Legislative Compromise: Virtue or Failure?

This article originally appeared in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

As the immigration debate has moved forward in the Senate and begins in earnest in the House, there have been many disagreements on matters of substance.  Members of Congress have debated border security, employer verification and the details of a path to earned citizenship.  The language of amendments, and of the bill itself, are the result of compromise – which means they don’t please most people completely. 

The gap between parties and ideologies in America is wide.  The areas of policy overlap are relatively small.  This means that middle ground proposals will always have built in critics.  The media loves to cover ideological arguments.  And the partisan media, on left and right, has an interest in feeding controversy. 

But even prior to such ideological disagreements, people concerned about politics need to answer a question: Is legislative compromise a virtue or a failure? 

Most of us are suspicious of compromise on matters of principle.  We want our representatives to take a stand on clear matters of conscience – as we hope we would do ourselves in their place. 

But many partisans in American politics believe that legislative compromise on major issues such as immigration is itself a violation of principle.  This is a different claim.  Members of Congress, in this view, should always vote for the purest form of their convictions.  Anything less is a betrayal.  The word “compromise” is used as an accusation. 

Several members of the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform.

Several members of the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform.

This represents a misunderstanding of the political enterprise.  Members of Congress are not elected to serve the purest form of their ideology.  They are elected to govern in the public interest, within the constraints of our constitutional order.  And that order balances power – between the executive and the legislature and between ideological factions within the legislature.  Committees are balanced between the parties.  Ideological minorities are given considerable power. 

This means that every serious legislative act partakes of compromise.  That is the design of the system.  To rule out compromise is to rule out governing.  The real political task is drawing the proper limits to compromise.  Some legislation, of course, deserves a “no” vote.  But the standard here is not perfect ideological purity.  It is a prudential judgment: Given my views and values, would the legislation under consideration improve the current situation and serve the public good?  The goal is not perfection but progress. 

Having spent time working on Capitol Hill, I realize these judgments are not easy.  Sometimes is necessary to threaten opposition in order to gain leverage to secure improvements in a bill.  The strong views of constituents must be weighed in the balance. 

But on an issue such as immigration, there will be no law that pleases everyone.  The main issue is: Would this particular law be an improvement over the current system?  If that case can be made, then compromise to pass that law is a virtue. 

- Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).