Politics and process difficult to navigate simultaneously

Maybe it is the heat. Or summer boredom. Sunburn? Dehydration? Sand in the shorts? Whatever the explanation, decision-makers at the local and national levels appear to be debilitatingly challenged by the tasks before them. And as they roll down the window for air, these politicians appear ready to toss out any chance of success in making policy necessary to address real issues that will not disappear should lawmakers fail to come to resolution.

In La Plata County, we are deeply embroiled in what should be a relatively noncontroversial exercise: long-range planning. Individuals’ placement on the spectrum of fondness for making and keeping plans notwithstanding, it has become more or less accepted wisdom that crafting a vision for how a community will look in one, five, 13 or 20 years is a worthwhile exercise. The alternative – haphazard growth dictated by the political whims of whoever is in control of a given county commission, planning commission or planning and building department – can undermine community vibrancy and economic development. But this more-or-less conventional wisdom has not settled into the brains of all on the La Plata County Planning Commission, nor into the minds of all county residents. As a result, the county is in its third attempt at adopting a comprehensive plan and is once again getting hamstrung on process.

The trouble – aside from the heat – seems to be an inability to separate decision-makers’ politics from their charge to also shape the process. What is resulting is a muddying of the discourse such that individuals’ positions on planning in general, or specific components thereof, are derailing the process – or at least threatening to. Instead of concerning themselves with crafting a document that outlines a meaningful vision for La Plata County’s future, there are those on the Planning Commission who appear fundamentally opposed to the notion of planning, and are using the discussion venue to make detailed changes to the draft plan, question the process that resulted in it, and challenge underlying assumptions upon which it is built. This has the effect of undermining the work that has gone into the plan thus far, devaluing the significant public input that was gathered and shaking public confidence in the Planning Commission’s capacity to accomplish the task it has undertaken.

This scenario is being writ large on the national stage with the debt-deficit debate. As President Obama, House Republicans and Senate Democrats haggle over what is and is not a viable solution – each demonizing the other all the while – the process itself is being similarly sullied with politics. Questions about whether any of the concerns about defaulting on the nation’s debt are valid or simply a politically manufactured crisis created to vilify political opponents are distractions that threaten to derail the possibility of finding a solution. Meanwhile, presidential candidates and others are busy signing pledges and making statements that contribute nothing to the goal of resolving the debt limit and deficit impasse, but do a fantastic job of articulating their political position – to no result, and ultimately, to no accountability. In the balance hangs the potential for progress.

Politics always influence process, to be sure. In the cases of the comprehensive plan and the debt-deficit debate, though, the decision-makers in question are tasked with policy selection. That is their primary duty, secondary to which is each party’s – whether political or individual – agenda to shape a particular result.

That agenda, whatever it might be, has a role in the process, but it should not subsume it. Neither the comprehensive planning process nor the debt-deficit debate is the arena in which to get entrenched in a position at the expense of progress. As Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University said in The New York Times: “Zealots are great on the campaign trail, but a huge problem when it comes to governance. They often don’t believe in the art of a deal even with their allies. If they are not tamed, they can eat their own party alive.”

The responsibility for striking the balance between politics and process lies with leadership, and in both the local and national example at hand, the challenge in doing so is palpable. Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Planning Commission Chairman Travis Craig and county commission Chairwoman Kellie Hotter all face the thankless and difficult task of keeping all parties focused on achieving the end goal to which they have committed. In these contentious discussions, there is no shortage of distractions.

In using politics to dismantle a meaningful process, decision-makers do no small amount of damage that is not easily remedied. Voters become more cynical and therefore less engaged – after all, why put energy into a process that is going to be overturned in its final stages? The long-term direction of a community, or a country, can be short-circuited, all for the sake of one side winning – regardless of the consequences. This is not governing, it is grandstanding, and while there is certainly a time for that, first and foremost, decision-makers are elected or appointed to govern.

Mixing the two is no small challenge, but both locally and nationally, now is not the time.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.