Budget Compromise: Getting a Half-Loaf or Less

“Are there issues where compromise is justified, but others where it is not?” That is a question that my friend Tom Tiahrt asked me in response to my most recent musing (Forfeiting Today for a Political Tomorrow).

It depends on what you mean by the word “compromise.” In my very first Blog musing (Compromise: A Good or Bad Idea in Politics?), I suggested that “compromise is a temporary yielding in an ongoing political process,” quoting with approval President Obama’s definition: “Compromise means yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on something all of us care about.”

The recent action of Congress dealing with debt reduction and the raising of the debt limit enables me to provide a good concrete illustrative example of when I think compromise is a good idea in politics, in preparation for my response to Tom’s question.

Assuming for the sake or argument (or just for laughs) that I am a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, here is a summary of some beliefs to which I am deeply committed that pertain to this national budget issue.

  •  The debt limit needed to be raised immediately to avoid the U. S. defaulting on its financial obligations.
  •  Initial steps needed to be taken to cut the current level of spending to put government on a path to “living within its means.”
  •  Actual cuts in spending should be such that necessary services for the most needy and vulnerable among us (e.g., the poor and elderly) are not decimated and all segments of society share fairly in whatever sacrifices need to be made.
  •  Steps needed to be taken to reform the Tax Code so that all citizens and corporations are “paying their fair share” of the revenues needed for effective governing.
  •  In the long run, the only viable solution to our debt problem is some variation of the “balanced” approach that President Obama has proposed, which includes a combination of a reduction in governmental spending and an increase in tax revenues brought about by appropriate tax reform (e.g., it is my understanding that the closing of tax loopholes and the elimination of special tax breaks could increase tax revenues while actually reducing individual and corporate tax rates).

In light of my strong commitment to these beliefs, would I vote in favor of the budget bill recently taken by Congress? If you are asking whether I believe that this bill, by itself, comports well with all of the beliefs I summarize above, my answer is definitely “no.” My first two beliefs seem to have been adequately addressed (for now); but steps to implement my last three beliefs are noticeably absent (for now).

But if you are asking whether I believe that, given the dynamics of the present “divided government” in Washington, this was an acceptable first step toward an eventual long-term balanced solution that could conceivably fit well with all of my beliefs, then my answer is “yes;”primarily because it does not preclude the possibility that the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that will be carrying out the future second step could come back to Congress with proposed legislation that fairly shares the sacrifices that need to be made, that requires everyone to pay their fair share of the revenue needed, and that creates a reasonable balance between further expenditure reductions and increased tax revenues. And this may not be as pollyannish as it seems because of the good trigger mechanism that will create automatic drastic reductions in expenditures that those on both sides of the aisle will abhor if Congressional deliberations on the recommendations of the Select Committee reach an impasse.

So, if I were a member of the House or Senate, I would have voted for the budget bill that was just passed. Would such a positive vote on my part reflect a “compromise” of my deeply held beliefs on the budget issue, as sketched above? No, because I view my vote as being the best that could be accomplished in Congress at this point in time, while also taking a first step that keeps open the possibility of eventual legislation that will comport with all the relevant beliefs to which I am strongly committed. If this bill that included only reductions in spending with no increased tax revenues was the end of the story, rather than just a first step, then I would have fatally compromised my most deeply held beliefs by voting for it, and my vote would have been “nay.”

In light of the above concrete example, my response to Tom’s question is that there are particular issues where compromise is not justified, because such compromise deals a fatal irretrievable blow to my deeply held commitments, and there are particular issues where compromise is justified because the “half-a-loaf” (or less) that I am getting is judged by me to be the best that can emerge from the messy political process at this point in time, and the present compromise is such that it holds open the real possibility that there will eventually be legislation that comports more fully with my deeply held beliefs.

My illustrative example should reveal that I can offer no cook-book rules as to when compromise, as I understand it, is called for. It depends on the present political landscape and your sense of what first-steps can be taken now toward the realization of a future that you wish to strive toward in light of your most deeply held beliefs.