Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lost Art of Congressional Compromise

From today's Roanoke Times commentary section

The Lost Art of Congressional Compromise

"In executing the duties of my present important station, I can promise nothing but purity of intentions, and, in carrying these into effect, fidelity and diligence."
- President George Washington in a Message to Congress, July 9, 1789

Recently, as Congress fanned out across America to their districts, I observed with amusement the desperation to vacate Washington to begin campaigning for the November 2012 elections with backslaps for a job well done regarding the debt ceiling standoff. I am certain that a significant amount of this month-plus off will be spent collecting campaign cash for re-elections nearly fifteen months away. This
last month observing Congressional gridlock has caused me to reflect on the origin of Congress during the founding of our country.

The structure of the U.S. Congress was determined through The Great Compromise in July of 1787 following months of negotiations between representatives from the largest states and representatives from less populous states. After eleven days of formal debate prior to the vote, in the sweltering Philadelphia heat, the Second Continental Congress voted on and adopted a compromise that provided proportional
representation in the House of Representatives and more equal representation in the Senate. It was a divided vote, but the compromise that passed became the foundation of our legislative branch. Our Founding Fathers, with differing interests, opinions and goals, worked towards and accepted this compromise as being in the best interests of the new nation.

Our country now faces some of the greatest challenges imaginable – two wars costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars, an economy on the brink of another recession, a coming societal restructuring caused by an aging population, a tax code with more holes in it than Swiss cheese, and a Congress that fails to meet even the basic expectations of our Founding Fathers. Compromise has become a dirty word in Washington, and political self-interest and an unwillingness to work in the best interests of the country threaten to cause severe, long-term and irreversible damage to our nation.

As governments have struggled for the last several years, localities have been forced to absorb significant cuts in funding. The City of Roanoke, for example, has cut more than $25 million - 10% of our budget since 2007, all while fulfilling our obligations for outstanding debt. Councilmembers, with the aid of a skilled professional City staff, compromised with one another and reduced spending to match revenue through spirited debate, disagreements, and ultimately, compromise. Congress, on the other hand, adhering to rigid political ideologies and with no electoral incentive to compromise, is likely to make our economic situation worse.

As Americans worry about keeping or finding jobs and businesses worry about making payroll, I question whether members of Congress have the ability to pass meaningful laws that provide stability to our economy. It appears that after a month-long debate about our debt ceiling and a capitulation of responsibility, they do not – and now they are on vacation until after Labor Day.

Political gridlock has already caused one rating agency to downgrade the U.S. credit rating and markets across the globe have tanked. This will result in higher interest rates for homeowners, small businesses, local governments and others, all because of Washington’s inability to work together to pass compromise policies that satisfy the vast majority of Americans in the political center. In fact, a recent CNN/ORC poll
shows that 86% of Americans disapprove of Congress – 86%.

All Americans must hold our “representatives” in Congress to the same standards our Founding Fathers expected of themselves. We must expect that members of Congress cease playing political games with our future and place the interests of their country ahead of their own interests. We must expect that, while our country is facing economic disaster, Congress not take the entire month of August off while the rest of us contend with uncertainty, fear of lost jobs or worry about meeting payrolls and interest payments.

Washington is broken. We must not fool ourselves into thinking it is one party or the other – the only party that is winning is self-interest. Glad-handing, fundraising and photo ops do not make for a good Congress. Hard work, commitment to advancing the interests of our country and basic levels of respect for one another, even those on the other side, should be the standard.

Americans should expect members of Congress, in President George Washington’s words, to “promise nothing but purity of intentions, and, in carrying these into effect, fidelity and diligence.”

In fact, our future demands it.