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March 2, 2015

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Congress and the lost art of compromise

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Twenty-six years ago, I walked into the U.S. Capitol as a new congressman, representing a district that stretched across Southern California from Simi Valley to Gorman to Catalina Island. This month, I cast my last vote in Congress, joining 84 other Republicans and 172 Democrats to pass the “fiscal cliff” legislation.

Being a member of Congress — and representing the needs of 700,000 people — is both an honor and a responsibility. You always are aware that people around the world are watching Earth’s largest democracy, with some cheering it on and some hoping it will fail.

These days, I fear that those who wish us ill are rejoicing because Congress is letting itself be defined by its differences.

When I was elected to Congress, my goal was to represent my constituents to the best of my ability, and I quickly realized that would mean working across the aisle. The 100th Congress was composed of 258 Democrats and 177 Republicans. I was in the minority, which meant that if I wanted to be effective, I was going to have to ally myself with like-minded Democrats.

In today’s Congress, the 113th, the majority has shifted, with more Republicans than Democrats. But that’s not the biggest difference between then and now. My colleagues in the 100th Congress understood that it was our job to seek common ground to do what was best for the country. Like today’s Congress, we were an ideologically divided group with every part of the political spectrum represented, from the far right to the far left. But we found ways to compromise without sacrificing our core beliefs. We moved the country forward.

We understood that there was a time to campaign and a time to govern. Today, Congress is constantly campaigning. Governing has fallen by the wayside.

The battle over the fiscal cliff provides a perfect example. The Biden-McConnell compromise was a lopsided bill. It maintained middle-class tax cuts, but it kicked the hard decisions on cutting spending down the road. I voted for it on New Year’s Day not because I thought it was a good bill but because it was the lesser of two evils.

Going over the fiscal cliff would have caused immediate draconian tax increases and could have thrown the United States into another deep recession. Avoiding that was important, but the economy remains in grave danger. Federal spending and the size of the government must be dramatically curtailed for the United States to balance the budget and cut the national debt.

More important, Congress and the president must create an atmosphere of confidence and certainty so companies can put people back to work. Cutting government spending alone, while imperative, will not balance the budget. We must grow the economy and create more good jobs for American taxpayers. Keeping taxes lower is a worthy goal, but it’s sustainable only if substantially more people are working and we reduce the size of government.

Congress has always had a habit of waiting until a decision was forced on it before it acted. In the Army, you hurry up and wait. In Congress, you wait and hurry up. Now it’s wait until the last possible second and then address only the narrowest slice of the issue at hand.

The fiscal cliff deal solved little because we postponed the hard spending decisions and the effects of sequestration until March, when the military will face massive spending cuts. Such postponement only exacerbates the problem, creating continued uncertainty for financial markets and entrepreneurs as well as for the military and our allies.

That’s not the way to run a country.

On Jan. 3, 84 new House members were sworn in. The weight of history now lies on their shoulders. It is my hope that they will understand that they can compromise without violating their basic and fundamental principles and objectives. That is the very foundation of our republic.

For more than two centuries, politicians with competing convictions have found a way to reach common ground and move America forward. In recent years, we have faltered. The 113th Congress has an opportunity to once again embrace compromise and understand that our differences are also our strength. They are what has made us the strongest and greatest democracy in the world.

Elton Gallegly represented parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in the House of Representatives for 13 terms. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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  1. I applaud Congressman Gallegly, who was willing to think independently, instead of being a party puppet, and do what is best for the country (passing "fiscal cliff" legislation).

    I hope he will continue to "network" in order to pass along his expertise (especially to new House members), even though he won't be officially returning to Congress. I hope he also continues to give input to the media.

    Every effort helps to counter the fear mongering voices of doom. An example of a new constructive problem solving group is No Labels -- a growing organization of bipartisan congressional members.