Henningsen: What about compromise?

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(HOST) Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen watched House Republicans turn a deaf ear to President Obama’s requests for bipartisan support of his stimulus package. Now he’s wondering when ‘compromise’ disappeared from the House.

(HENNINGSEN) Members of congress need more than an invitation to reach across the aisle, they need an incentive. They had one in 1933. On the day Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated, one-third of the workforce was unemployed and all banks were closed in thirty-two states, with more shutting even as FDR took the oath. Both Republicans and Democrats were terrified.  Party differences evaporated as Congress overwhelmingly passed the initial legislation of what we now know as the New Deal.   As this tale suggests, compromise isn’t always a natural act; it’s often forced by outside circumstances.

Today, things apparently haven’t gotten bad enough yet to force Congress to bridge the gap between the parties.  And the modern House of Representatives is more ideologically divided than it was in 1933, the product of a steady wave of redistricting dating back to the ’70’s. When census figures show a net population gain or loss, state legislatures create new Congressional districts or reconfigure old ones.  Majority parties reorganize Congressional districts to retain their dominance. Once that’s done the real action occurs in primaries, not in November. Since only party faithful turn out en masse at primary time, candidates in those districts need only play to their base to ensure election and re-election.  That’s one reason turnover in Congress is at an all time low.

In the 1930’s House districts were more diverse and more competitive. Because fewer seats were "safe" Congressmen had to hew to a middle course to stay in office. Doing so ingrained the habit of compromise:  to get ahead, House Speaker Sam Rayburn famously said, "you had to go along."  Not now.  And that’s not likely to change, since census data shows that Americans increasingly seek to move nearer to others who share their political views.  Indeed, cooperating with the opposition may endanger a Congressional career, not advance it. The result is a House of Representatives in which many members represent the extremes of their party.  Ideologically bound and beholden to their base, they have little incentive to reach across the aisle and lots of reasons not to.

By contrast, Senators, who must compete for the votes of an entire state, tend to be more moderate than their House colleagues; more inclined to seek and accept compromise. But, since the Constitution dictates that all money bills originate in the House, that’s where the stimulus action is.

Frustrating though it is at the moment, President Obama demonstrates political wisdom in reaching out to House Republicans even though he doesn’t need their votes to get most bills passed.  He understands that most sensible policy is a product of compromise, not partisanship. And he knows that circumstances may yet become so dire that both sides of an ideologically split House will be forced to accept the necessity of compromise. Hence, he’s been receptive to Republican needs while softening the demands of his own party. This will be good for the President when Republicans need him.  And, sooner or later, they will.

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