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Our Views: No checks, no balance
DC leaders ongoing duels over immigration, health care defy Founders aim for consensus
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. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

If there’s a word that can sum up our national leadership these days, it is “lame” — a lame-duck session of Congress, a lame-duck president, all yielding results that are totally lame.

Republicans already are sharpening their spears in anticipation of taking majority control of Congress in January. Yet Democrats and Republicans trade power on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue every few years, engaging in the same duels and echoing each other more than they realize, so real change is iffy.

Lost in the shuffle is the U.S. Constitution, the document they all claim to support but seem willing to circumvent when it fits their needs. The idea the chief executive can act on his own without legislative consent is an affront to what it stands for, as is the notion Congress can bypass the president and govern on its own.

The Founding Fathers, amid their own spirited debates, realized their new republic would encounter such political divisions. Thus, they created a “three-legged stool” of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches designed to ensure all must work toward consensus. That spirit of compromise, though seldom easy, led to some of the nation’s greatest accomplishments, made possible only when each side had skin in the game.

Yet not so now. After years of stalemate between a Democratic president and Republican leaders in Congress, the partisan gunslinging will get worse before it gets better.

Undaunted by the midterm election results, President Barack Obama last week announced his plan to limit deportations for millions of illegal immigrants through executive order, defying Republican opposition and his own past statements that such a move wasn’t possible.

As pointed out, other presidents have acted similarly on immigration, though most of those were based on existing laws. Obama’s plan offers no path toward citizenship but allows longtime migrant workers with no criminal records stay here longer without facing deportation. Some call it amnesty, but it seems to be merely a temporary stopgap that could be overturned by executive action from future presidents.

Framed as a legislative proposal instead of presidential fiat, such a plan could be a starting point toward bipartisan reform. But until both parties gin up the courage to deal with the issue reasonably — through a comprehensive bill, a series of smaller ones or changes to current law — millions will remain undocumented, more will cross the border and the status quo won’t change.

For now, the president’s brazen effort to bypass Congress and create a policy of his liking, legal or no, creates even more distrust. One Washington Post columnist summed it up thusly: “Obama has given up on politics. ... His executive order is an admission of democratic failure.”

It’s not just immigration that has D.C. in open warfare. The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is another piece of legislation that will never rest until the parties can work out their differences.

The law has survived court challenges to date, millions signing up when its balky website came online last year. But its hidden costs are emerging: premiums are rising for all policyholders, with mandates against businesses and individuals soon to take another chunk.

One of its creators, law professor Jonathan Gruber, admitted in a recent taped interview how the administration arrogantly sought to hide its real effects from the electorate in order to get it passed.

Despite the law’s well-intentioned goal of giving more people access to insurance, its glitches need to be fixed. But that seems as unlikely as an immigration plan at this point. It would take Republicans conceding that Americans who lacked insurance won’t give up their new policies, and the president admitting the law needs major repairs to avoid hurting businesses. Both are long shots.

Americans often have been on opposite sides of hot-button issues, but the leaders we elected usually found common ground to solve them. Now no one has the will to do so.

Blame this president who, unlike most of his predecessors, is unwilling to engage in the time-honored political skill of good-natured arm-twisting and compromise. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill didn’t agree on much but led the country while sharing highballs of good Scotch as friendly rivals. President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, kindred spirits split by ideology, joined to balance the federal budget a decade later.

Granted, it takes two to tango, and we also can blame congressional leaders who won’t get off their own high horses. Be it Pelosi and Reid or Boehner and McConnell, they ramp up the rhetoric to stir their political bases rather than work out deals to make everyone’s lives better.

For that, blame state legislatures that have gerrymandered congressional districts to stifle competition and create “safe” seats so purely partisan no pragmatic candidate has a chance. Blame the few-holds-barred system of campaign financing that rewards such incumbency, the only way to explain why Congress’ approval ratings linger in the mid-teens yet voters re-elect the same members every two years.

And blame voters for not insisting elected officials actually “do” something as long as they “say” all the right things. Competence and statesmanship no longer seem to count.

It’s a perfect storm of nonsense, with the clouds gathering for greater tempests to come. Obama launched the first salvo last week and the cease-fire is long gone, just weeks after both sides promised — tongues firmly in cheeks — to work together.

If our Founding Fathers are watching, they can only shake their heads at a system they created to avoid such bull-headed stagnation. Yet sadly, the Constitution they crafted is still only as good as the men and women charged with making it work.

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