The twelve-member bipartisan congressional “super committee” on spending cuts formally conceded defeat late last month, after failing to reach common ground on the issues of tax increases and spending cuts.
Republicans vehemently opposed tax increases, particularly on the wealthiest Americans. Democrats refused to cut into federal retirement and health care benefits without such tax increases. Republicans want to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts that lowered individual rates and are due to run out at the end of 2012. Democrats want the tax cuts for the rich to expire.
Naturally, while each committee member had sworn solemnly to work together for the nation’s long-term economic wellbeing, it once again became clear that finger pointing and partisan territorialism would rule the day.
Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), told CBS: “It’s been enormously frustrating for me and for many of my colleagues. As I said, we’ve got 12 good people that worked hard on this. But on the other side, there was an insistence that we have a trillion-dollar tax increase. There was an unwillingness to cut any kind of spending at all unless there was a huge tax increase.”
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) told NBC that Republicans were not telling the truth about the talks. “I say to my Republican colleagues: we are here all day. We are ready to do $1.2 trillion, not less than it. That’s what we were told to do. That’s the law.”
Of course, this self-serving political jockeying raised the ire of the American people. “The failure of the super committee is not just a failure of 12 members of Congress, who I believe genuinely tried to cut a deal but were rebuffed by their party leaders. It is a failure of political leadership on both sides of the partisan aisle,” said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller.
“Both parties chose their own electoral livelihoods over the good of the country, and it is outright shameful…. This might be the most self-serving, mediocre and uncaring set of legislators in Congress in the last 50 years.”
According to Frank Newport, Gallup Poll editor-in-chief, the American people largely agree with Schiller’s view. “We gave Americans a choice: ‘Do you blame the Republicans more, Democrats more – or both equally?’ And 55 percent of Americans said: ‘We blame both equally.’ ”
He added: “[Most Americans] think the [super] committee should have compromised more…. Americans, by almost a two-to-one margin, said they should’ve compromised more to reach an agreement – even if they had to move in on their principles.”
The country, he said, is “very down on anything relating to Congress. Its overall approval in our Gallup update in November is 13 percent, which is tied for the lowest in our history here at Gallup. And almost any measure we put in front of people asking them about competence or trust in Congress and the legislative branch is at historic lows.”
What bothers so many Americans about the present congressional entanglement is not simply the fact that each side fundamentally opposes the other with regards to addressing our ailing economy and reducing the national deficit. Rather, it is the way they demonstrate their position, with a mocking contempt for the other side of the political aisle and an absolute unwillingness to engage in an open minded dialogue that might result in some form of breakthrough. It is as if their political agendas are more important than the nation they have been elected to serve.
Certainly the Jewish people are no strangers to this form of machlokes. We are familiar with the self-serving variety, and have observed how disagreements between sides result in chasms that far exceed the scope of the original feud. We have experienced machlokes on every level: ritualistic, ideological, philosophical, etc. and like the debates that have embroiled members of the super committee, many of these disagreements have remained unresolved, in some instances for decades, centuries and even longer.
However, there is another form of machlokes, one that is couched with the utmost respect and reverence, in which the common goal of the disagreeing parties is to clarify God’s word so that we can serve Him the way that He wants to be served. Such a machlokes is the kind we learn about in our Torah texts, and which fuels our own passion toward understanding and fulfilling our roles as Jews.
It should be noted that this latter form of machlokes, the kind that has become permanently entrenched in our holy texts as halachic or philosophical areas of dispute, was not always existent in Klal Yisrael. For many centuries following the giving of the Torah at Sinai, any potential machlokes was brought before a body of judicial scholars for a timely and final decision.
Previously, dissention was rare in Israel…. When a man needed to inquire about a particular matter he made his inquiry of the local court (of twenty-three judges)…. If its members knew the proper practice, they told him. If not, he, together with the most proficient judge of that court went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Mount. If its members had a relevant tradition, they stated it. If not, they together with the most expert judge of that higher court went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Court…. If the members of that highest court had a tradition on the matter, they stated it. If not, the three men proceeded to the Great Sanhedrin (of seventy-one judges) in the Chamber of Hewn Stone…. The inquiry was then put before them. If they knew the ruling, they stated it. If not, they decided the matter by vote…. From there the ruling spread throughout Israel. [Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b]