Leaders better at punting than leading

We’re more than a month past the election, but it seems we’re still no closer to averting the “fiscal cliff.”

Considering the hyper-partisanship plaguing Washington, it’s no surprise that reaching across the aisle to make a deal isn’t happening. Over the past year, our leaders have proven adept at punting problems.

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How did this all get started? In June  2002, the Senate adopted a bill to raise the debt limit by $450 million for the first time since 1997. Since then, Congress has repeatedly raised the debt ceiling — in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, twice in 2008, twice in 2009 and in 2010 — in order not to default on our nation’s obligations.

In 2011, hyper-partisan gridlock kept Congress from agreeing to raise the debt ceiling until the last minute, creating uncertainty for Americans at home and investors abroad. This episode led Standard & Poor’s to downgrade our debt from AAA to AA+ — an event without precedent in U.S. history.

To make sure nothing like this ever happened again, Congress enacted the Budget Control Act of 2011. This act required Congress to come together and find solutions to our nation’s federal deficit through the so-called supercommittee — six Democrats and six Republicans charged with the responsibility of reducing the deficit and finding a long-term budget solution. If the committee failed, severe across-the-board budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion (“sequestration”) would go into effect at the beginning of 2013.

These cuts were designed to be so unacceptable that Republicans and Democrats would have to work together to avert them. Along with these cuts came the expiration of tax breaks, which, combined with sequestration, would send our economy back into a recession. Even with these raised stakes and heightened incentives, the members of the supercommittee could not find a solution.

All of this and more is set to take effect on Jan. 1 of the new year. The American people hoped that in the wake of the election, which left control of the government divided between the parties, their leaders would work with a new sense of urgency to address this looming threat. Every survey shows a majority of Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — supporting compromise rather than confrontation. Their elected representatives are not listening. Instead, five weeks have been consumed with posturing and finger-pointing.

Our leaders in Washington are gambling with our economy — with the jobs and incomes of millions of households. We face the prospect of prolonged uncertainty and a new recession — all because members of Congress refuse to work together.

We need leadership, not gamesmanship. Here’s what that means for our elected officials:

1.) Tell the full truth. Agree on the facts, and stop selecting them for partisan advantage.

2.) Govern for the future. Think of the next generation, not the next election.

3.) Put the country first. This isn’t a game with winners and losers. Look beyond your party’s caucus and listen to the people.

4.) Take responsibility. Stop trying to shift blame and see yourselves as the stewards of the public trust. If our governing institutions don’t work, it’s everyone’s fault — including your own.

5.) Work together. If you’re not talking seriously with members of the other party, you’re part of the problem. There are only two options — compromise or gridlock. The choice is yours.

This new kind of leadership won’t happen unless citizens demand it. If you want to help make a difference, go to NoLabels.org to learn about our grassroots movement of hundreds of thousands of Democrats, Republicans and independents who are urging our leaders to move from finger-pointing to problem-solving.

Galston is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. McKinnon served as senior adviser to former President George W. Bush.