The History of Compromise

The 114th Congress that convened in Washington Tuesday is overwhelmingly Republican. The GOP has a commanding 246–188 majority in the House of Representatives, and now also controls the Senate with 54 seats. However, down the road at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the executive branch — at least for the next two years — is still in the hands of a Democrat who remains determined to further his own agenda.

This, of course, lays the groundwork for a worsening of what is already an adversarial and acrimonious relationship. GOP leaders have indicated that they will use what they clearly understand to be a mandate from the American people to push hard for their legislative priorities, most of which are fiercely at odds with those of the Obama administration.

“Serious adults are in charge here and we intend to make progress,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Associated Press recently.

For the GOP, progress includes forcing the construction of the Keystone-XL oil pipeline, which Republicans rightfully consider a job creator but Obama says threatens the environment; seeking to dismantle the president’s highly controversial health care law known as Obamacare; blocking the president’s executive order on immigration; and cutting benefit programs such as Medicare.

The Republicans face considerable challenges from without and within.

In the Senate, they will often need at least six Democrats to join them to garner the 60 votes required to overcome filibusters. The Republicans will also need a significant number of Democrats to join them in both chambers, so they can muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override the virtually certain vetoes by Obama on many of their bills. Complicating matters further are deep divisions within the Republican Party itself between conservative tea party lawmakers and a mainstream leadership eager to avoid a government shutdown.

At the other end of the political spectrum, President Obama, his aides and congressional allies face the fact that while his veto pen can stop bills from becoming law, his ability to govern only through executive action is limited. In most cases, he needs funding in order to implement his policies, and it is Congress that tightly controls the purse strings.

The running battle between Obama and Congress is now also increasingly spilling over into the third branch of the Federal government, as the GOP and their supporters have filed numerous lawsuits against different parts of Obamacare, and the president’s immigration policy.

The only viable solution to this impasse is for both sides to use the approach exhibited last month when, eager to go on vacation, they reached agreement on a sweeping $1.1 trillion spending bill that was subsequently signed by Obama.

A brief history lesson would be invaluable for both the president and the Republicans, for it would remind them that in effect they owe their jobs to a series of compromises made in a sweltering room in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago.

During much of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the delegates seemed hopelessly divided. Seventy-four delegates were appointed to the convention, of which only 55 actually attended sessions.

Some opposed the very notion of a strong central government and wanted only relatively minor revisions to the existing Articles of Confederation, and merely wanted to enable the Congress more easily to raise revenues and regulate commerce.

On the other end of the spectrum was Alexander Hamilton, whose plan sounded like a return to monarchy. It called for an executive to serve during “good behavior” — without a set elective term — or for life, with veto power over all laws; a senate with members serving during good behavior; and the legislature to have power to pass “all laws whatsoever.”

The delegates were also bitterly at odds over the rights of larger states vs. smaller ones, and whether slaves should be counted as citizens when calculating congressional representation. It took much hard work, willpower and, more than anything, a genuine willingness to compromise to come up with the Constitution of the United States, an extraordinary document that, despite its inherent flaws — some of which were corrected by subsequent amendments — has produced the most stable democratic system of government in the world.

What was a great help to delegates was the fact that all its sessions were held in secret; reporters and curious spectators were kept out. At the time, this was a reason for deep concern for some. Thomas Jefferson wrote John Adams from Paris, “I am sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members.”

But it was, at least in part, precisely because they were free from the spotlight of the media — to use a contemporary term — that they were able to reach the compromises that were so desperately needed.

The president and the leaders of Congress would be wise to follow the example shown by those delegates. They should sit down in a room, away from the glare of cameras and the influence of lobbyists and pundits, and hammer out a compromise solution to many of the vexing issues of the day.n