Will 2023 be a year of cooperation or confrontation, as the 118th Congress grapples with a host of critical issues facing this country?
For weeks now, it has been painfully clear that a seemingly unbridgeable divide exists between the far right and centrist factions within the new Republican House majority, and to some degree among the Republican Senate minority.
The Democrats, meanwhile, must contend with the centrists and so-called progressives within their ranks. The party lost the House majority, albeit barely, and only slightly improved its hold on the Senate. That hold is tenuous, however, because the Democrats must rely on three independent senators—Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Krysten Sinema of Arizona—who have not often been willing to go along on critical issues, with the Democrats or with each other.
Cooperation, of course, requires compromise. Compromise helped make America great in the first place. Its absence, however, has been the congressional hallmark these last few years, and it threatens to bring this country down today.
This is no way to start a new year.
Perhaps the most significant compromise in U.S. history occurred in July 1787, and it was very Solomonic in nature. Delegates to the constitutional convention meeting in Philadelphia unanimously agreed that the new republic should have a single legislative body, but they could not agree on its composition. The more populous states wanted seats to be apportioned based on population, while the states with fewer citizens wanted each state to have an equal number of legislators.
The structure of the national legislature was shaping up to be the deal-breaker.
That is when Connecticut’s Roger Sherman stepped in with the Solomonic proposal known today as the Great Compromise. King Solomon was confronted by two women who each claimed to be the mother of a newborn child. To determine who the real mother was, he ordered that the child be cut into two halves, hoping that the real mother would reveal herself in order to save the child, which, thankfully, she did. (See 1 Kings 3:16-28.)
Sherman proposed dividing the legislative baby into two chambers, with proportional representation in one and equal representation in the other. For any law to pass, both chambers would have to approve.
The convention passed Sherman’s compromise by the razor-thin margin of one vote. Had it failed, there probably would not have been a Constitution, and there probably would not have been a United States.
There have been many important compromises throughout U.S. history. These often were reflected in the actions of a single individual who put country before party in deciding otherwise contentious issues.
In 1964, Illinois Republican Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen compromised to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act. The bill was considered dead on arrival in the Senate because Southern senators opposed it, and they mounted a 60-day filibuster—the longest in American history—to make sure that it stayed dead. Until then, no proposed comprehensive civil rights law had ever survived a Senate filibuster.
Under the old Senate rules, 67 votes were needed to end a filibuster. Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, was a civil rights proponent, but he objected to some of the language in the bill the House had passed. Working with Minnesota Democrat Sen. Hubert Humphrey, he crafted a compromise that not only ended the filibuster, but it handed President Lyndon B. Johnson a major victory just 11 days before the GOP convention was to meet to nominate someone to run against him.
Dirksen put country before party.
In 2017, the ailing Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain flew to Washington specifically to be the deciding vote to kill the Affordable Care Act, which he had fervently opposed. Instead, he voted to save the program, because he believed the country needed some form of affordable care and the GOP bill lacked any alternative.
McCain put country before party.
In 1977, Kansas Republican Sen. Robert Dole and South Dakota Democrat Sen. George McGovern compromised to save the nation’s food stamp program. In 1983, Dole compromised with New York Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to save the Social Security program.
Both times, Dole put country before party.
In 1997, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch withstood intense criticism from his party to join with Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy in creating the State Child Health Insurance program because, he said, “as a nation, as a society, we have a moral responsibility” to provide such coverage.
Hatch put country before party.
Finally, compromise late last month resulted in the passage of a bill that funds the government through next September. That bill also included the Electoral Count Reform Act, which clarifies the law regarding the vice president’s role in certifying the electoral college vote. The far-right Republicans in the House and many in the Senate objected to both parts of that bill and they fought hard to prevent its passage.
Eighteen Republican senators, however, put country before party in voting for it.
That debate, and the weeks-long and often acrimonious struggle to name a new speaker of the House, strongly suggest that compromise of any sort may be a dead issue for at least the next two years.
This bodes ill for the Congress — and for our nation.
Compromise helped make America great, but compromise requires that people of good will put country before party. It requires people who will sometimes let go of some of their most cherished beliefs in order to benefit the greater good—such people as Everett Dirksen, John McCain, Bob Dole, and Orrin Hatch.
There are not many of their ilk in the Congress, in the House especially. Those 18 Republican senators who voted for the funding bill (four of whom are now retired) have been threatened with retribution by the House Republicans. (“Their bills will be dead on arrival in the House,” tweeted California Rep. Kevin McCarthy.) The 29 Republican senators who voted against the bill also had harsh words and threats for their Senate colleagues.
From the Torah on, Judaism has always warned us against veering “to the right or to the left” in anything we do. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 5:19 and 28:13. See also Proverbs, Sefer Mishlei, 4:26-27.) This includes the king (see Deuteronomy 17:20), and, by extension, all leaders of the people.
As Maimonides, the Rambam, put it: “The right way is…that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes…, not being nearer to the one than to the other….” (See his Mishnah Torah, Laws relating to moral dispositions and ethical conduct, 1:4.)
Advised the prophet Isaiah: “Whenever you deviate to the right or to the left, your ears [should] heed the command [coming] from behind you [which says]: ‘This is the [middle] road; follow it!’” (See Isaiah 30:21.)
Nationally, Republicans in November won the popular vote for the House of Representatives by less than 3 percent. They won more Senate votes nationally, but by only 0.1 percent. This country is split almost exactly down the middle between left and right, and that is making it ungovernable.
Our political leaders at all levels have to bring this country back to the center, because the consequences for not doing so are too frightening to contemplate. That, however, will require both sides of the political divide to compromise—within their own factions and with the opposition party.
Judaism always has had much to say about the need to compromise. The Talmud, in fact, insists that “compromise has greater legal force than a judgment.”(See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 5b. Also see Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, The Sanhedrin, 22:6.)
In Exodus Chapter 18, Moses is advised to choose leaders “who fear God” and “who spurn ill-gotten gain.” As the sage Rabbi Elazar of Modi-in explained, leaders who are willing to compromise are the ones “who fear God.” Those who put the public’s interests ahead of their own are the ones “who spurn ill-gotten gain.” (See the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael on that verse.)
In making comprises, however, our leaders must be mindful of the criteria set forth by the sage Resh Lakish: Their decisions must be righteous, equitable, kind, virtuous, pure, and pious. Anything less is unacceptable. (See BT Sanhedrin 32b.)
In the Book of 1 Kings, we see the heavy price to be paid by a nation as polarized as this country is today, when the united kingdom split into two because King Rehoboam stubbornly spurned an offer to compromise. (See1 Kings 12:1-21.)
As for our role as “we the people,” our Sages of Blessed Memory debated whether a generation follows its leaders or its leaders follow their generation. (See BT Arachin 17a.) In the latter case, if we the people choose cooperation over confrontation, our leaders will do the same. If it is we who follow our leaders, the burden clearly is on them to make the right choice.
Either way, the future of this country depends on choosing cooperation over confrontation.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.