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The Politics of Compromise

Writing at the National Journal, Major Garrett reports:  Americans Want Their Leaders To Stand And Fight

Nearly half of America — including nearly two-thirds of Republicans and 53 percent of independents — admires political leaders who refuse to compromise.

[...]

The survey found 49 percent of all respondents “admire political leaders who stick to their positions without compromising.” The survey also found that just 42 percent “admire political leaders who make compromises with people they disagree with.”

This is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but utterly ignores reality.  The essence of democracy is compromise, if anything because a system of governance that includes the views, interests and needs of more than one person is going to require, by definition, some level of compromise.  This is especially true when it comes to legislating in a democratic setting.

Further, the net results of taking an utterly unwavering stand in such a situation is not that one’s side will eventually win, rather it is far more likely that that net result will be maintenance of the status quo because nothing new can get done.

This is not to say that there are not times when one must fight an uncompromising battle over a particular issue.  However, it is to say that if that is the position taken most, if not all, of the time that good governance will not ensue–regardless of what one’s definition of good governance happens to be.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Or worse, you get the last health care bill.  And of course the Republicans, despite their critical no-compromise roll in its creation, will call it “Obamacare” rather than “the care we helped create.”

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  2. DMan says:

    I think there are good compromises and bad compromises.  It seems our current system allows for more of the later.  We get one side that wants to pass some ideologically driven garbage that panders to their base, and the other side says no until enough of their ideologically driven garbage is thrown in.  In the end we receive twice the amount of garbage and it’s called a compromise.

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  3. john personna says:

    DMan, what honest compromises are you thinking of?  When was the last time we saw one?

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  4. Steve Plunk says:

    With 535 members of congress and a president who must sign any legislation compromise is overrated.  If you can’t get enough members on board then the legislation probably isn’t worth passing.  Compromise is essentially buying votes and creating lukewarm legislation that would be better off dead.
     
    We have too many laws and programs as it is so why the push to compromise and get more marginal laws or programs put into place?  With a good portion of Americans believing government is too big we can point to compromise as a reason it has gotten that way.  Congress always feels it has to do something when in some cases it’s better to do nothing.  Good governance is less governance.

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  5. If you can’t get enough members on board then the legislation probably isn’t worth passing.

    But the fundamental point is that the only way to get enough votes requires, by definition, some level of compromise, even if one is only assembling a legislative coalition of 218 vote in the House.

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  6. john personna says:

    Good governance is less governance.

    So rather than a bill allocating production of a new bomber to all 50 states, you’d say no to the bomber?  Really?

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  7. Steve Plunk says:

    jp,  Yes.  That 50 state bomber is part of our spending problem.  It’s sausage legislating that has corrupted a formerly decent system.

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  8. john personna says:

    Right, but I asked you if the answer was better government, or no bomber?

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  9. It’s sausage legislating that has corrupted a formerly decent system.

    When, precisely, do you think that legislation was not about coalition building, logrolling, pork and the like?

    To wit: the reference to legislation being like sausage making dates to 1869 (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Godfrey_Saxe).

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  10. reid says:

    I’m going to guess that legislation became a problem for Steve either in 2007 or 2009.  Definitely by Jan 2009.

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  11. DMan says:

    john p,
     
    Honestly, I can’t think of any significant legislation that’s been brought about through compromise between the two parties recently.  It’s more like Democrats have been compromising with themselves as to not appear to radical, and Republicans accusing them of being radical anyway.  My real fear is that through compromises both parties can enact legislation with complicated language so as to at least appear as a victory for them. In reality this process of compromise in this country is to assure special interests that they will get their share from the legislation, and most people end up hurt by the legislation that helps big businesses and special interests first and foremost.

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  12. [...] politics, unlike La Cosa Nostra is about compromise, not war. Obama accomplishes nothing by turning every little legislative battle into a war with his political [...]

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  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Two catch-all parties can arrive at compromises.  Two programmatic parties can’t.

     

    When the choice is whether to build a bridge across the river or not build the bridge across the river, what’s the compromise?  Build the bridge halfway across the river?  That’s no compromise.  It’s one side losing the argument and the other side losing their minds.

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  14. sookie says:

    I think this has more to do with the reasons for the compromises they make, than the fact that compromise is a necessity.
    The health care ordeal highlighted the worst aspects of this process.  Legislators essentially sold their votes.  They really have no business whining about money in politics when they are the major offenders.

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  15. Steve Plunk says:

    reid,  Once again your mind reading abilities leave you with egg on your face.  I’ve complained about the legislative process for decades.
     
    jp,  Your question seems to be whether we should build a compromised 50 state bomber or no bomber at all.  I’d say no bomber.
     
