Is the word “compromise” a bad word in public policy?

In his recent biographical segment on 60 minutes, soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner (besides crying a lot) discussed the word “compromise.”  Boehner said he “refuse[d] to compromise,” but would look for “common ground,” indentifying the difference in connotation between those phrases.  Compromise, to him, communicates a failure of one’s principles.  Looking for common ground… is different.

The word “compromise” has gotten a lot of use since President Obama made a deal with GOP lawmakers to extend Bush tax cuts for two years and to extend unemployment benefits for 18 months.

And even more recently, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a compromise on the 9/11 Health Bill that will provide aid to police and fire fighters suffering from health problems related to September 11.

So, the word “compromise” is having a good month in December.

But come January, we’ll have an even more polarized Congress than we have now.  Tea Partiers have purged their vocabularies of the dirty word “compromise.”  President Obama took a lot of heat from those in his own party over the tax deal.

Don’t forget that America has had a lot of famous compromises, some better than others:  The Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise (1787) split the legislature into two houses, one determined by population and one with equal representation for each state.  The Three-Fifths Compromise (1787) allowed slave states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for apportionment of representation in Congress.  The Missouri Compromise (1820) prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of a certain latitude.  The Compromise of 1850 diffused tension between the North and the South over slavery (well, at least until the Civil War broke out). 

In a way, even the U.S. Constitution itself was a compromise.  The patriots who fought off the Redcoats had known tyranny first-hand, but their attempt at a weak design for federal government gave us the Articles of Confederation.  We see how that turned out.  But with the next constitution, the Constitution, came with a Bill of Rights – the Massachusetts Compromise. 

Personally, I like this quote from Rep. Paul Ryan:  “Compromise is a good word.  I’ll take an inch, where I wanted a mile.  But I don’t go an inch in the wrong direction.”

I hope that in 2011, even with very divided leadership at the federal level, that the United States will move in the right direction, and that our leaders will stay committed to what is right and rational over party politics.  This Christmastime we’ve seen a few compromises.  Some people like them; some people don’t.  But in the New Year, there are a couple things our leaders shouldn’t compromise on:  their commitment to us, the people, and their commitment to our American legacy of finding the best solution through meaningful debate, free speech, and innovative ideas.

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to all!