Congress 101: Students Embrace What Federal Legislators Cannot: Compromise

Published Jun 2, 2013. By Gerald Pomper.

Gerald Pomper is an emeritus professor of political science at Rutgers University. His analysis of the 2012 election is available in “Winning the Presidency 2012,” edited by William Crotty (Paradigm Publishers).

IN THIS SEASON of college graduations, I have some good political news. My graduating students have solved the national budget crisis – and they did it last year in just three hours. And a similar gifted group of juniors did it this year, too.

Their solutions came in an honors seminar at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. Working from an exercise developed by the Concord Coalition, a politically moderate citizens group, the students reduced the federal deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years. Their simulated decisions put the national government’s finances on a stable path toward fiscal stability and an eventual balanced budget.

What a contrast to the actions of our real Congress. For three years, not hours, the members of the House and Senate have invented gimmicks that have repeatedly failed to address the problem. We have seen futile efforts to repudiate the national debt; cede power to deadlocked “gangs” of six, eight and 12 legislators; pretend to revoke the extravagant tax cuts of President George W. Bush, and impose across-the-board cuts in spending through an inane “sequester.”

Why, then, the difference in the decisions of the two groups? These students certainly are smart, but so are most members of Congress. They worry  about their own clouded economic prospects, but also share Congress’s patriotic concern for the country they revere.

Part of the difference is simply that the students were only doing a class exercise, while elected officials’ decisions must be based on the effects that taxes and spending have on real people and real programs. Students can engage in whims. Legislators must act responsibly.

But the bigger difference may lie in current American politics, conducted in an environment that hinders effective action in that real world outside the classroom.

Personal relationships are part of that environment. The students like each other and look beyond their ideological, sexual, ethnic and partisan differences. That is, unfortunately, far less true of Washington politicians today. From his first days in office, President Obama has faced Republican opposition that reflects not simply partisan differences or policy stands, but personal dislike. Beyond the budget, for example, Republican senators will not vote for measures identified with the president, even mild requirements for background checks for gun buyers or immigration reform essential for their own party’s electoral future among Latinos.

Fantasy is another problem – more for the elected officials than the students. Republicans in the House have voted more than 30 times to repeal Obamacare, while knowing repeal will never happen. Liberal Democratic critics of the president imagine that he can be reincarnated as Lyndon Johnson, who had two-thirds majorities in Congress, or as Jed Bartlett, who won only fictional victories on “The West Wing.”

Politics itself is the major barrier now to political action in the real world. The ideological split between the parties has never been greater since the period before the Civil War. That split is caused particularly by the movement of the Republican Party to a rigid right-wing position, not a true “conservative” stance.

In the Senate, that rigidity means that even true conservative Republicans such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Florida’s Marco Rubio are disdained for their efforts to achieve legislative compromises. In the House, the right wing is so strong that the Republican leadership must now rely on Democrats to pass bills over the opposition of its bitter-enders.

Republican legislators take these positions for a good reason: They want to get reelected. Their worry, however, is not that they will lose to a Democrat in the general election. Because most states and almost all House districts are now predictably “red” or “blue,” candidates put their emphasis on winning their party’s nomination, and then count on voters’ party loyalty to carry them into office.

The latest example is Mark Sanford, reelected to his old House seat in South Carolina. Sanford disgraced himself by using hidden state government funding to visit his Argentine mistress while faking a “hike on the Appalachian Trail.” Nevertheless, Sanford, emphasizing conservative policy positions, persuaded loyal Republicans to return him to Congress by a large margin. It is now evidently far more important to maintain party loyalty than marital fidelity.

When senators and representatives deliberate on the budget, they are keenly aware of the ideological demands of the fervent voters in party primaries. Democrats will pledge never to curtail the rising benefits provided to the elderly through Social Security and Medicare. Republicans will match their fervor by promising that no taxes will be raised to reduce the federal debt and, moreover, that they will decrease the debt and annual deficits. The fiscal arithmetic doesn’t work, but ballot arithmetic prevails.

My students can add. In their negotiations, they raised taxes, cut spending on programs from defense to education — their own special interest — and slowed the growth in seniors’ “entitlements.” Perhaps they did so only because they are naïve or because they wanted to get to lunch.

But perhaps they did so because they had read a famous social philosopher named Max Weber, who warned of any politician who refuses compromise and who “feels responsible only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched.”

He termed such a true believer “indeed, a political infant.”

Perhaps it is our older leaders, not our youths, who need to grow up.