With parts of the federal government closed, The Daily Star sought some thoughts on the situation from a moderate Republican who served local constituents in the 21st, 23rd and 24th Districts of upstate New York when Congress faced a similar situation.
Former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, 77, served in Congress from 1983 through 2006.
“Government should be the art of reasonable compromise that should serve the interests of all,” he said. Instead, today “there is partisan gamesmanship and everybody is losing.”
The situation reflects badly on both sides, but “the Republicans have to be faulted more because they are in charge of the House,” he said. “People expect them to be responsible.”
He also faulted the Democratic approach.
“Where is it cast in stone that you don’t talk to the other side in an argument?” he said. “There should be ongoing discussions.”
But the debate seems to be shifting from the initial effort by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“Its basic premise of providing health insurance to those who otherwise can’t afford it makes sense to me,” he said. When Social Security was enacted in the 1930s or Medicare enacted in the 1960s “it wasn’t smooth sailing. But where would we be as a nation without them?”
He noted that the Affordable Care Act is “the law of the land,” and it should have the opportunity “to play out.”
The focus in Washington now has has moved to extending the debt ceiling. But with tea party Republicans threatening to default on the national debt if their demands aren’t met, Boehlert said, the way “they are putting the full faith and credit of the government on the line is irresponsible. You can’t even think about defaulting.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner has the hardest job in Washington, D.C., dealing with the demands of the tea party in arriving at this situation, Boehlert said.
“The minority in the majority is calling the shots,” Boehlert said. “For them, compromise is a sinful exercise.” It was made worse because so many of their seats are gerrymandered, he said, that they don’t have to worry about re-election.
The situation was different when he was in Congress during the shutdown of 1995-96, he said. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was at least working behind the scenes, having conversations with President Bill Clinton, Boehlert said.
Boehlert voted with Gingrich and other Republicans on one of two articles of impeachment against Clinton in 1998.
Boehlert said he can only learn about what is going on in the shutdown through the media, where so much of the information is biased on both sides. Although he still keeps in touch with members on both sides of the aisle, they’re cautious and afraid of being misconstrued because members of the media can take things out of context, he said.
But a majority of lawmakers are uncomfortable with the current situation, he said.
“They have to explain to their constituents why a group of extreme Republicans ride roughshod over the regular order,” he said.
Reflecting on the situation, “I am glad I’m not there,” Boehlert said. After talking with his wife, he decided not to run for re-election so he could spend more time with his family.
“We’ve had some wonderful years and done some wonderful things,” he said. “I don’t miss the day-to-day anxiety.”
Boehlert was in Washington on Wednesday to attend an upcoming dinner and board meeting for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group seeking to enhance the environment.
Boehlert is also a member of the board of Climate Reality Project. Headed by former Vice President Al Gore, its members are concerned about environmental and energy policy. It’s a natural extension on some of the work Boehlert performed while in the Congress, he said, where he served as chairman of the Science Committee.