    Dr. Taylor,  At one time the amount of money at stake in federal legislation was much smaller.  The scale of things today has changed the game enough to corrupt the process and the players.
     
    Schuler points out very clearly how compromise just doesn’t work in all cases.  I would say on cases where it works neither side feels strongly enough for the legislation to matter or they want to be seen doing something by the public.  Their votes are bought with ‘compromise’ though it’s really just a form of legal bribery.

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  16. reid says:

    SP: Point awarded for having some consistent principles then.

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  17. @Dave:  we still have large, catch-all parties, but it is true that they are more ideologically aligned than they ever have been.

    I am not suggesting that compromise on all things, but rather the simple fact that legislators who will only stand and fight are problematic.

    @Steve P:  so the issue is not legislating, but the size of the budget.  Fair enough, but a different issue and not one that has anything to do with compromising or not. But really, as I have said about such issues in the past your objection is mostly about living in a post-industrial revolution world and going back is basically impossible.

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  18. Dave Schuler says:

    we still have large, catch-all parties, but it is true that they are more ideologically aligned than they ever have been.

    You’re talking about membership; I’m talking about the party leadership and the influence it brings.
     
    Was there ever a compromise offered by the Congressional leadership on healthcare reform?  I think the House leadership had decided on guaranteed issue and community rating from the get-go.  No compromise is possible on strategies like that–they’re the equivalent of my “bridge across the river”.
     
    I cannot for the life of me figure out why the Democratic Congressional leadership did not go for single payer.  It would be better than what they ended up with and IMO would have had no fewer problems in passage.
     
    Or why not Wyden-Bennett?  I don’t think the “politically possible” argument washes.  I think the whole thing was just nuts.

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  19. Steve Plunk says:

    Dr Taylor,
     
    You seem to be missing the fact that the size of government expenditures have an effect on the legislating process.  The growth of government has fundamentally changed how people are elected, what they do when elected, and even what they do after they are out of office.  How on earth can my recognition of that be evidence that my objection is mostly about living in a post industrial revolution world?  This problem with government is a relatively new issue of the past 50 years or so.
     
    The size of government spending has created a trough big enough for every member of congress to trade back and forth huge sums of money for support and support for huge sums of money.  That’s modern compromise, horse trading billions of dollars for projects in exchange for compromises on votes.  Surely you see that connection.  You’ll notice those who don’t compromise don’t get the porkity projects nearly as much.
     
    I don’t want to go back in time.  I want to go forward in a world where congressmen won’t sell out principles for a highway overpass.  That’s compromise I can do without.
     
     

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  20. john personna says:

    I’m surprised Steve P. says “no bomber.”  That is good consistency for him, but presumably there is some level of necessary government above zero, and for those things we’d want good bills to manage them.
     
    Am I really asking too much?
     
    I think not, really.  I think those who accept dysfunctional government are asking too little.

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  21. Their votes are bought with ‘compromise’ though it’s really just a form of legal bribery.

    Blame the voters:  it’s what they expect their reps to do.

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  22. sam says:

    @Plunk

    I want to go forward in a world where congressmen won’t sell out principles for a highway overpass. That’s compromise I can do without.
     

    Yes, but can the folks in the Congressperson’s district who want the overpass indulge you in your distaste for compromise? Somehow I doubt it. Consider Joe Miller up in the great frozen north:
     

    Miller said he would never say no to federal funding for Alaska, a still-young state that has been heavily reliant on federal aid for building up its infrastructure and other needs. While he said he had a great deal of respect for the late former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who brought home billions in money and projects during his decades in the Senate, Miller also declared the era of earmarks “dead” and said a new approach is needed now, with the federal government deep in debt and belt-tightening necessary. He said Alaskans must be prepared for that new day.
    Miller said the responsibility for a senator rests not with securing earmarks — something members of the delegation, including U.S. Rep. Don Young, have unabashedly done for years — but with ensuring the state gets its fair share at the appropriations table. He also sees the need for easing federal regulations that he believes have limited Alaska’s ability to develop its energy and resource base. (http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/senate-races/119381-alaska-dem-joe-miller-hand-selected-by-sarah-palin)
     

    That’s an interesting sleight of hand, wouldn’t you say? No to earmarks, yes to appropriations. But last time I heard, earmarks are part of the appropriation process, right? And anyway, what Tea Party principle is it that says a state should get any appropriation from the feds, as this is government spending, which is supposed to be anathema to the Tea Party folks. I’ll cut Joe some slack, though, because he knows that Alaska needs federal dollars if it’s to continue functioning as a state. And if somebody as firmly in the Tea Party camp as Joe Miller is is talking about federal spending in his state, appropriations, earmarks, whatever — because the local politics demands it — then you can be sure that compromise, that evil and altogether ugly process, is going to be with us forever.

