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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: Compromise for the greater good

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Opinions

As the battle of the budget in Congress wears on, I’m increasingly reminded of my hometown of Seekonk. Every year in Seekonk, the town was divided into two camps—parents with children in schools and the elderly. And every year, when it came time to draw up a budget, one of the two would find themselves indignant. For the elderly, any raising of taxes was considered a direct attack upon them. For the parents with children, any slashing of education funding (and the Board of Selectmen would always take money from education) was considered a direct attack upon them. This would lead to heated town meetings year after year where both sides would say similar things in increasingly hysterical tones. You would get passionate testimony from teachers talking about how they could not possibly teach 30 kids in a classroom with outdated books, only to be followed by angry testimony from a senior citizen decrying the latest round of prescription price jack-ups.

In the end, the elderly won far more battles than the families did. The greatest occurred when one of the town’s three elementary schools closed due to lack of funding five years ago. Naturally the education system muddled on, albeit with 35 elementary-school kids per classroom. I still feel bad for the teachers but I also knew countless senior citizens who were falling behind on their monthly bills. Someone’s goose had to be boiled and it was the children who paid the difference in the town budget. Nonetheless, the school system got its revenge when the elderly tried to convert the school into a town nursing home. Educational administrators balked, claiming the school as a form of bureaucratic headquarters. Two years later, the school was sold, provoking even more outrage.

Despite all of these squabbles, however, life in my town went on. It was not easy and there was always someone on the losing end. Yet they would grumble, pick up the pieces and continue moving forward. It’s an example of stoicism from which congress could learn a lot. The actors are aiming for the same budget measures they always have. The Republicans want to slash democratic projects such as Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency while the Democrats want to maintain the budget in the name of economic recovery. Strong arguments can be made for and against both. Which side you agree with, if either, most likely depends on your ideological preference. Every year, during the budget process, the two parties bicker, not unlike the people of my hometown. Yet every year for the past decade, they grudgingly come to a compromise of some sort and lick their wounds while planning how to get more leverage for next year.

Unfortunately, this year finds the ideological divide cutting deeper than usual. Negotiations between the two sides have broken down and everyone in the political sphere is expecting a government shutdown due to lack of funding. What this will entail is a furlough of more than 800,000 government employees and a suspension of pay from the military. Additionally, it will render pointless all other legislative goals and completely tie down government attention. These shutdowns tend to be quite nasty but luckily also quite brief. I suppose that eventually it gets difficult to rationalize withholding pay from people who are dying to protect you overseas. Nevertheless, a government shutdown is a travesty but an eminently preventable one. There isn’t a satisfying reason for what now seems like an inevitable breakdown in negotiations. The reasons for the absurdity of the ensuing situation are the following.

First, Congress has known that this day would come for many months now. It is not as if this sprang upon them from some unforeseen catastrophe. On the contrary, everyone in Congress knew this was coming and even foresaw it.

Yet they could not look beyond themselves in order to reach some kind of compromise. And by compromise, I mean a budget bill that would allot victories to both sides, thus making everyone at least somewhat satisfied. Ideological posturing could surely wait for the budget process next year when there would be more time. You might ask, however, how the two parties’ situation is any different than a union that fights for its rights against a corporation. If both sides believe they are right, doesn’t it make sense for them to hold out in order to protect their rights (or in this case their political will)? This analogy falls, however, when you consider that the government has obligations to its people above all else. That’s why the government has the power to break strikes when there is a compelling national interest—the interests of the state outweigh any kind of personal or ideological pursuit. Thus, one would think that the government would find a way to keep itself running in order to provide such critical functions as paying its military and passing legislation. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.

The second and more important reason why a shutdown would be absurd, however, is the fact that the two parties are not all that ideologically far apart.

Moderate members of both parties, which outnumber radicals by a healthy majority, are being pulled to the ideological poles of their party. This in turn creates a situation where we have the Tea Party against the most leftist liberals. Such a wide gap in viewpoints and wishes does not represent the true viewpoints of the parties and thus does not represent the true wants of the majority of the people. I would argue that more than half of the country would be satisfied by some kind of compromise. The 20 to 30 percent who would not be satisfied, should not outweigh the majoritarian desire or national interest in having a functioning government.

Thus, in the end, all I want is for John Boehner and Harry Reid to act like the elderly and the young families in my town. I want them to make a grudging compromise.

They may not be happy but the rest of country should be, knowing that their services will not be cut and the men and women fighting in their name will be paid. In the end, all I want is for the Democrats and Republicans to toss aside their ideological wants and look to American interests.