Friday, January 23, 2015

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Congressman Joe Pitts to Obama: Bipartisanship Is More Than Just Words

By Congressman Joe Pitts
Guest Columnist

At the end of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy taps her feet three times while saying, “There’s no place like home.” She wakes up back in Kansas in her own bed. In dreams, mere words may be able to make something happen. Here in the real world and especially in politics, words aren’t enough to get things done.

The President’s State of the Union speech is always an important part of the political debate. The TV ratings may not be what they were a few decades ago, but the address is still carried on every broadcast channel, all the cable news channels and gets front page coverage in all the national papers.

President Obama’s party may no longer control Congress, but he still has the power of the veto pen, executive authority and the ability to set the agenda through his speeches. Coming into his seventh year in office, the President faces a new political reality: Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

During the speech, the President recalled the Democratic National Convention speech that first vaulted him to national prominence in 2004. This is the speech where he said there wasn’t “a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.”

It’s one thing to say that once a year in the biggest speech of the year, and another thing to actually do it on a day-to-day basis. Behind the high-minded sentiments of the address, there were concrete policy proposals. Only a small handful of those proposals have any real hope of finding bipartisan support.

The President did call for more authority from Congress to negotiate trade deals with Pacific nations and Europe. The President also announced an initiative to improve research into diseases. This sounded somewhat similar to the 21st Century Cures initiative that House Energy and Commerce members in both parties started last year.

There really isn’t common ground to be found on many of the biggest proposals in the speech. For instance, the President wants to reduce the price of community college to nothing for students who maintain a C average.

Right now, the federal government has very little reach into community colleges, which are controlled principally by states and counties. By paying for the bulk of tuition for these schools, they would effectively be nationalized. The President noted that Tennessee, a state run by Republicans, currently pays for community college tuition.

That the President would use Tennessee as an example shows just how disconnected he is from Republicans. That a state already has the ability to act on their own and tailor a program to their own needs is a strong argument against an expansive new federal program.

One of the other major proposals was a series of new tax credits paid for with a series of new tax hikes. The President already raised taxes with his health care law and in the fiscal cliff negotiations. I don’t know of a single Republican elected to federal office who ran on a platform of raising taxes. In fact, almost every member would be at risk of losing their primary if they even voiced support for the President’s plan.

The President then threatened to veto a wide variety of bills that could be on their way to his desk. The fact is that almost anything that will get to the President’s desk this year will have real bipartisan backing. Senate Republicans will need at least six Democrats to pass most bills.

I know how hard bipartisanship is to make happen. When I served on the Budget Committee, I negotiated with the Clinton administration to pass balanced budgets four years in a row. As the Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, I’ve negotiated major bills to govern the Food and Drug Administration and reform the way we pay doctors working in Medicare.

You don’t reach a final agreement by starting at a point that is completely untenable to the other party. You can’t simply tap your toes while chanting “bipartisanship” and then wake up with a new law. I’m disappointed that the President’s proposals are so far to the left that it is virtually impossible to meet in the middle. It seems to be a warning that cooperation is going to be difficult to achieve in the final year’s of the Obama presidency. 

Rep. Joe Pitts is a Republican who represents Pennsylvania's 16th Congressional District.

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