The U.S. Capitol Building on June 1, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Americans are conflicted about political compromises.
On the one hand, polls show we want elected officials of both parties to work with each other. On the other, we like leaders who stand up for what they believe. About one-third of the public favor a strong leader who acts undemocratically.
In the current climate of divided government, people want compromise in general but reserve judgment on specific compromises.
For example, there are multiple interpretations of the agreement reached last week to continue U.S. borrowing to pay its debts.
House Republicans forced the issue by asserting that they would not raise the debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by $4.8 trillion of cuts in federal spending over the next decade.
President Joe Biden stated he was willing to negotiate with Republicans over the federal budget, but not when the credibility of the U.S. to pay its bills was put at risk.
As the deadline for averting federal default approached, Biden and U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., engaged in serious talks. The Congressional Progressive Caucus and House Freedom Caucus put pressure on the respective leaders to strike a hard bargain.
Surprisingly, a compromise was reached — the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. And it was approved overwhelmingly by the House and Senate, whose leaders stayed out of the negotiations.
When politicians fashion deals, the impulse of all participants is to declare victory, addressing the media’s obsession with who won or lost.
Accordingly, Republicans touted a $1.5 trillion reduction in federal spending over ten years, work requirements for single, childless SNAP recipients between 50 and 54 (18-49 year-olds already have this obligation), accelerated permitting of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia, and the resumption of student loan repayments.
For his part, Biden listed many areas that were spared the budget ax, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and investments in clean energy and manufacturing. He was especially proud of how consensus emerged, adding to what he said were the 350 bipartisan laws he had signed.
Most importantly, the president expressed relief that a global economic crisis was avoided.
Immediate reactions to the compromise indicated the president won on substance. One poll, conducted as the Biden-McCarthy deal was taking shape, showed most Americans favoring smaller cuts to the federal budget than those proposed by House Republicans.
McCarthy earned praise for fighting the extreme demands of his party, risking his job in the process. Biden himself complimented McCarthy for negotiating honestly and keeping his word.
The president resisted the temptation to gloat over the fact that McCarthy needed Democratic votes to pass the deal in the House.
Politics aside, how should we evaluate the debt ceiling agreement and political compromises generally?
There are several schools of thought. One view is that all but the most “rotten” compromises, e.g. Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich, are valid, provided that the process for reaching agreement follows constitutional rules.
The debt ceiling bargain clears this bar, but only if holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States is accepted as legitimate. Unfortunately, the nation may have to experience this farce again in 2025.
Alternatively, the political theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue that compromise settlements must represent improvement over the status quo.
For example, though the Affordable Care Act falls short of providing universal health insurance, it provides increased access to health care for the uninsured and other benefits to the general population.
It is hard to judge whether the Fiscal Responsibility Act will improve the economy. Conventional wisdom says deficit reduction is a proper remedy for high inflation. The problem is a slowdown in government spending could contribute to a recession.
Furthermore, if deficit reduction was the goal, the Biden-McCarthy bargain addressed only non-defense, discretionary spending, which is but 10% t0 15% of the federal budget. Reported side deals will reduce the total package of spending cuts even more.
A more critical approach, offered by the cultural critic Rachel Greenwald Smith, is that compromises often obscure, minimize, or avoid structural problems that cause human suffering. For Smith, the only legitimate compromises are those that promote social justice and diminish exploitation.
Here is where the debt ceiling compromise comes under the toughest scrutiny. Though both sides got some of what they wanted, the deal came at the expense of those not at the table.
Estimates are that expanding work requirements for older SNAP recipients will jeopardize the food security of 750,000 people without reducing the welfare rolls.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline will unleash millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Ending the pause in student loan repayments will leave 43 million borrowers at the mercy of conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court, expected to rule soon on the legality of Biden’s student loan forgiveness program.
Inside the Washington Beltway, a manufactured crisis ended. For the poor, the climate, and students, real-life crises just got worse.
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