Congressional sessions have been less than productive of late. The number of bills passed by Congress has been steadily declining since the 1970s. According to the Govtrack website, the 113th Congress produced only 10,637 pieces of legislation, the lowest since 1997-98. The 112th Congress, moreover, enacted only 284 laws, well below the 541 average since 1973-74. By comparison, Congresses in the late 1970s produced over 20,000 pieces of legislation each year, and Congresses in the 1980s typically enacted over 600 laws per year. This pattern of declining productivity is apparent to and frustrating for many Americans.
Many of us are well aware of the divisive and polarized political landscape of the past two decades that has contributed greatly to such diminishing returns from Congress. The disturbing tendency for both major political parties has been, and continues to be, a retreat to party lines and a refusal to work with the other side of the proverbial aisle. Such behavior is hampering the ability of our government to function and denying the purpose of the legislative branch to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States,” as defined by the U.S. Constitution.
What Congress has lost is the art of compromise.
From its inception, the U.S. has depended on compromise to form and facilitate its government. Compromise empowered the Second Continental Congress to draft and eventually pass the Declaration of Independence; it greased the agreement between Federalists and Anti-Federalists for the Bill of Rights, which, in turn, helped ratify the new U.S. Constitution. Doubtless, the country was greater for their collaborating efforts, however begrudging they came about.
Thomas Jefferson once remarked to James Madison during the debates about the nascent Constitution in 1789, “Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.” This is political compromise at its best. At its worst, compromise can maintain the status quo, as seen in the Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed Southern states the right to count slaves (each only three-fifths of a person) toward their population totals, thus adding greatly to their seats in Congress and their electoral votes.
These examples nevertheless set a precedent for all future acts of Congress, including the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which corrected the problems of slavery that remained in the Constitution. If in these moments of bitter contest, Congress turned to compromising, then there is hope that our future Congresses can do the same.
Compromise does not mean legislation would pass laws without vigorous debate; on the contrary, a Congress that is willing to compromise will exert much more energy on committees, panels and deliberations on the floor. It would put an end to clandestine machinations, closed-door meetings and deciding legislation before bills are even introduced.
Compromise does mean cooperating for the benefit of the entire country — not for the members of one party, not for re-election campaigns, not for lobbyists and political donors — but for the sake of all Americans. It means putting away the need to pursue power for power’s sake and selfish gain and instead focusing on the welfare of the country.
Compromising would also mean members of Congress would have to get their hands dirty in open discussions, but I think this is far more preferable to the American people than using dirty politics — the former engenders results; the latter breeds contempt. The use of underhanded tactics is precisely why in August John McCain defended his vote against an Affordable Care Act repeal as a plea to “return to regular order.” He later expounded on this idea in a Washington Post op-ed: “Our entire system of government — with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protections of the rights of minorities — was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to.” McCain’s assertion is apropos to the urgent needs we currently face. For example, our country is desperate for pragmatic reforms to our healthcare and tax systems. There is no better time to return to the regular order of compromise.
If our members of Congress would take up the art of compromising, a decidedly American form of politics, our government would be reinvigorated: its operations would be expedited and its relationship with the American people would be restored.
A Congress that can compromise will demonstrate once again that we are united as a people; that we are all neighbors; that, as our Great Seal affirms, out of many we are one (e pluribus unum). When our elected officials compromise, they live up to the hopes of our founding fathers and reinforce those bonds that tie us together. Nowhere is this unifying power more strongly felt than in a Congress that works for the American people. We are tired of seeing Congresses that offer mere crumbs instead of loaves to its people.
Written by Russell Keck