Major bipartisan compromises throughout U.S. history
America is more politically polarized than it has been in decades, with polls showing voters who identify as Republican and Democrat diverging sharply on political values, how political problems should be solved, and what they believe the nation's biggest priorities should be. Voters from both parties are finding it harder to come to an agreement about some of the most contentious issues facing the U.S. today, from immigration to gun control.
The same inability to compromise is reflected on Capitol Hill; members have become more ideologically divided, with painful consequences. 2019 began with a 35-day government shutdown stemming from the Republican president and Democratic House of Representatives failing to compromise.
This political gridlock is often the result of divided government, when the two chambers of Congress (or the presidency and Congress) are controlled by different political parties. In times like these, Congress tends to pass less-significant legislation because it's difficult for either party to achieve their goals without giving up something else.
This doesn't mean it's impossible, however. Divided government may hold back sweeping reforms, but it forces the parties to come together and make more moderate changes that can make everyone happy. Some of America's most significant pieces of legislation have been the result of lawmakers reaching across the aisle and working alongside someone with whom they normally disagree. To determine the most important of these moments, Stacker referred to the list of the most significant bipartisan compromises in U.S. history, compiled by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization.
This list includes bills, speeches from Congress, presidential Cabinet appointments, and even the “bundle of compromises” in the Constitution. Some are practical fixes to economic issues that everyone can agree on while others mark sweeping changes to pressing civil rights issues. Read on to see what even the most divided Congress can do when members work together.
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1787: The Great Compromise
When writing the Constitution, America's Founding Fathers understood the need for compromise in creating a system of government acceptable to 13 diverse states. As the name suggests, the Great Compromise is one of the Constitutional Convention's most enduring deals. Conflict over how each state should be represented in Congress threatened to tear the convention apart: Large states wanted to base representation on population size while small states advocated for equal representation. To break the deadlock, two Connecticut representatives proposed a Congress with two chambers, one with equal representation and the other based on population. The Great Compromise only passed by one vote, but it's stood the test of time for more than 200 years.
1860: Lincoln's Team of Rivals
Elected shortly before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln followed up his shocking victory with another stunner: appointing William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—the men he beat—to his Cabinet. A Democrat would later join them. Lincoln believed the people shouldn't be deprived of America's best thinkers and strongest leaders simply because the president disagreed with them. It also allowed him to unite the factions of the newly formed Republican party, and present a united front against the seceded Southern states.
1945: Truman's Supreme Court appointee
Harry Truman assumed the presidency in April 1945, after Franklin D. Roosevelt died 11 weeks into his fourth term. Three months later, Truman found himself needing to fill another vacancy after Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts resigned from the bench. Truman likely could have appointed a fellow Democrat to the seat, but the new president wanted to signal to Republicans that he was different than his predecessor, who tried to pack the court with sympathetic judges in 1937. Truman nominated a Republican senator, Harold Burton, who was the only Republican appointed to the court from 1933 to 1953.
1945: Sen. Vandenberg's bipartisan foreign policy
As World War II drew to a bitter close, both parties were becoming increasingly polarized over America's international responsibilities. Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the party's unofficial voice on foreign policy, had been a firm advocate of American isolationism. His views softened over the years, and on Jan. 10, 1945, he shocked colleagues when he gave a speech on the Senate floor proclaiming that no country could “immunize itself” from conflicts in the world. Vandenberg's speech fueled a period of bipartisan foreign policy, during which it pushed through important international agreements like the Marshall Plan and NATO.
1964: Civil Rights Act
At the peak of the civil rights movement, House Democrats finally passed a civil rights bill with the support of the White House, guaranteeing legal rights long-denied to African-Americans. Only the Senate stood in the way of this historic achievement, specifically the 21 Democratic senators from southern states who opposed the bill and began a filibuster to block it. Democratic majority leader Mike Mansfield reached across the aisle to his Republican counterpart, Everett Dirksen, to make the bill more acceptable to Republicans as a joint force. Dirksen went on to deliver a powerful speech from the Senate floor, calling on Republicans to end the debate and bring the Civil Rights Act to a vote: 27 were inspired to join the northern Democrats, and as a result, the filibuster ended, and the bill passed nine days later.
1965: Great Society
Lyndon B. Johnson set an ambitious policy agenda for his first full term as president. His Great Society aimed to improve education, fight poverty, increase access to voting, and prevent crime, among other projects. Congress took up the call and turned his progressive goals into significant legislative achievements. The Great Society increased Social Security, created Medicare and Medicaid, and supported African-Americans' economic development in the post-Jim Crow era.
1969: Man on the moon
Neil Armstrong's “giant leap for mankind” was the culmination of a huge push by Congress to build a space program that could beat the Soviet Union to the moon. After the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower called on Congress to support a stronger American space program. Both parties worked together to create and fund the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which sent Apollo 11 to space a decade later. Since then, both parties have continued to support NASA, with human travel to Mars as the next major goal.
1973: Endangered Species Act
Two Democratic Congress members, Sen. Harrison Williams and Rep. John Dingell, wrote the Endangered Species Act in response to President Richard Nixon's call to strengthen federal efforts to protect endangered species. Republicans responded positively to the bill, which added protections for plants and invertebrates, as well as the habitats they live in. It passed with overwhelming support, and many species have been taken off the endangered list entirely as a result. Despite the bill's success, members of both parties have attempted to weaken the law in the decades since.
1977: Food Stamp Program
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration created the Food Stamp Program in 1939 to address the poverty caused the by the Great Depression. It was phased out in the early 1940s with the post-war economic boom. President Lyndon Johnson made it part of his Great Society programs in the 1960s, but by the 1970s, Republican lawmakers were put off by food stamps' increasing cost. They introduced new eligibility requirements and cost controls, but Democrats feared that people who needed help were being subjected to an overly complicated process. Republican Sen. Bob Dole and Democratic Sen. George McGovern worked together and came to a compromise that streamlined the program while giving benefits to those who needed them most.
1983: Social Security reform
One of the New Deal's most enduring legacies, Social Security has long been a point of division between Democrats and Republicans. In 1981, the parties were forced to come together after the program threatened to run a deficit. President Ronald Reagan convened a commission to recommend solutions, and leading senators from both parties, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, created a group to turn those suggestions into legislation. Moynihan in particular reminded fellow Democrats not to get caught up in partisan fighting, and instead focus on finding a workable solution. They came to an agreement and managed to pull the program back from the brink, which was the last time Congress was able to agree to reform on this scale.2018 All rights reserved.