Columns & Blogs

May 8, 2014

Missouri lawmakers not making deals these days

The tax-cut decision in Jefferson City suggests both parties have lost their taste, and therefore their talent, for deal-making.

It wasn’t a big surprise this week when the Missouri legislature passed a major tax cut bill over Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.

Nixon vetoed a similar bill last year, you’ll recall. The veto was upheld only after he launched a months-long, border-to-border campaign pointing out drafting errors in the measure.

Sustaining a tax-cut veto for two consecutive years, when the opposition holds huge majorities in the legislature, would be next to impossible in any state, particularly in an election year.

Nixon never had a chance.

A generation ago, a politician facing a similar defeat might have looked around for a deal. I’ll give on taxes, he or she might have said, if you’ll give me something in return — expanding Medicaid, for example. And a generation ago, the opposition might have taken the deal.

There’s little evidence that kind of conversation took place this year. Nixon did offer support of a tax cut that included full school funding and tax credit reform, but the trade didn’t excite the public or the GOP caucus. It withered away.

Perhaps the governor bowed to reality: He didn’t have enough votes to make a trade palatable for Republicans, so he may have concluded they wouldn’t be interested.

It’s also likely, though, that both parties have simply lost their taste, and therefore their talent, for deal-making.

In this, Jefferson City resembles other state capitals, and most especially Washington, D.C. Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton — all would have offered a trade of, say, the Keystone pipeline for a higher minimum wage or extended unemployment insurance. Fifty-fifty deals were how things got done, years ago.

No more. Blame Barack Obama or intransigent Republicans — take your pick — but the ongoing national stalemate clearly reflects the collapse of a trade culture in government. One side has to win, so the other side has to lose.

Some of this is understandable. No one should expect elected officials to trade away core principles or compromise at any cost.

But a deeply divided country will grind to a standstill if its lawmakers insist on a my-way-or-no-way approach. As anyone who has ever traded baseball cards will tell you, the game ends when one side insists it has to be Albert Pujols for Neifi Perez, or nothing.

To get something of value, you have to give something of value.

We may never know whether Missouri lawmakers honestly considered a Medicaid-for-tax-cuts trade, or if such a deal was even possible. But an attempt would have been healthy for government, regardless of the outcome.

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