Compromise Keeps Our System Running

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
When former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay resigned his congressional seat in June, he gave a widely reported speech defending his no-holds-barred approach to legislating. "It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate," DeLay declared, "but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle. For true statesmen, Mr. Speaker, are not defined by what they compromise, but what they don't." 

I sat up and took notice when I saw that comment, because I was in the midst of reading a history of the House of Representatives that stood in sharp contrast to the attitude exemplified by Mr. DeLay. The book is by the prize-winning historian Robert Remini, who is now the official Historian of the House, and is called "The House: The History of the House of Representatives." 

One theme that emerges time and again in this definitive history is that over the past two centuries, compromise has been key to the proper functioning of the body to which DeLay was bidding farewell — not an afterthought, not a talking point to be trotted out at politically opportune moments, not a strategic gambit to be dismissed by the ideologically pure, but part and parcel of what has made Congress a great institution. 

In fact, without compromise, we might not even be a nation. The first session of Congress, which was charged with setting up the government merely outlined in the Constitution, likely would have failed badly without the willingness of its members to work in a "spirit of mutual concession," as one observer put it at the time. 

As they drew up ways to finance the new government, create federal departments and craft a Bill of Rights, our first legislators were forced to confront one another's regional differences, varied personal beliefs and sometimes antagonistic political agendas. 

As Remini writes, "The members disagreed at times, and even quarreled, but never to the point of creating irreconcilable factions within the House. This cooperation and harmony...was essential in the beginning. The members knew it, and therefore worked together to provide a proper start to this 'new experiment in freedom'." If various groups of them had rejected compromise they would have failed, and not only would European powers have tried to take control of American affairs, but building a government based on the principles they'd fought for would have proven impossible. 

Compromise is often thought of as the easy way out, especially by those who insist that the only gutsy and honorable thing to do is to stand on principle. Yet surely one of the most courageous moments in U.S. Senate history was the speech given by Daniel Webster in 1850, urging compromise on a series of questions that separated Southern and abolitionist senators and that threatened to destroy the Union. Webster knew that he would be excoriated not just by his constituents in Massachusetts, but by his supporters throughout the northern states, yet he believed that preserving the Union took precedence over his own views. 

"In highly excited times," he reflected later, in a sentiment that we might do well to remember today, "it is far easier to fan and feed the flames of discord, than to subdue them; and he who counsels moderation is in danger of being regarded as failing in his duty to his party." 

At the end of the day, the responsibility we have placed upon our politicians is to make the country work — not to satisfy their own, partisan outlooks on the world. Over the course of the past two centuries, Congress has compiled an admirable record in this regard, from rural electrification to workplace safety to safe foods to federal highways to land-grant colleges to civil rights legislation to... Well, you get the idea. 

These and other pieces of landmark legislation did not spring full-blown out of the heads of ideologues. They were the result of men and women rolling up their sleeves and sitting down together to find common ground and perform the sometimes agonizingly difficult work of giving up cherished notions in order to achieve progress. 

As Remini puts it in summing up those two centuries of legislating, "Much of the good that has occurred resulted from the fact that individuals of opposing positions agreed to accommodate one another in order to achieve important goals for the benefit of the American people." 

He then adds some words that put moments like the present into perspective: "It will take especially strong leadership and determination on the part of many individuals to end the partisan rancor that now exists and restore what has been lost. But it can be done. Intense partisanship is not new to the Congress. It existed in the past and was vanquished. It will again." I believe that he's right. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)