The art of compromise

By Phill Brooks
    Members of Congress and the U.S. president might want to look to Missouri for lessons about the consequences of holding a government budget hostage to achieve a legislative objective.

    In 2003 an example arose when a Missouri governor's budget blackmail probably contributed to his re-election defeat. For another governor, a budget compromise avoided a potential political disaster.
    The 2003 budget battle arose when Gov. Bob Holden presented to the legislature a budget to expand various government programs well beyond what state tax collections could cover. To fund those spending increases, Holden proposed what would have been one of the state's largest tax increases.
    But the Democratic governor had a problem. Republicans who opposed tax increases controlled the legislature So, it was no surprise they rejected a budget based on higher taxes. Holden refused to back down.
    The Missouri governor vetoed the smaller budget and called lawmakers back into an immediate special session to reconsider the tax increase to fund his larger budget. Holden's plan got little consideration by the legislature which ignored his tax hike idea and simply passed the identical lower budget the governor had rejected.
    In response, Holden again vetoed the budget and called lawmakers back into a second special session. But his refusal to budge got him nowhere.
    When the legislature again rejected the governor's tax hikes and larger budget, Holden caved and signed the legislature's no-tax-increase spending plan. The Democratic governor's tax-and-spend legacy haunted the remainder of his administration.
    A year later when he presented his budget plan to lawmakers in the formal "State of the State" address, the House GOP leader shouted out "release the money, governor" in objection to Holden's withholding a portion of education funding to put pressure for higher taxes.
    It was the first time in nearly one-half century I can remember a legislator shouting at a governor in the middle of the formal "State of the State" address. But it was an indication of how deeply Holden had damaged his ability to work with the legislature by his refusal to seek a middle ground.
    The continuing budget and tax controversy spelled the end of Holden's administration. Later that year, in 2004, he decisively lost the Democratic primary to Claire McCaskill, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial election to Republican Matt Blunt.
    I've often wondered whether Bob Holden might have had a more promising future if he'd been willing to compromise. After all, the benefits of compromise had been demonstrated just a few years earlier, in 1997, by Gov. Mel Carnahan.
    Carnahan sought expanded funding for family planning, which had been a priority issue for him. But a majority of the legislature opposed abortion and any potential funding to Planned Parenthood.
    Although Carnahan's Democratic Party controlled the legislature, lawmakers gridlocked and adjourned that year's regular session without funding the state departments providing health and mental health services. It was a potential budget crisis.
    Carnahan immediately called a special session in which a compromise was found and the budgets were passed. Carnahan got the family planning money, but with language prohibiting any of it going to Planned Parenthood.
    That compromise resolved what could have been a major political problem for Carnahan's subsequent campaign for the U.S. Senate a few years later. Of course, we'll never know because the governor died in a plane crash shortly before the 2000 election.
    As I follow the budget deadlock in Washington that impacts so many federal employees, private government contractors and citizens expecting government services, I keep thinking about Missouri's history of obstruction versus compromise on budget disputes. There's a lesson from Missouri, I think, that those in Washington might want to consider about the benefits of compromise compaired to the potential costs of obstinacy.
    The founders of our country never used the phrase "the art of compromise" in our Constitution, but they did establish a system that made compromise between competing sides essential for our governmental process to function.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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