Why we can’t have nice things

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) appeared on MSNBC this morning, and spoke briefly about his perspective on the nature of compromise.

“[S]aying to compromise now, and I use this analogy a lot, is just like a coach telling his team to go out and work with the other guys and cooperate with them. The Democrats are there to beat us. Every policy that they introduce is to centralize power. They are completely incapable of cutting spending because their constituency is based on dependency on government and those who want more from government.”

As a matter of policy, we know DeMint isn’t telling the truth. Democrats in the Obama era, much like Democrats in the Clinton era, have cut quite a bit of spending. And as part of the “grand bargain” offer and the so-called super-committee process, Dems were prepared to cut even more, in exchange for some concessions from Republicans. GOP leaders refused.

But it’s that first part of the response that stood out. As Kate Conway put it, “Perhaps governing is all a game to DeMint, but his analogy should worry the real people who have elected him to represent their interests. Viewing his job as inherently combative in nature means rejecting one of its primary objectives — keeping the federal government up and running.”

That’s not an exaggeration. The American system of government, especially at the federal level, was developed after a series of compromises, and relies on additional compromises to complete even the most basic tasks. At a basic, structural level, the story of “how a bill becomes a law” is a story about … you guessed it … compromise.

Take the existing landscape, for example. First, House Republicans have to compromise among themselves, and maybe consider dealing with House Democrats. From there, the House and Senate have to compromise. In time, Congress and the White House have to compromise.

We don’t have a parliamentary system; we have separate branches with a variety of choke points. Compromise is built into the cake.

Except as DeMint helps remind us this morning, congressional Republicans no longer see it that way. Every conflict is a zero-sum game in which elected officials from the other party aren’t just rivals, but practically enemies. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made the case against compromise last week, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn’t even want to say “compromise” out loud a year ago, adding, “I reject the word.”

Of course, if Democrats approached every policy dispute with the identical attitudes, our system of government would shut down.

DeMint wasn’t asked this today, but I’d be curious how he envisions Congress making any laws at all. If compromise isn’t an option, could Washington only function when one party has the White House, the House majority, and a filibuster-proof Senate majority?