Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.

Of Majorities and Modesty

Perhaps with some weeks enough dust has settled to allow a few reactions to the recent American elections, with more perspective than can be gathered from listening to reporters interviewing reporters. I will offer views that focus mostly on the results of the congressional elections, drawing upon experience from more than two decades of work in the Senate.

I do not, however, wish to minimize the importance of the elections for governors and state legislatures. In fact, I suspect that the next President of the United States will more than likely be a current or former governor than a Washington politico. Most Presidents, historically, have come from the state governments, which I find encouraging for our federal system. Moreover, judging from what we have seen, former Senators do not seem to make very good Presidents. I cannot name one to whom we can look with admiration for what he accomplished in the White House. There seems to be too much Washington blindness in them to govern effectively for our whole nation.

I am straying to an election yet to come, though. Back to this year’s results, I will begin with the view that we should expect, with the media-scorned Republicans holding the majority in both House and Senate, that the finger of blame for all problems—real or imagined—will be pointed at “Congress.” Disputes between legislative and executive branches will tend to be cast as exposing the nation to great danger as a result of congressional intransigence and/or “politics,” as if no real issues of policy—no questions of life, freedom, or wealth—are involved.

It is happening already. In one bizarre report I heard this week on a major network “news” report, some Amtrak railroad drawbridge in the northeast is over a hundred years old and prone to getting stuck when it opens to let ships pass. Amtrak wants a billion dollars or so to fix it, but, as the “news” story would have it, Republicans in the new Congress “are not looking for ways to spend money.” That was the story. Note the nothing new here. The bridge has been around for a hundred years and did not suddenly become prone to malfunction this November. But the election has now made it a story; a problem is arising, not because the President or the Democrats in Congress for several years did not seek to fix it, but because the new Republican majorities are not interested in spending money. The bridge is not the problem in the story, the Republicans are. Expect more of this kind of media “news.”

Second observation: in recent decades Congress has increasingly surrendered more and more authority to the executive branch, including to the regulatory agencies. The Senate, under the misleadership of Majority Leader Harry Read, has given up even more power and authority (perhaps in another post I will expound on lessons from the Senate of Rome, which by avoiding decisions paved the way for the Caesars—who were all too ready to make decisions). The Democrats retain full control of the executive branch. No small thing. In the remaining two years of the Obama Administration look for more aggressive activity from the White House and the regulators as they test just what they can try by regulation and regulatory fiat, without any detours to Capitol Hill. To quote Jacob Marley’s ghost, “Much!”

When it comes to big Republican plans to make major changes, the quidnuncs will be fed explanations of the thinness of the Republican majorities, along with the “responsibility” of Republicans to share power with Democrats that the Democrats failed to win at the ballot box. When it comes to work that needs to be done, the repeated common wisdom will be that the Republicans have the majority, so nothing should stop them from getting on with the job. There will be little mention that the President can veto what Congress passes, and that Democrats in the Senate will likely filibuster anything that the White House threatens to veto, saving the President the trouble—and political risk.

Yet, there are things that the Republicans, even with working but not overwhelming majorities in Congress, will be able to do. Most important, they get to set the agenda. They get to decide what issues will be debated, what hearings will be held, what will be put to a vote, even when they may not have the votes to break Democrat opposition in the Senate. It will be some relief that instead of the familiar series of proposals to curb liberties, raise taxes, or stifle economic growth and opportunity, the agenda will tend toward ideas of freedom and prosperity, though actual accomplishments will of necessity be modest against the strong opposition of the President and his media allies. I will take modest improvements over the calamitous policy fails of the past several years.

Of Elections and Sports

Shortly before the 2012 election I offered an observation about sports and elections, and how one is not like the other. That message may continue to have relevance today.

It is early Fall. That means that we are nearing the end of the regular season of baseball, and the New York Yankees are on course to make the playoffs and another run for the World Series title, number 28. Their chances look good this year, if they can keep their players from injury and the bullpen resumes pitching up to its abilities.

Others are following football. Already the Washington Redskins have gone from having a lock on getting into the Super Bowl, after winning their first game, to being nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoffs by losing their next two. As they say in baseball, though with less justification in pro-football, it’s a long season. And speaking of the Redskins, it has been said that you can tell that someone has been in Washington too long when he begins cheering for the Redskins. Let that rest on your own taste and experience.

Basketball fans know that in just a few weeks, practice begins for college hoops. The college basketball season will terminate several months later in the greatest sporting event that the United States has to offer, March Madness! I don’t know when or whether the professional basketball season ever ends. I suppose it does.

Somewhere someone is playing soccer, where some team is leading another by the insurmountable score of 1-0. But I think that we may be in the only few weeks of the year when there are no hockey games—even as the NHL is haunted again by more labor-management strife.

At his school my son is running on a cross country team, the Trinity Tempest. The motto of the team is not but should be, “Tempest Fugit.” Instead, it seems to be something like, “Pass the weak, hurdle the dead.” Nice so far as it goes. Classical Latin would be better, it seems to me, but I am not a runner and have no say.

Yes, there is much sporting excitement and many sports in the Fall. Elections, however, are not one of them. Electing the leaders of our government, who will wield control over life and death, freedom and slavery, prosperity and poverty, is not a sport. Self-government is one of the most serious activities of life for those who cherish their liberty. Those who do not will eventually vote away their freedom, as we have seen in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in recent years, and before that in places like Germany of the 1930s.

Of course, you would never know that from the public discourse on television, radio, in newspapers and other media outlets. Presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races are treated as if they all were games, with little at stake other than whether your favorite team wins. Issues are trivialized, if mentioned at all. The trivializers have even assigned team colors, one side “Red” and another “Blue.” The most important issue in the media after a debate is “who won?” rather than, “what did we learn about what a candidate believes and what he would do if elected?” Points are awarded by press experts for style, poise, rhetoric, and gotcha lines. Panels of talking heads award scores as if they were judges at a figure skating competition.

It is all more than beside the point. It corrupts the process. Rather than true debates, in which candidates have enough time to declare and explain their views and policies on important issues, media celebrities offer trick questions, to which the future President of the United States is given two, three, or sometimes even five minutes to respond as he or she fishes for a soundbite to make it into the 60-second news recap (most of which will again be focused on, “who won?”). Based on this silly exercise, viewers are encouraged to text in (for a small fee) their vote—not for who would be the best office holder—but for who was the winner of the night’s contest.

We should expect and demand better. Through modern revelation we have been given a set of standards. You do not have to be a believer in revelation to recognize the wisdom of the counsel:

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise, whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:10)

Our task as voters interested in preserving our rights and freedoms is too seek out diligently the honest, the good, and the wise. Anything less is evil. In an election, in a campaign, in a debate, I want to discover who is the honest, the good, and the wise, and I am little interest in style points.

That takes careful and diligent effort, for among the honest, the good, and the wise, are the liars, the false, and the foolish intent on deceiving. These latter like to hide in the noise of the sporting contest and often seek to divert attention to the things that little matter, the stray word, the high school prank. We need to keep our focus on a diligent search for the honest, the good, and the wise. With persistent effort, we can find them.

In self-government, we are the players. The issue is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, decidedly not a game. But if we follow these standards and apply them diligently, then in the end We the People will be the winners.

(First published September 26, 2012)