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On the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Hustle

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at political bargains. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

To those disheartened by the compromises tagged unto the health-care bill before Congress, I say, c’est la vie.

When there is politics, there are bargains. To bargain is to attempt to purchase or acquire something at a steal or at a lower cost than usual. Because a bargain is by definition a transaction that would not normally have occurred without negotiation or haggling, all political bargains are corrupt to some extent. The Connecticut Compromise, the “corrupt bargain” of 1824, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1876, today’s “Cadillac” Compromise – you name it – they all had something shady in them, though shadiness is in the eye of the beholder (usually the loser).

And so it is on the road to healthcare reform in 2010; among them are the new Louisiana purchase ($300 million for Mary Landrieu’s vote) and the Cornhusker hustle or the Nebraska Compromise (Ben Nelson got Nebraska exempted from Medicaid increases). Ironically, the reason why these deals had to be brokered in the Senate is directly attributable to the Connecticut Compromise of 1787, which had proposed proportional representation in the House according to the population size of districts and equal representation of each state in the Senate in order to secure the support of the Constitution from delegates from states big and small. Out of the Connecticut Compromise was born the idea of a minority veto, and that’s in part why the Senate has become the preeminent institution it is today even though the Founders had intended that the House be the first legislative branch.

One compromise always begets another. This is the story of politics. Consider the Bill of rights – the deal-making compromise or condition that allowed Anti-Federalists sitting on the fence to come on board with the new Constitution. The Bill, of course, wasn’t so much a Magna Carta as it was an instrument to defend states’ rights and peculiar practices such as slavery and segregation. One compromise begets another.

The Democrats will do whatever they need to to pass health-care reform before the president’s State of the Union address. And the solution will be imperfect and tainted by compromises. It cannot be otherwise because we desire more to lead than to be led, and compromise allows us to find the tolerable medium between the two.

Whatever health-care legislation we pass will lock into place a peculiar settlement that is a reflection of the contingent set of circumstances that had to be addressed to deliver the current solution but in so doing it will also set up the conditions for a future political debate. And perhaps this is as it must be, for our founding document itself had paved the way in being little more than an elaborate list of compromises, article by article.

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