The triumph of compromise

The art of congressional compromise is in finding a majority in the middle

“You can catch more flies with sugar than honey,” the old saying goes. It looks as though President Biden is proving the truth of that aphorism by reaching across the aisle to form a bipartisan coalition to pass his infrastructure bill. So far, the plan seems to be working. Yesterday, a group of 21 senators from both parties announced an agreement with the White House on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

The compromise is somewhat shocking because we haven’t seen much bipartisanship over the past decade or so. President Obama had a “pen and phone” philosophy of government and famously rejected Republican concerns about the 2009 stimulus by saying, “I won.”

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Donald Trump, who campaigned as a great dealmaker, was no better. Trump’s negotiating tactics seemed to have only two settings: fawning flattery and bitter attacks. When both failed to produce results with Congress, President Trump reverted to Obama’s “pen and phone” technique, governing with a long series of Executive Orders that expanded the bounds of presidential authority beyond constitutional and statutory limits. President Trump promised an “infrastructure week” throughout his term but never passed a bill or even sent a serious proposal to Congress.

Whether you like his policies or not, Joe Biden is a career politician who spent 36 years in the Senate. In that time, he learned a thing or two about how government works. Barack Obama, a junior senator with a few years of state legislative experience, and Donald Trump, a CEO and businessman, lacked similar experience in putting together legislative coalitions.

Even Ted Cruz, in his quest to repeal Obamacare with a government shutdown, seemed unable to grasp the simple math that requires 60 votes to end a filibuster. Shutting down the government did not change that basic fact of the Senate so the shutdown was doomed from the beginning. Using a compromise to pick off a few vulnerable Democratic votes might have yielded a different result.

Part of the problem is that the fringes of both sides view compromises as a betrayal. For the past few years, I’ve heard a lot of my Republican friends talk about fighting as an end to itself.

“At least he fights,” is a defense that I heard applied to both Cruz and Trump. Republicans relished the shutdown fight because it was a fight, never mind that it was an unwinnable fight that ultimately left the party angry and disillusioned.

I’ve pointed out in the past that many Republicans seem to prefer to fight and lose rather than win without a fight. John Boehner was responsible for trimming federal spending in consecutive years for the first time in decades but was considered a RINO. Cruz was a hero even though his shutdown was disastrous for the GOP. Donald Trump accomplished very little of lasting value for conservatives and lost the House, Senate and presidency in four short years. Obamacare is not repealed, there is no wall, the deficit exploded, and yet he is considered a Republican messiah because he is a fighter.

Another part of the problem was the ban on earmarks. Although the ban was a good idea in theory, when House Republicans banned the practice in 2011, it caused the process of passing laws to become dysfunctional. Even though banning earmarks seemed like a good way to save taxpayer money and prevent waste, its effect was to almost totally gridlock Congress. Earmarks are back for 2021 and it’s no coincidence that compromises are once again in vogue.

Perhaps the Biden Administration will be a step towards repairing our broken system of government. By proving that the old model of working together is more effective than the “pen and phone” model of trying to own the other side and then writing an Executive Order, Biden is establishing a roadmap for future presidents on how to actually get things done.

To be sure, the infrastructure bill is not a done deal yet. Some leftist Democrats may vote “nay” because the plan doesn’t give them everything they want. Some Republicans will oppose it because it gives Democrats too much. The art of congressional compromise is in finding a majority in the middle, even if you lose votes at both ends of the spectrum.

At this point, it looks likely that the compromise can pass. The Gang of 21 (G21) group of senators that crafted the deal includes 11 Republicans. This means that the coalition can end a filibuster as long as none of the Republican members of the group renege on their support.

Per the AP, Republican members of the group include Sensators Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Todd Young of Indiana. Democrats are Chris Coons of Delaware, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia and independent Angus King of Maine.

USA Today reports that the deal includes two big Republican priorities by authorizing $312 billion for transportation, including $109 billion for repairs to roads and bridges, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, $49 billion for public transit, and $25 billion for airports. The compromise also includes $73 billion for electric and power infrastructure, $65 billion for broadband expansion, and $55 billion for water and sewer projects. To pay for all this, there are more than a dozen new funding sources including giving the IRS new authority to enforce tax collections and repurposing unused funds from the COVID relief bill.

Erick Erickson is among those who are critical of the deal, saying, that it is “not really a compromise” because “Pelosi said she would not pass that compromise plan unless the Senate Democrats then passed everything else — including the parts Biden gave up in the compromise — Biden echoed her saying he would not sign the compromise unless the rest of the spending was passed too.”

That’s a fair criticism, but what Erickson misses is that if Republicans shoot down the compromise then Democrats can pass their priorities in a party-line vote on a budget reconciliation, but Republicans won’t get to pass their own priorities and will have no say in how the money will be spent. To use another aphorism, it would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

If the bill passes, Biden does not have to sign it as long as he doesn’t veto it. If the president does not sign a bill within 10 days after Congress sends it to his desk, it becomes law anyway unless Congress adjourns first.

Elections do matter. Democrats have a majority so they get to pass a budget reconciliation with a simple majority. If they don’t use it for their infrastructure bill, they’ll use it for something else. Republicans made use of the tool as well, at one point passing two budget reconciliations in one year.

Compromise necessarily involves giving up something. Republicans, negotiating from a minority position, had to give up more than the Democrats, who have more options. But still, there is an inherent risk for Democrats in assuming that they can pass the rest of their package in a separate bill. Just ask Republicans about their 2017 attempt to use a budget reconciliation to repeal Obamacare.

I am not a Democrat and I don’t agree with most of Joe Biden’s platform, but I am glad to see that the government seems to be returning to an even keel. The Founders intended for us to work together and our system of government simply does not work when we don’t.


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