April 30, 2012

Political "Compromise" and Gridlock: Cause and Effect?

Marc Comtois

In a recent column, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, authors of the new book It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, state that the Republicans are to blame for congressional gridlock. As I tweeted earlier, my main problem with this theory is that they are actually taking a snapshot of the current gridlock in Congress (and relying upon their "40 years of watching Congress" to buttress their claims) while ignoring the evolution of how we got here.

During the last decade (at least) power plays have been made by Democrats as well as Republicans and to conveniently blame the party to whom both authors are ideologically opposed (don't let his ties to AEI fool you, Ornstein is a liberal) during an election year should raise some eyebrows before being accepted whole cloth.

The right-side of the blogosphere has already offered up plenty of rebuttals to Mann and Ornstein (here, here and here), including many examples of the Democrats contribution to the current culture of gridlock, thus showing how the situation has evolved. Politics ain't beanbag, but it IS retributive. As several of the aforementioned point out, there is also an argument to be made that the more recent GOP gridlock that is so troubling to Ornstein and Mann...is pretty much what the voters wanted when they voted the Republicans back into power in the House in 2010.

In a review of Jonah Goldberg's The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Roll Call's John Bicknell does a fine job defining what the so-called conventional wisdom (ie; the mainstream media's interpretation of what's pragmatic) would have us believe is political compromise:

They’re just for what “works.” What works, of course, is liberals getting their way. If liberals want to spend $10 billion on something, and conservatives don’t want to spend anything on it, liberals make a deal with moderates to spend $5 billion this year and call it a compromise, knowing they’ll get the other $5 billion next year.

That’s putting ideology into practice. But it’s not a compromise. It’s modestly deferred gratification for liberals.

In a compromise, everybody gets something. In this case, repeated ad infinitum over most of the past century, liberals get the money, moderates get to be seen as pragmatic (that’s like heroin for moderates), and conservatives get to watch as the government grows ever larger.

Perhaps, then, the current gridlock is actually the desired result of voters who were tired of the gridlock-breaking "compromises" that still resulted in government growing and more tax dollars being spent.

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I find it difficult to imagine anyone voting for gridlock. Is that what you're suggesting?

Posted by: Bill at April 30, 2012 2:30 PM

Smarmy answer: How long have you lived in Rhode Island where voters routinely vote for a GOP governor (until now) while voting almost straight party Democrat everywhere else? (Of course, that really hasn't resulted in gridlock...but it is strange)....

More serious: Obviously, movement towards our own ideological goals is one aspect of what we're hoping/expressing when we vote. However, we're also looking to deny the realization of the goals of those who ideologically oppose us. If the result is gridlock, then that gridlock is preferable to things going "against" us (at least in the short term). So, after 2 years of all Dem control, the GOP gets voted in to control the House and put a throttle on Obama's agenda. The result is gridlock, no?

Posted by: Marc at April 30, 2012 2:46 PM

I don't necessarily want gridlock. But since government only ever gets bigger in practice, I'd settle for gridlock.

Posted by: Dan at April 30, 2012 3:24 PM

Yep, me too. in this case NOTHING is better than SOMETHING... because any 'something' = BIGGER government.

Posted by: StuckHereinRI at April 30, 2012 5:06 PM

I am not clear on how "compromise" became such a virtue. It seems to me that if "you are right and you know it" compromise should not be your goal. It may be a practical necessity. There is a famous quote that" compromise is the failure of leadership", I have previously attributed this to W. Churchill, but I now find that dubious.

I think everyone knows that the expectation of compromise has led to "let's ask for much more than we expect, so we can compromise down to what we want". Some may say that is "working the system", I cannot help but believe that it is "abusing the system". There was a time when compromise was not the desired result, then it was called decisions made in "smoke filled rooms" ( a reference to the cigars popular at the time). None of this means that compromise may not be necessary, I just don't understand it being a goal. I can understand it causing difficulty for people of integrity. As every cadet knows "there are no degrees of honor".

I think part of my problem is failing to realize that so many "compromises" are budgetary, as opposed to what I think of as "governmental". As it has been explained to me, the various politicians have "differing agendas". Plus, they have to "bring home the bacon". So,in a budgetary debate the "dairy states" want "budget" which is not contemplated by the "high tech" states which want more 'budget" for Solyndras.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 30, 2012 9:00 PM

Gridlock is not the result of failure to compromise, but rather of inability to form a consensus. The US Constitution requires consensus in order to adopt new legislation - without consensus (which may or may not involve compromise) gridlock occurs by design. If enough people can't agree on an issue, it's probably not very good idea in the first place.

Posted by: Jon at May 1, 2012 1:13 PM
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