The Case For (Even More) Compromise
Democrats have had a good two years. But they could have been much better.
In 2021, when Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Democrats had just won exceedingly slim majorities in both the House and the Senate. Given the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, expectations for what bills could actually make it onto Biden’s desk were low. And yet, two years later, Biden has more legislation under his belt than nearly anyone would have predicted, largely due to his willingness to compromise with Republicans and moderate Democrats. Among the major bipartisan accomplishments are a half-trillion investment in infrastructure, federal protection for same-sex marriage, reform of the Electoral Count Act, and bills to support onshoring semiconductor manufacturing, strengthen gun safety requirements, and fill a gap in veteran healthcare.
By all accounts, this record is impressive. It would be easy to look only at the laws that passed and call Biden’s first two years a legislative success. But that assessment begins to look a bit too rosy once you take into account all the legislation that Democrats left on the table because they were unwilling to compromise.
There was, for instance, an opportunity to pass a police reform bill. In the heat of the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, Democrats drafted a comprehensive and ambitious bill that would have overhauled policing in America. Republicans were not on board. Instead, Republican Senator Tim Scott came back with a less ambitious proposal of his own that would nevertheless have improved the state of policing in America. The JUSTICE Act, as it was called, would have strongly incentivized or mandated that departments ban the use of chokeholds; use body cameras; track and report civilian deaths, injuries, and the use of no-knock warrants; institute better and more training on use of force, de-escalation tactics, duty to intervene, and responding to psychological crises; and track and report officer misconduct to prevent bad apples from getting rehired in other jurisdictions.
In response, Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Senator Cory Booker called Scott’s bill “so threadbare and lacking in substance that it does not even provide a proper baseline for negotiations.” The main criticisms of the legislation were that it relied more on financial incentives (making some federal funding contingent on compliance) than on hard mandates. Furthermore, it didn’t touch the legal protection that police officers have from most civil lawsuits, a doctrine known as “qualified immunity.” Scott was able to pick off a few moderate Democrats, who did end up supporting his bill, but not enough to break the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. In the end, Democrats killed the bill by filibuster. The next year, after Biden had taken office, negotiations started up again, but broke down for similar reasons. Nearly three years down the line from the initial reform push, Democrats have nothing to show for their hard-nosed negotiating tactics, and it’s clear that passing a compromise bill would have done more to move the ball forward on police reform than passing nothing at all.
A year later, at the end of 2021, something similar happened with another important policy: the child tax credit. The policy, which provides payments to low and middle-income families with children, had been expanded as part of Biden’s Covid stimulus bill. The change nearly doubled the amount of money that parents received per child and made the credit available to the lowest-income parents, who had previously been ineligible for the full benefit. The expanded benefits lifted around 2.1 million children out of poverty, effectively cutting the American child poverty rate in half.
With the expansion set to expire at the end of 2021, Democrats’ plan was to include it in their “reconciliation” package, which only needs 50 Senate votes to pass rather than the usual 60 that the filibuster requires. With an evenly split Senate, Democrats needed unanimity to reach the vote threshold. But not every Senator was on board: Joe Manchin said that he would only vote for an expansion if it included work requirements and means-testing. The Biden Administration and progressives took a hard line and refused to negotiate, saying that all families should qualify for the program regardless of work status or income. Neither side would budge, and when the reconciliation bill eventually did pass in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, it conspicuously lacked an expansion to the tax credit. In the aftermath, one expansion advocate told Vox that their coalition had made a “giant miscalculation” in thinking “that we had nothing to lose if we held out for more.”
This habit that Democrats have is ultimately a destructive one. And it’s not limited to these two examples. Democrats also killed a marijuana reform bill that would have allowed cannabis-related industries to access the banking system—an important step towards legitimization of the industry and ensuring financial security for small business owners who currently have to rely on running cash-only operations. But because this narrow bill didn’t fully decriminalize the drug and expunge criminal records, as a different proposal did, Democrats considered it a “setback” and blocked it.
