Compromise in American Congressional History


On December 10, 2010, former President Bill Clinton added to history by stepping back into the White House press conference room to address questions about the Obama compromise with Republicans over Bush-era tax cuts. Clinton reminded the American people that during times of political polarization, compromise represents the best possible solution for most people impacted. This has been the case throughout American history, beginning with the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

Famous Compromises in American History

Although American congressional history contains many examples of compromise, the 1820 Missouri Compromise stands out as a “common ground” approach to the expansion of slavery at a time the nation was slowly becoming polarized over the issue. Northern political leaders did not want to see Missouri enter the Union as a slave state, questioning the morality of slavery.

The impasse was broken when Maine entered the Union as a free state, thereby preserving the balance of free and slave states. Additionally, the 36/30 line separated the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory to avoid future problems with territories forming state governments. Although Thomas Jefferson viewed the compromise as a “fire bell” in the night, it kept the sectional peace for several decades.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, the issue of expanding slavery again polarized the North and the South. By 1850, passions threatened to bury reason. Senator Henry Clay proposed the Compromise of 1850, which included provisions for the North and the South.

Some senators that supported the measures for the good of the nation would lose constituent support because of their stand, including Daniel Webster and Thomas Hart Benton. But the compromise was designed to avert secession and Civil War.

Congressional Action Without the Need of Compromise

After World War One, President Woodrow Wilson worked tirelessly toward congressional approval of his League of Nations. But the Republicans won control of the Senate in the 1918 midterm election and leaders like William Borah and Henry Cabot Lodge despised Wilson. Despite attempts to compromise provisions of the treaty and the League to protect U.S. sovereignty and freedom of action, Wilson refused.

Confronted by sure defeat, Wilson took his case to the American people, but the nation was slowly turning toward isolationism. Wilson lost his cause due to a failure to compromise. The “my-way or the highway” approach did not work.

There was little compromise during the first administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The nation was in the abyss of a Great Depression and although FDR’s New Deal represented a radical departure from any past policies, the Congress, led by Democrats, approved Roosevelt’s programs, despite opposition from the Supreme Court and special interests. Unlike 2011, one party dominated and saw no need for compromise.

Obama’s Willingness to Compromise Leads to Disaffection in his Own Party

Former President Clinton, supporting the Obama compromise on tax cuts, commented that employment was not rising and the economy was growing at a rate slower than anticipated. Economic conditions did not warrant a showdown between the White House and Congressional Republicans. Compromise was the only solution to best serve the most Americans impacted by the recession.

Preserving Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans is at the heart of the debate, pitting President Obama against Speaker Pelosi and other Democratic leaders like Rep Hoyer. Bill Clinton’s unprecedented White House briefing was aimed as much against Democratic stalwarts that refuse to compromise on tax breaks for the rich as at dubious Americans who believe Obama has broken a key campaign promise.

According to The Hill (December 7, 2010), Democratic leaders liked part of the Obama compromise but opposed vigorously extending tax cuts to the rich, even though only for two years, as well as the new estate tax formula. Short of compromise, however, the Democrats will find their position untenable once the Republicans take control of the House in January 2011.

The History of Compromise Keeps Government Working for the People

Compromise in American history has broken congressional impasses at times when partisan politics threatened to stonewall progress. Compromise breaks the deadlock of polarized political positions. This has been acutely felt during times of great national peril when issues and events threatened the fundamentals of American democracy.

The key to selling compromises to the American people is to demonstrate that compromise is the only viable solution given political polarization. Burning down the Bastille will not result in job creation. President Obama’s best route is to broker a compromi