -- the three candidates talk about what they would do to cut through the impasse and begin the work of addressing the serious issues facing the country.

Q: What will you do to ease the icy, partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Congress?

Shein: We need to change the atmosphere and there are some policy changes I think would help. The first is public financing of elections. I think we forget that a lot of fundraising appeals from parties and candidates today use a lot of vitriol, and that changes the tone. ... One thing that I will not do is campaign against other members of Congress, which is a common practice during election season ... that makes it difficult to work with those people [later] and to establish relationships with other members. Even when you have good viewpoints and strongly held views, it's important to be able to listen to each other and work together.

Neal: Well I would trace a lot of the acrimony to Newt Gingrich in 1994. Prior to that, I worked with Silvio Conte, and I worked with Peter King on the peace process in Northern Ireland. On tax issues I've worked with Republicans. I always am willing to cross the aisle when I think it promotes economic growth. ... But the nomenclature changed, and part of it I think is the 24-hour news cycle and conflict. ... I've never run a negative TV ad in my career. In this campaign I've never said a disparaging thing about one of my opponents. I think that's how you improve the dialogue.

Nuciforo: I would take to Capitol Hill the same skills I took to Beacon Hill. I chaired for seven years a committee called financial services -- it was a committee that dealt with banks, credit unions, insurance companies, etc. -- and while I was chair I worked with virtually every member in the state Senate and many, many members of the state House of Represen tatives: Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. And I was able to integrate the views of all of those members to the best of my ability, [even as] I obviously did not agree with all of the ideas advanced.

Q: Given Republicans' rigid positions on critical issues like taxes, how do you think the Democratic Party as a whole should respond?

Nuciforo: There are times for accommodation and there are times for a fight, and I think Democrats should be resolute when it comes to tax policy. President Obama has offered a measure that I think is entirely reasonable, which is preserving middle class tax cuts for those 98 percent of income earners that are at or below $250,000 in income a year, but allowing the Bush era tax cuts to expire for those at $250,000 and above.

Shein: What we should not do is what we have been doing and that's over many years to allow the agenda on taxes and other issues to shift to the right. Today, the compromise that Congress produces is not drawn from a broad range of ideas. Too many progressive ideas are not on the table when compromise is being negotiated. Compromise is vital, but Democrats have allowed some terrible compromises to be made ... like the J.O.B.S. Act that instituted financial deregulation in the name of job creation, and was supported by Congressman Neal and opposed by Congressman Olver and me.

Neal: I think the legislative process is supposed to be about negotiating. So we have, when we get back after the elections, we have the fiscal cliff -- huge defense cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax has to be fixed, the payroll tax issue is in front of us. The Bush tax cuts are in front of us, and the tax extenders are in front of us. So it seems to me we have some room for negotiating. The Republicans are already trying to get away from the budget agreement that they made a year ago because they've now determined that Barack Obama is sticking to his position.

Q: How will you as an individual congressman work within the current political climate to accomplish your goals?

Neal: Part of it is civility, and I've demonstrated civility through the course of a career. And I like to give and take. I like drilling down on big issues. You're talking to somebody who has debated Paul Ryan many times. And I think that we should defend Social Security and Medicare. The truth of the matter is, that I think, despite Ryan and some of the other positions that have been outlined, that there's an opportunity here after the elections that we could reach an amicable discourse; I think there's room here for an agreement.

Nuciforo: No one member in a body of 435 members can accomplish anything by himself. Building coalitions, however, is a winning recipe. I'm reminded of the old story about Lyndon Johnson's first day as a freshman member of the U.S. Congress. He brushed his teeth 434 times. Imagine him standing in the members bathroom, and he's over there brushing his teeth, and he leans over and says, "Hi, I'm Lyndon Johnson." And then he has the chance to engage that person in a short conversation. Then the next guy comes in ... and he managed to develop a personal relationship with the members. Now I don't think you can develop a close personal friendship with 435 members of Congress, but I do think building coalitions and developing relationships with people makes an enormous difference.

Shein: I certainly think electing different kinds of people can only help. My approach as a writer and activist for many years has been to focus on ideas more than partisanship. I will join with others in the Progressive Caucus to advocate as the largest Democratic caucus for the right ideas and I think that advocacy will help us elect additional progressive Democrats to the Congress. But we do have to do things differently in our political discourse -- less name calling and bomb throwing and electing more members of Congress who spend more time legislating than fundraising.