No More Compromise
In one of Sen. Harry Reid’s first radio addresses after the Democratic victories in November 2006, he said the new majority’s first guiding legislative principle was “bipartisanship”; Democrats “intend to reach out to President Bush and our Republican colleagues in Congress.” The Democrats’ last guiding principle would be “results,” because “it's time Democrats and Republicans worked together to achieve results.”
Four months into the new Congress, how’s that game plan working out?
There’s not a lot of results. And you can blame all that attempted bipartisanship.
Time and time again, Democratic leaders have sought to accommodate the conservative Republican minority and craft compromise legislation. And in almost every case, it has led to bad or no results.
The accommodationist tone was set early on by the Senate. After the House passed in January an extremely overdue raise in the minimum wage, Senate conservatives and the White House immediately whined that the bill needed business tax breaks to “offset” the extra $2.10 an hour.
Instead of standing up to such nonsense, daring the conservative minority to sustain an extended filibuster and face the 80 percent of electorate who supports raising the minimum wage, Democratic leaders immediately flinched. They sought to put together a tax package that would pacify those senators completely out of step with the voters.
No political price was exacted for opposing popular legislation. And with that, power shifted. The Republican minority was putting pressure of the Democratic majority, not vice versa.
Soon after, Senate Democrats backed bipartisan compromise legislation on prescription drugs. Instead of requiring the Bush administration to negotiate for lower drug prices, as the House called for, Senate leaders proposed a bill that would allow negotiation but not require it.
Even though the bill would let the president’s Medicare officials continue sitting on their hands while the pharmaceutical industry rakes it in, conservative senators took that bipartisan compromise and buried it in a filibuster.
After that, Democrats followed Sen. Ted Kennedy’s lead and let Big Pharma-loving conservatives neuter a provision that would have allowed cheaper drugs to be imported from Canada, so a broader Food and Drug Administration reform bill could reach the president’s desk.
In recent days, we’ve seen higher-profile compromises reached, none of which look likely to be embraced by the public.
Last year’s immigration reform bill scored 62 votes in the Senate, but conflicted with the conservative House bill. After the GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric drove the Latino vote away and contributed to the loss of Congress, momentum should have been with humane reform.
Yet key Senate Democrats concluded more compromise was needed with conservatives. The deal managed to upset immigrant advocates and anti-immigrant nativists, and is unlikely to become law.
But even if it does, it’s not going to solve the problem of our broken immigration system, let alone the underlying problem of the economic gulf between us and our southern neighbors. If the results don’t actually help people, they won’t be praised by voters as real “results.”
Skepticism over flawed trade agreements has been rising in recent years, and several new congresspeople won on a platform of trade reform. Nevertheless, Democratic leaders cut an informal deal with the White House, seemingly extracting some minor concessions on labor and environmental standards, but lacking strong enforcement provisions, and maintaining the misnamed “free trade” structure that has failed to protect workers and lift up economies.
The coup de grace is the Iraq compromise, which is not a compromise at all but a full capitulation to the White House which wants the occupation to continue against the will of both the American and Iraqi peoples.
Granted, it’s not fair to expect Congress to actually end the occupation when you have a commander-in-chief that doesn’t believe in equal branches of government. But by voting for an extension of the war, despite prior legislation that mandated combat troop withdrawals, Democratic leaders risk being perceived as complicit in the deeply unpopular war.
Some may view that as creative legislating. But if it takes funding a massive war supported by only 34 percent of Americans to pass a long overdue pay raise supported by a whopping 80 percent of Americans, that doesn’t bode well for future legislation.
And therein lies the rub. Democrats have thin congressional majorities and can’t easily erase the veto pen. The compromise strategy may not yield a lot of good results, but is there another option?
Yes. Consistently articulate substantive policy principles, so the public knows what and who you’re fighting for.
Craft bold legislation based on those principles, so the public knows you have a plan to realize that vision.
Fight for those bills, create conflict with conservative obstructionists, generate media attention and build public support.
Either public pressure will crack the opposition and you will get good results now, or filibustering conservatives will be the ones paying the political price come 2008, and you’ll get good results in a couple of years.
Settling for middling bipartisan results now may impress some in the Beltway punditocracy, and it surely makes conservatives in the White House and Congress thrilled, as they can get their way without having to worry about winning elections or even earning decent poll numbers.
But it will not impress voters who perceive —fairly or unfairly—their new Congress as failing to try to change the status quo.
The new Congress kicked off with Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia challenging President Bush to “allow our combat forces to leave Iraq” and address “the economic imbalance in our country,” promising that “if he does not, we will be showing him the way.”
It’s time to start showing the way.