People want Congress to compromise. Except that they really don’t.

June 13, 2013

People hate Congress. And the main reason for that hatred is their belief that Congress doesn't work together to solve problems.


A stop sign. Washington Post photo.

So says new data from Gallup in which nearly eight in 10 respondents disapprove of how Congress is doing its job and the bulk of those people cite the partisan gridlock and lack of production as the main reason for their disgruntlement.  Roughly half of all of those who disapprove of the job Congress is doing do so because of "party gridlock/bickering/not compromising" (28 percent) or "not getting anything done/not making decisions" (21 percent).

The data seems conclusive: The public wants Congress to compromise. Except that they really don't.

Here's why.

1. Everyone likes the idea of compromise -- both in politics and in life more generally. We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable people who are always looking for the common-sense middle ground on a given issue and we want our politicians to reflect that approach. But, our desire for compromise goes out the window when it's an issue that matters to us and/or where we are convinced we are right. Same goes for politics.

2. Compromise doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.  One man's compromise is another's concession. Detailing what a compromise might actually look like in, say, talks about a grand bargain on debt and spending, would send many compromise-seekers running away from the negotiating table.

3. Compromise isn't rewarded politically.  Remember that large majorities of the House -- Democrats and Republicans -- face only one real threat to their political careers: a challenge from their ideological left or right. Redistricting, the decennial line-drawing process in all 435 House districts, is one reason for such lopsided districts. Compromise is a dirty word in primaries where the electorate tends to be the most conservative (or most liberal) voters who prize philosophical convictions over pragmatic legislating. There is not only no incentive to compromise then but there is actually a disincentive to do so.

Seen through that lens, it's not all that hard to understand why Congress has been unable to get anything "big" done in quite some time. Big things -- reforming Social Security, re-structuring the country's immigration system, finding a grand bargain on the budget -- take compromise. And while people may say they want it, politicians know better.

Fixbits: 

The head of the NSA said the agency's surveillance efforts helped thwart dozens of terrorist attacks.

President Obama stumped for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) as a Republican group launched a major ad buy to help Republican Gabriel Gomez. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton will campaign for Markey on Saturday.

Gomez called Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) "a moron."

Former top Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt will both be joining New Partners, a full-service consulting firm, where they will launch a new effort dubbed The Incite Agency.

CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell is stepping down.

The National Rifle Association is targeting Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) with ads.

Republican state Sen. Bill Cole will not challenge Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), a blow to Republicans who had been recruiting him.

Must-reads: 

"Dan Pfeiffer, the man guarding Obama’s legacy" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"After gun bill’s defeat, it’s Democrats, not Republicans, paying the political price" -- Ed O'Keefe and Paul Kane, Washington Post

-- Aaron Blake contributed to this post

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