A year ago, my ex-husband and I sat down to negotiate the end of our marriage. Using standard forms downloaded from the state website, we planned the termination of a twelve year marriage- including custody of two young children, distribution of assets, and division of debts. No one was happy with the agreement, but truthfully, it has worked fairly well so far. The secret of the successful compromise is we understood there would be pain and sacrifice for everyone, but ultimately if we worked together we could find a way to make it tolerable.
Everyday people have to make life-altering decisions all the time- my ex and I did. It’s time for our government to figure out how to communicate at least as well as a divorcing couple.
Congress and President Obama find themselves in need of similar skills of negotiation this week, as they work to end a budget dispute that has dogged the country for years. To avoid falling off a fiscal cliff, our government must work within itself, like a family, to find a way for everyone to get what they really need, and be willing to give up that which they don’t for the greater good.
Several years ago, President Obama said our country is not divided into red states and blue states, but that we are one United States. I would go a little farther and say we are a big, complicated, modern family- interdependent yet fiercely individualistic. The family of us may be bickering and embittered, but we still need each other. To be the best we can be we must pool our resources.
When my ex-husband and I negotiated our divorce, the first and most important agenda item was how to handle the children. Our government should prioritize the budget dispute in the same way- what do children in our country need to survive and thrive? Education, health care, housing, and child care should be at the top of the agenda items funded. No budget compromise should come at the expense of what kids need.
Second, my ex and I agreed on how to handle money and assets. “Who gets what” is always the top most question in everyone’s minds where money is concerned. Congress and our president will have to figure out the minutia of this tedious component of the dispute. National priorities change from era to era, but perhaps this will finally be the time when our environment and infrastructure are acknowledged alongside defense spending. As every climatologist and ecologist will tell you, the time to work on climate change and pollution is now. Weathering storms like Sandy will also require new infrastructure spending.
Finally, there’s the sticky issue of debt to consider. This was fairly straightforward for my divorce, since I worked hard to keep our household debt low. The national debt is something important to work out, but not before other more pressing items on the list are agreed on. Everyone will get paid- in due course.
It’s odd, I know, to compare the national budget dispute to a divorce, but the skills required to maneuver both are the same: logic, compassion, foresight, and humility are the best tools employed now. I know the rhetoric in Washington is heated, emotional, and prideful. There doesn’t seem to be a way forward; however I know from experience there is always a way forward for those with the wisdom to follow through with a negotiation process.
The beginning of a new trust and the evolution of old relationships are possible in D.C. The cliff can be avoided by turning around and beginning the long, slow journey to a reasonable bipartisan agreement. We may always be a nation with a divided heart, but we can still make compromises that enable the government to function, and those it serves to have their needs met.