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Greenville Business Magazine

When the parties are sprinting to the left and the right, precious little is accomplished

For many business leaders working to expand their market share, increase revenue and make payroll each week, the daily hysteria broadcasting from Washington can be a fascinating sideshow. 

It seems like what happens on Twitter stays inside the beltway, but what goes on in Washington eventually creeps down to local and small businesses. I had the chance recently to speak with Neal Bradley, the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, about how partisanship was impacting the country (beyond the screaming talking heads on evening news shows).

Tariffs are one perfect example of the trickle-down effect on the economy. Initially, I received calls from big businesses and big exporters who had concerns about tariffs. You know these companies as major state employers and global brand names. As we head into the Christmas season, the owners of small boutiques, toy stores and other local retailers are seeing the impact and grabbing me in the grocery store to ask questions.

When President Donald J. Trump took office in 2017, nearly all of the calls and fears of the tariff impact originated from big companies. Inc. magazine reported that in September, 37 percent of small businesses saw a negative impact from tariffs and 46 percent said they had lost business because of them. Recessions rarely happen spontaneously; they happen because of poor policy decisions and the fear stoked by them.

But back to partisanship. Why has every election since 2000 been dubbed "the biggest, most important election in our generation?" Part of it is simply the cheapening of superlatives in our language. Part of it is based in fact.

From 1960 until 2000, control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate or the White House changed seven times in 20 elections. Party control was very stable, and when it changed (1968, 1976, 1980, 1992), we saw it coming and the clear reasons why it happened. 

Since 2000, eight of the 10 national elections have changed control of the House, Senate or White House. If your party is fighting for control of the government, it behooves you to tell your supporters that this is the most important election ever. And it might be. That emotional appeal heightens the partisanship. 

How does this impact business? When government is paralyzed by partisanship and the parties are kowtowing to their base by sprinting to the left and the right, precious little is accomplished. This opens the door for an imperial presidency that governs by executive order.

As of when I wrote this column, the Senate had taken only nine votes for passage of legislation this year. Seven more votes were on treaties, and there were 16 votes on amendments, according to the U.S. Chamber. (There were hundreds of votes on judicial and government appointments, which has been the unabashed focus of Majority Leader McConnell.)

This isn't a new phenomenon by any means. With no action by Congress, President Barack Obama famously said: "I've got a pen and a phone." NPR used the headline, "With a pen and a phone, Obama goes alone." Trump has followed Obama's lead. 

The impact on you? Bradley said that when a new party takes over the White House, businesses always expected eight or 10 immediate executive orders. As of mid-September, there had been 243 deregulatory actions by President Trump. Some businesses may cheer, but the next president also has a pen and a phone. 

Without certainty, business leaders are hesitant to invest and grow the economy. South Carolina's General Assembly, thankfully, hasn't succumbed to this level of partisanship. 

But what should business leaders do to support bipartisanship here and try to turn the partisan battleship in Washington? 

Reward leadership. Speaker Jay Lucas' education reform bill wasn't perfect, but he stuck his neck out on an issue our state has been talking about for 20 years while taking virtually no action. He should be commended for that action.

Reward bipartisanship. When people reach across the aisle to solve problems, as Rep. Bill Herbkersman (R-Bluffton) and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) did with affordable housing legislation in 2018, we should applaud the effort and help them.

Change how we talk about legislation. Stop reflexively supporting or opposing things because of who filed the bill. Let's look at legislation through a lens of what we want to achieve and how we want the economy to grow. In my experience, every bill is imperfect and nearly every legislator is willing to talk about how to make a bill better.

As I said at the start, with the 2020 elections one year away, we need to rebuild the center and support the candidates who are committed to good policy—not avoid taking a stand to evade the wrath of the President's Twitter account.