Drop Compromise-Punishing Pledges

Published 4:10 pm Thursday, November 29, 2012

Editor, The Herald:

A glance at the letters column of the Herald confirms the wave of disappointment among many in the recent election results. Pundits warn we continue to be a nation divided. But there have been close elections in the past, and even a recent President who took office having lost the popular vote. Is something different now?

We are no more ideologically divided than were the States in the late 1780s when Federalists and Anti-Federalists squared off over the ratification of the US Constitution. Federalists feared the nation would not survive without a strong central government, while Anti-Federalists feared what centralization might mean for individual liberties. A new republic was borne out of the debate thanks to the Massachusetts Compromise, which allowed states to vote for ratification while also submitting to the new Congress a list of amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights.

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Compromise, or the deft diplomacy of crafting a balance between competing interests, is essential to republican democracies, for no single policy can completely reflect the will of every faction. The ability to strike a successful compromise used to be what distinguished a statesman from a political hack, but more recently a range of polarizing partisan factors has left us with legislative gridlock in Washington. With its approval rating around 8%, Congress has a frustrated public wishing a plague on both its houses.

However, the Stratford Bard might also suggest that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. The popularity of outrage-based “news” programming has many Americans parroting either Fox or MSNBC, as a sedentary nation looks to political hyperbole as its preferred method of stirring the blood.

These extremes have in turn given rise to some really bad ideas, such as the so-called “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” As of 2011, 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans had signed this pledge to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

The problem with this pledge is not its conservative fiscal principle; the problem is that it ties the hands of its signatories and obliges them to a special interest advocacy group rather than to voters. The danger of this divided loyalty grows more apparent every day, as the clock ticks down to the “fiscal cliff” deadline. We allegedly elect representatives in whose judgment we trust, and that trust ought to extend to crafting compromises; if not, we may as well have rag-dolls with brains of sawdust and “no taxes” stitched across their mouths as our delegates.

It may be too much to expect politicians on their own to contradict constituents who confuse mulishness with character. The climate change we should seek is one of moderation in political discourse, and this may take a fundamental change in the way government works.

Reapportionment in most states is carried out by legislatures, which tend to redraw districts so that the parties in power have more reliably partisan representation. Over time, even states with balanced party affiliations become more partisan in their Congressional districts, with candidates who see their interests in partisan terms and therefore are less inclined to compromise. If the public demands reapportionment be carried out by nonpartisan or bipartisan committees, as is done in a handful of states, we might well see the politics of rancor recede. Short-term, though, we should release our representatives from pledges that punish compromise, an option that both literally and figuratively contains so much promise.

David Lewis