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Of asses and oxen

Deuteronomy enjoins us against yoking an ox and a donkey together to plow.

The Bible forbids harnessing these two very different animals together, in part, because it is unfair to both; their different size, strength and gait make it impossible for them to work together in harmony.

Americans seem to have internalized this norm, leading us to react negatively to linking unrelated issues. Yet politicians do it all the time, usually to the public’s chagrin.

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Indeed, one (just one) cause of the GOP’s strategic failure in dealing with the shutdown and the debt limit was their insistence on conjoining issues the public much preferred to keep separate. Linking unrelated issues elicits adverse reactions from our citizenry, increasing hostility toward our public institutions, and to those individuals and parties guilty of this sin.

Healthcare reform and keeping the government open might be related in the mind of GOP members of Congress, but they are not linked in the public’s mind. This is part of the reason voters oppose the Republican linkage strategy, even though many share doubts about ObamaCare.

Only 24 percent in the United Technologies/National Journal poll thought “the House is right to fund the continuing operations of the federal government only if Obama agrees to delay or withdraw his health care plan.” By contrast, 65 percent wanted Congress to provide the funding to keep the government operating and deal with the healthcare issue separately.”

Now that response could result from the simple fact that voters see opening the government as a higher priority than changing ObamaCare. But we see the same rejection of linkage in almost every other instance we examine. Voters rebel against harnessing oxen and asses together.

For example, raising the debt limit, unlike opening the government, is fairly unpopular. Nonetheless, voters want to separate it from other issues.

Just 31 percent wanted to tie the debt limit to a one-year delay in the Affordable Care Act; 65 percent said keep it separate. Only 24 percent wanted the debt-limit increase linked to the Keystone oil pipeline; 70 percent did not.

Even more closely related spending issues deserve separate treatment, in the public view. Only 30 percent supported tying the debt limit to cuts in “domestic discretionary programs,” with 60 percent against it.

Public discomfort with yoking together disparate issues has a long history.

A Gallup poll in 1957 tapped this sentiment. By 2 to 1, voters then favored a change so a president “can turn down some parts of the law without turning down the entire law.”

Recognizing that Congress often harnesses donkeys with oxen, Americans wanted — and still want — presidents to be able to separate the differing elements of the law.

We have regularly witnessed the same phenomenon in polling on initiatives where combining a variety of popular, but seemingly unrelated, provisions often leaves support for the total package at a lower level than the support for any of the individual elements.

The whole is not only far less than the sum of its parts, it is frequently less than any of its parts.

Linking disparate issues has a venerated history in legislative politics. Sometimes it is used to fashion compromise, adding sweeteners to broaden the appeal of otherwise doomed legislation. Other times, legislators use the tactic to pass pet provisions that would not garner sufficient support on their own.

Usually these tactics remain unnoticed by the public. That does not mean voters approve of the approach. They don’t. And when the tactic becomes the strategy in a high-profile debate, as it has during the GOP shutdown and debt-limit debacles, expect voters to rebel, as they have.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.