Ingenious Compromise: Reason for Hope

Here are some headlines appearing in major newspapers recently:

  • “A Deeply Divided Supreme Court . . .”;
  • “Divided Congress is Deeply Fractionalized . . .”;
  • “The Deep Divide in Congress . . .”;
  • “Obama Warns a Divided Congress . . .”;
  • “The Sharp Political Divide in America . . .”;
  • “The Most Divided Congress Ever . . .” 

These stories all suggest that the United States today is so divided along political lines that the politicians are unable to pass meaningful legislation and that judges (even in the Supreme Court) are unable to make unbiased legal decisions.  But does a sharply divided America necessarily mean that no meaningful legislation can emerge from our political leaders on both sides of the aisle?  I don’t think so!  What many people describe as the greatest political agreement in the history of the world came out of a deeply divided America in November 1787—the United States Constitution.  

There were two basic concerns facing the Constitutional Convention, convened in 1787.  Both had to be resolved in order for a new constitution to be ratified by all thirteen states.   

The first one was reconciling the fear of having a centralized government that had too much power with having a government so weak that it couldn’t get things done at home or abroad.  Turning to the second one, the small states insisted that they have the same number of votes in congress as the large states.  The large states, on the other hand, were determined to have more votes than the small states because they had larger populations.  (This one almost led to the Constitutional Convention disbanding before it had a new constitution.)  

In spite of sharply divided views and fierce debate, our early Fathers came up with ingenious compromises.  They solved the first concern by establishing a centralized government with three separate branches—the Legislative, the Judicial, and the Executive—each with different responsibilities that served as a system of checks and balances.  The second concern was resolved by forming two houses of congress: (1) the House of Representatives, with the number of voting representatives apportioned to each state by population, satisfying the large states, and (2) the Senate, with each state having exactly two voting members regardless of its population, appeasing the small states. 

Why was it that members of the Constitutional Convention, with sharply different political views, could find creative solutions to thorny problems and today our President, Senators, and Representatives are entangled in gridlock?   

I’m not a historian or politician, but it seems to me that primarily there are two reasons.   

(1)  The framing Fathers of the United States Constitution were genuine statesmen, who acknowledged an everlasting political truth: it is impossible in politics to get everything you want, and in the end it is better to get part of what you want than getting nothing. 

(2)  These men had their regular occupations in their home states and were in session as the U. S. Congress for limited periods of time.  They did not have the luxury of posturing for the next election—they had to keep their heads down, solving the problems facing the country. 

The members of Congress in the early days of our country were more divided than they are now.  The responsibilities of the Vice President include serving as the President of the United States Senate, where he or she votes only when the Senators have a tie vote.  Except when needed to cast a tiebreaking vote, the Vice President rarely actually presides over the Senate. 

If one looks at Senatorial records since the first Vice Present took office on April 21, 1789, it is interesting to see how many times the Vice President was needed to cast a tiebreaking vote, indicating the Senators could not reach a decision.  John Adams, our very first Vice President, serving 1789-1797, was needed to cast a tiebreaking vote a record twenty-nine times.  John C. Calhoun, serving 1825-1832, was needed to cast a tiebreaking vote twenty-eight times.   

Compare those numbers with recent Vice Presidents.  Al Gore, Vice President for Bill Clinton, cast a tiebreaking vote only four times.  Dick Cheney, serving under George W. Bush, cast a tiebreaking vote eight times.  And Joe Biden, our current Vice President has never been needed to cast a tiebreaking vote. 

So looking at Senatorial records, it appears that we are less sharply divided today than in the very early years of our country.  Yet, our early leaders in Washington got things done.  Today there is gridlock in Washington: our President blames the Republicans in the House for non-action; Republicans blame the President and the Senate Majority leader; Democrats focus their blame on Tea Party Republicans; and Tea Party Republicans blame other Republicans for not holding to core principles.  In other words, in Washington, D.C., everybody now blames everybody else.   

I suggest they all might pay heed to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Revised Standard Version)   



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