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Opinion

Opinion

U.S. losing art of compromise

June 30, 2011

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The current congressional penchant for dysfunctional behavior continues to manifest itself. The inability of Congress to deal in a meaningful way with the current debt ceiling crisis seems to be just one more instance of the widening ideological and political rift between the various factions in Congress. I cannot remember in my lifetime any Congress that was so split, so intransigent in its policies and practices, and so unwilling to craft the types of political compromises that have always been necessary for government to function.

It seems that at present the whole concept of a political compromise has fallen from favor. I think that many politicians and voters, on both sides of the aisle, have come to believe that ideological purity and adherence to strict and narrow policy guidelines is the best way for politicians to act. We constantly hear from both politicians and the general public that leaders must always act according to principle. Willingness to negotiate openly and to make trade-offs to reach a compromise settlement is rejected as being unprincipled.

I think that this rejection of compromise, of accepting less than 100 percent, is not only dangerous but, actually, a trend that ignores the history of the United States. It is dangerous because it leads to behavior most reminiscent of the children’s game of “chicken.” Each new crisis seems to harden positions and further strengthen many politicians’ determination not to give in but, instead, to win an absolute victory.

The problem is that eventually such behavior will lead to a deadlock and a total inability to agree on some crucial issue. If this eventually happens in the debates over the federal debt ceiling, the result may be a devastating loss of market credibility for the United States, a loss of credibility that could easily bring on a financial crisis far worse than that of 2008.

Even more worrisome to me, however, is the seeming lack of any historical perspective on how American government has always functioned. I find it quite ironic that the very politicians who tell the public to look to the “Founders” for inspiration and instruction about the nature of government are those who seem totally ignorant of the fact that the Founders were masters of the political compromise.

All one needs to do is read the published debates on the Constitution to realize that all of our national founding documents were the product of hard-fought compromises. Our nation would not exist had it not been for the Founders’ willingness to make trade-offs, to accept less than 100 percent of their stated goals, to recognize that no government can survive unless people are willing to live with a system in which everybody wins some battles and loses some battles.

I think Americans need to rethink their notion that compromise is a bad thing and that what we want are politicians who will follow “principle” to the bitter end. Our system of government is built upon the work of supreme pragmatists, of politicians who understood the old cliché that politics is, in fact, “the art of compromise.” Compromise is what our nation is built upon and it is what has allowed us to survive and prosper. If we forget this, I fear that the current game of political “chicken” will continue in Washington and, eventually, the American public will end up as the real losers.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

Comments

gkerr 2 years, 9 months ago

Professor Hoeflich, Most agree that compromise has a role in maintaining equanimity in society, and that politics is the art of the possible built on negotiation while appealing with tools of rhetoric and persuasion to the truth, goodness, and even beauty of an issue before the public.
Compromise however is limited to certain situations in which agreement in principle is possible and can be foreseen as such by all parties involved in the debate. We would not expect compromise with a Tyrant who demands surrender of say Poland, Russia, England, by allowing him to take half of the countries involved or only kill half of the Jews in Europe but not all of them.
It seems to me that our present political impasse regarding size and scope and cost of government lends itself to no forseeable compromise. Government has grown inexorably since the founding. Means have been discovered to overcome the checks and balances which temper abuses of the three branches of government and in the process all branches consume a greater and greater part of the peoples incomes and resources and creative efforts. Some believe government is benign and its inexorable growth necessary to best supply the needs of its citizens, many disagree and believe that government strains to command and dominate, that politicians are more rather than less ambitious and are inclined to corruption as power always tends to corrupt. The present political and culture war seems likely to continue till we are broke, conquered by forces within or without, or decide to reassert our constitutional liberties and make our governing elites less powerful and more respectful of citizens rights and property. The days of compromise between raising this or that tax or spending increase 12% or just 7% are over. Those sorts of compromises year upon year have got us into the mess we are in, and only tough love will get us out. Gkerr

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Gandalf 2 years, 9 months ago

Here's an example of compromise.

Democrat's propose one bullet in gun for russian roulette. Republicans demand automatic.

Who should give in?

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panzermike007 2 years, 9 months ago

I believe that the attack remarks by liberals and conservitives here confirms the professor's theories!

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Joseph Jarvis 2 years, 9 months ago

Great column. The world would run much smoother if more people did.

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PaladKik 2 years, 9 months ago

Compromise = concede = give in = give up to the loser. The "New American Socialism". The "New Normal".

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verity 2 years, 9 months ago

I used to be against term limits because it meant experienced and good politicians could not continue in office. Now I'm beginning to think term limits are a good idea.

But I think the very most important thing is to get the money out of politics. (And don't go giving me the money is free speech---it's bought speech.) As long as politicians need to raise money to be elected or reelected, we are going to have corruption and government will go to the highest bidder.

Maybe if people knew they were only going to be in office for a certain amount of time and didn't have to spend so much time raising money, they would have more of an incentive to be responsible representatives of the people instead of mindless, uncompromising drones appealing to the lowest common denominator and the people who paid for their election.

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common_man 2 years, 9 months ago

At this point, unwilllingness to compromise on the part of the Republican party is to be expected. Health care reform was rammed through without discussion, failed legislation is being innacted through agency regulations. Now that the administration needs something, they demand compromise, but they've neither indicated a willingness to give up anything nor been willing to sit down and discuss the issues. The Democrat majority Senate won't even discuss the house proposed budget. The Presidently openly snubs Republican leadership and wags his finger at the supreme court during a State of the Union address. At this point he is like the young puppy who messed on the living room carpet. He should expect to get his nose rubbed in the mess.

