Is there good news lurking behind the lack of ‘compromise’ talk in Washington?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama shaking hands with Speaker John Boehner at the end of the State of the Union address.

Returning briefly to the State of the Union: the state of the Union appears to be uncompromising.

Nothing new there. And compromise is not really something to be ardently pursued for its own sake. And there are some things not worth compromising.

But, as I argued in a 2012 series titled Imperfect Union, the U.S. system of government relies on bipartisan compromise more than most other systems in the world.

Under our system, there are sooo many ways to block a law, but it’s nearly impossible to make one unless you get it adopted, separately, by majorities in two houses of Congress, elected on different schedules (and, in the Senate, the majority often has to be a supermajority), signed by a president elected on yet a third schedule, and not struck down by a U.S. Supreme Court that is tenured for life, not elected at all and to whose conclusions about what the Constitution permits there is virtually no appeal.

Divided government — in which no single party controls all the levers needed to act — has become much more the norm than the exception. That means some agreement or compromise, across party lines, is necessary for the federal government to legislate much of anything — even a budget just to maintain the status quo.

Nothing new about that system, and there have been periods when compromise was normal and the system seemed to more or less work. But in the past decade or more, compromise has gone out of fashion. There’s blame to go around (or perhaps you believe that rather than blame it should be credit that goes around). But I pretty much subscribe to the Norm Ornstein-Tom Mann hypothesis that the Republican Party — especially since the advent of its Tea Party faction — bears the larger share of the blame/credit for the era of gridlock.

Republicans miffed

So it turns out that the Republicans had a very good year in the 2014 midterms and now hold majorities in both houses of Congress. But it also turns out that this doesn’t really change the likelihood of passing much legislation because of the power of the presidential veto. Republicans are miffed that President Obama continues to publicly wave his veto pen. But wave it he did, all but shouting tough noogies to the Repubs.

Now returning briefly to the State of the Union address: Obama chose to use the opportunity to talk about what he thinks Congress should do but he did not choose to use the opportunity to talk much about the necessity of compromise for anything to get done.

(Yes, at the end of the speech he did reprise a version of his famous there-is-no-red-America-or-blue-America-but-only-a-red-white-and-blue-America riff. But if you channel your inner-Republican and read carefully the things he says everyone can agree on, you’ll note a blue-ish cast to the list.)

There is an analysis of the speech that suggests that Obama used the speech to set up the terms of debate for the 2016 presidential election (and, of course, to set them up in a way that favors his own party). Maybe that’s true. Maybe it will help the Democrats hang on to the White House and improve their numbers in the Congress. But that election is two years off. The idea that after an election, there can be a slight diminution of political calculations for a few weeks to do a little governing seems to have disappeared. The fact that we news junkies are going to read multiple stories about the positioning and the fund-raising and the messaging about the 2016 election should be a little disturbing.

Away from limelight

But for those who share some of my disgust with the permanent campaign, there may be some good news lurking behind the lack of “compromise” talk. It may be (in fact, it almost certainly must be) that you don’t get to compromise by saying the word “compromise” constantly. You don’t get there repeating that everything has to be on the table, when in fact there are many that if they stay on the table will be deal-breakers.

It may be (in fact, I’m sure this is so) that away from the limelight key members of Congress (and yes, representatives of the White House, too) are discussing bills that would include enough of what the reasonable wings of each party can support, and little enough of what they cannot possibly abide, to form a package that might pass and be signed and not be struck down and become law.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/22/2015 - 09:07 am.

    It’s a wish

    Or it may be that the Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot for 2016.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/22/2015 - 09:09 am.


    In terms of compromise, I am open to it. Just like the Republicans, I have a very lengthy list of changes that I think my guys should bring to the negotiating table.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/22/2015 - 12:44 pm.


    means a solution midway between two starting points.
    Each party gets some of what they originally asked for.
    What are the Republicans prepared to give?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/22/2015 - 01:00 pm.


    “…The fact that we… are going to read multiple stories about the positioning and the fund-raising and the messaging about the 2016 election should be a little disturbing.”

    It IS disturbing.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/23/2015 - 08:25 am.


    When talking about it, I think it’s important to understand that compromise is not a goal, but a means to an end, and the end should be good policy. Compromise can be helpful to achieving that end, but sometimes it just isn’t.

