Donald Fry: Politicians’ Failure to Compromise, Innovate Reveals a Leadership Void

By Donald C. Fry

An oft-repeated line in the 1967 movie classic “Cool Hand Luke” is uttered by a prison camp warden. “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” the warden says of the consistent unwillingness of Paul Newman’s character to do what is expected of him.

There are no wardens on Capitol Hill. But in light of the congressional super committee’s failure to develop the debt reduction plan that was expected of it, the question is raised: What should we call the growing culture among elected officials of consistently dodging tough decisions and instead kicking the can down the road?

It’s way beyond failure to communicate. It’s more like failure to lead or failure – repeatedly – to demonstrate any appetite for acting collectively and decisively on almost anything of major consequence.

Our current elected leaders, driven more by ideology and the desire not to offend any constituent, are habitually paralyzing themselves into a condition of chronic inaction at a time in our state and nation’s history when we dearly need leadership.

Examples abound at both national and state levels of failure to lead, from the super committee’s failure to come up with any debt reduction proposal to the Maryland General Assembly’s failure over the past two decades to adequately fund our state’s transportation infrastructure.

Maybe part of the reason that our lawmakers are frozen into inaction could be that interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum have pushed elected officials into opposite corners, from which they’re hesitant to emerge, fearing retribution at the polls.

Maybe too many of today’s lawmakers embrace a re-election-or-bust mentality, which inhibits them from to taking a practical stand on anything important.

For whatever reason, lawmakers in Washington and in Annapolis spend an inordinate amount of time jockeying for position, settling for appearances rather than actual accomplishment, and concentrating on being clever rather than decisive.

Clearly, what we have here is a failure to legislate – for lawmakers to be responsible for their actions, or inaction, as a legislative body. Virtually all in Washington say they are “deeply disappointed” in Congress’ failure to develop a debt reduction plan, but few are disappointed in themselves individually. They point fingers at others.

It’s easy for critics to lament ideological differences and conclude that our system is broken. But that lets our elected officials off the hook.

Ideological clashes are part of a political process that has served our nation and its states for two centuries. But along the way, our elected leaders have lost the ability to compromise.

Beyond that, what we have here is a failure to innovate. It’s clear that if we want innovative solutions to tough policy challenges, we’re not likely to find them in the current legislative culture.

Somehow, our lawmakers must rediscover the ability to lead, sooner rather than later.

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