Perspectives June 15, 2023
Governing in the United States Requires Compromise
Flashy partisan feuds have not eliminated the US political system’s need or capacity for productive collaboration in the public interest.
Last week, when President Joseph Biden signed bipartisan legislation to suspend the federal debt ceiling until January 2025, the United States narrowly avoided a default that would have devastated the American and global economies. But the near miss also highlighted the contradictory reality of US politics: even as partisan polarization fuels a cycle of institutional dysfunction and public mistrust, many in Congress continue to work across the aisle—and often below the radar—to mitigate the damage and address genuine policy challenges.
The peaceful reconciliation of competing ideas is a core feature of democracy. By imposing checks and balances on political power, democratic systems require elected officials, and the citizens they represent, to consider multiple views, negotiate differences, and accept mixed outcomes. The results of policymaking rarely please everyone, but participants who engage in the process can at least make their case, advance shared interests, and help prevent grave errors.
Acts of compromise and collaboration also build public confidence in governing institutions. So long as those institutions adhere to democratic standards, individuals have some assurance that their views are being represented, and that there will be many future opportunities to correct any decisions they consider unwise or unjust.
Unfortunately, rising levels of partisan polarization in the US have made this model seem increasingly difficult to achieve.
In Congress, narrow margins between the parties mean that control of the House of Representatives and the Senate are up for grabs every two years. And when winning or losing turns on just a handful of votes, members face intense pressure to toe the party line. The two chambers are currently controlled by different parties, making agreements even harder to reach. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 38 percent of Americans now trust the legislative branch to do its job.
The public’s lack of faith in Congress, however, reflects more than frustration with institutional gridlock. As Congress has grown more polarized, so has society. Americans increasingly express distrust in governing institutions when those institutions are controlled by a leader or party they oppose.
The media exacerbate these problems by giving outsized attention to Congress’s “conflict entrepreneurs,” who deliberately take extreme positions in a bid to attract donors and raise their public profiles. Meanwhile, members who dig into the actual work of legislating and coalition building mostly go unnoticed. As a result, there is a gap between voters’ perceptions and what Congress does on a day-to-day basis. Many lawmakers are, in fact, focused on finding bipartisan solutions to the country’s problems and producing substantive results, which is what most Americans want them to do.
A few recent examples:
Though they lead opposing parties, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) are committed to maintaining a cordial relationship. At the beginning of the 118th Congress this year, they privately addressed members of the House Intelligence Committee to impress upon them the need to work in a bipartisan fashion. In March, the two leaders brought House members together for a bipartisan budget briefing from the Congressional Budget Office. Both thought it was important to get their members to agree on the basic math before disagreeing on how to reduce the deficit or spend taxpayer dollars. And in April, when a data breach exposed sensitive information about House staff and members, McCarthy and Jeffries coauthored a public letter, vowing to work on a bipartisan basis to get answers for those affected.
Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI), chair of the newly established Select Committee on China, and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), the committee’s ranking member, have publicly committed to working in a bipartisan fashion. They have issued joint statements, appeared together for an interview on PBS Newshour, traveled to California to meet with tech companies, and held three high-profile hearings to date.
Representative Stephanie Bice (R-OK), the newly appointed chair of the House Administration Committee’s subcommittee on modernization, began her tenure by committing to hold subcommittee hearings in a roundtable setting designed to encourage bipartisan, civil discussion among members. Bice, along with Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), is also leading a bipartisan group of six members to pass legislation on paid family leave.
Broad bipartisan support remains the key to legislative progress on the Senate side of the Capitol. Cross-party groups of senators have drafted and introduced legislation targeting opioid traffickers and addressing the shortage of “shovel ready” manufacturing sites. In March, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-MA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) introduced a bill designed to counter the growing threat of transnational repression by authoritarian regimes, illustrating yet again that a functioning democracy in the United States is crucial to the cause of freedom around the world.
Exposing the public to stories about lawmakers who put partisanship aside to solve shared problems can change the way people think about our governing institutions, as well as our democracy. Such positive exposure can also help shift the incentive structure in Congress, rewarding pragmatism and productivity rather than fruitless conflict. And if both voters and politicians come to understand that adherence to bedrock democratic principles is the route to success, they will no longer settle for anything less.