Wallace Bennett on the Role of Compromise in Government.

Wallace Bennett on the Role of Compromise in Government. December 14, 2012

The June 1976 Ensign magazine has long been a favorite of mine. It deals with a number of political and social issues from a variety of LDS perspectives. One brief entry has been coming to my mind lately.

Wallace F. Bennett served in the United States Senate from 1951 through 1974. My uncle served on his staff for a period of time. So I am biased in my deep respect for the Bennett family.

In this issue of the Ensign, Sen. Bennett addresses the following question:

What is the role of compromise in government? Is it a good principle, or does it inevitably involve lowering one’s standards?

His response:

Before we can answer this question, we need to learn the true meaning of the word “compromise,” which is “a mutual promise.” It properly describes an agreement reached through mutual concessions, or an acceptable adjustment between conflicting ideas or desires. It may also require the presence of a third or disinterested party as arbiter.

There are those who maintain that any compromise is evil or shameful because it may involve some surrender of “principle” or freedom. Unfortunately, my years in the Senate have taught me that those who talk of “principle” in this context really mean “interest”—their self-interest. Nor is compromise a true diminution of one’s freedom or free agency, because the scriptures are full of admonitions to use our freedom in the service of others and not for our selfish ends. Christ said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly.” (Matt. 5:25.)

Because conflicts and disagreements are natural experiences in the lives of everyone, the search for a solution through “a mutual promise” is natural and praiseworthy. Nowhere is this more true and real than in the divinely ordained institutions of marriage and the family. And when conflicts arise that do not cure themselves, the power and responsibility to act as arbiter rests upon the parents, and chiefly upon the father, who holds the priesthood. Hopefully, compromise within the family circle will be motivated and moderated by love. When one or more family members in the name of their “free agency” will not compromise, but seek to go their own way, this is pure selfishness. It could, and often does, break up the family as a viable unit of the kingdom of God.

The same thing is true as we move out beyond the family into the community and the nation. Here, however, the potential conflicts are greater in number and complexity, and usually instead of dealing with individuals, many groups are involved. At the same time, the healing power of family love has disappeared and self-interest has risen to fill the void. All this makes the need for an outside arbiter more imperative, and the obvious entity to secure this role is government, which has power to enforce its decisions. The fact that God intended this or at least approves of it is set forth clearly in the twelfth Article of Faith.

In our American form of government, the responsibility to find solutions to the problems of our citizens rests chiefly upon the Congress. As a member of the Senate for twenty-four years, I learned that nearly every issue that comes to Congress for solution represents a conflict of interest between groups or forces within our society or our economy, or between other elements of the government itself—conflicts which those involved have been either unable or unwilling to resolve themselves. When they come to Congress, these problems are made complicated because of the Congress’s own set of internal conflicts, created because each member must represent not only his state or district, but also the nation as a whole, and his own personal philosophy of government and moral standards. Nor are the bills considered ever limited to single, simple right-versus-wrong issues to which you can give a simple yes-or-no answer. In fact, in nearly every case when a Congressman tries to serve his constituents by standing firmly on an “all-or-nothing” basis, he gets nothing.

So compromise is an important element in lawmaking, the search for a combination of ideas that will not only provide the highest level of satisfaction for each and all of the groups whose interests are in conflict, but also, of necessity, attract the support of the needed majority to get the bill passed. But this is not all. There is still another dimension to the problem of which most people are unaware. This might be called “involuntary compromise.” Most bills are made up of many separate and often unrelated sections. This is particularly true of tax and appropriation bills, the parts of which sometimes run into hundreds. Inevitably every Congressman and Senator must support some and oppose others, but when the vote for final passage comes, he has to vote either yes or no on the whole package.

Having explained why I believe that legislation is impossible without compromise, I can now explain why this is not essentially evil. Must a legislator sacrifice his moral standards when he votes for a compromise? Never, unless he makes his personal decision for dishonorable reasons such as personal gain or paid-for political support. The most effective legislator is one who always keeps himself free to use his best judgment in doing all he can to see that every bill on which he works contains the best possible and fairest possible balance between the interests of the various entities that will be affected by it.

Is compromise good or evil? As with many processes, the answer to that will depend upon the reasons for a compromise—and the mode of its use.

This sense of the purpose and art of legislative law-making has largely been lost. When Utah turned on Senator Bob Bennett, they turned on a great legislator…much like his father.

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