The Philosophers and the Partisans

Jon Kyl, November 27, 2012

Many lament the state of affairs in Washington today. The Congress doesnít seem to function as it should. President Obama issues executive orders that bypass the normal legislative process and evade democratic accountability. Everyone, it seems, is arguing rather than listening.

To some, the solution to this challenge is obvious -- compromise. But itís not that simple. In some instances, compromise may indeed be the best solution. But it is not a panacea; and, in fact, compromising for its own sake badly misdiagnoses the problem and could lead to negative outcomes if weíre not careful.

The very premise of our constitutional form of representative government is that contests between ideas should be encouraged as the best way to produce effective policy solutions. Given that such contests are the very foundation of our system of governance, it follows that neither liberals nor conservatives should lightly compromise their principles just for the sake of "doing something." Moreover, our nation is at a crossroads, with numerous economic, fiscal, and security challenges before us. These are not minor issues; they will determine the direction of our country for decades to come. Unsurprisingly, there are different ideas about how to solve them.

While our differences on these matters can be profound, we can and should debate them robustly, because political philosophies provide the principles and structure for rational public policy.

In my view, the real problem in Washington is not ideology, but partisan politics. And there is a difference between the two. When liberals and conservatives debate the merits of a particular bill -- when they air substantive policy disagreements in order to formulate the best legislation possible -- that is a good thing, and that is healthy for our democracy. When senators perform the role as Democrats and Republicans and play "gotcha" with each other, itís not healthy. Engaging in partisan politics with an eye to gaining political advantage and scoring cheap points results in gridlock.

Itís a problem that seems to be getting worse. One reason for the relentless partisanship, I believe, is the nearly perpetual election cycle that prevents Congress from getting almost anything of substance accomplished. This endless campaign is fed by 24-hour, 7-day-a-week political news coverage and a "Twittersphere" that seeks to frame every issue in partisan terms -- offering little incentive for either party to back down.

This is not how things have always been, and itís not how they have to be. There used to be some time after each election when Democrats and Republicans could legislate outside of campaign mode, and I am hopeful that leaders in the administration and Congress will once again see the wisdom of reviving that "period of seriousness." A little political dťtente is critical to building trust across the aisle and getting things done, as is learning to disagree without being disagreeable.

Maybe this can be revived during the holiday season.

Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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