To Compromise or Not to Compromise? That’s a Real Question.

Members of Congress used to congratulate themselves (and occasionally each other) on their bipartisanship, that is the ability for Republicans and Democrats to negotiate on legislation, reach agreement, and pass laws, shaking—or waving—hands across the aisle. Crafting such laws required compromises on both sides. And sometimes on more than two sides, since Democrats must often bargain with fellow Democrats and Republicans with fellow Republicans before they can even begin negotiating with members of the other party.

Almost all major laws passed by Congress involve compromises to reach the necessary number of votes to pass. A failure to make adequate concessions can often lead to legislative failure.

For the past thirty years or so, though, there have been many more instances of partisanship and far fewer of bipartisanship than previously. A long-ago example of the parties working together resulted in the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. And, ongoing funding of NASA generally continues to be bipartisan. In 1993, however, this cooperation began to fall apart.

Knowing that Republicans would support a cost-effective health-care plan, President Bill Clinton urged First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been spearheading a strategy to reform health care in America, to reduce the cost of her plan. She responded, “I didn’t come to Washington…to compromise.” When the bill came up for a vote the next year, no Republican—even the ones whose constituents wanted better health insurance—voted for it. One reason is that a Republican consultant named William Kristol pointed out that passage of any bill during the Clinton administration would ultimately help Clinton be reelected and Democrats retain their power in Congress. Why should Republicans do anything to further those possibilities?

Examples of compromise have been going downhill ever since. As a result, fewer laws get enacted. And more and more Americans express their lack of “approval” or “confidence” in Congress and believe that the country is going “in the wrong direction.”

When you care about something A LOT, is it better to hold the line to try to get everything you want? Or is it better to give up some things to avoid getting nothing? There’s no universal answer.

In March 1775, well before the Declaration of Independence, Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament, tried to encourage his colleagues to support what he called “conciliation” with the disgruntled colonies across the Atlantic, while there was still time to prevent a violent rupture. “All government,” Burke stated, “indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.” He advised King George III not to go to war against those obstreperous colonists in America and to offer some compromises that they would accept. Had the king listened to him, America today might be similar to Canada—an independent country that elects its own political leaders but also recognizes Queen Elizabeth as the head of state for ceremonial purposes.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the colonists fought back, won, and then had the chance to form their own government. As we explain in Fault Lines in the Constitution, that process involved several major compromises, especially in regard to the Senate and to slavery. James Madison, among others, believed that the size of both houses of Congress, not just the House of Representatives, should be based on population. He wanted large states, such as Virginia, to have more senators than small ones, like Delaware. Acquiescing to what is now known as the Great Compromise, Madison lost. Consequently, the Senate has been composed of two senators per state, regardless of population, ever since. Madison called this deal “a lesser evil”—evil because of the outcome but less evil than it would have been if the new country had no constitution at all.

Similarly, most members of the Constitutional Convention agreed to allow slavery to continue, rather than take the risk of having the Southern states pull out and form their own, separate country. Eighty years later, in 1861, this compromise triggered civil war and nearly broke the back of the United States.

How do we decide when to stand on principle, come what may? And when do we recognize, instead, that reasonable people can disagree about an issue and that, therefore, compromise is necessary? Debates over freedom of speech frequently raise these questions.

The First Amendment appears to state that anyone can say whatever they want: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” That sounds like a principle that cannot be violated. However, courts have allowed limitations on people’s rights to free speech if the government can prove that it has what is called a “compelling interest” to do so. For instance, you can’t engage in libel. That is, you don’t have the right to damage someone’s reputation or expose them to hatred or ridicule by writing, saying, or showing something untrue about them. Alex Jones, a radio show host and conspiracy theorist, discovered this fact when he was convicted of libel for asserting that the murders of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School had not happened. No one knew, though, until the court handed down its decision in this case, whether Jones’ statements would be considered libelous. Former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black might have reached a difference decision if he were alive and on the court because he believed that all libel laws should be unconstitutional, regardless of what someone says.

Some deeply held principles may be up for debate. Can you think of examples where you and a friend agree to disagree and then reach a compromise? Or have you ever regretted compromising?

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