    Consider one big issue on the table now, the deficit and it’s relationship to taxing and spending. It would seem obvious that there is a natural compromise that would reduce the deficit a reduction in spending combined with an increase in taxes. Problem solved. Why isn’t this natural compromise achieved? Is it because the parties are unwilling to compromise? I would suggest that the problem is deeper and more complicated than that in ways that make the notion of compromise irrelevant to the actual dispute. The fact is, as much as we pay lip service to the issue, people who are actually in a position to affect policy don’t care about the debt. While not in such a position myself, I certainly don’t. That being the case, debt concerns don’t motivate policy makers to move toward a compromise. There are other problems with compromise as well, what I think of as asymmetry of negotiation. It would be hard to reach a deal on trade deficit because the politics is to radically difficult. The problem is, people on my side of the table are reluctant to reduce spending to secure tax increases because we know as a practical matter it would be very hard to make such a deal stick because we know that it’s much easier to reduce taxes than it is to increase spending, and politics has a disturbing way of following the least resistance. Since we know that the parties on the other side of the table don’t have the ability to ensure the promises they make will be kept, either by themselves, or by others, what’s the point of making any deal with them? Since we will be stuck with the burden of the deal, but have no guarantee that we will get the benefit?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/23/2015 - 08:38 pm.

      Caring about the deficit

      Your comment raises a number of thoughtful, good points. The parties in Minnesota can posture and compromise but it all must lead to “balancing the budget”. I think we’ve seen though, politicians and their families don’t disappear if this doesn’t happen. Balancing the budget is a “convention” – an understanding or agreement which treat it as a benchmark to gauge the ability to govern.

      That used to be the case with the U.S. Government. We should not forget that the Roosevelt administration considered “balancing the budget” to be the primary goal, even if it was not achieved. Which I’m not at all sure they never did. What is the last U.S. Administration to claim “balancing the budget” as its signal achievement?

      Because Keynes and all. Keynes of course made “balanced national budgets” all but irrelevant (at least in the past sixty years) in the hopes of achieving “full employment.” A lot of people, including probably a majority of those currently in power, have no idea what Keynes said and would disagree with him anyway if they did. And a lot of people who agree with Keynes disagree what the priorities should be.

      But then again, we have Dick “deficits don’t matter” Cheney who implies, consistent with other right wing thinking, that “we agree with Keynes when it suits our purposes and we disagree with him when it doesn’t”. Does that mean some right wingers agree with Keynes but only when it supports their arguments for more war? Or does it mean something else?

      It makes for interesting discussions anyway.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/23/2015 - 10:53 am.

    Baggage, Baggage, Baggage followed up with corruption

    The career politicians have so much baggage that they become unable to do anything but block. They can’t work with anyone and they won’t give on anything because they are so indebted to the big money. Which vote has the most impact with politicians, the money vote or the voting booth vote? It is obvious and not a good answer. Why would the politicians want to give up a $200,000+ yearly income for doing nothing? How can we get them to legislate against themselves? Many voters only use name recognition as their means of determining who to vote for which makes the voter ineffective in getting rid of those with all the baggage. Term limits are the only option. Corruption has many avenues it works in such as the migration from politician to lobbyist, Citizens United, very in appropriately named and has nothing positive to do with the majority of citizen, corporations are not people but are wrongly treated as such. Our political system is broken.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/23/2015 - 12:36 pm.

    The career politicians have so much baggage that they become unable to do anything but block.

    Is that exactly fair? At that rarest point in American history, when the Democratic Party controlled the White House, the House of Representatives, and had a filibuster proof majority in the senate, they enacted Obamacare. And believe me, it took a lot work with a lot of different people to get it done.

    “Why would the politicians want to give up a $200,000+ yearly income for doing nothing?”

    To enact good policy, or at least a policy that is better than no policy. We god Obamacare done, despite the fact that it was a politically risky policy. Take a look makeup of Congress. Lots of Democrats aren’t there anymore because they were willing to put those 200,000 dollar a year jobs at risk, because they chose to do something instead of doing nothing.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/23/2015 - 11:55 pm.

      Risky business

      On one level I agree with you. Adopting Obamacare “cost” a number of pols. Too bad, that. But that reminds me of the Biblical quote about straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel.

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