The Perils of a Non-Compromising Congress
The 2016 election laid bare more than ever the disturbing levels to which party-based divisions have risen, and to which America’s political discourse has sunk. But, the maelstrom that was this presidential campaign, and is now the Trump presidency, is more symptom than cause. There is a larger context that has laid the groundwork for today’s tumultuous politics, and paved the way for the rise of a “doer” in the executive branch who claims to be able to surmount the system’s inefficiencies and “get things done.” The seemingly intractable nature of America’s political divisions proceeds primarily from the persistent, long-term — and at times blatantly willful — avoidance of legislative compromise on issues of great consequence in Congress.
The parties’ concerted efforts to electorally vanquish one another have infiltrated the halls of Congress in ways that are arguably unique in modern history. Congress, America’s forum for compromise, has become the nation’s principal source of discord — not because of some flaw in its design but because a great many legislators have violated and continue to violate their most fundamental responsibility: to legislate. And this phenomenon largely occurs at the behest of party leadership.
When congressmen and senators cease to seek compromise, political progress diminishes, and the naturally existing political divides of society are exacerbated to the point where the more extreme elements in each party feel emboldened to agitate for power and control of not only their parties, but of government itself. Today, candidates for office, elected legislators in Congress, and the constituents they serve feed off each other’s negative attitudes toward the opposite party in what has become a disturbing symbiosis.
Though many conjecture that America’s inherent divisions are the central cause of this dearth of political progress, this is exactly backwards. Certainly, specific events and various individuals have played seminal roles in catalyzing the widening of the nation’s partisan divide in recent decades. But, what sustains this phenomenon, and indeed directly causes its intensification, is Congress’ abrogation of its institutional responsibility. It is this fact that exacerbates the nation’s divisions to extreme and dangerous levels. Congress is at once the sustaining force for — and the potential antidote to — the political extremes America is enduring.
Congress is the primary mechanism for the achievement of political progress. American society has historically relied, and continues to rely, upon its legislature for conflict resolution (or, at least, conflict management). Legislative compromise is the gateway to political progress when overall consensus is absent. The achievement of political progress, on any issue, shifts the paradigm; public attitudes adjust to the new reality; the debate evolves; Congress, as a vital societal institution, serves its purpose.
Though the Framers’ system is specifically designed to foster compromise among disparate factions or parties, its brilliance can only truly be realized when elected legislators actively buy-in to that institutional purpose. Increasingly in recent decades, the parties in government have treated the Framers’ purposeful structure of checks and balances as a set of constraints to overcome, rather than a framework within which to operate.
The quest to achieve cohesive party majorities to achieve this circumvention has changed the calculus for producing political progress. Governing has effectively become a delaying action between elections for both parties as they seek majorities large enough to dominate one another. The lack of political progress means the paradigm does not shift; there is no new reality to which to adjust on longstanding issues; the debate does not evolve; and Congress fails to serve its purpose.
Legislative gridlock breeds public discontent. This is to be expected in America’s purposefully inefficient system. The legislative process is designed to force an ultimate distinction between what is subjectively desirable for one interested faction, and what is objectively feasible among all or many interested factions. But, this hangs on the Framers’ assumption that lawmakers’ motives would ultimately be to achieve political progress—either out of virtue or self-interest.
The parties’ leadership in Congress have largely turned that assumption on its head (even when they pay it lip service). Gridlock, though lamented in the abstract, has come to be celebrated as the prevention of the other party’s goals on many-a-specific issue. When this occurs, and persists, gridlock becomes institutional dysfunction.
When the nation's elected leaders allow major issues to remain unmanaged and unresolved for so long, many voters' perceptions tend to move toward the extreme, and to ossify there. What’s more, many proponents and adherents of such “pure” positions begin to see such views as the political center. As long as political progress remains absent, this intensification of divisions will persist and metastasize. Congress risks fomenting public disillusionment with the system itself. That is dangerous.
Certainly, pleas to compromise on everything are just as unrealistic and foolhardy as pleas to compromise on nothing. In American democracy, there will always be battles over principle and there will be times when compromise is either difficult or truly unacceptable. But, today’s stalwart stands against all compromise as matters of principle are as wrongheaded as they are debilitating. The longer Congress avoids compromises, the more difficult it is to reverse course.
How do lawmakers step back from the abyss of obstinacy?
Leadership matters. Institutional purpose matters. Despite the desires of partisans to hold out for complete victories on all fronts, elected legislators ultimately have the unique responsibility to negotiate solutions to, or to take legislative action on, issues of consequence. That is what it means to be part of the institution of Congress first, and a member of party second. If the public square is the realm of what is ideal, then legislators must be the arbiters of what is achievable — rather than the agents of dysfunction.