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pizzapete 2 years, 9 months ago

This really isn't anything new. Don't people read History books anymore? Remember the Missouri Compromise? That didn't really work out so well either.

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jhawkinsf 2 years, 9 months ago

When one examines the electorate in America, we find that somewhere about 60% of eligible voters will actually vote in Presidential elections. The numbers drop dramatically for local elections. Fewer than 20% voted in Lawrence's recent election.
Who does vote? Well, I'm guessing here, but people who become involved vote in higher percentages than those who are not involved. People who write letters, maybe to our representatives, maybe to the editor. People who take time learn the facts, discuss the issues with others. In other words, us. I'm guessing that if we examined whether or not participants in this forum vote in higher numbers, substantially higher numbers, I think you would find that to be true. The civility or lack thereof we see here is mirrored in government. Hopefully, we'll all think twice next time we disagree with someone and resort to name calling.

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Flap Doodle 2 years, 9 months ago

I think Mark Halperin summed up the Campaigner in Chief quite well.

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Trobs 2 years, 9 months ago

Let the Bush era tax cuts expire - problem solved

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deathpenaltyliberal 2 years, 9 months ago

"ksrush (anonymous) says… Sadly it seems the majority of you have missed the point. Look at the big picture, if you compromise your principles what else are you going to compromise?"

We are not talking principles, we are talking policy. If no new taxes is a "principle", then you have tunnel vision.

Compromise is what adults, who live in the real world, do. Babies (and talk radio hosts) throw tantrums and pout when they don't get their way.

We got into this budget mess through a combination of excessive spending and feelgood tax cuts. It is only with reduced spending and tax increases that we will get out in the near future. Sure we could avoid tax increases and rely on economic growth to reach balance, but then we pay interest (to the Chinese) for all the out years it will take to get there.

So if we get off our ideological high horses and raise taxes a few percent, eliminate some tax breaks, and trim ALL spending a few percent, we will get there sooner than later.

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ksrush 2 years, 9 months ago

Sadly it seems the majority of you have missed the point. Look at the big picture, if you compromise your principles what else are you going to compromise? I figured the " intolerance and hate" card was going to be played that's just a standard reply to anyone who disagrees with whatever is posted and yes I realize the post was in response to the budget / national debt I more than undrstand that.

So while your getting ready to respond to this ask yourself, if I dont stand for something what will I fall for ?

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Getaroom 2 years, 9 months ago

This article might offer some insight into why compromise is a lost art where government is concerned. If Senators and other elected officials are among the top 1% of wealth holders(along with the their primary supporters) exactly what incentive do they have to shift the balance of power? A moral compass is perhaps what has been lost, if indeed it was ever present in recent history.

http://www.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105

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Liberty_One 2 years, 9 months ago

Mike, while I can see your point that you believe politics requires compromise, there are many of us that believe there has been too much compromise. The income tax was originally a compromise--the people were promised that tariffs would be lowered and that only the very wealthy would be subject to the income tax. But that compromise was compromised again and again as the tariff levels were returned and more and more people become subject to income taxation. Some of us are sick of these compromises. Some of us want to stand firm and say "No more."

It sounds very reasonable to ask us to compromise once more, but some of us believe that further compromises will only worsen the problem, especially when it comes to the debt ceiling. We will eventually have to face the reality that this current system of spending far more than the government collects is unsustainable. The situation is already dire, and further compromise only puts off finding a real solution. It's time to stand firm and say "No more" to compromise and bring this government back to fiscal sanity.

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hoeflich 2 years, 9 months ago

Do we now think that fellow Americans who disagree with our opinions are the same as Nazis or terrorists? Comments like this--and the people who make them-- are precisely the source of the problem today. They are an example of incivility and blind hate. My America stands for tolerance and the constitutional principles which underly our great nation, including the understanding that politics require compromise.

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ksrush 2 years, 9 months ago

"I think Americans need to rethink their notion that compromise is a bad thing and that what we want are politicians who will follow “principle” to the bitter end". You're effing kidding right. Should we have " compromised " with Nazi Germany, Japan, Al Quida ? Compromise is setteling for the best worst option. Do we not elect politicians based on their principles, that's what defines them, principles.

Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law.

Mr extiguished professor what do you stand for ?

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jhawkinsf 2 years, 9 months ago

The number one problem in America is the inability of Democrats and Republicans to get along. There was a time when they argued during the day and played cards and sipped whiskey at night. Back then, they could argue about ideology, but they at least saw each other as humans. They respected each other's humanity and even if they disagreed with their ideology, because they respected each other's humanity, they were more willing to compromise. What the Democrats and Republicans need to do is play cards, 2-3 times per week. Play 18 holes of golf every week. Share dinner a couple of times every week. The leadership should invite the leaders of the other party for a pool party, bringing the kids and grandkids would be mandatory. Neither side are sub-humans. But you wouldn't know it from the rhetoric coming from Washington. And Topeka. And you would certainly believe one side or the other was sub-human if you read the rhetoric in this forum. Unfortunately, in that regard, Washington and Topeka mirrors us exactly. Yes, they need to change, but so do we.

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PaladKik 2 years, 9 months ago

Obama's 13 rounds of golf for the last 2 months is a meaningful way to handle the debt crises. I cannot remember in my lifetime any President that was so unatched, ideological, so intransigent in his policies and practices,

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Liberty_One 2 years, 9 months ago

They've been saying this for decades.

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