Even on abortion, Democrats could have earned the support of two Republican Senators on a bill to codify Roe v. Wade. Instead, Democrats put forward legislation that went beyond the protections afforded by Roe, losing the support of the two Republicans and one Democrat in the process. Though the narrower bill still would not have passed the 60-vote filibuster threshold, the fact that Democrats insisted on the more aggressive bill over the one that could have earned bipartisan support is emblematic of the instinct that has stymied progress in other areas. As Schumer put it “We are not looking to compromise something as vital as this ... This idea of ‘Oh do a little bit of this, do a little of that,’ forget it.”
It’s easy to understand why Democrats found it difficult to compromise on some of these issues. Slow and plodding change is less satisfying than dramatic and sweeping change, and Democrats likely believe that by playing hardball they can get more of what they want. Unfortunately for those who are eager to see rapid wholesale transformation, however, the American political system of checks and balances favors incrementalism.
Democrats need to further their agenda within the parameters of the political system that actually exists, not the one they might wish existed. That means they will need to pass legislation that can earn majorities in both chambers, get the signature of the president, and pass constitutional muster. Though the vast majority of legislation that will be able to do that will be incrementalist, it can still make a real difference to the lives of ordinary Americans—and even the stability of our democratic institutions.
Importantly, Democrats have already shown an ability to compromise on certain issues. At the start of 2022, the party was deriding a GOP plan to clarify ambiguity in the Electoral Count Act—the law that Donald Trump tried to exploit to overturn the 2020 election result. Democrats were in the process of pushing a complete overhaul of the voting system, and Schumer called the narrower GOP effort “insufficient,” “cynical,” and “offensive,” declaring that it was intended “to divert attention from the real issue.” But before the year was over, Democrats had reversed course and signed a bipartisan deal to rewrite the Electoral Count Act so as to prevent the kind of mischief Trump tried after his 2020 loss—even though their bigger ambitions on voting rights weren’t included in the legislation.
Democrats would be wise to follow this same approach in other policy areas where there is an opportunity for bipartisanship. Tim Scott, for instance, says that he is still open to working with Democrats on a policing bill. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a child tax credit expansion of his own, which the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates would lift 1.3 million children out of poverty. Compromises could also likely be negotiated to pass some marijuana reforms and to get a few Senate Republicans on board a bill codifying Roe, even if it has no hope of reaching the 60-vote threshold and would be mostly symbolic.
None of this is to say that Democrats should unilaterally disarm and give in to any and all GOP demands. Being willing to compromise does not preclude Democrats from horse trading or from pressing their advantage when they have the high ground on public opinion. Compromise and negotiation are not mutually exclusive.
But ultimately, the only reason that Biden was able to sign so much good legislation over the past two years was his party’s willingness to forge bipartisan compromises. Biden and his party should use the remainder of his term to come back to the bargaining table and take all the remaining half loaves they can get—not because the legislation will be perfect or because it will miraculously fix all of America’s problems, but because it would make the country a marginally safer, healthier, and more prosperous place.
Seth Moskowitz is a contributing editor at Persuasion. He also writes Brain Candy, a newsletter about politics and elections.
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Hate to say it, but I have to suspect Democrats are being disingenuous in holding out for provisions they know the GOP will never accept, not even the few who might be amenable to a compromise along the lines described in the post. Early in the first Bush term, the administration proposed what struck me as a genuine, much needed revision of the immigration laws; but Democrats blocked it, holding out for what they called "comprehensive" reform, their code for "path to citizenship", something GOP had denounced as "amnesty". A senior Democrat - Speaker Pelosi herself, as I recall - let the cat out of the bag, that Democrats were determined to keep the GOP administration from getting any credit for reform in Dem's supposed core constituency among Hispanic voters. (Since then, I've always put my hand on my wallet when any politician starts carrying on about "comprehensive" anything.)
Those of us who have had the opportunity to improve a product or a service appreciate incrementalism. As I wrote in a response to an earlier Persuasion article, incrementalism is the Deming Cycle: Plan - Do - Check - Act - Repeat. It's a lot of hard work, but nobody has found a better way to get things done better. However, the Deming Cycle only works in an environment where results can be and are measured, which is not the environment in which many of our elected officials prefer to operate.