Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Our compromise machine is busted

For seven years, Washington Republicans insisted over and over again that they had a plan for replacing Obamacare, and that we'd see it "soon." It's impossible to count how many times they offered such assurances in statements to the press and public, but collectively the number must reach well into the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands.

Yet year after year, "soon" never came. Even now, with control of the House, Senate and White House, Republicans are failing spectacularly in their effort to propose and enact health-care legislation. Part of the problem can be attributed to the sheer unpopularity of their ideas, but U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, recently explained that the failure has mechanical aspects as well:

“It’s easier to rage against the machine when you’re not in control of the machine, No. 1. And the perception that we are in control of the machine is inaccurate. Needing 50 out of 52 members on the same page in the Senate? I think that is not being in control of the machine.”

As an explanation of their immediate predicament, that's fairly accurate if superficial. When you need agreement of 50 of 52 Senate Republicans in order to act, that's asking a lot. But what I find fascinating -- what gets at the deeper problem affecting the Republican Party and by extension Washington and our entire governing apparatus -- is the unspoken, unexplored assumption hidden in Scott's analysis like a submerged rock awaiting a passing ship.

Under the Constitution, Scott and his fellow Republicans do not need 50 out of 52 members, or the agreement of 96 percent of the GOP caucus, to pass health-care legislation. They need 50 votes out of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate, or a much more attainable 50 percent of the Senate as a whole.¹ The assumption that they have to limit their universe of available votes to 52 is a restriction that they have imposed entirely on themselves. They didn't want Democratic votes, they made no effort to woo Democratic votes, and until now they have aggressively, emphatically rejected any Democratic effort to participate. (The same was of course true of House Republicans in their own repeal effort.)²

Why do they limit themselves to seeking only Republican votes? They do so because their ideology now requires them to avoid compromise at all costs. In fact, the goal of the single-party governance style gradually embraced by the GOP over the past 30 years is to render the opposition party entirely powerless, to give them no effective voice in the outcome and to maintain all power within the confines of the majority party.

We are now witnessing the effort to govern by those precepts, and it has not been pretty. It has not been pretty because in effect, Republicans are trying to graft their radical, parliamentary, winner-take-all style of governance onto a constitutional system that was specifically designed by the Founders to frustrate that approach.

Madison, Hamilton and others did not want majorities to easily impose their will on minorities. They did not see compromise as an evil to be avoided; they saw it as a process to be nurtured. They saw negotiation between factions as a necessity, not as a sign of moral weakness. They understood that in a small-r republican system, the governing majority that comes together to solve one problem will probably fall apart on the next issue, forcing the creation of a different governing majority, and they saw virtue in that flexibility. They believed that no monolithic party has all the answers, all the time.

Through the Constitution, the Founders designed a structure of government that reflected those principles and that demanded compromise. So to put another way, what the Republicans are attempting to do in Washington is akin to trying to run a Windows computer on an Apple operating system. The software is simply incompatible with the hardware.

Faced with imminent failure on the health-care front, some Senate Republicans are perhaps coming to grips with that reality. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a few others are now talking, reluctantly, about the necessity of starting over should the current GOP plan fail to garner 50 votes, this time by welcoming Democrats into the discussion. Maybe they mean it; maybe it's just a threat to scare Republicans back into line. Even if they do mean it, the muscle memory for compromise and negotiation has atrophied to such an extent in Congress that the odds of success are slim.

And even if the Senate were somehow to produce a bipartisan bill that does the necessary repair work on Obamacare without stripping millions of Americans of Medicaid coverage, I just don't see Republicans in the House responding in the same cooperative spirit. The mentality of one-party rule and the rejection of compromise have become core, defining values in the Republican House caucus, and it's almost impossible to envision House Speaker Paul Ryan having the courage or frankly the votes to buck that mentality.

In the short term, that means the nation's health-care system will probably get a lot worse before it gets better, and that no solution will be implemented until after the mid-terms. Over the longer term, it means that if we don't rehabilitate the notion and the practice of compromise, we may render ourselves helpless against our own decline.




¹ Vice President Pence would provide the needed 51st vote.

²Conservatives like to point out that Obamacare was itself passed strictly along party lines, as if that were evidence that Democrats also practice a no-compromise style of politics. That conclusion is not supported by the facts of the case.

From 2009-10, President Obama and his fellow Democrats tried for months to woo Republican support for an approach that itself was born in a Republican think tank, that had been pioneered in Massachusetts by a Republican governor. Obama welcomed GOP input and amendments, and invited Republicans to the White House to confer on its provisions, all to no avail. Once House and Senate Republicans made it clear that any of their members who voted in favor of the bill would be tarred, feathered and ridden out of the Republican Party on a rail, bipartisan compromise was doomed.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.