The willingness to compromise is one of America’s great virtues.
The original United States Constitution only became the supreme law of the land because of compromise. Famously, after both large states and small states quarreled over representation in the Congress, they compromised: in one house, states were represented by population, and in the other, states were represented equally.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the territories below the southern border of Missouri, kept the peace between the pro and anti-slavery factions in the country and staved off secession and civil war for 40 years.
Compromise continued to be a key aspect of our constitutional system. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan compromised with congressional Democrats to reform Social Security. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton compromised with congressional Republicans to reform welfare.
The reason compromise has, for the most part, played a key role in the crafting of legislation throughout our history is because of our government’s unique design. Indeed, the framers crafted our government in such a way — through separation of powers, federalism, staggered terms of office and different electorates for each branch of government — that no one party, or, to use Madison’s term, faction, would gain control of the government at one time, meaning that compromise would be necessary for anything to get done.
This spirit of compromise, however, appears to be at an end.
Our two major parties oppose each other at every turn. Political victory is the only marker by which they judge themselves, which favors partisan machinations over conciliatory measures.
But there have been as great or greater times of hyper partisanship in our history, comes the rebuttal. Indeed, the McCarthy Era and the elections of 1800 and 1824 stand out as times when poisonous politics trumped compromise.
However, in each of these periods, big personalities dominated each side. Once the personalities involved either quit government or consolidated public opinion around their regime, the era of divisiveness ended.
Today, the reality is different. Neither party has any incentive to compromise. The advent of the primary process relegated moderates to the sidelines, as both the far right and the far left dominate intraparty politics in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The lack of compromise illustrates itself most prominently on the debt debate.
The U.S. has had a deficit of more than $1 trillion four years running. According to a government report released yesterday, Social Security will begin operating in the red in 2033 and Medicare will be insolvent by 2024. According to the CIA Factbook, public debt as a percentage of GDP has risen to nearly 70 percent of GDP.
Put it this way. The PIIGS — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — are often shown as an example of countries that are on the brink of financial catastrophe.
The United States’ debt-to-GDP ratio is higher than even Spain’s.
What has each party proposed to solve this intractable problem?
Senate Democrats have not even introduced a budget in more than 1,000 days. Republicans, the majority of which have pledged to never raise taxes, steadfastly refuse to consider even the tiniest of revenue-increasing measures like the closing of tax loopholes.
President Obama argues that the so-called Buffet Rule, the instituting of a minimum tax rate on individuals who make more than a certain amount, will help solve the debt crisis; even the most optimistic estimates only admit to this rule raising $162 billion, one-tenth of the deficit for one year.
Republicans say they can solve the debt crisis by only cutting non-defense discretionary spending. This, of course, is nonsense.
The only appropriate solution is to compromise with an all-of-the-above solution: something to the effect of raising revenue by lowering tax rates slightly while closing tax loopholes, engaging in long-term reform of both Social Security and Medicare and cutting defense spending, perhaps by allowing Western Europe to pay for its own defenses.
There is something in this plan that is distasteful to all sides: Republicans don’t want to raise taxes or cut anything from defense and Democrats don’t want to cut anything from entitlement programs.
But that is the essence of compromise. One must give up something they favor in order to get what they want.
Washington has lost this virtue. If it is not rediscovered soon, financial peril may soon be upon us.
Tony Petersen is the opinion editor of The Collegian. Follow him on Twitter @tonypetersen4.