‘Common ground’ vs. ‘compromise’

Felicia Sonmez

“Compromise” is not the same thing as finding “common ground.”

That’s the argument that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made Monday morning in a lecture at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center (named for the Republican leader in the other chamber, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky).

As a special bipartisan “supercommittee” faces a Nov. 23 deadline to craft a plan to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade — and as polls show the public’s view of Congress has reached an all-time low — Boehner made the case Monday that the panel’s 12 members should seek out areas of mutual agreement rather than devise a plan that requires pain from both sides.

“My message to you today is simple: faith in government has never been high, but it doesn’t have to be this low,” Boehner said, according to his prepared remarks. “The American people need to see that despite our differences, we can get things done. We can start by recognizing that ‘common ground’ and ‘compromise’ are not the same thing.”

The co-chairs of the “supercommittee,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), “couldn’t be more different ideologically, and neither are going to compromise on their principles,” Boehner added.

“But I believe they share a commitment to finding solutions — finding those ‘areas of overlap’ between the parties, and getting them done,” he said.

How is it possible for Congress to find “common ground” without compromising?

In making his case Monday, Boehner cited two recent bipartisan pieces of legislation: Congress’s approval earlier this month of three long-stalled trade pacts as well as a House measure last week to repeal a 3 percent withholding rule on government contracts.

“In both of these cases — on trade, and on the IRS bill — we found common ground, and acted on it,” he said. “Nobody was ‘compromising on their principles.’ We were doing what the American people sent us to Washington to do!”

But it’s worth noting that the challenges that face the debt supercommittee — and those that faced both parties in crafting August’s debt-ceiling deal — are different from those that faced Congress on the trade deals and the withholding repeal.

The bipartisan co-chairs of previous deficit-reduction efforts have urged that in order for Washington to seriously tackle the debt problem, Democrats will need to compromise on entitlement reform, and Republicans will need to compromise on taxes.

That’s an argument that the former co-chairs are likely to make again tomorrow as they testify at the debt supercommittee’s fifth hearing. It’s a fault line between the parties that has existed long before the current debt debate, the same battle over the “philosophically big-ticket items” that Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged during his springtime negotiations with party leaders on debt reduction.

A Pew Research Center poll in late July showed that with a potential default looming, 68 percent of adults believed that lawmakers should “be willing to compromise, even if it means they strike a deal you disagree with.” Only 23 percent preferred that members of Congress “stand by their principles, even if it means the government goes into default.”

Broken down by party, 81 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of independents preferred a debt compromise to default, while only 53 percent of Republicans — and 42 percent of tea party supporters — said the same.

That could in part explain why Boehner on Monday made the case for “common ground” vs. “compromise” — and also why Democrats on the supercommittee have offered a plan that would include cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Since they unveiled the proposal last week, the panel’s Democrats have been taking heat from labor groups and their party’s liberal base, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka blasted the proposal in a conference call with reporters Monday morning.

“Was I surprised? Yes, I was surprised to see some of the suggestions coming out from the Democratic side,” Trumka told reporters.

The full prepared text of Boehner’s McConnell Center remarks is below:

Good morning.

I want to start by thanking Senator McConnell — both for the honor of being invited to address this impressive institution here in the Bluegrass State, and for his friendship.

Sen. McConnell and I spend a lot of time together. I really couldn’t be blessed with a better partner. He’s a man of integrity, and one of the best legislators I’ve ever worked with. I’m truly grateful for his friendship, and for our partnership. And I’m deeply honored he asked me to be here today.

I also want to thank our hosts today, Dr. Ramsey, the President of the University, and Dr. Gregg, the director of the McConnell Center, who got his doctorate from Miami University, in my congressional district.

Mitch told you a little about me in his introduction. Grew up a little north of here, in Cincinnati. Eleven brothers and sisters. My dad ran a bar. I worked in that bar. Eventually worked odd jobs to pay my way through college. Ended up running a small business.

I’m product of the free enterprise system. Before I got involved in government, I was one of millions of small business owners across America who make our economy go. I know the challenges they face every day — meeting a payroll, creating jobs, and dealing with the government.

I got involved with government because I saw politicians killing the goose that laid the golden egg. . .choking our economy. I got mad enough that I decided to do something about it, and I ran for office.

Never thought I’d end up being Speaker of the House. But the same things still drive me today.

I speak to you today at a time of great challenge for our country and our country’s economy.

