The debt limit contretemps in Washington during these sweltering summer days threatens to end in financial disaster if Congress and the president can’t agree on legislation raising the cap on federal government borrowing. As everyone recognizes, there will be no solution unless competing factions that demand sharply different policies can compromise.
The problem lies in the two different meanings my dictionary offers for the noun “compromise:”
1. A settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions.
2. A concession to something detrimental or pejorative: a compromise of morality.
Both sides in the debt limit debate seem obsessed with the second definition. Accepting policies that violate major principles—higher taxes for Republicans, entitlement cuts for Democrats—would constitute concessions to things they view as “detrimental or pejorative.” That’s a hard step for either group to take.
But strict adherence to that view takes us down a road no one wants to travel. Despite claims to the contrary, failure to raise the debt limit would roil financial markets, perhaps not as violently as some predict but certainly enough to threaten our already weak economic recovery. Warnings from rating agencies and business leaders demonstrate real concern from people who ought to know.
Everyone involved in the debate must move to the first definition of compromise—accepting something that you don’t want in return for something you do. Total intransigence, be it a pledge never to raise taxes or a promise to maintain unaffordable entitlements, leads nowhere.
Despite the heat wave assaulting Washington, let’s hope that cooler heads prevail and political combatants move to the more productive meaning of compromise.