Bipartisan compromise is vital to the legislative process

Bipartisan compromise is vital to the legislative process
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When he was running for reelection in 1974, our father, Sen. Jacob Javits, took part in a heated debate at the City Club of New York. He was taking fire from the left and right — from a Democratic rival and a Conservative Party candidate — who shared the same critique: that the third-term progressive Republican senator was too willing to compromise. 

“My opponent makes fun of me for being the Great Compromiser,” Javits said, responding to his opponent on the right. “Well, compromise produced the War Powers Act. Compromise produced pension reform. Compromise produced legal services for the poor and cancer research. Compromise has to be. You can’t have great, pious beautiful ideas but no performance.” 

Four decades later, compromise is not just a dirty word in politics. To many politicians, it’s a cardinal sin. To some voters and many interest groups, it’s a sign of weakness or worse, a betrayal of core principles. Even lawmakers who want to find common ground fear the consequences of reaching too far across the aisle: a primary challenge; attacks from partisans on TV and social media; eroding support from their political base; an early exit from elected life.


Compromise, while politically risky, is essential to our democracy. Our founders understood that. Our Constitution was a series of compromises necessary to satisfy the competing interests of the original thirteen states while manifesting our common values of democracy and separation of powers. As anyone who has seen “Hamilton” can attest, it was a compromise that was instrumental to unifying the country by paying the States’ Revolutionary War debt and establishing Washington as our nation’s capital.


At a time of bitter divisions and gridlock, with high stakes issues from North Korea to climate change, widening economic inequality to health care on the table, it is more important than ever to resurrect this spirit of bipartisan compromise. Legislators must focus on the common good, creatively addressing the serious problems facing the country to find workable solutions in which all citizens have a stake. 

Gerrymandering has elevated public figures who thrive on conflict, are unyielding in their stances and refuse to make concessions to others. It has cut the wings off both parties, especially those who were most able to forge consensus, such as Javits. To make real progress on the myriad problems we face, we should work to elevate leaders who show the courage, the maturity and the patriotism to forge pragmatic solutions across party lines.

That is why we launched the Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership, named after our father, to encourage lawmakers to address our nation’s toughest challenges through bipartisan legislative action. And that is why this week we celebrated four leaders - two Democrats and two Republicans - who rose above the gridlock to make real progress for the American people.

At a ceremony on Capitol Hill, we honored former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenWarren unveils plan to cancel student loan debt, create universal free college Moulton enters 2020 White House race The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteAnti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age House Democrats probe Trump administration's funding of anti-abortion group Dems push back on White House suggesting they're 'not smart enough' for Trump's tax returns MORE (D-Colo.) and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) for their legislative partnership that led to the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act. The bipartisan law, forged through extensive hearings and inclusion fundamentally reformed our approaches to health regulation and research funding, authorizing billions of dollars of funding for medical research on cancer, brain disease, and other devastating illnesses. We also honored Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller GOP senator wears shirt honoring Otto Warmbier at Korean DMZ On The Money: Conservatives rally behind Moore for Fed | White House interviewing other candidates | Trump, Dems spar on Tax Day | Budget watchdogs bemoan 'debt denialism' MORE (R-Ohio) with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work to build bipartisan support for legislation across a wide range of issues, from opioid abuse to regulatory reform, workforce training, prisoner re-entry reforms, and conservation of national parks and tropical forests.

None of these efforts satisfy everyone. But it all moves the country from “beautiful ideas” to action.

As Biden told the crowd via video, “If we follow Jack Javits’ example, we can respect each other’s deeply help views, but still find common ground. And most important, we can make progress on behalf of the country we all serve.”

We encourage all our elected leaders to follow this example, so that our democracy remains a beacon of hope that contributes to solving the big problems that confront us.

Joshua M. Javits, Carla I. Javits, and Joy D. Javits serve on the board of directors of the Marian B. and Jacob K. Javits Foundation, which is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in public service.