• A habit of compromise
    March 06,2013

    House Speaker John Boehner has stated repeatedly that the Democrats got their tax hikes in January and so there will be no more tax hikes. Zero. Nada.

    The meaning of Boehner’s words is that the Republicans have compromised once and so they don’t need to compromise again. They gave in once, so now they are justified in their intransigence.

    Boehner, however, fails to understand something important about democracy — that it requires compromise all the time. Compromise is not something that happens only once — only when your backs are against the wall and you have no choice. Compromise is the way competing factions reconcile their differences in order to craft solutions for the common good.

    That we have different factions pursuing different interests is an inevitable fact of life, especially in a vast continental nation that is a melting pot of many peoples and economic interests. In fact, faction was a danger that the Founding Fathers were particularly wary of. They worried that unless the government was structured properly one faction could seize power to the detriment of the common good.

    To prevent the ascendancy of one faction — the mercantile interests of New York, the shipping interests of Boston, the planters of Virginia, slave owners — they divided power among the several branches of government and between the states and the federal government.

    If the passion of the moment seizes the attention of the House, which is elected every two years, then House-passed legislation must also win approval from the Senate. (Like hot tea poured into a saucer, it goes to the Senate to cool, Washington said.) If narrow regional or economic interests dominate the Congress, legislation it passes must also win approval from the president, who represents the nation. And both the executive and congressional branches are kept within the strictures of the Constitution by the judiciary, which is itself appointed by the executive and confirmed by the Senate.

    This Rube Goldberg contraption is less efficient than a parliamentary system where the executive is drawn from the members of parliament. Thus, in England the majority party rules without check from another house or an executive with veto power (or the senatorial filibuster).

    The only way the cumbersome American system can operate is if both parties understand the necessity of compromise. Members of Congress of both parties and both houses must recognize that for them to do the nation’s business they must take into account where the other side stands.

    But that isn’t the starting point from which the Republicans are operating. Republicans, especially in the House, are able to maintain their rigid anti-tax position because many of them have been elected from conservative districts where uncompromising ideological opposition to government is a dominant view and members risk rejection by voters if they waver in opposing new taxes. Thus, the wave of conservative tea party members who came to power in 2010 came not to do the nation’s business in the only way that business can be done but to enforce the narrow view of their districts.

    At present Republicans, including the speaker, continue to repeat the falsehood that President Obama has failed to present a plan that would serve as an alternative to the budget cuts created by sequestration. What they mean to say is that Obama has failed to present a plan that would not require compromise from the Republicans. Obama proposes closing a variety of tax loopholes to raise revenues, plus a variety of budget cuts, including cuts to entitlement programs.

    But if only one side compromises, it is not compromise. It is surrender. And yet if Obama surrenders to the Republican agenda, it would be as if the nation had not elected Obama at all. Obama owes it to the voters who elected him to stand up for his positions and to point out to the nation that compromise is not an abdication of principle, but adherence to the larger principle that we must work together to get things done. And it must happen more than once.

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