U.S. losing art of compromise

June 30, 2011


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.


PaladKik 6 years, 10 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,

notanota 6 years, 10 months ago

You can't remember longer than three years? I'd suggest visiting a doctor about that.

beatrice 6 years, 10 months ago

Golf! Terrible. Perhaps he should be clearing brush on his "ranch" instead?

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 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.

P Allen Macfarlane 6 years, 10 months ago

We as citizens need to wake up to new realities and put aside political ideology. It is not just our elected representatives that need to re-learn (or in some cases learn) the art of compromise, the electorate could also use a healthy dose of re-training (or training).

Trobs 6 years, 10 months ago

Yes, lets blindly follow our principles to ruin. It is one thing to relentlessly chase an enemy. It is quite another to allow our country/state to fall to ruin because we refuse to find a solution to a problem. All because we disagree on ideology. I don't care what god you believe in, how you feel on abortion or what you think of the wars...so long as our country continues to run. Allowing everything to come to a smashing stop because of these disagreements is dangerous

Trobs 6 years, 10 months ago

The problem is the momentum will carry us over the cliff, there is nothing to stop the free fall if the driver refuses to hit the brakes because the passengers are too busy arguing about things that don't matter.

Mike Hoeflich 6 years, 10 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.

Thomas Kurata 6 years, 10 months ago

Thank you, Prof. Hoeflich, for a thoughtful and incisive editorial on the decline of civility and inability to reach compromise among our elected leaders in congress. Your comments are spot on.

There was a time during the 1960s when there were many more moderate democrats and republicans than what we have today. And civility in debates reinforced by the art of compromise was in full force then in our congress. Whether we can restore civility and the art of compromise by ourselves remains to be seen. It may be forced upon us by China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and other countries to whom we are so indebted. This may happen sooner than we want.

My hope--and I believe you also share this--is that, sooner better than later, our congresspeople will truly view themselves as Americans, and not allow party affiliation to cloud their judgment on making decisions in the best interests of the common man, woman and child in our country. Unfortunately, today so many are beholden to special interests and corporations with very deep pockets that it is no wonder so many Americans feel angry and perhaps helpless about the current system.

Thank you again and I look forward to reading your next editorial.

Robert Schehrer 6 years, 10 months ago

One big mistake that President Bush and Congress made was to borrow $3.7 trillion to fight two war and at the same time give tax cuts that were suspose to create jobs. We sure don't have the jobs, but we still have the debt.

Mike Hoeflich 6 years, 10 months ago

L!: I do understand your frustration and I tend to agree that the amount of debt this country has taken on is unacceptable. Aside from being bad economic policy I think it also creates a serious national security problem. How can we possibly negotiate with our creditors like China when they hold enough of our debt to seriously damage our economy? But I think that both parties in Congress need to agree that the debt ceiling is not the problem and find a compromise [perhaps, serious programmatic reform, i.e. reduce the size of government and taking away so many of the tax subsidies given out to special interests].

Getaroom 6 years, 10 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.


jonas_opines 6 years, 10 months ago

"that's just a standard reply to anyone who disagrees with whatever is posted and godwinizes the thread or demonizing the poster as a nazi or terrorist"

Fixed that for you.

ivalueamerica 6 years, 10 months ago

It is you who fail America deeply. Our nation is of mixed principles and When you are a public servant, you are to represent your Country or your entire constituency, not only those that agree with you. It is the job of a politician to find consensus. If they can not, they fail.

I am pretty far left on many things, but I have supported candidates on both sides of the aisle. For example, Bob Dole and I agreed on practically nothing, but he was a gentlemen politician who would listen and recognize that his point of view was not the ONLY point of view. Fletcher Bell was another who did his best to serve the ENTIRE state, no just those who supported his party.

You are deeply and profoundly confused to not realize that is an essential part of our democracy. A nation of diversity learning to get along, not 2 children who are so stubborn that they will win at all costs for their side or let the nation fall apart in the process.

I do not hate you, I pity you for failing to understand the basic core of our nation.

Too often now, there are sides as opposed to values and morals. I can name 50 issues or scandals right off the top of my head, and 50 congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle who immediately say it is good if it was done by their party and the EXACT same situation was bad if done by the other. At that point, it becomes sides, not morals or values. Your failure to see that astounds me.

Further, since you clearly failed citizenship classes, our nation is not a majority rules democracy, but a representative democracy and there is one very clear and very important reason for that. The principles of our nation outweigh the majority..and that is in purpose. The principle of a woman's right to privacy in medical care, freedom of and from religion.

So sticking to your guns, no matter what...flies against the very principles of liberty and freedom and the USA. You are NOT a patriot to demand inflexibility, to demand closed minds, to demand that opposites do not work to find common ground.

gudpoynt 6 years, 10 months ago

since when did being strongly principled, and being able to compromise become mutually exclusive characteristics?

Mike Hoeflich 6 years, 10 months ago

Actually, I said that your comment was an example of "incivility and blind hate." I said nothing about intolerance--and did so deliberately. I also stand by my characterization of your comments.

Trobs 6 years, 10 months ago

Let the Bush era tax cuts expire - problem solved

ivalueamerica 6 years, 10 months ago

However, trobs solution does not create another nightmare, yours does liberty.

ivalueamerica 6 years, 10 months ago

GOP planned reductions reduce cost benefit programs like assistance to people with disabilities to become more independent and a host of others...further, within the next 3 years, 2 million jobs will be cut by federal cuts with the GOP federal and state plans. Considering a study came out today showing REAL unemployment above 15%, explain how 2 million more people out of work and cutting cost saving programs is going to help?

