For a handful of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, some deals are too costly

Story Repair | By Mike Alberti |

Oct. 12, 2011 — In the midst of last summer’s debate over raising the debt ceiling, President Obama delivered a televised address to the nation in which he urged members of Congress to “put politics aside” and agree on a “fair compromise.” The American people, the President said, are “fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word.”

What is Story Repair?

In this feature, we select a story that appeared in one or more major news outlets and try to show how a different set of inquiries or observations could have produced a more illuminating article.

For repair this week: “Apocalypse on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers who love to vote no” (Washington Post, Oct. 4).

The premise of the story is that compromise — not, say, thoughtful lawmaking — is “the very thing Congress was built to do,” and that those representatives who fail to fall in line are, at best, “hard left” and “hard right” oddballs. The ideal, apparently, are those past Congresses where “middle-of-the-road lawmakers were wooed and won.”

This repair does not grapple with another premise of the Post story: that a failure to have raised the debt ceiling or to have averted government shutdowns would have been the catastrophes so many said they would be. It also does not address the reasons why, in the two years that Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, the majority was so eager to accept compromise in a way very different from how a parliamentary majority would normally proceed.

Finally, the repair does not focus on the peculiar methodology by which the Post selected its “apocalypse causus,” a method that discounted larger numbers of representatives who voted “no” on almost all of the votes being evaluated.


According to Ross Baker, a political scientist and congressional historian at Rutgers University, Obama’s remarks were indicative of a far-reaching tendency in American political life: imagining the idea of compromise as noble and right, no matter what a specific compromise might entail.

“I think that the assumption is that when there’s conflict any compromise is good,” Baker said. “It’s strange to hear people talk about compromise as inherently valuable, as end in itself, rather than a means to an end.”


Different visions

In the House of Representatives, at least some lawmakers agree with Baker that compromise is valuable only if the end result reflects one’s vision for the country.

By voting against the passage of several high-profile pieces of legislation — two votes on the fiscal year 2011 budget, on raising the debt ceiling, and more recently, on three short-term spending bills to keep the government funded through mid-November — these legislators signaled that they will not compromise for compromise’s sake. Remapping Debate contacted the offices of the 20 members of Congress who voted against all of those bills to ask why those specific compromises were unacceptable to them.

For many Democrats, the agreements that were ultimately passed in each case represented an abandonment of the basic principles on which they had been elected. 108 House Democrats voted against a bill in April that avoided a shutdown of the federal government, rejecting the bill’s $38 billion in annual spending cuts. The cuts reduced funding for long-valued programs such as the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food and baby formula to low-income families, as well for enforcement agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, which saw its budget reduced by 16 percent. The final legislation also did not include any new revenue measures to offset the cuts, an element which many Democrats had pushed for.

In a statement released before the vote, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that he could not vote for the bill in good conscience.

“At some point you have to draw a line in the sand on the other side, you have to pull the other way. Otherwise, you’re not really representing the people who sent you here.” — House Democratic staffer

“Democrats are fighting for fairness in budget cuts, not those that rob from the middle class and the poor and require no sacrifice from the rich,” he said. “There will be cuts, but the Republicans want to change the way Americans live. That is a betrayal of Americans’ trust.”

There were other principles at play for Democrats as well. Spokespeople for Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) explained to Remapping Debate that both lawmakers had voted against the budget bill because it included funding for foreign wars, which they both vehemently oppose.

More than 50 Republicans also voted against the bill. For many of them, the spending cuts simply did not go far enough. “While these cuts are clearly a step in the right direction, they were simply not bold or serious enough,” said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), in a statement after the vote. “There are only a few times in our country’s history when we have the opportunity to dramatically redirect where our country is heading. This is one of the times.”

According to Baker, we should not be surprised that compromise has been so hard in coming, given the very different visions that lawmakers have for the country.

“The basis of a compromise has to be mutual advantage,” he said. “It’s very difficult to identity right now what the mutual advantage is. You need to have a meeting of the minds and right now the minds are simply not meeting.”


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