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Opinion

To avoid fiscal cliff, Obama and GOP should compromise like Founding Fathers (+video)

President Obama and John Boehner express optimism that a budget deal to avoid the fiscal cliff will be reached, but gridlock threatens. Politicians would do well to remember that America was established by men who sorely disagreed. Consider the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

By Stephen W. Stathis / November 28, 2012

President Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner while speaking to reporters at the White House, Nov. 16, as he hosted congressional leaders to discuss the 'fiscal cliff.' Op-ed contributor Stephen W. Stathis writes: 'The Constitution was born only after a series of imaginative compromises were agreed upon....Compromise worked then, and it can work now.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Annandale, Va.

Looming weeks away is America’s “fiscal cliff.” President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are both optimistic that a deal on spending cuts and taxes can be reached. But Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the former bipartisan deficit commission, says there’s only a one-third chance Washington will reach an agreement in time to avoid the fiscal precipice.

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COMMENTARY: Harvard Kennedy School Professor Linda Bilmes discusses the US national debt and deficits.

What Washington seems to have forgotten is that America was established by men who disagreed sorely, but created a government founded on the philosophy that varying views could be coalesced for the common good. As challenging as these modern issues are, consider the questions grappled with by the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

The delegates were faced with deciding the composition of the House and Senate, the method of electing the president, the structure and jurisdiction of the federal courts, and whether to count slaves for the purpose of representation and taxation. They had to agree on a tariff policy, the slave trade, the assumption of state debts, the admission of new states, the procedure for amending the Constitution, the control of the militia, and restrictions upon the states, and general relationship of the national and state governments.

A majority quickly decided that the Articles of Confederation (the precursor agreement to the Constitution) needed to be replaced by a new document that ensured a stronger national government. But there were conflicting opinions over how the new government should look. This was to be expected given the divergent economic and geographic circumstances of the states the delegates represented. On many of these issues, a resolution came only after a long and bitter debate. The Constitution was born only after a series of imaginative compromises were agreed upon.

Take for example, the Three-Fifths Compromise. At the insistence of delegates from southern states, Congress was denied the power to limit the slave trade for a minimum of 20 years, and slaves – although denied the vote and not recognized as citizens by those states – were allowed to be counted as 3/5 persons for the purpose of apportioning representatives and determining presidential electoral votes.

Most important, perhaps, delegates compromised on the thorny issue of apportioning members of Congress, an issue that had bitterly divided the larger and smaller states. The small states wanted each state to have the same number of representatives, and the large states wanted representation determined by population. Under a plan put forward by delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut (known as the Connecticut Compromise), representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population, while each state would be guaranteed an equal two senators in the new Senate.

Although the delegates at the 1787 Convention faced an arduous challenge, the document they drafted continues to be the foundation of American government and political thought to this day. Compromise worked then, and it can work now.

Shortly after the work of the convention was completed, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter on the importance of compromise: “It is necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours." And in another piece of correspondence, he echoed: "I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony.”

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