It won't. Your desire to find a simple solution to a complex problem only shows a lack of comprehension.

Jimo 6 years, 10 months ago

As many have pointed out, if we "do nothing" - that is, stop increasing spending (I don' t know, like maybe ending the global empire biz) and allow the Bush tax fiasco to pass away after next year as already enacted into law, then the budget balances in approximately a decade. Sure, that still leaves us with long term debt problems but that's not an immediate issue. Getting Americans back to work? That's the immediate issue (in poll after poll after poll) and can't happen unless the GOP stops sabotaging the economy by opposing every single action including many that they themselves (used to) favor. Raising taxes? That's what Americans say they want ( in poll after poll after poll). Here's a list: http://capitalgainsandgames.com/blog/bruce-bartlett/2292/americans-support-higher-taxes-really

The constant refrain that we face some imminent crisis unless we give in to the hostage takers demands is a typical and all too common tactic employed multiple times in various nations around the world to allow the wealthy and powerful to loot people's money, leaving behind broken economies and mass poverty. The fact is the GOP refuses to take yes for an answer and sees economic collapse as the only way to regain power in '12. Don't believe me? Poll: Obama vs. Perry (Gov. of Texas) shows Obama carrying Texas(!) in the general election. Seriously, the Republican candidates are that bad. As disappointed as Americans are with our President, especially the left!, multiple polls show also that few--not even a third of Republicans--are fooled: they blame the GOP--correctly--for the state of the economy.

It's not that we don't have answers or know the answers. We just have a bunch of Mad Tea Hatters who spout Alice in Wonderland nonsense and are threatening to chop off everyone's' heads - including, in absurdest style, their own! It's funny when Colbert does it; not so much in real life.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 10 months ago

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

jhawkinsf 6 years, 10 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.

pizzapete 6 years, 10 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.

common_man 6 years, 10 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.

gudpoynt 6 years, 10 months ago

Health care reform was not rammed through without discussion. The debate over the details of the PPACA dominated the 24 hour news cycle taking center stage for several consecutive months. Without discussion? Hardly.

Guaranteeing the credibility of the U.S. to pay it's debts is not a need explicitly for this administration, nor the Democratic party, nor any other party for that matter. It is a need we all share, regardless of party.

The Democrats have been making compromises. Spending cuts are on the way. It was Eric Cantor who refused to return to negotiations. And over what? Tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

How is the president snubbing Republican leadership when it's his administration that is responsible for bringing together leadership from both sides to hammer out a compromise?

gudpoynt 6 years, 10 months ago

How many times has the gov't almost shut down (during this Congress)?

Once. Almost. But it didn't. Unlike back in 1995-96 when it actually did. Remember that? Old Newt, who wanted so badly to cut spending that he was willing to... wait for it.... refuse to raise the debt limit. Sound familiar?

And I'm not defending the Dems for not passing a budget.

What's funny to me is how the Teapublicans whine.

If the Dems pass a budget (or any bill for that matter) with their super majority, the Teapublicans whine incessantly: "You rammed it down our throats"

If the Dems do not pass a budget with their super majority, then the Teapublicans whine incessantly: "Why didn't you pass a budget when you had a super majority?"

Even your whining in this previous post employs both tactics in two consecutive paragraphs. Good work.

Oh... and as far as compromises in the PPACA, well, the one that stands out the most is how Democrats backed down form the any idea of a public option due to Republican insistence. Another would be the greater number of circumstances through which entities can acquire a waiver from the mandate. (Interestingly enough, the Teapublicans incessantly whine about this too -- even though they fought for them).

Those are two big ones that jump out at me right away. Then there is the Health Care and Education Reconcilliation Act passed last year (http://bit.ly/bS6Jx1). This site lists out a bunch of further compromises made. Happy reading :-)

Jimo 6 years, 10 months ago

"Health care reform was rammed through without discussion,"

Translation: Health care reform was discussed repeatedly for decades before 2008, when the Democratic Presidential and Congressional candidates ran on a platform of passing such reform, got elected by an approving public, came to Washington and spent a year and a half crafting and debating heath care legislation, all the while begging the GOP to participate.

Source: The Tea Bag Dictionary (2011 edition).

verity 6 years, 10 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.

gudpoynt 6 years, 10 months ago

Agreed. Campaign finance reform is a cornerstone for any meaningful political reform intended to result in better representation.

But it's not an easy task to revert, or even modify, the status quo of how campaigns and elections are conducted here in the U.S. Especially when the supreme court is setting the precedent that private organizations can anonymously donate unlimited amounts of money toward campaigns -- including attack ads.

I think when that happened last year, we took a huge step in the wrong direction and it's going to be very difficult to regain that ground.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

I think we'd just have a revolving door of corruption that way, with term limits.

Your point about the money is right on - if we don't solve that one, we're in trouble.

verity 6 years, 10 months ago

jafs, you may be right about the term limits and I'd certainly be willing to compromise on that one.

Unfortunately gudpoynt makes a very good point. I hope we haven't gone beyond the point of no return.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

I'm afraid we have.

At least until we get a different SC majority, that might be willing to go the other way on political spending.

jafs 6 years, 10 months ago

See George Will's column for more bad news.

verity 6 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for depressing me even further, she said plaintively.

George Will has been on this kick for as long as I can remember. It's one of the bees he keeps in his bonnet.

Bozo's comment on that article nails it---"This doesn't do anything to preserve "free speech." What it does is preserve the right of free speech to the deepest pockets, while simultaneously shutting out everyone else from exercising similar rights."

Joseph Jarvis 6 years, 10 months ago

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

gkerr 6 years, 10 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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