The View from Washington: Reaching Across the Aisle? When Donkeys and Elephants Fly

Although it's better than it was back in the 1800s and early 1900s when legislative members used to beat each other with canes, the political environment today is "probably the most poisoned I've ever seen," said Kevin Burke, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), speaking at Apparel's Executive Forum earlier this month in New Orleans.

Refusal among members of both the Democratic and Republican parties to "reach across the aisle" and engage with their counterparts and an apparent inability of President Obama and Republican members of Congress to even talk to each other have created such gridlock in Washington as to sap confidence from both U.S. citizens and global onlookers in the U.S. government and its ability to keep the largest democracy leading the way, says Burke.

Certainly, in the past 32 years, there's been nothing to compare to the level of animosity between the two parties. The bottom has dropped out when it comes to having a sense of humor and maintaining the ability to negotiate differences, says Burke. Why has that happened? Because of the extremes on both sides, whose roots extend all the way back to the political movements of the late '60s and early '70s. Between the two parties lies a seemingly unbridgeable ideological and money-fueled chasm, says Burke.

So much for our Shining City upon a Hill. What is the problem? For one, there's the devolution of the system. Today, the average congressman spends $1.6 million to get elected to a position with a salary of $186,000. When you get elected you have two years to serve: one to legislate, and one to run again. Meanwhile, you are trying to keep the people who elected you — and contributed money to your campaign — happy.

The result is that today the political parties spend very little time talking to one another and very little time legislating, he says. Mostly, congressmen are embroiled in the business of calling each other names and raising money for the next election.

Interestingly, while Congress has a 10 percent approval rating, individual members of Congress get a stamp of approval from their electorate, Burke remarked. People think their congressmen and women are "doing fine." This brings a deep disconnect to the voting booth: citizens are fed up with the collective Congressional body, but don't translate that frustration to their own Congress members.

Meanwhile, what we have in Congress, says Burke, is gridlock, with neither side willing to budge.

Case in point: When Obama was elected, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said, "My goal is to make sure Obama does not get re-elected." This is not where Congress members should devote their energies. Still, says Burke, "Obama should have invited McConnell over. But he didn't. He should have invited Harry Reid over. But he didn't. So you've got gridlock. And the House is pointing the finger at the Senate as the place where everything is being blocked.

"The Senate is supposed to be where the hot tea pot cools off and logic prevails," says Burke. The Senate was designed to look at the "crazy" House guys and fix what they produced, to compromise, but "compromise doesn't exist today" and no effort is being made to get back to moderation and civility. (And there's little opportunity, what with Speaker of the House John Boehner sending Congress home despite the mountain of challenges facing our country.)

In 2010, 64 new Republicans were elected, including several tea party members who "don't care if their positions are the cause of their demise," says Burke. "The problem is that nothing gets done that way. There has to be a little bend. People look to the U.S. for stability and they are worried that the biggest democracy in the world is failing them.

"Tip O'Neal and Ronald Reagan vehemently disagreed but would get together at the White House to figure out how to move things along," Burke continues. "Try to picture Boehner and Obama together. They've played one game of golf in four years.

"We must have communication," he says. "If the leaders will not work together, if they play into the … demonization of the political system … we're all in for a very rough ride."

The apparel and footwear industry, specifically, needs strong leadership to open up more free trade, to work with countries to reduce or eliminate high tariffs on imports (Brazil), to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and corruption (India), to honor intellectual property (China) and to prevent business-unfriendly legislation (California Prop 65) that keeps companies — and jobs — away.

The solution? "The only way it gets better is if you change the people," says Burke.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].
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