How to Free Congress's Mind

November 29, 2011

How to Free Congress's Mind

By AMY GUTMANN and DENNIS F. THOMPSON

When it comes to changing the toxic partisan gridlock in Washington, the Beatles got it just about right: "You tell me it's the institution/Well, you know/You'd better free your mind instead."

Last week's failure of the budget supercommittee, despite its super powers, is only the latest breakdown in an attempt at compromise in Washington. Politicians keep trying to fashion failsafe solutions to the capital's uncompromising mind-set, without understanding that there is no external escape from an environment that rewards those who stand tenaciously on their principles and demonize their opponents. Members of Congress need to change their minds about compromise, or voters will need to change the members of Congress.

The supercommittee was given almost unprecedented protection from Congress's normal rules: no filibuster or amendments would be allowed on its proposals, which would become law by a simple majority of both houses. Yet it failed to achieve what most Americans say that they want from Congress: compromises that improve on the status quo, even if it means giving up some causes the members care about.

The exercise proved that the capital is caught in a centrifuge that allows those with an uncompromising mind-set to chase the tantalizing partisan dream: My party will gain control, and push through its agenda, undiluted. This is a fantasy. It is highly unlikely that one party will gain complete control. It would have to secure the 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, and it would still face the task of making compromises within its own ranks.

What enabled the uncompromising mind-set to dominate our politics? We live in the era of the permanent campaign, and the uncompromising approach is designed for campaigning: voters are inspired by high-flying promises never to give in on their favorite causes, while the news media thrive on low-lying attacks, endlessly repeated even (or especially) if they are mendacious.

Although campaigning is essential to democracy, this degeneration of American politics over the past three decades enables the uncompromising attitude to dominate like an invasive species, spreading beyond its natural habitat of the campaign to the government. Once there it overwhelms the compromising mind-set, which is far more suitable to governing, calling on politicians to adjust their principles and respect their opponents to reach agreements.

The situation is dire, but not hopeless. Even a sharply polarized politics is not insurmountable if opponents will bend a little, as Senators Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, regularly did. Despite standing on the right and left wings of their parties, they cosponsored significant legislation, including support for AIDS patients and the children's health insurance program.

Only a few decades ago, Ronald Reagan — a staunch partisan — criticized the "radical conservatives" in California who thought " 'compromise' was a dirty word" and "wouldn't face the fact that we couldn't get all of what we wanted today." Not coincidentally, it was under President Reagan that Congress passed the most far-reaching tax reform law of the century, a classic bipartisan compromise.

And yet today Reagan's professed followers go out of their way to avoid association with the very idea of compromise. Speaker John A. Boehner, pressed to explain why he would not try to compromise, said, "I reject the word."

Because most voters say they want compromise, we could also try to change electoral institutions to gain a greater voice for majorities over intransigent minorities on both sides. Allowing independents to vote in all party primaries could elect candidates with more compromising attitudes. Publicly financed campaigns would lessen the pressures of fund-raising that distract politicians from governing. Even rules that require members to spend more time interacting in Washington instead of rushing home to raise money from like-minded supporters could help.

These are all worthy reforms, but there is a Catch-22: Institutional reforms themselves require a change in the mind-sets of our political leaders, and they will not happen without compromise. Either legislators adopt a compromising attitude, in which case the reforms are not essential, or they do not adopt it, in which case they will not be able to agree on the reforms. There is no deus ex machina that will save Congress from itself.

If its members won't relearn the value of compromise, then voters must use the next election to show that they want representatives who care enough about governing to try to compromise. This does not mean accepting those who abandon their principles or forgo partisanship. But it does mean choosing those who accept that compromises by their very nature will be impure from all partisan perspectives. So voters, too, may need to free, and speak, their minds.