Friday, July 8, 2011

The Impending Crisis

Washington, D.C. is full these days of talk of impending crisis and "grand bargains." For an American historian, those terms inevitably are reminiscent of the great compromises of the pre-Civil War era, all of which had something to do with the great divisive issue of the day, slavery. Can those crises tell us anything about today's events?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be "no." Slavery divided the country along sectional, not party, lines. But there are aspects of those crises that do provide some insight into the Republican, or more accurately, Tea Party approach to the debt limit.

And that pattern involves raising issues of policy to matters of dogmatic principle.

Earlier this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that if the Republicans do not take the deal that the Democrats are currently offering, it will mean that they are no longer a "normal" party. Yesterday, David Frum argued that the

coming vote [on the debt ceiling] is one where almost every House Republican will want to be on the losing side. But if they all get their wish – then they win. And of course … the country and the world loses, and loses horribly.

This idea of a compromise where everyone wants to be on the “losing side” is reminiscent of the Compromise of 1850, which preceded the Civil War by little more than 10 years. The difficulty of resolving the issues in 1850 were a harbinger of the utter inability to find a compromise a decade later.

The mindset today is similar to the one that prevailed in 1850.  This morning on NPR's "On Point," Major Garrett of the National Journal said that the idea now is for a "too big to fail" or "big bang" deal; i.e., if everything is included, if all outstanding issues are addressed, then members of Congress will have to vote for it.

That was how Congress initially approached the problems of 1850.  The "Great Compromiser" Henry Clay, leader of a special Senate committee, proposed what was called an "Omnibus" bill.  According to James McPherson, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, "this package was designed to attract a majority from both sections by inducing each to accept the parts it did not like in order to get the parts it wanted."

It sounded like a good idea. The problem was, "as the legislators labored through the heat of a Washington summer" (sound familiar?), most congressmen "signified their intention to vote against the package in order to defeat the parts they opposed."  Clay's Omnibus bill was defeated.

It is not a stretch to see the same thing happening to any "too big to fail" deal today. Republican leaders like Speaker John Boehner have been saying that a deal that includes any increase in tax revenue cannot pass the House. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday reacted strongly against any agreement that cut Social Security or Medicare.

So the prospects are not bright.

But there was a Compromise of 1850. Perhaps that holds out some path forward? Sadly, probably not. 

After his bill was voted down on July 31, Clay left Washington in despair, fearing that the failure of his bill would mean disunion. Stephen Douglas, as McPherson puts it, decided to "pick up the pieces" and pass the bill--"in pieces." He divided the Omnibus into five parts, and then assembled ad hoc majorities for each of the five parts. This allowed most members of Congress to vote against the parts they did not like, while voting for those they did like.

In 1850, there were enough legislators willing to oppose the pull of sectional loyalty to make compromise possible. It is questionable whether such a strategy could prevail today. As stunning as it may be to say, today's uncompromising attitude, particularly coming from Tea Party types, seems even greater than the sectional stubbornness of 1850.

The next few weeks should tell us whether we are in worse shape than we were in 1850. Most Republicans in Congress (41 in the Senate and 236 in the House) have signed Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise any tax ever. Perhaps they will revolt, as some did in the recent vote on ethanol subsidies, and show themselves to be a "normal" party. But if not, there will be no "grand bargain."

[In my next post, I will examine the similarities between the Tea Party's demonization of compromise and the mindset of the leading opponent of compromise in 1850, John C. Calhoun.]

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