Finding Better Routes to Compromise

Everybody likes to talk about bipartisan compromise, but there’s surprisingly little talk about what kind of institutional structures are likely to produce it. In particular, policy elites seem eerily obsessed with the idea of the Graybeard Commission as the key to getting the job done even though there’s little evidence that it works.

To take a different stab at things, I’d say a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed are the rewards toward tactical extremism. If you had agreement on any given level of revenue that you wanted the federal income tax to raise, I think it would be relatively easy to achieve a compromise between Democrats and Republicans as to what the structure of the tax code should be. And really it should be the easiest thing in the world to find a compromise on the level of revenue. Republicans want X, Democrats want Y, so we settle on [(X+Y)/2] and get down to talking about structure. A problem arises, however, because if everyone knows that that’s how the game is going to be played everyone has an incentive to exaggerate their demands. There are some incentives to not be so over the top unreasonable that people laugh you out of the room, but fundamentally nobody wants to show weakness.

You could imagine a totally different model, one that looked more like a binding arbitration. Say that instead of appointing a bipartisan commission you appoint two partisan commissions. In January, Democratic leaders appoint the Democratic Fiscal Commission and Republican leaders appoint the Republican Fiscal Commission. Both commissions work, roughly in secret, for months. Then on Labor Day 2011, both commissions release their plans and on Election Day 2011 the American people vote in a binding referendum for either the Dem Plan or the Republican Plan.

Now you have a totally different set of tactical incentives. Yes, you want to hold fast to your core policy goals. But instead of it being the case that the best way to protect your core policies is through across-the-board extremism, now the best way to protect your core goals is to be very accommodating on everything else. Here instead of both sides taking their “real” preferences and then shifting their states position three clicks away from the center, they’ll take their “real” preferences and start shading them toward where they think the median is. The upshot won’t be a “bipartisan compromise,” it’ll be the victory of a partisan proposal at the polls. But both of the options will be partisan proposals crafted specifically as part of a serious effort to gain widespread support.

Anyways, I expect this idea will be greeted with a lot of small-minded nit-picking in comments. So in the spirit of full humility let me just state explicitly at the outset that any proposal that sketches out a major re-structuring of how the American political system works in the course of a blog post will have some holes. The point I’d like people to take away, however, is this. Many people are not happy with the outputs our political system delivers. Given that fact, we should spend less time complaining about the human beings who inhabit that system and more time thinking about how the system could be restructured to create better outcomes. Passing the buck back and forth between Congress and sundry Graybeard Commissions isn’t getting the job done.