On Compromise and Obstruction

First, my apologies for the recent silence. Who knew a new baby would take so much time away from blogging!? (Ok, yes, we all knew.)

In response to my last post, Jacob raised some excellent questions. As I mentioned on the Facebook page, I think they are worth everyone’s consideration. I’ll respond to Jacob’s simpler points here first, then follow up with a longer post about the fundamentals of my views on the Constitution and government.

The first point Jacob makes is that the members of the Republican Party pushing for gridlock are responding to constituents who believe that government is simply too big. Not only is obstruction a tactic closely related to their small-government ideology, it’s a perspective they share with many of their supporters. I don’t dispute this. Where I think we may disagree is over the size of this group. Yes, I expect we could find plenty of polls in which a majority of voters characterize the government as “too big.” But the devil is in the details. Once you ask about specific programs it gets much more difficult to gather a majority in opposition.

So when Republicans risk disaster (and I think the failure to increase the debt ceiling would have been a disaster), how large a percentage of their constituency are they really representing? My guess is that they are being most answerable not to the large majority of their voters (or perhaps even their party members) but to the most vocal and well-financed among them. This includes especially businesses that benefit from the status quo (a non-simplified tax code), those particularly eager to score partisan victories against the Obama/Dems, and a small sliver of ideological absolutists. Otherwise, if the group of small-government-at-all-costs Republicans was that large a portion of the general population, Ron Paul (or maybe Paul Ryan) would be the Republican nominee right now.


Second, in arguing that gridlock is a suitable tactic in accomplishing smaller government, Jacob states that “there hasn’t been a compromise in recent history that led to smaller government.” Especially since he equates smaller government with greater freedom, this poses a serious problem. If freedom can only be expanded through gridlock, then gridlock is actually the only responsible tactic.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but I would point to the welfare reform of the Clinton/Gingrich era as a counter-example. As far as I can tell, it is widely accepted to have been a success in shrinking a major government entitlement while making it more responsive to individual needs. In other words, it promoted freedom and smaller government. Earlier than that, in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan worked out a compromise as governor of California that similarly shrunk the welfare rolls and budget while increasing individual payments to those who qualified, a move seen as a victory on both sides.


The juxtaposition of the debt-ceiling crisis and these welfare reforms highlight why I think compromise is essential for both sides. Actually shrinking government ((as opposed to preventing it from growing in new ways) requires positive action by Congress. The reason the U.S. government reached the debt-ceiling was because previous spending already authorized by Congress was going to require borrowing in excess of an artificial limit previously established by Congress. Congress therefore had to take positive action to remedy the conflict of it’s own creation. In that tense moment, they ultimately avoided the short term consequences without passing reform to correct the long-term causes. And so we continue on a path of unsustainable commitments for the foreseeable future. Because those commitments have already been made, it will most likely require compromise to enact the necessary reforms.

Though a tempting short-term tactic, I don’t think gridlock will ultimately be effective in achieving the preferred ends of either party.

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