After watching the Illinois legislature these past few … what, months? years? … I’ve been thinking a lot about compromise and where it actually fits in the realm of political activity.
As I write this, leaders have admitted that, for the third year in a row, they won’t make the midnight May 31 deadline to produce a state budget. Already the disingenuous finger pointing has begun, invoking a tradition that has defined the last few years — going back, if we’re honest, to at least the George Ryan era, of all periods. Interestingly, the fingers waggle on a single word.
Surveys have found strong public support for lawmakers to reach some deal on the budget. The Daily Herald and newspapers around the state have been championing that word literally for years when it comes to the impasse. Press releases we get almost daily emphasize the willingness or the success of this lawmaker or that in promoting “bipartisanship” or the value of compromise in solving difficult problems.
Communications we see from state leaders constantly tout a particular leader’s desire to compromise while simultaneously portraying his or her political adversaries as the ones who are refusing to negotiate – sometimes, as in a statement from the House speaker on Wednesday, maliciously twisting facts beyond recognition under a guise of innocent sincerity.
Compromise, all indications seem to suggest, is good. Refusing to compromise, by extension then, is bad.
Until, apparently, it comes time to put one’s name onto the voting record. Here, I am put in mind of conversations I had last week with Springfield insiders who noted the resentment of Democratic senators who saw the coordinated editorial campaign under the heading “Unacceptable,” that we, the Sun-Times and newspapers across the state produced to emphasize citizens’ frustration with the budget stalemate. Many of these lawmakers had just voted for the double whammy of political risks — a $5.4 billion income tax hike, which many wanted, and $3.75 billion in program cuts, which many didn’t. But they’d negotiated the cuts and other aspects of the budget they produced with “the other side” and wanted to act. They felt the editorials did not recognize their effort and seemed to react to the tax increase rather than their willingness to compromise.
To be clear, the editorials, ours at least, were aimed at all lawmakers and the governor. But for many senators, apparently, they were confirmation of politicians’ skeptical conclusion that they would be punished by friends for accepting things they didn’t want — program cuts — and by enemies for the things they did want — a tax hike. Republican senators, a Democratic observer hastened to point out, had not had to take that risk, and wouldn’t. If the budget were to get approved, Democrats could face constituent anger and primary election challenges for supporting program cuts. Republicans, whose support was not needed to get the budget passed, won’t have the stain of a vote in favor of a tax increase on their records.
That narrative does not tell the whole story, of course. Maybe the Democrats were just trying to make Republicans look bad. Maybe Republicans really did just want a little more time to work on the details. The budget negotiation is a complicated process. It’s always easy to cite as faults what “the other side” considers honest disagreements. It’s easy for a partisan to attack Gov. Bruce Rauner for failing to produce a balanced budget in two years. It’s easy to demonize House Speaker Michael Madigan for, essentially, the same thing. And both leaders deserve much of the criticism. But as much as the budget stalemate is a simple test of the two men’s brutal wills, it also is something much more delicate, something wildly intricate.
The Daily Herald referenced it in an editorial Wednesday praising two state representatives — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — who have demonstrated a willingness to risk their leaders’ disapproval, maybe even at times that of their constituents, in order to work for the good of the whole. They are legislators comfortable in their own skins and in their political districts. Many others are not so invulnerable. They doubt that the campaign slogan “She compromised!” will stand up against an opponent’s “She voted to raise taxes!” or “He voted to cut services!”
Would that it could. Amid all that’s wrong with a political system in Illinois that puts so much power in the hands of two or three individuals, the great obstacle — it seems to me as I keep reflecting on that beloved, reviled, much-abused word compromise — seems to come down to whether we as citizens will trust our elected officials to engage in real give-and-take negotiation or whether we will punish them when they do. If it’s the latter, perhaps we’d best stop trying to seem so reasonable and accommodating when the public opinion researchers call.
Jim Slusher, [email protected], is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.