An oft-stated goal of the tea party is strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution and to the intent of the Founding Fathers.
Unfortunately, the unwillingness of many tea party leaders to compromise is inconsistent with that goal.
A good example is Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who defeated longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the May GOP primary.
Although Lugar had numerous vulnerabilities, the principal tea-party complaint was that he was too willing to work across party lines in Washington. In contrasting his approach with Lugar’s, Mourdock commented that it is time to replace collegiality with confrontation.
There is nothing inherently wrong when political parties offer the voters drastically different agendas. However, insistence on philosophical purity after the election is better suited to a parliamentary system than to the U.S. system of government.
For example, in the last Canadian election, the conservatives won more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament. As a result, the conservatives’ chosen prime minister both leads the Parliament and fulfills most of the functions our system assigns to our president. As long as they stick together, Canadian conservatives can implement their agenda without regard to the views of the minority parties.
In contrast, it is much more difficult for the majority party to implement its agenda in this country. The principal reason is the system of checks and balances built into the U.S. Constitution by the Founding Fathers in an effort to assure that the majority does not run roughshod over the minority.
The centerpiece of the system of checks and balances is the division of power among three independent branches: The president, the Congress, and the judiciary. As a further check on power, the Founding Fathers divided Congress into a Senate and a House of Representatives. In theory, these checks and balances assure that the federal government can act only when there is a broad consensus in favor of that action.
Over the last 60-plus years, Americans have frequently opted to reinforce the system of checks and balances by electing a president of one party while giving the other party a majority in one or both houses of Congress.
Senate rules have added another check on the majority by requiring the affirmative votes of at least 60 of the 100 senators to pass legislation if the minority filibusters.
Divided government can work, but only if there is a willingness to compromise.
Compromise is most likely when both parties have a significant number of moderate legislators. Unfortunately, the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 wiped out many of the moderate Republicans.
Similarly, the tea party landslide in 2010 cost many of the moderate Democrats their seats. As a result, the parties are increasingly dominated by legislators who are either very liberal or very conservative and who view compromise as a threat to their own re-election.
This trend began long before the appearance of the tea party. In fact, an analysis of roll-call votes (by Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University) confirmed that Republicans in Congress have been getting more conservative since 1976 while congressional Democrats have been getting more liberal. However, the most startling conclusion from that study is that Republicans are now more conservative than they have been at any other time in the past 100 years.
Ironically, while their elected officials have become more partisan, voters have moved in the opposite direction. For example, a Gallup poll earlier this year found that 40 percent of the voters consider themselves to be “independents.” Although many independents actually lean toward one party or the other, it appears that many Republican voters are not as conservative as Fox News, and many Democratic voters are not as liberal as MSNBC.
Despite their differences on the issues, Americans appear united on at least one point: Political gridlock is out of control. Unfortunately, without compromise, that gridlock will continue, regardless of the outcome in November.
Even if the Republicans win the presidency and sweep both houses of Congress, there is no realistic chance that they will have the 60 seats in the Senate needed to overcome Democratic filibusters. Therefore, the Republicans will not be able to govern unless they compromise with the Democrats.
Contrary to their approach in the current Congress and their campaign rhetoric, tea party Republicans should embrace compromise instead of trying to prevent it.
After all, compromise is exactly what the Founding Fathers intended.
William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s small business advocate (November 2003-October 2011). His column appears monthly.
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