Whether you’re one of the 10 students who attend the University of Louisville on a McConnell Center scholarship each year, or one of the thousands of others who will pass through its doors each year — the condition of our economy is something millions of young Americans today face.

The unemployment rate is stuck at more than 9 percent.

We have a national debt that exceeds the size of our entire economy.

Millions of our citizens are out of work.

Because of government’s seeming inability to focus on these challenges, this is also a time when confidence in our nation’s governing institutions is at an all-time low.

After almost a year of being speaker, it’s more clear to me than ever what some of the obstacles are in Washington.

My message to you today is simple: faith in government has never been high, but it doesn’t have to be this low.

The American people need to see that despite our differences, we can get things done.

We can start by recognizing that “common ground” and “compromise” are not the same thing.

Let me explain.

“Common ground” and “compromise” are commonly, and mistakenly, equated with each other in the political discourse today. The mistake is made by individuals on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Shortly after being elected Speaker, I said I preferred the term “common ground” to compromise. And I do believe there’s a difference.

There is no question the American people want elected leaders who will stand on principle and stick to their principles. They want leaders who do what they say they’ll do. . .who will keep their promises and fight for them.

But I believe it is equally clear that the American people expect us to get things done. They expect us to seek common ground, and act on it once it is found.

Common ground doesn’t mean compromising on your principles.

Common ground means finding the places where your agenda overlaps with that of the other party, locking arms, and getting it done – without violating your principles.

Too often, “common ground” and “compromise” are assumed to mean the same thing.

As a result, we sometimes see people with good intentions on both sides of the aisle operating out of an aversion to common ground – because they don’t want to be viewed as compromising on their principles.

The result of this mistake is a less functional government, which results in a further erosion of trust in our institutions.

We can’t afford that.

The jobs crisis in America today demands that we seek common ground, and act on it where it’s found.

We did it on the trade agreements.

Two weeks ago, President Obama signed into law three trade agreements that have been in the works for five years.

These agreements will result in the creation of thousands of American jobs.

They were enacted with bipartisan support. No one violated their principles to get them done.

The same thing occurred just last week on another jobs bill -- a bill by Diane Black of Tennessee that repeals the 3 percent withholding tax the IRS imposes on small businesses that deal with the federal government.

We scheduled it for a vote, and the president embraced it. It passed easily.

In both of these cases — on trade, and on the IRS bill — we found common ground, and acted on it.

Nobody was “compromising on their principles.” We were doing what the American people sent us to Washington to do!

And they want more of it. We need to continue to do this on jobs.

My colleagues and I have a plan for jobs. It’s been our focus for many months.

I gave a speech last month at the Economic Club of Washington where I talked about the need to liberate our economy from the shackles of government.

As a guy who ran a small business, I believe strongly that until we get away from a government that is constantly meddling, manipulating, and micromanaging our economy, we won’t see lasting job growth in our country.

I realize Barack Obama and Joe Biden are probably never going to agree with that statement. It’s probably going to take a different administration to do the things I think are truly needed to turn our economy around.

But that doesn’t absolve us of the obligation to do together what we can, now.

While our differences are many, there are real areas of overlap between the two parties on solutions that can make a difference in the jobs crisis our country faces.

I want to briefly highlight three bipartisan jobs bills that are opportunities to keep the common ground going -- to build on the bipartisan momentum we’ve established in the past month on jobs.

The first is H.R. 872, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, authored by Bob Gibbs of Ohio, which was passed by the House back in March.

The bill is designed to eliminate costly and duplicative permitting requirements for pesticide applications.

A misguided 2009 court order directed the EPA to issue permits for pesticide use near waterways. But pesticide use is already heavily regulated. . .all the permitting does is add costs for farmers, ranchers and job creators. So this bill stops it.

57 Democrats voted for this common-sense bill. That’s nearly a third of their caucus.

But it’s been stuck in the Senate without action since March 31. And today — yes, today — the court order goes into effect.

It should have been stopped months ago. It’s disappointing that the deadline has arrived and this bipartisan bill hasn’t been enacted yet. But the Senate can still act.

This is a clear opportunity for further common ground on jobs. No one has to “compromise.” We just need to get it done.

On October 6, the House passed H.R. 2681, the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act.

Estimates show that rules recently issued by the federal government could shut down nearly 20 percent of the nation’s cement plants in the next two years, driving up the price of cement, increasing imports, and eliminating thousands of American jobs.

The bill passed by the House gives federal regulators additional time and guidelines to develop achievable rules governing emissions from cement manufacturing facilities.