     

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  23. Steve Plunk says:

    I believe the Tea Party and a general increase in voter education has changed the old adage that voters want their pork.
     
    My observation of local politics is that voters really don’t want the pork but the city council, the county commissioners, and the highway contractors want the pork.  The majority of voters are seeing the damage the years of overspending is doing to us.  I should probably add in the unions who take a large number of the Davis Bacon flavored jobs as wanting the pork money to flow.
     
    People can be like children at times.  They act up and demand things but would do just fine with a bit of discipline.  There are plenty of us ready for fiscal discipline.  There are plenty of us smart enough to know where past and present spending policies have put us.
     
    I don’t believe we can blame the voters for this any longer.  It’s the politicians who tell us how it’s complex issues that only they can understand, it’s the politicians who do the wrong thing, it’s the politicians who often reap the benefits while hurting the country.  Congress could pass earmark reform and face no problems at home.  They could pass real spending limits and face no problems.  The problem is that there is a trough to feed at in the first place.  No trough and the voters don’t get upset.  Since there is a trough they want their place at it.  No, don’t blame the voters.  Not a one of them tells their congressman to go to Washington and bankrupt the country.

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  24. I believe the Tea Party and a general increase in voter education has changed the old adage that voters want their pork.

    Several responses come to mind including “I’ll believe that when I see it” (which, btw, will takes years to prove or disprove) and “you base that on what?”

    People may not like pork (this is, btw, not a new phenomenon), but they do want roads, bridges, schools, the defense contractor down the street to stay open, the military base in town to continue to be funded, the local university to stay open and so forth.

    One man’s pork is another’s “vital spending.”

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  25. sam says:

    @Plunk

    My observation of local politics is that voters really don’t want the pork but the city council, the county commissioners, and the highway contractors want the pork. The majority of voters are seeing the damage the years of overspending is doing to us.

     
    And I think you’re possessed of a naiveté that I had thought gone out of the world. But, all of this is subject to empirical test. Let’s see how the TPers do in the House and Senate when spending bills affecting their constituents come before them.  I predict they will go for the local over the national.

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  26. wr says:

    Plunk says: “People can be like children at times.  They act up and demand things but would do just fine with a bit of discipline.  There are plenty of us ready for fiscal discipline.  There are plenty of us smart enough to know where past and present spending policies have put us.”

    And this is the undertone of the Tea Party movement that I’ve found so frightening. The Tea Partiers are the only real Americans, the only ones who understand the constitution. Everyone who disagrees with them is either a secret Muslim, a fascist commie — or this. Children who would do just fine with a bit of discipline.

    What kind of discipline do you have in mind for us children, Steve? Reeducation camps? How about those old prisons in New York that the Tea Party candidate for governor wants to put poor people in to teach them hygeine?

    On another thread, one of the TP posters was talking about how the country needed to see its entire political structure torn down so it can be rebuilt. Now Plunk talks about the American citizens who don’t share his fanatical ideology as children who need discipline.

    Hilarious they accuse Obama of being a Marxist, when they are following a Maoist ideology themselves. The line between the Tea Party and the Shining Path seems to grow fainter every day.

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  27. [...] me@OTB:  The Politics of Compromise addthis_url = 'http%3A%2F%2Fwww.poliblogger.com%2F%3Fp%3D19394'; addthis_title = [...]

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  28. C.A.Waitman says:

    Should a US Congressman ignore the 75% of phone calls he was receiving from his constituents against voting for Obamacare so that he does not compromise his own beliefs and those of Ms Pelosi ? We, in Indiana think not and will energetically do whatever is necessary to keep Brad Ellsworth from replacing Evan Bayh as our Senator. Mr. Coates has previosly demonstrated he will listen to those in his state and will give due consideration to voices both for and against any issue before making a decision. Any public servant must be ready to let his personal views take the back burner if they do not reflect the views of his constituents. If he does not, his tenure will be as short as we can make it.

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  29. James says:

    I am not suggesting that compromise on all things, but rather the simple fact that legislators who will only stand and fight are problematic.

    Problematic: Have observed the term road map “Constitution” when the road map
    is ignored, the Bus goes over the clif, That is problematic.

    “There are no solution, just compromise” Dr. Walter Williams PHD

    James Flat lands of Texas

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