YORK, Pa. — Politics, the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck famously said, “is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
Surveying our political landscape these days, it’s all too easy to conclude that our elected leaders can’t even get to the next, next best. Or whatever comes after that.
Whether it’s President Donald Trump’s abrupt — but entirely unsurprising — pivot on gun control this week, or Congress’ ongoing inability to pass on-time federal budgets or reach agreements on such issues as infrastructure spending where, at least on the surface, there appears to be broad, bipartisan consensus.
At the state level, lawmakers introduce hundreds of bills during each two-year legislative session. Only a handful ever become law. The rest languish in committee, unable to attract votes — either because of partisan gridlock or the whims of a committee chairperson.
During budget season, at the end of June, with pressure of a deadline and the lure of summer vacation, there’s the temptation to shovel bills through the process, without time for deliberation. Inevitably, that leads to terrible legislation. Witness the Legislature’s first pass at gambling legalization, or the 2005 government pay raises, which were so wildly unpopular that lawmakers were forced to repeal them.
While Harrisburg has made some strides in recent years, it’s still a long way from “I’m Just a Bill” and “Schoolhouse Rock.”
But what if — just if — there was some parallel dimension where government functions according to that Platonic ideal that, well, some of us, anyway, hold in our heads?
On Sept. 18, on the campus of York College, two former Pennsylvania governors — Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican Mark S. Schweiker — will try to reach consensus on one of the most intractable public policy issues of our time: immigration reform and state government’s role in it.
And they’re going to do it in an hour.
Yes, an hour.
— Pennsylvania Capital-Star (@PennCapitalStar) August 21, 2019
That’s the goal of the “Democracy Challenge,” a new effort sponsored by the York County Economic Alliance.
“There was a time in our country, where our leaders would conduct substantial debates on the issues,” Kevin Schreiber, the alliance’s president and CEO, said at a Wednesday news conference announcing the event. “There was a time where the ability to compromise was seen as a prerequisite for service and not as a weakness.”
It’s kind of perfect in a way that this exercise in idealism is taking place on a college campus — the only place on Earth, probably, where two opposing politicians could reach an accord in 60 minutes as a stopwatch ticks down.
And there’s a lovely irony that Schreiber, a former Democratic member of the state House, is the guy who’s overseeing it. He’s been a roadside witness to plenty of legislative car crashes.
“Politics has become a zero-sum game, one that now picks winners and losers,” he said. “Cynicism in government is contagious.”
Indeed, public trust in government is at “historic lows,” according to the Pew Research Center. In the Trump era, just 17 percent of Americans told Pew pollsters they trust government “always” or “most of the time.” That’s down from a high of 77 percent in October 1964 — after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but before the full conflagration of the Vietnam War.
Schweiker served a little less than two years, from 2001 to 2002, when Republican Gov. Tom Ridge resigned to become President George W. Bush’s first homeland security czar in those dark hours after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He said in a statement that he hopes the event “will inspire leaders in Harrisburg to consider that even with competing points of view that we can come together to create a solution that generates accountability.”
Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor who served two terms from 2002 to 2010, said an agreement on immigration could be achievable because it “isn’t an issue that breaks Republican or Democrat.”
Schreiber said he hopes the Sept. 18 event, which is being co-sponsored by both York College and cable titan Comcast, will become an annual occurrence, drawing in college students and others to work together to find common ground.
Hoping for a return to sanity in government might be a little far-fetched. But compared to, say, buying Greenland, it’s a walk-off.