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Kicking can down road for kids — leaders need to grow up

      Around this time last year I ran into a conservative friend of mine and, of course, we started talking politics. It was shortly after the election and I was convinced that good times were right around the corner. I bet him $20 (not a Mitt Romney kind of a bet, I know, but pretty heady for me) that the gross domestic product would be growing at a 3 percent clip by the end of 2013.
Al-Ortbals-mug    My reasoning was that we would see a repeat of 1997. In those days of yesteryear the Republican House had spent all of 1995 and 1996 battling President Bill Clinton tooth and nail, shutting down the government twice in the process. I’m sure they felt confident going into the presidential election but Clinton — whose hopes for a second term were pretty much left for dead just two years prior — pulled off one of his famous rebounds that earned him the nickname, the Comeback Kid.
    When the Republicans’ efforts to dispatch Clinton failed, they realized that they would have to work with him, quit fighting and start negotiating. In just a few short months the erstwhile combatants had come to agreement on landmark legislation that produced one of the most prosperous times in American history. The unemployment rate was squeezed down to just 3.9 percent; the GDP grew by 13 percent between 1997 and 2000; and the federal budget was not only balanced but began to throw off surplus funds that could be used to pay down the national debt.
    Last November a repeat performance seemed likely. The hope of making Obama a one-term president was gone, and you would think that both sides would want to come together and solve some problems in order to build a platform of accomplishments on which to campaign in 2014. I expected that the Republican leadership would take control and get their Tea Party members to fall in line. I hoped that they might even go so far as to hammer out the “Grand Bargain” that Obama and Boehner seemed so close to in the summer of 2011. But, obviously, that’s not what happened.
    Instead, Speaker Boehner appeared to be little more than a messenger conveying the demands of the Tea Party congressmen who decided not only not to negotiate but to up the ante and try to force the repeal of Obamacare. This was a fool’s errand and — at least in the short term — has done significant damage to the Republican Party.
    So, rather than work together to forge the necessary compromises and agreements that were the hallmark of 1997, we’ve lunged from one crisis to another, teetering along the edge of the fiscal cliff and doing huge damage to the economy in the process. This latest fiasco in which the Tea Party tail wagged the Republican Party dog resulted in a loss of $24 billion from the economy and the reduction of GDP by 0.3 percent, further throttling investment and job growth. And all of that achieved absolutely nothing while setting the stage for an encore performance after the first of the year.
    You think business owners are worried about health insurance costs? They’re worried about where their next sale is coming from. And, because Congress keeps kicking the can down the road, no one can forecast their business prospects more than a quarter in advance — if that far. The road ahead quickly disappears in a shroud of fog. That’s what’s keeping the economy in shackles.
    In my business I talk to a lot of owners of a wide range of businesses. For five years now, when I ask them, how’s business? They tell me, “We’re doing OK but I don’t know about next year.” And this story will be repeated as long as Congress is locked in mortal combat instead of doing the peoples’ business.
    It’s time for the leaders of the two parties to take control, bury the hatchet and negotiate a long-term agreement similar to the Simpson Bowles proposal of 2010, so that everyone knows where we are going and can clearly see the road ahead. Kicking the can down the road is a kid’s game. It’s time for our leaders to grow up.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 659-1997.

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