MUTZ: Is compromise actually a dirty word?

November 26, 2011

John MutzCompromise for many Americans has become an undesirable human failing. Scholars define it as “a settlement of a dispute in which two or more sides agree to accept less than they originally wanted,” or “to lessen the value of something” or “to expose to danger.”

Some of the most ardent detractors of the current congressional impasse would probably argue that the last definition, “to expose to danger,” describes how they feel when compromise in the halls of Congress threatens their view of how the country should be run. For some people, it is wrong to give in if it means not getting everything they want. But others feel the failure to compromise jeopardizes the future of the republic.

Whether we want to admit it or not, compromise is essential to our way of life. No successful marriage endures without the give-and-take of compromise. Business often requires the compromise of the profit motive with what’s best for employees, the community and long-term goals.

A more simplistic compromise is the series of decisions we make when driving down the street in our automobiles. We must compromise the desire to get someplace quickly with the need for safety as we navigate traffic.

Compromise can produce a desirable outcome for everyone, but more likely will give us a result neither side likes.

Usually, that situation is the hallmark of a “good” compromise. When the framers of the U.S. constitution reached agreement on having both a senate, which has two elected senators for each state, and a house of representatives, with the number of members from each state based on population, it created through compromise a brilliant system of checks and balances.

Few compromises are this significant, but in retrospect we now see its value.

Negotiators in a controversial situation are most effective if they listen carefully to the other side. If one side believes its position is “right,” it is likely the other side believes just as fervently that it is correct. Not to listen seriously is a form of hubris that destroys reasonableness.

My 21 years of legislative experience has taught me that you seldom achieve everything you want the first time you try. In my budget-cutting days, I found that a half-loaf turned out to be better than no loaf at all. In trying to get a new concept started to save taxpayer money, I found that getting a foot in the door was the only way to get what I considered to be a good idea started.

Although I didn’t easily accept this kind of compromise, I learned there would always be another day or legislative session when my idea could be accepted. It might have been due to a lack of persuasiveness on my part, but it sometimes took as many as six sessions to get the desired result.

Right now as the economy reels, it is popular to criticize our system of government and call for reform. For me, it’s not our system of checks and balances that should be changed. What we need most is a better way to apportion our legislative districts.

Now there is an incentive for legislators to create safe districts where similar philosophies dominate the makeup of the electorate. If elected representatives can follow the predominant views of the district, they continue to get re-elected. This practice ensures that there are a modest number of “competitive” contests, which does not produce an environment where compromise can be easily attained.

Candidates should not run for office with absolute promises that do not leave room for compromise. Being so inflexible that compromise is impossible is illogical and unjustifiable.

What the candidate should do is pledge to use good judgment and common sense because compromise is necessary for a democracy to work properly. It is an art form that carefully balances the individual’s preferences with what is best for society.•


Mutz has held leadership positions including lieutenant governor and president of Lilly Endowment and PSI Energy. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by John Mutz / Special to IBJ

Comments powered by Disqus