Compromise: The Missing Policy Ingredient Amid Dysfunctional Budgeting

The framers of our Constitution knew they had to abandon the powerless structure of the Articles of Confederation to create a stronger central government. But, at the same time, they wanted to protect state sovereignty and were terrified of too much central power.

To split that baby, they invented our Republic, with a strong central government, but tempered its strength with as many checks and balances as they could pack into our Constitution. Both state approval and ratification were close calls, but the spirit of compromise prevailed. 

The checks and balances were an unvarnished success. Our three branched government, with co-equal legislative chambers, has avoided extremes and stayed close to the policy center-line ever since. Political party competition, unmentioned in the Constitution, added to the difficulties of making major policy changes. So did rules and precedents, like the Senate filibuster.

The political theory of the concurrent majority tells us that it is extremely difficult to make important changes in U.S. policy without at least the tacit acquiescence of whatever minority was opposed to the change. James Madison, Framer-in-Chief, and his allies, gave us a government in which minority voices had to be heard, if sometimes faintly.

To make major policy changes, compromise became the rule. It was the priceless ingredient that made our government run. When compromise was not possible, as in 1861, bad things happened.

Some of those Framers might be pleased with the current legislative stalemate. Probably, most would not. In this polarized era of eye-gouging politics, the Democratic Senate and the Republican House delight in stymieing one another. The president, the one person who might either lead, or force, a compromise, often appears to be more observer than activist.

Compromise, which has been the hallmark of U.S. progress for more than two centuries,  has today become more epithet than encomium. The parties and their strongest constituencies, smugly confident that theirs is the only way of truth, have abandoned negotiation in favor of non-negotiable demands.

Political competition is so intense that it has become a state of continuous  warfare. Compromise, the priceless policy-making tool, has been cast aside and forgotten. The inevitable result is inaction and stalemate.

Contrary to law, there has been no Congressional budget in three years. No bookie is giving good odds on next year, either. Necessary long-term budget decisions languish. Tax reform, a corollary of budget compromise, is losing its steam. Even the issues that seemed to be negotiable, like immigration, the farm bill and energy policy, are foundering today.

Real problems go unsolved. The sequester needs to be replaced with more thoughtful spending reductions. The long-term problems that need solutions right now, like entitlements and tax policy, are not even on the table.

Financing the government will be done again this year in a series of uneasy truces called Continuing Resolutions (CRs). CRs are whimsical blanket appropriations which few people, other than the staff who wrote them, can understand. The debt ceiling extension has expired, and must be renewed after Labor Day. Nobody is quite sure how, or if, it will extended again.  

Altogether, the present legislative traffic jam does not look like the result of the Madison’s thoughtful checks and balances. Today’s snarl looks more like the creation of the bone-crunching checks that draw penalties in the National Hockey League. That raises the question: Is our government model wrong, or have we just forgotten how to make it work?

The Madison model has worked before, in good times and bad. It can be made to work again. What is needed to make it work is a different attitude by the American people and their representatives. If the people prefer stalemate, their representatives will gladly deliver it. If the people want to try compromise again, they have to demand it.

If compromise is not going to be a dirty word, the extreme constituencies, or some of them, anyway, have to agree to let their policy makers have a go at it. And the policy makers, themselves have to summon up the courage to place a bet on the Madison model.

They will never score unless they are willing to lead off of first base. So far, they have been rooted to the bag. They need to do what the framers did—compromise.