Why We Need Compromise

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Tuesday, May 6, 2003
Every two years while I served in Congress, almost like clockwork, I’d open my mail to find the questionnaire. When you run for office, you expect various organizations to examine your positions on the issues they care about, but the group that sent this one out always went to greater lengths than most. For page after page, they’d ask me “yes” or “no” questions about matters large and small. There was no room for shades of gray; in their eyes, policy decisions were a matter of black or white. 

I always felt boxed in by this, even though I sympathized with their effort to publicize candidates’ positions. If you take a larger view of the legislative process, they were doing themselves– and the rest of us– a disservice. At its best, politics is not a matter of holding on to your opinions no matter what; it’s the art of finding common ground with people who think differently, then forging a workable approach to resolving a problem. Groups interested only in locking legislators into a rigid position make it more difficult for our democracy to work. 

Many Americans don’t understand this. Surveys show they believe that “compromise” means selling out one’s principles, and that members of Congress compromise too much. But what are the options when you can’t forge a compromise? If the forces interested in the matter are equally strong, you get an impasse: nothing happens. If they’re not evenly matched, you get a triumphant majority and a deeply unhappy minority– a situation our nation’s Founders warned against. And in the worst case, which our nation experienced when it came to the institution of slavery, you get a civil war. 

The responsibility of our politicians is to make the country work, to provide stability and an environment in which Americans can live in freedom and achieve their goals. In a nation as big and diverse as ours, in which people hold so many differing opinions, that means finding solutions to issues that allow us to work peaceably and productively together; and that means finding compromises. It is what our Founders did when they wrote the Constitution– they compromised on everything, from how small and large states would be represented to how they would tackle the issue of slavery– and it is what virtually every piece of major legislation passed by Congress has required. 

There are, of course, members of Congress who promise in their campaigns to “fight for” their constituents, or for a particular cause, without backing down. But they usually discover that it is difficult to be effective in Congress unless they learn how to build consensus. You can’t pass legislation unless you can get 218 members of the House of Representatives and 51 members of the Senate (frequently more) to agree with you. Members who don’t learn the art of compromise usually find themselves on the margins of the legislative process. At the same time, every member of Congress has certain core beliefs on which he or she will not compromise; as much as finding common ground is part of the art of legislating, so, too, is weighing whether or not one is giving up too much in order to move an issue forward. Legislators make tough calls like that every day. 

It has grown more difficult in recent years to practice the politics of consensus. This is due partly to the rising partisanship that has marked Congress over the past dozen years or so, partly to a press corps that always wants an immediate response and is ready to pounce on any instance of “inconsistency” in a politician’s position, partly to voters who demand “purity” in a legislator’s positions, and partly to the openness with which much of the legislative process operates these days. Don’t get me wrong: I think much good has come out of opening committees and other venues for deliberation to allow the public to see their representatives in action. But I also think that legislators need room to act like politicians, to search for broadly acceptable solutions to difficult problems. 

One of the keenest insights of our Founders was that the process by which we arrive at decisions matters a great deal. Legislating is not like war, in which one side strives to impose its will on the other. It is a shared path, the route we all must follow as we try to live with one another and struggle together to resolve the difficult questions that confront us. Good politicians look for solutions that allow both sides to claim, if not victory, at least some gains. They seek accommodations among rival interests, because they know that it’s necessary to make the country work. And they recognize that creating permanent enemies would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enlist help on future issues from those they opposed in the past. 

Our system would fall apart if legislators weren’t able to work together, to give some ground when they need to in order to move forward. “If every compromise is taken as a defeat that must be overturned,” wrote the eminent American historian Bernard Bailyn not long ago, “and if no healing generosity is shown to defeated rivals, the best-contrived constitution in the world would not succeed.” A willingness to compromise is nothing more nor less than the recognition that we’re all in this together for the long haul, and that each of us has a stake in the system by which we govern ourselves. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)