How the Parties Can Compromise Without Compromising Principles

July 27, 2011

It is time for our nation’s leaders to step back from the brink. Obviously, neither side wants to blink first in this “stare down.” However, both sides must stop focusing on political brinkmanship and instead look our fiscal challenges straight in the eye.

With the possible exception of a few House Republicans, all sides agree that failing to raise the debt limit will result in both fiscal and economic disruption — if not calamity. But addressing the debt limit without serious fiscal restraint is also risky — as rating agencies are threatening to downgrade our government’s credit rating absent a clear and strong deficit reduction plan.

Unfortunately, despite the need for decisive action — our leaders seem incapable of the kind of compromise required when power is divided between the two major parties.

Set aside the hypocrisy exhibited by Democrats (including President Obama) who once opposed raising the debt ceiling during George Bush’s White House tenure — and Republicans who now balk at a debt ceiling vote because Obama is in the Oval Office.

Forgive Obama, as well, for initially demanding a clean debt-ceiling increase — a nonstarter when faced with an “all cuts — no taxes” Republican House populated by freshmen elected on a platform of reducing our debt.

Forget, too, the Republican “cut, cap and balance” offer this past week — and recognize that votes of this sort are sometimes necessary to position legislators for a compromise later.

But now, the time for compromise has come. Compromise is not weakness. It is the way our government has been run for over 220 years. Like it or not, borrowing is necessitated whenever government spends more than it collects in revenue.

Accordingly, raising the debt ceiling is not optional. It is unavoidable.

Does that mean it needs to be done in a carte blanche fashion? No. In fact, during our time in Congress in the 1980s when — like today — there was divided government, Democrats in Congress and Republican President Ronald Reagan came together to enact budget controls (termed Gramm Rudman after the Senate authors of the proposal) in exchange for a debt-limit increase. Something comparable can and must be done today.

The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform (which we co-chair) has offered a budget-process reform that could be coupled with a debt-ceiling vote. If enacted, this process would control future spending and over time hold our nation’s debt at manageable levels.

Another approach might be to allow for a small and short-term increase in the debt limit — perhaps enough to get us through to September — combined with a clear understanding that this interim period would be dedicated to enactment of an ambitious deficit-reduction package.

The recent $4 trillion proposal put forth by the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six” or the $3 trillion in savings evidently discussed by Speaker Boehner and President Obama might provide a framework for such a deal. Both plans represent the type of principled compromise in which both parties are willing to accept things they don’t like for the good of the nation.

Much is at stake with a fiscal cliff fast approaching. Our nation’s leaders need to find a way to compromise without compromising their principles, just as President Reagan and Democrats did in the 1980s.