Carol Shea-Porter - Can Congress compromise? If so, when?

People are disgusted with Congress. Does Congress deserve its current approval rating of just 12%? What are they fighting about? Can't they compromise? Before citizens throw their hands up, let's look at some divisive issues, and place them in context.

While citizens are disturbed that Congress is so divided, they have to realize that so are the voters.  The well-respected Pew Research Center just completed a major study that shows the high degree of polarization in US politics. Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Center, said, "What we see is a much bigger and increasingly diverse middle...What's striking about it is that they're not so moderate. People in the middle have some strong, well-defined ideological points of view." This confirms my experience while teaching Politics, working on campaigns, and then serving in Congress. There is a real hardening of positions among voters and politicians.

Often there is unwillingness to compromise because one side wants to keep or gain control. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was blunt but truthful in 2009 when he told National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." On the House side, Congressman Pence said, "You bet, we want those policies to fail." This is not leadership, nor is there a hint of compromise in those statements, and that view is clearly shared by many others. But sometimes there is another factor in play. Sometimes it is not just a refusal to play nice. Sometimes it really is a deep ideological belief that the other guy is so wrong that it will hurt the country if they yield. That belief may be right or wrong, but it does cause politicians to stand their ground and refuse to budge.

Many of these issues have just one position--for or against. For example, pro-choice or the opposite, anti-choice. You cannot have it both ways, and most people start at a certain moral or legal point that does not allow much room to compromise. I, for example, believe this is a privacy issue and the government needs to stay out of it. NH has two Republican members of Congress.  One says there can never be an abortion, not even to save the life of a mother, and the other is a member of the Republicans for Choice PAC, elected several times to the House with that position. Who can compromise with whom in that scenario?

Another issue is taxes. Even though the United States has a high corporate income tax that should be lowered, most corporations actually don't pay any federal income tax, thanks to politicians. While most who wrote these favors into the tax code had political reasons to do so, some truly believe that if we tax corporations, they can't create jobs. Never mind that they pay taxes to other countries and create jobs there-some still believe it will hurt jobs so they won't compromise. 

Politicians and citizens are all over the map on health care. Some want it for seniors, some want it for vets, some want it for nobody, and some want it for all. People who are desperate for health care and cannot afford it need advocates who will fight, and people who have good jobs and good health care want "their side" to stand their ground also. These issues and others create gridlock and frustration.

There are some answers though. First, voters should choose the team they most identify with, Republicans or Democrats, and then send that team to run the country. Teamwork is key to success, and the two parties can't work well together at this point. Second, voters need to compromise also. They should ask the candidate about positions, but they also need to allow a good candidate to fail the 100%-purity-about-every-issue test. Voters should not give up, thinking politicians are all the same, because they clearly are not. 

Citizens need to choose their team, and then tell team members that when a compromise is good for the country, they will understand a hard vote. Encourage courage. Reward courage.  At least, accept it, if there is to be compromise. Finally, people must remember that America has faced gridlock before, over issues as diverse as Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights Act, Health Care, Asbestos, Abortion, Immigration, etc. We are guided by a Constitution and by decent people of all persuasions. We will be bruised and battered, but with faith and optimism and good will, we will survive.

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Former Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter represented New Hampshire’s First District from 2007-2011, she is seeking a third term in the November, 2012 election.  She wrote the proposal for and established a non-profit, social service agency, which continues to serve all ages.  She taught politics and history and is a strong supporter of Medicare and Social Security.