The Missing Crisis

07/11/2011 12:06 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

How exactly did compromise come to be a dirty word?

Republicans insist that any form of tax increase be taken "off the table" in negotiations with the White House. Congressional Democrats are equally insistent that entitlement programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- be taken "off the table," despite President Obama's willingness to negotiate entitlement reforms.

It's kind of hard to negotiate a budget deal when most of the biggest items in the budget are "off the table."

President Obama clearly has in mind some kind of triangulation strategy similar to what President Bill Clinton did when he negotiated a balanced budget deal with the Republican Congress in 1997.

But it doesn't seem to be working. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who has been involved in bipartisan talks, wrote in The Washington Post, "We are waiting for politicians to quit drawing lines in the sand and admit that solving this gigantic problem in a time of divided government means that both sides will have to give ground." That could be a long wait.

Deal-making and compromise are the normal way of doing business in American government. The Constitution requires it. It mandates a separation of powers, which means that every act of government has to be brokered between the White House and both houses of Congress. Deal-making becomes especially difficult if they are controlled by different political parties, as they are now. The only time we get decisive action in Washington is when there is an overwhelming sense of public urgency -- i.e., a crisis. Voters say to politicians, "You do something about this problem right now or else you're fired."

What's missing now is that sense of urgency. The public doesn't seem to be in a panic over an impending default on the public debt, despite Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's warning that a default would spark "catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades."

Conservatives have taken to downplaying the threat of a default crisis. "This is not a deadline we should rush and make a bad deal," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said on Fox News. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL.) told Reuters, "I am not convinced the sky will fall in on August 3."

There is no public pressure for Congress to vote to raise the debt ceiling. Precisely the reverse: polls show the public opposed to raising the debt ceiling. Raising it defies common sense. It sounds like a license for more irresponsible public spending and more debt.

This is an issue on which the real divide is between the American people and the political establishment. Members of Congress know that raising the debt ceiling is the responsible thing to do. Leaders of both parties agree that it has to be done. It would actually be easy to do. Just vote to raise it. No deals, no grand compromises. It has been done many times in the past.

It's much easier to do when one party controls the White House and Congress. Then the President's party grits their teeth and votes to raise the debt limit and the opposition party votes against it, knowing they will not prevail. Republicans voted to raise the debt limit in 2006, when George W. Bush was President and Republicans controlled Congress, and Democrats -- including Sen. Barack Obama -- voted against it.

There's no public pressure on Congress right now to make a deal to cast a popular vote. The pressure is to make a deal that they can offer as a justification for casting an unpopular vote: "My friends, I know you believe that voting to raise the debt ceiling was wrong and irresponsible, but I only did it so we could get this wonderful deal to straighten out the nation's finances and control the growth of government."

There are two problems with that argument.

One is that the voters don't care nearly as much about straightening out the nation's finances and controlling the growth of government as they do about the nation's real crisis: jobs. It's not at all clear that a debt-reduction deal would do much to stimulate job creation.

The other problem is that a deal may not look so wonderful to either party's base. It will infuriate liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. For many Members of Congress, angering your political base is a greater risk than endangering the full faith and credit of the United States. So there is little incentive to compromise. And a lot of pressure not to.