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My view: Until both parties negotiate in good faith, we won't get much done

By Rep. Jim Nielson

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Congressmen walk down the steps of the House of Representatives at the Capitol as rank and file members adjourned for several days, in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.

Associated Press

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Regardless of whether a "fiscal cliff" deal materializes by the time this is published, Republicans will be blamed for the standoff.

I know why.

Republicans in Congress have changed tactics. Out of power almost continuously for 60 years before taking control in 1994, House Republicans have of late been taking a page from Democrats' book and emulating their hardball politics. Seen as willing to compromise in the past, today's Republicans are doing their best to stand their ground.

What changed?

Compromise means you don't have enough votes to get your way. I work alongside Democratic lawmakers in Utah. I've noticed that since they are far outnumbered, they often get along by going along. They rarely take the all-or-nothing approach. To get a portion of their party's agenda enacted, they work cooperatively. If we were in the same situation, Utah Republicans would do the same.

During the '60s and '70s, Utah's political landscape was different. Our Legislature vacillated between Republican and Democratic control, frequently every two years. The minority party was less overwhelmingly outnumbered. I've been told that minority lawmakers of that day were more confrontational than today. Why? They didn't have the same incentive to compromise: Just a few defections from the other party and the loyal opposition might get everything it wanted. Besides, their party could well be in charge after the next election. They could wait.

So small numbers encourage compromise and polite persuasion by the minority party. And strong, solid majorities or very close division of parties often means the opposite: a hard line and little compromise — the sort of intransigence Republicans are accused of today.

When Republicans took over in 1994 after decades in the wilderness, they had no experience leading. Their instinct of getting along by going along was ineffective against the no-nonsense leadership Democrats had spent generations crafting.

Working in Washington in the '80s, I got a feel for that no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach to governance. I watched with amazement as Democrats turned Indiana's contested 1984 election to their advantage. A Democratic-controlled committee recounted ballots in every conceivable order until its man led partway through one recount. At that instant the committee ended the recount, declared Democrat Frank McCloskey the victor by four votes, and found all remaining uncounted votes invalid.

Cutthroat examples like this weren't useful to Republicans as a minority party but perhaps should have been once they gained control 10 years later. Nevertheless, once in control, many Republican congressmen continued to negotiate from a position of weakness, often allowing Democrats to carry the day. Conservatives blamed the party's 2006 defeat on the fact that House Republicans didn't behave like a majority party. They kept getting along by going along instead of standing their ground.

But today Congress is different. It includes many Republicans elected on a mandate to stop acquiescing to the Democratic position in the name of bipartisanship. Today, vocal Republican constituents encourage their representatives, instead, to invite Democrats to come to them.

With Republicans getting up to speed playing hardball in recent years, no one should be surprised that Democrats still play as tough as ever. The fact that Republicans now look for Democratic concessions in addition to those offered by Republicans means a stalemate unless both parties play ball.

So go ahead and blame the Republicans for the mess we're in. Blame them for matching Democrats in inflexibility. Until both parties negotiate in good faith, we won't get much done.

Jim Nielson worked for the Reagan administration in Washington, D.C., for six years. He represents Bountiful (District 19) in the Utah House of Representatives.

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