The Art and Beauty of Compromise

  • November 01, 2013
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

Thomas Jefferson, in an 1824 letter to Louisiana Congressman Edward Livingston, wrote, “A government held together by the bounds of reason requires much compromise of opinion.”

Editor’s Recommendation

More Notes from the President

October 2, 2017

At The Pew Charitable Trusts, we help address some of society’s most difficult challenges through research and action that is evidence-based, nonpartisan, and results-oriented. As such, our work, too, is “held together by the bands of reason.” And what Jefferson observed about government is equally true of Pew’s efforts: Reason requires dialogue and principled compromise. The art and beauty of informed compromise, sometimes lost today, is that it can help diverse parties achieve mutual goals without abandoning their core values. This is why Pew brings people of varying interests together, to find shared purpose and common ground—for that is how and where meaningful results are achieved.

This issue of Trust reports on three examples of Pew’s work in which the power of knowledge led to education, informed decisions, and real progress.

A decade ago, the Pew Oceans Commission issued a landmark report that changed how we view our nation’s coastal waters. The commission brought together leaders from science, fishing, conservation, government and academia. Not surprisingly, these experts in their fields often disagreed. Participants brought to the table a perspective from their own experience about how to protect the oceans. But through their meetings and public hearings, the commission members built mutual respect, which in turn developed trust in each other and an openness to constructive compromise. 

This led to two important agreements. The first was a shared acknowledgement that economic sustainability requires environmental sustainability. The second was a series of recommendations for which the commission’s chairman, the gifted public servant Leon Panetta, won unanimous support. They included restoring America’s fisheries, promoting education and research about ocean ecology, preserving our coasts, and establishing new ocean protections.

In the decade since the commission issued its report, the spirit of cooperation and respect that guided its deliberations has brought significant victories for America’s citizens. The commission gave new urgency to protecting the oceans, spurred creation of the nation’s first ocean policy to emphasize conservation, and helped win bipartisan support in Congress for limits on fishing that were based on science. The United States now has some of the best-managed ocean waters because of our science-based catch limits. And today Pew is taking this example of accomplishment to the world stage with the launch of the Global Ocean Commission at Oxford University.

Pew brings people of varying interests together to find shared purpose and common ground.
Rebecca Rimel

The pursuit of compromise and shared goals is also at work in state capitols and in our cities. Policymakers throughout the nation are grappling with large, underfunded pension plans promised to state and local public employees—a problem fraught with potential conflict. But Kentucky has shown that workable solutions are possible. After years of stalemate, lawmakers there created a bipartisan commission to study the state’s underfunded public pensions. Pew served as an adviser to the task force, whose members refused to be disagreeable even when they disagreed. The Republican-controlled Senate favored replacing the defined-benefit plan (a traditional pension) with a defined-contribution plan (such as a 401[k]). The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives argued that was too risky for workers. But with technical assistance from Pew, the two sides came together and created a hybrid plan, borrowing the best elements of both kinds of pensions. The reform package is expected to save Kentucky and its localities billions while protecting the retirement security of current and future workers. 

To make progress like this possible, the first step often is understanding diverse points of view. This knowledge can lead to tolerance, civility, and reasoned dialogue. The Pew Research Center’s religion and public life project, for example, has studied the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. It surveyed 38,000 people in face-to-face interviews in 39 countries, and the responses provide new insights into the unity and diversity of the Muslim community. Even more important, the study is helping build understanding of a growing faith in the United States.

Fact-based compromise is more than an ideal—it is an indispensable tool for bringing together the best minds, moving past misunderstanding, and solving problems. That is why for The Pew Charitable Trusts, bridging the differences that divide us and searching for the solutions that bind us will always inform our work and give expression to our values.