Charlie Arlinghaus

April 15, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

If you’re serving in or hope to serve in high office, it would be best for you not to have opinions, show leadership, or otherwise do what might be considered your job. Leaders who lead are considered risky and bold. The political intelligentsia would advise you to be quiet, look ponderous, show grave concern, but avoid expressing too many actual opinions. Leave leadership to those in less responsible positions.

People who are old fashioned enough to believe in ideas are occasionally frustrated because nothing seems to happen. Similarly, politicians — who are rarely if ever confused with people who believe in anything — are sometimes befuddled by their inability to accomplish much. Surrounded by advisors constantly urging caution, too many putative leaders indulge themselves in regular hand-wringing about the dangers of having strong opinions.

We are used to the lionization of milquetoast on the local level and it promises to be on display regularly during the presidential campaign as well.

Anyone who has attended a speech by a would be president has noted a general trend toward platitudes and statements resplendent with bold nothingness. Carefully crafted statements of concern alternate with a call to do something — nothing specific mind you because specifics, we are told by the handlers and the suits, are a death knell. A candidate who resorts to gimmicks such as substance must have serious problems before he or she would consider such risks.

As a case in point, consider Chris Christie, current governor of New Jersey. I hold no brief for Mr. Christie but he was in New Hampshire yesterday and had the unmitigated gall to give a speech about entitlement reform. This is surely a sign, it is suggested, that he’s getting a little desperate.

A man who wants us to consider him to lead the country dares give a policy oriented speech on the single greatest economic problem facing our country. Sure, everyone knows that soon even the jellyfish lurking around Washington will have to do something about the problem they’ve been sweeping under the carpet for thirty years, but why would anyone want to talk about it?

I was mildly annoyed to read stories this week pretending that somehow a specific plan on reforming social security and other federal entitlements is bold or risky or some sort of desperate gamble that suggests a candidacy trying to right itself.

The truth is that we should demand these sorts of detailed policy speeches from candidates. It is a pathetic commentary on the lack of maturity of the American body politic that somehow substance has become a desperate Hail Mary pass.

I have no idea if I would vote for Christie or if I would endorse all the particulars of his plan. Nonetheless he should be praised for putting substance on the table again, for presenting a well thought out and responsible plan to deal with the biggest issue of the day. You needn’t support every particular to thank him for making leadership a compelling part of a campaign.

We should demand substance from pseudo-leaders at every level of government. In the process we may also be doing them a favor. Too often, people working on an issue will try to avoid talking in any detail. We are asked to appreciate the compromises and difficult decisions made with, say, a state budget without being told the details of what went into those decisions. Often we are fed vague headlines and asked to make our decision on that basis.

When details do come they run into a list of features, big and small, without any attempt to siphon through the big picture and explain why things look as they do. We are not thought of as adults who can be trusted with real information. Instead they hope we might latch on to one small thing that captures our imagination and ignore the rest.

I don’t expect to agree with political leaders. Neither I nor my fellow citizens, voters, and taxpayers will be horribly put off by some detail or another in a plan we didn’t craft. We expect to take the wheat with the chaff and decide what we think of a proposal on balance.

More than that, in a substance free political world filled with drivel-dribbling talking heads in nice ties, real leadership is remarkably unusual and unexpected. It has the effect of stunning our senses and breaking through the boredom and cynicism that numb us to political discourse.

Charlie Arlinghaus

May 28, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The most annoying and disheartening time of the legislative year is upon us – the time when transparency and honest debate are sacrificed on the altar of hidden agendas in pursuit of that elusive legislative pot of gold, “a deal.” Committees of conference are legislative mini-summits where the romanticized version of a smoke filled room creates comparisons to sausage making that do a distinct dishonor the noble smoked meats.

In a legislature of two houses – a Senate and a House of Representatives – disagreements are common. This year, with opposite parties controlling each body, disagreements are plentiful.

When one body merely rejects the bill that passed the other, nothing happens. Yet, quite often, each body will pass a different version of the same bill. In such cases, negotiators are appointed and a committee of conference meets to find common ground.

Finding areas of agreement seems straightforward enough but the all too human machinations in pursuit of “a deal” are what gave rise to the legislative sausage making metaphor.

That metaphor’s history is a bit like the process itself. In 1869, John Godfrey Saxe found legislative machinations as convoluted then as now and wrote “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

The quote was memorable but Mr. Saxe was not, so one textbook writer in the 1930s started his description of legislative shenanigans with, “I think it was Bismarck who said….” For decades no one bothered to check the writer’s uncertainty and so we incorrectly attribute the thought to Germany’s Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Much of the legislative process is transparent and merely involves two sides disagreeing. The slightly distasteful committee of conference process has rules but so many of them aren’t what they seem.

In theory, the two sides negotiate and all must agree – this helps prevent a small clique from seizing power from a majority. In practice, the Senate President or Speaker can and does remove and replace anyone not toeing the line.

In theory, everything agreed to should have been part of one bill or the other – after all we are supposedly just ironing out details of difference between similar bills. But the rules are slightly different. They allow anything in the final product that was is simply the subject of either version. If the subject is interpreted broadly – and it is when useful – this allows pretty near anything to come back to life.

There are roughly eighty conference committees hashing out agreements. That doesn’t mean there are eighty disagreements. Sometimes, the building blocks of deals are tacked on to other bills at the end of the regular session to preserve negotiating power.

For example, an innocuous bill to create a voluntary fund for robotics education had a liquor sample bill tacked on the end of it. The message is “we don’t disagree but if you want this passed, you have to give us something in return.”

Small potatoes horse trading, to mix a few metaphors, isn’t of much concern to anyone. But on large complex bills new ideas can be introduced that no one has had a chance to consider, that have had no public hearing, and yet need to be voted on almost immediately by legislators who have had little or no chance to consider them.

At the end of the Great War, Woodrow Wilson called for “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” The same frustration might be expressed about legislators.

Too often, the open public meeting is a sham. Very brief, uninformative, and highly choreographed meetings are a theatrical production. The meetings are rare and short while the recesses are long and hidden. In fact, agreements are arrived at behind closed doors during what is ostensibly a recess. Diplomacy occurs out of the public view and we’re never quite sure what happened.

In Wilson’s time, professional diplomats relished the intrigue and gamesmanship of old fashioned secret diplomacy. Today, a subset of legislators and staff romanticize the “sausage-making.” Playing the game and the art of the deal create a sense of separation from the rest of us who aren’t “in the know.”

Wilson may have been naïve about international diplomacy but we all have cause to be a little wary of backroom deals. I like knowing what’s in my sausage.