Everyone wants Congress to compromise. So, why don’t they?

July 23, 2013

Compromise is the name of the political game, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that shows almost seven in ten people believe that it's more important for politicians to cooperate across party lines than stick to their positions.


John Boehner and President Obama shake hands. Photo courtesy of Christian Science Monitor.

The numbers in support of compromise are relatively consistent across party lines -- with even 62 percent of self-identified Republicans saying that cooperation should trump strict adherence to principles. Heck, even 58 percent of self-identified conservatives think compromise > standing on principle.

And yet, compromise remains a dirty word in Washington. The Senate narrowly averted a change to its filibuster rules last week when Republicans blinked at the last minute on a series of executive branch nominees.  A Senate-passed immigration bill is a non-starter in the House and most political observers (including yours truly) see the chances of meaningful legislation being signed into law as far less than a 50-50 proposition.  The farm bill could face a similar fate.

And the lack of compromise is not just anecdotal or isolated to a single issue. The two parties in Washington have never been further apart ideologically than they were in the 112th Congress, according to the indispensable Vital Statistics on Congress.

The disconnect between what people want (compromise) and what their politicians are giving them (anything but compromise) seems, at first glance, to be absolutely head-spinning. After all, politics is generally a service industry. Politicians tend to do what their constituents want them to do (or what they believe their constituents want them to do) because it helps ensure they will be re-elected. (Never underestimate the power of self preservation as a motivation in politics -- and life.)

What gives? We have two theories.

1. "Compromise" means different things to different people.  One man's compromise is another man's concession.  Ever try to compromise on a movie?  Or on what you should get on pizza? Or on virtually anything, ever in life?  People LOVE the idea of compromise in theoretical terms but love it much less when the conversation gets more specific. Follow that line of thinking and it's not far fetched to conclude that the large number of people in the Post/ABC poll supportive of compromise are sort of a false positive; they say they want compromise but when asked to compromise on something like, for example, immigration they have very little interest in actually doing so.

2. House Republicans are focused on the care and feeding of their base at the moment.  In conversations with GOP strategists since the 2012 election, the question of why the party isn't moving more toward the ideological middle keeps coming up. And, we keep getting the same answer: A political party without a political base isn't a political party.

That is, Republicans  -- out of power at the White House and with control of only one chamber of Congress -- are simply doing what they can to hold their base in line. They believe the best way to do that is to stand firm on principle. The more conservative the voter, the more likely they are to believe that principles trump compromise. And, conservatives are the people who a) comprise the GOP base and b) are the most likely to vote in the 2014 election.

There is concern in the GOP strategist community that focusing on the base rather than the middle of the electorate isn't a recipe for winning back the White House in 2016. But, that's a problem many people within the party are comfortable revisiting after they see what the midterms produce.

Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that compromise will be making a major comeback in Congress any time soon.  Unless and until, that is, people start punishing politicians for not working together. Don't hold your breath.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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