Ronald Reagan and the prickly art of compromise

The final deal was a carefully balanced package of provisions that one side or the other detested. The essence of compromise is giving up something you care about to gain something else more important. Reagan understood this, but he realized that his supporters would understand that in compromising he had not turned his back on his ideals.

A series of similar compromise bills were enacted through the rest of the Reagan presidency. These bills did not balance the budget but they reduced future deficits by many billions of dollars.

The era of the grand compromise ended abruptly in 1990. Leaders from the White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, reached agreement on the familiar mixture of revenue increases and spending cuts. But when legislation reached the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich rallied Republicans against the bill, causing its defeat.

To beat Democrats, Gingrich argued, the Republicans needed to project a clear message that they are the party of low taxes. The deficit-cutting bill passed in 1990; but, without GOP support, it had to be reconfigured to win more Democratic votes, and this meant adding to the tax increases and scaling back the spending cuts. Bush signed the bill and forever disgraced himself in the eyes of his party.

From 1990 onward the Republican Party has steadfastly refused to raise taxes. Maintaining their purity as a party has probably helped them win elections, but at a cost of ending the era of bipartisan deficit reduction.

The cooperation of the Reagan years now seems all but unattainable because of resistance within the Republican Party to any tax increases. Of the 260 Republicans serving in the 112th House, 233 have signed an anti-tax pledge. Democrats have not taken a mass blood oath to oppose all entitlement cuts.

If Republicans insist that deficit reduction be based entirely on spending cuts and no tax increases, significant deficit reductions will not happen. If deficits are to be controlled, major entitlement programs will have to be cut. Republicans cannot implement big cuts to entitlement programs without substantial support from Democrats, and Democrats will not acquiesce in major deficit reduction legislation that includes only spending cuts.

Conservatives and liberals alike must recognize this truth: no major deficit reduction can be passed unless it includes both spending cuts and revenue increases. Elected officials who proclaim that the deficit must be cut but are unwilling to accept tax increases (and even insist on cutting taxes) are deceiving themselves and the voters.

We need another compromise on deficit reduction, but one party has taken compromise off the table. Our country needs prominent Republicans and Democrats, preferably some who are not yet retired, who will boldly state the truth about deficit reduction, and who will, reluctantly, crap a pineapple.

John B. Gilmour is a professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He may be contacted at jbgilm@wm.edu.


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