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Kunin: On Compromise

07/27/11 7:55AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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(HOST) Former Vermont governor and commentator Madeleine Kunin worries that the widening schism between Congressional House Republicans and the President and Senate Democrats is more than a debt ceiling or budget balancing crisis. She believes that the inability of the two sides to reach a compromise may reveal a crisis in the workings of Democracy itself.

(KUNIN) The United States has always been diverse with lots of factions, both of geography and belief - north and south, east and west, conservative, moderate and liberal. James Madison, wrote in the Federalist Papers how factions can serve to bring about a "tyranny of a minority" thereby harming the democratic interest of the majority. The miracle of American democracy is that - despite our differences - we could come together when necessary, guided by our constitution, the Bill of Rights and an American sense of fairness. The only disastrous exception was the Civil War which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans.

We have since avoided such divisive calamities because we have learned to compromise, to see the other person's point of view and respect it. Children refuse to compromise. Adults learn how. Compromise, contrary to popular opinion, does not mean selling out one's principles. Compromise means working out differences to forge a solution which is better than no solution at all.

I learned the art of compromise in the Vermont legislature. Often, what I strongly believed was the right answer to a problem, turned out not to be perfect. In the legislative process one is forced to listen to and work with the other side. The outcome may not closely resemble what either side had first proposed, but in the hard work of compromise, the result often turns out to be a better solution than what was originally proposed.

Sometimes compromise is painful. When I chaired the House Appropriations Committee I had to compromise with the Senate Appropriations Committee over the budget for the state of Vermont. The House then was controlled by Democrats, and the Senate by Republicans. We had our differences; we had our pet projects. How did we manage to compromise and produce one budget? The process was not sophisticated. We split the difference, almost straight down the middle. It worked. Both sides were satisfied because we had given and gained equally.

In the debt and budget crises that is looming over us right now, there is no give and take. One side has given by acceding to significant budget cuts that will be hard for most Americans to absorb. The other side has refused to give by not closing tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans. The result is a bitter divide that is tearing the country apart. Taking the debt ceiling hostage is a dangerous gamble which threatens both our economy and our democracy.

It's time to recognize what compromise means: no side wins or loses all. The real winner of compromise is not either fighting party - it is the American people.
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