Next Wednesday is the deadline for action by Congress' so-called 'super committee,' charged with reducing the federal deficit over the next 10 years. Under the last-minute August deal to raise the debt ceiling, $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts will take effect if the bipartisan super committee fails to agree on a different plan by Nov. 23 or if either the U.S. House or Senate fails to approve that plan by Dec. 23.
At this point the prospects for an agreement on deficit reduction look dim. The super committee appears to be at an impasse on what spending to cut and whether to raise taxes to accomplish some of the reduction. And even if the committee reaches agreement, the House or Senate may fail to approve it.
What's missing from this picture is the willingness to compromise.
All but the most ideological analysts recognize that solving the federal deficit will require a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. But a majority of U.S. House members and a near majority of U.S. Senators have signed a pledge to never raise taxes. Many in Congress insist that cuts to military spending must be off the table. Others say the same about Medicare and Social Security. The federal deficit will not be dealt with unless they compromise their absolutist positions.
A model for responding to this fiscal challenge can be found in the 1983 changes to Social Security. Congressional leaders of that time saw the cost of benefits for baby boomers looming like a distant tidal wave and built a fiscal seawall. Their bipartisan compromise combined benefit cuts, in the form of a higher retirement age for people then under the age of 45, with an increase in the payroll tax. As a result, Social Security is fundamentally sound today and will need only smaller adjustments to remain so.
An uncompromising attitude is not limited to Congress. Closer to home, we see rigid positions staked out in state and local politics. Whether it's the design and financing of replacement bridges, how and where our urban areas will grow or how long criminals will remain behind bars, partisans refuse to reach necessary compromises.
The very word, 'compromise,' has become negative to many people. They view it as abandonment of core values.
This attitude misunderstands how representative democracy is meant to work. The voters choose those who will represent them in a House or Senate chamber, on a county commission or on a city council. Those elected representatives will inevitably disagree on many issues because of differences in personal philosophy and because they were elected by different sets of voters. Compromise is how those disagreements are reconciled to produce positive decisions. When Congress, the state Legislature, a county commission or a city council fails to compromise on important issues, all we get is inaction.
A stagnant economy, an aging population, an expensive health care system, an activist military establishment and past tax cuts combine to produce federal deficits that threaten the well-being of future generations. This moment calls for what some refer to as a 'grand bargain,' combining spending cuts with more tax revenue. But such a grand bargain cannot be reached without the willingness to compromise.
Greg Macpherson is a resident of Lake Oswego and former state Representative for District 38.