Improving Washington Politics

This past Thursday saw something of a rarity in the White House. At a bill-signing ceremony, common enough, it was the presence of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that was unusual. Cantor, as GOP leader in the House of Representatives a frequent adversary of President Obama, last attended a bill-signing ceremony in April 2012.

The present occasion was the signing of a bill that Cantor had championed. The Gabriela Miller Kids First Research Act diverts $126 million from federal funding of party conventions over the next 10 years toward research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the field of pediatric cancer.

The bill is named for a 10-year-old girl who waged an 11-month battle with brain cancer. Though she ultimately lost her fight, she became an activist and a successful fundraiser for research during that time. It was seeing a video of her calling on the lawmakers to invest more money in the field that inspired Cantor to rename the bill in her memory and double his efforts to pass the bill.

A bill to increase funding for a worthwhile cause like this one is certainly laudable. But besides commending Majority Leader Cantor, President Obama, and all the members of Congress involved in its passing for the bill itself, we must also commend them for overcoming the usual partisan gridlock to get this done.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the hyper-partisanship in Washington has led to clashes and conflicts over just about anything. The apparent vacuum of leadership has led Congress to careen from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. What used to be standard practice is no longer, and the two parties are hardly able to come to any sort of agreement without facing a ticking time bomb the likes of a debt-ceiling deadline.

But here, thankfully, saner heads prevailed. And while it wasn’t always easy going, Majority Leader Cantor was able to push it through. The bill overcame the usual obstructions of extreme elements on both sides of the aisle, from the Republican vote against it for fear that the funds would be redirected to the “next cause of the day,” to the Democrats who opposed it because it did not provide enough funding for their liking.

The bills co-sponsor, Rep Tom Cole (R-Okla.), made it clear in an interview with The Hill that although most Republicans would have preferred that money had gone towards deficit reduction, using it to fund pediatric cancer research made it easy for him to support. And the 72 Democrats in the House who voted for it must have been pragmatic enough to realize that Cantor’s rejection of the argument presented by the bill’s opponents rang true.

“Let’s not let Washington politics get in the way of any effort to help these kids,” he said. “This bill is a choice between allocating monies for political conventions or pediatric medical research.”

The bill passed the Senate as well — unanimously.

Over the last few years the all-or-nothing approach of both parties has been one of the greatest roadblocks to progress in Washington. There is more than enough room for compromise from both sides so that things can move forward. This can be done without sacrificing principles.

The Gabriela Miller Kids First Research Act proves it.

This bill can be used as a template for future successes. Republicans would like to cut funding from areas of government they find to be wasteful and/or inefficient. Democrats would like the government to invest more in areas like infrastructure and research. We must end the days where politicians focus only on areas where they disagree, such as when Republicans want to cut (or defund) programs important to Democrats, or Democrats want to spend more money without paying even lip service to fiscal responsibility. While this is a good way to inflame the bases, and makes for good politics (and fundraising) for individual politicians, it does no good for the future of the country when nothing gets done. Instead, they may now look for common ground.

Pinpointing areas where money is spent needlessly, like for political conventions, and shifting it toward areas where it is needed more, like pediatric cancer research, is common sense. When there are limited resources, there must be priorities so that the money can be directed to where it is needed most.

That’s called governing. Everything else is just politics.