Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Our System is Designed for Compromise

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

September 27, 2013

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

Washington has entered another series of high stakes budget showdowns over spending and the debt limit.  Democrats are debating Republicans, but Republicans are also debating among themselves. 

Republican leaders are pushing for budget restraint using the constitutional leverage that comes with controlling the House of Representatives. Over the last few years, this strategy has often been messy and difficult, but it has also yielded significant results. Congress has cut spending by about $2.6 trillion over ten years and raised taxes by about $700 billion. America’s short-term debt position has gotten better – though our massive long-term debt problem, mainly caused by unsustainable health entitlements, remains largely unaddressed. 

I’ve been critical of some of the methods used by Congress, including indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts. In fact, everyone has had plenty to complain about. Republicans haven’t liked accepting President Obama’s tax increases on the wealthy. Democrats haven’t enjoyed being forced by the Republican House into broader spending cuts. 

But one suspects that the whole enterprise would have pleased James Madison, the architect of the Constitution. The American system of checks and balances is often not very pretty. But it still seems to work, when both sides are willing – however reluctantly – to accept some compromises in the end.

Yet there is a small but rising element of the Republican Party that is dedicated to fighting the idea of compromise. These Tea Party populists are in revolt, not just against Democratic policies, but against the leaders of the GOP, who they regard as quislings. Recently, Senator Ted Cruz and a variety of Tea Party groups demanded the defunding of Obamacare as a condition for funding the government – an outcome no serious observer thought was possible. But governing is not the goal of the Tea Party faction. Their goal is to build support and fundraising among conservatives, embarrass mainstream leaders, and take down what they call the Republican “establishment.” Their objective is to purify the party, not help run the country.    

As a political strategy, this is counterproductive. Under our system, Obamacare will not be repealed or defunded by the House of Representatives alone.  Republicans will need to win the Senate and the presidency, and a government shutdown would probably make both outcomes less likely. 

But the larger problem is this:  Our Madisonian system is designed for compromise. The broad distribution of power among and within the branches of government means that action requires consensus. Almost nothing can happen without some minimal level of reluctant agreement.  Those who view compromise as an evil would make our constitutional order impossible.  Dealing with our long-term debt crisis, for example, will require a series of difficult compromises, involving benefit restructuring and revenues. 

It is one thing to drive a hard bargain – a normal part of our constitutional order. It is another thing to declare all bargaining to be a vice. That is not the evidence of principle; it is the path to paralysis. 

-  Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”