Coffin, 12-27-2018

Guest Column: Elections have consequences — hostage-taking shouldn’t be one of them

Jim Coffin 2018-1(Orlando Sentinel, December 27, 2018)

By James Coffin

Elections have consequences. You’ve heard that before. But it bears repeating.

For example, if the party of the president wins a solid majority in the House of Representatives, if the president’s party has at least 60 senators, if the party has a clearly defined agenda, if the agenda enjoys uniform party support, and if the agenda doesn’t push the limits of constitutionality (thus risking the “veto” of the courts)—when all the foregoing are present, the ability of the president’s party to enact its agenda is virtually limitless.

But when any of these conditions are missing — particularly the strong majorities in both houses of Congress—then getting the party’s agenda passed becomes more of an uphill battle, requiring the fine art of negotiation.

Such negotiation typically will involve positive incentives, negative incentives or a blend of both. We might call it the-honey-pot-and-the-bludgeon approach.

When the honey pot fails to entice sufficient support from the opposition, and when the bludgeon fails to inflict sufficient pain on the opposition to induce cooperation, the likelihood diminishes that the president’s party will get its full agenda approved.

Which brings us back to the reality that elections have consequences.

When the president’s party doesn’t achieve, through the electoral process, the strong bicameral majorities described above, it may just have to face the fact that not every item on its agenda will be enacted into law. Elections have consequences, yes. But anemic majorities typically result in fewer legislative victories.

Of course, there’s always the option of using an even more heavy-duty bludgeon. And what better method of getting one’s way than hostage-taking? Figuratively, of course. Though in essence, that’s what shutting down the government is.

In classic hostage-taking, innocent bystanders or carefully selected victims — it can be done either way — become bargaining chips in a quest to force some unwilling entity to do what the hostage-taker demands. The hostages have no voice in whether or not to be bargaining chips.

In government-shutdown hostage-taking, government employees, some of them earning minimum wage and living hand to mouth, are furloughed without pay. Others may be forced to report for work with no assurance of when their wages might start flowing again and how long it will take to sort out back-pay issues. Where is the money for food, rent, medical needs and transportation supposed to come from?

Many wealthier federal employees will face similar hardship — just at a different level that kicks in more slowly. And members of the U.S. populace who depend on the services provided by the affected government entities may likewise endure hardship and emotional distress. In short, hundreds of thousands of employee hostages and millions of rank-and-file-citizen hostages will be negatively affected.

In a government shutdown, the specter of the pain being inflicted on the hostages may be so repugnant to the opposition that it capitulates. Or the opposition may be led to capitulate because of the fear of how callous they’ll look (individually and as a party) if they allow innocent hostages to continue to have their lives turned upside down.

Let me be clear: I’m not first and foremost attacking a party; I’m addressing a principle. Thrusting government employees and members of the public into such personal turmoil is cruel, immoral and irrational, whichever party happens to be choosing a government shutdown as its bludgeon of choice.

Attempts to justify a government shutdown have always been misguided and vacuous. But in this case, such attempts are more hollow than usual. Why? Because two times viable bipartisan solutions have been offered that the president has chosen to reject, opting instead for the mayhem and pain of a shutdown.

It’s high time that we as voters — as shareholders in this “corporation” called the United States of America — put our elected management teams on notice that that we won’t tolerate hostage-taking by any party. Ever. If it is done, there will be consequences.

And consequences impact elections.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.