The extended timeline is necessary to prevent plant shutdowns and protect jobs.

When President Obama traveled to the Ohio-Kentucky border in September to call for passage of his jobs plan, he spoke at a local employer, Hilltop Concrete.

The jobs of the workers at that plant may end up in jeopardy because of the rules this bill is intended to stop.

25 Democrats voted for the bill, including James Clyburn, the Assistant Democratic Leader.

I’m certain that President Obama wants to protect the jobs of the workers at Hilltop Concrete and similar plants across America. This is another area for common ground.

If there are differences, let’s work through them. There’s no reason we can’t get it done.

On October 13, the House passed H.R. 2250, the EPA Regulatory Relief Act — a bipartisan bill co-authored by a Republican, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, and a Democrat, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina.

The bill gives federal regulators additional time and guidelines to develop achievable rules governing emissions from industrial, commercial and institutional boilers and incinerators.

The rule that is currently being implemented would hurt manufacturers, businesses, and schools across the country, hampering job creation and global competitiveness.

41 Democrats voted for it, including a member of the Democratic leadership.

This is one more common-sense jobs bill -- an opportunity for common ground on jobs that doesn’t require either side to “compromise” on its principles. There’s no reason we can’t get it done.

The danger is that these areas of overlap on job creation will become pawns in a political game — held hostage to a broader debate while the two parties spar in the clash of philosophies.

There’s too much we agree on to allow that to happen.

We owe it to you — the young Americans who’ll be entering the workforce at the end of this school year — to get this stuff done.

We also owe you action on another issue, and that’s the debt crisis facing our country.

The current generation of students will graduate from schools like this one at a time when our country faces questions about its role in the world. Our competitiveness is declining, while our debt is increasing.

If you’re a student here at the University of Louisville right now, or a student at another university, there’s no one who has more at stake in this issue than you do.

As a consequence of our debt, the United States faces the ongoing possibility of downgrades in our nation’s credit status. For the first time in generations, the credit worthiness of America is coming into question.

We face the possibility of these downgrades due to our failure to deal decisively with the spending epidemic in our government -- specifically, by our failure to deal with entitlements that have us spending trillions more over the next several decades than we take in.

We caught a glimpse a few months ago how disruptive these downgrades can be to our economy. In response to the failure to reform entitlements, the stock market plunged.

Here, again, is a place where the search for “common ground” can and must drive us.

Right now, a Joint Select Committee — or “super committee” — is tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings that can be used to reduce the deficit. The committee’s deadline is rapidly approaching.

Nobody thought the committee’s job will be easy, and it hasn’t been. No one is surprised by that.

But I have high hopes that in the weeks ahead this panel will find common ground.

Everyone knows we can’t solve the debt crisis without making structural changes to our entitlement programs.

You know it. I know it. President Obama knows it.

If we don’t make those changes, the programs won’t be there for your generation when you need them. Everyone understands this.

And the fact of the matter is, strengthening these programs will be good for our economy.

Nothing — nothing — would send a more reassuring message to the markets than taking bipartisan steps to fix the structural problems in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

The two co-chairs of the committee, Jeb Hensarling and Patty Murray, couldn’t be more different ideologically, and neither are going to compromise on their principles.

But I believe they share a commitment to finding solutions -- finding those “areas of overlap” between the parties, and getting them done.

Common ground — without compromising on principle — is the recipe that produced some of the greatest policy milestones in recent memory.

The 1996 welfare reform law is probably the most successful domestic policy reform of the past quarter-century. It was enacted by a Republican Congress under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

It happened because both sides ultimately knew it had to be done — and locked arms and got it done.

The same type of effort now can lead to success on jobs, and our debt.

This is personal for me, and I know it is for Sen. McConnell as well.

I want these things to happen. I didn’t take this job to preside over a partisan screaming match.

I took this job to be the Speaker of the whole House. . .to listen to the people who truly hold the power in this country, listen to their priorities, and get stuff done.

We owe it to you — the current generation of students — the future of our country — to get this done.

As I said earlier, faith in government has never been high, but it doesn’t have to be this low.

It’s natural to have doubts about the government. Americans have been doubting their government leaders for more than 200 years, and it’s a healthy thing.

But we should never lose faith in our country, or in the system the Founding Fathers designed.

It has worked and kept our nation strong for two centuries. And I believe it will continue to do so more centuries to come.

Thank you for the honor of being with you today.

I look forward to your questions.