“A house divided against itself cannot long endure,” Abraham Lincoln so eloquently said.
More than ever, since then, the country is again divided against itself, and again, it is about values and class warfare and, of course, money.
Historical themes repeat themselves.
In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president arguing that the Reagan and Bush budget deficits were leading the country into bankruptcy and that the U.S. should lock its borders and stop the flow of imported foreign goods.
During that 1992 presidential campaign, I was working in the U.S. Senate and had the opportunity to visit 20 high schools, meeting with thousands of students to talk about how Congress works.
To make government come alive, we created a mock Congress with students divided into two groups, half serving as a Senate and half as the House of Representatives. Their job was to pass a law based on whether seniors should be allowed to leave campus during lunch.
Both student chambers individually debated and passed a bill and then elected representatives to a conference committee who were charged with negotiating a compromise. That compromise was then taken back to their separate chambers to see if they would accept the compromise.
Some passed bills allowing seniors to leave campus during lunch, while others allowed both juniors and seniors to leave campus. Some passed bills allowing any student to leave campus, and some, especially when underclassmen were the majority, passed bills not permitting anyone to leave campus. Rarely were the bills the same.
Of these 20 schools, only one agreed to the same original bill. They probably wanted to go home early.
The other 19 schools elected representatives to meet in conference and negotiate a compromise. Two of those 19 agreed on a compromise. Seventeen could not reach an agreement. Some failed at the committee level, and others could not get both houses of their congresses to agree to the same bill.
Of course, the students faced strict time constraints, the process was new to them, and they lacked the ability to communicate with each other during the process.
However, they did learn that compromise is difficult — and had they more time, perhaps they would have figured out how to give a little and get a little to reach a compromise.
Today, Congress is teaching us that the lack of compromise hurts everyone. Its inability to reach a debt ceiling deal until the last minute cost the U.S. its stellar credit rating. Neither party seems willing to accept the fact that the middle is wide and where the majority of the public wants to be.
Last week, the Super Committee — specifically, The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, 12 members of Congress, six from the House and six from the Senate, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — was scheduled to present a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction plan. It could not agree and failed, just like 85 percent of those students who could not find common ground. To make matters worse, that $1.2 trillion is peanuts. It is spread out over 10 years and equals only 10 percent of projected deficits over that time. Even if they could have reached a deal on that, the really heavy lifting – another $3-4 trillion – still lies ahead.
In addition, if the super committee finds a compromise, that compromise will look like every other deficit reduction proposal, the good ones and the bad ones, out there. All of them propose formulas based on an amount or percentage of something. The hard work of filling in those blanks is assigned to a future Congress.
Budgets matter. They define policy. Improving schools or not, fixing bridges or not, providing or reducing health care to the elderly, cutting or increasing taxes may or may not be good ideas. The common denominator is that nothing happens without compromise.
During the cold war, the threat of nuclear war was called MAD: mutually assured destruction. Today, MAD defines the political process. If everyone demands a full loaf and only a full loaf, we all starve.
A century and a half ago, a few weeks before he was killed, President Lincoln reached out to both victor and vanquished alike, a common “us,” stitching together a single nation among enemies who distrusted each other, and said, “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Today’s leaders need to hear the echoes of Lincoln’s lips. Will they listen?