Simpson Bowles Should Mediate Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

The election is over.  The result, which is “divided government” is clear.  But the “Fiscal Cliff” remains and the projected drop to the bottom of the economic and political black hole beneath the cliff looks more and more ominous.  This is beause the longer divided government takes to collaboratively take the steps necessary to avoid, not just the draconian increase in taxes and cuts required in the short term, i.e., before January 2, 2013, if they don’t act, but also to avoid the perilous uncertainty which will inevitably result from markets perceiving a lack of a clear, coherent policy and commitment directed to restoring stable economic growth, as well as predictable and reliable long term deficit reduction.

This result can only be reached through negotiation by the leaders of the divided government that we just elected albeit in a “Lame Duck Session” of Congress this month and next.  The good news, perhaps, is that the leadership of the Congress and The President won’t change next year, so what they agree to in the “Lame Duck Session” can be moved forward next year.  But haven’t we seen this political theater before.   In fact, we have seen this production on multiple occasions for the last two years and each time, it was less entertaining.

What we can do to prevent the usual partisan political theatrics from visibly intruding on these important negotiations, and thereby disrupting the development of the sound budgetary public policy-making, and implementation that this country needs so badly and quickly?  The answer to that question was born with the establishment by President Barack Obama in January 2012 of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which became known as the “Simpson-Bowles Commission”, after its Co-Chairs, former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R. Wyoming) and former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, Erskine Bowles.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission consisted of 18 members (6 Senators and 6 House members and 6 individuals representing the general public).  The task of the Commission was to produce a report recommending budget steps that would address short-term and long-term fiscal issues.  Following months of meetings, 11 of the members signed onto a report recommending that the federal government take dramatic action.  However, that number was short of the super-majority requirement of 14 votes necessary to send the package to Congress for an up or down vote.

Nevertheless, the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report remains the most credible and most often mentioned debt/deficit reduction plan on the table.  More importantly, for our immediate purposes, the already great prestige and credibility, as well as the leadership skills of both the Co-Chairs of the Commission, Retired U.S. Senator and Harvard Professor Alan Simpson and Former White House Chief of Staff and Businessman Erskine Bowles, have been enhanced substantially during the Commission’s proceedings and thereafter. Both Simpson and Bowles continue to enjoy the almost universal respect and admiration of not only the other members of the Commission but also, The President and the leadership of both sides and parties in Congress, including those members of the Commission and the Congress, such as Congressman Paul Ryan (R. Wisconsin), who voted against their plan.  Indeed as MSNBC Commentator “Morning Joe” has noted “Simpson and Bowles are now a part of our pop culture”.

In an insightful and valuable “Governance Study” authored by Brookings Institution, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies, Darrell M. West and Research Associate, Ashley Gabriele entitled “Ten Leadership Lessons from Simpson-Bowles”, the authors point out that “the Co-Chairmen were responsible for identifying viable ideas, building support, and negotiating with individual members.  Through a series of one-on-one meetings and shuttle diplomacy, they were able to determine what each member supported, where they were absolutely opposed, and identify areas of compromise”.  Now, if that isn’t a working and practical combination of sophisticated, facilitative, evaluative and even transformative mediation techniques, I’m not the trained mediator that I think I am.  It’s also called “Leadership”.  The two roles – Mediator and Leader, particularly in a political context and a public policy facilitation, are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, in this instance, the combination is essential.

For that reason, this writer urges that the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations between the leaders of both Chambers of Congress and The President of the United States be mediated by Retired Senator Alan Simpson and Mr. Erskine Bowles.

I suggest this fully recognizing that it will be even more challenging to reach an agreement when negotiations are between elected officials particularly, the most powerful elected officials in the country.  All the more reason for the respected Senator Simpson and Former White House Chief of Staff Bowles to be able to have the kind of candid, confidential and unrestricted discussions that build trust with each of these leaders while building relationships to achieving a politically viable, fair and comprehensive resolution of this complex political and public policy dispute.

These private discussions helped Simpson and Bowles in their previous roles as Commission Co-Chairs to write a tentative plan which was called the “Chairman’s Mark”. Brookings Staff Director, Darrell M. West and Research Associate, Ashley Gabrielle describe the “Chairman’s Mark” as “a key and very useful starting point in Commission negotiations”.  If that isn’t analogous to, if not identical, to what mediator trainers and experienced mediators refer to as a “Mediator’s Proposal”, then I am suffering from “Mediator Hallucination”.  It may be that the use of these sophisticated  techniques by these skilled mediators and leaders in the face of an “impasse” is essential to success in this high stakes negotiation because as Simpson-Bowles Commission Staff Director Bruce Reed explained “The key to success of bipartisanship was actually listing to what the other side had to say.  The more time spent meeting one-on-one, the more we could figure out what it would take for each side to reach an agreement”.

The process best suited to facilitating these listening sessions and then following up on them to achieve a final agreement on these heretofore intractable issues, is Mediation with former Senator Alan Simpson and Mr. Erskine Bowles, described by Budget Director Alice Rivlin as the “Yin and Yang of Deficit Reduction”, the “Numbers Guy”, and the “Color Commentator”, articulating reality-based tradeoffs and choices, serving as Co-Mediators.

Robert C. Fiskis and Peter S. Adler, in an article in the 2007 Edition of AC Resolutions ironically entitled, “Leading From Behind” wrote “If conflict is the crucible of leadership, negotiations are the mortal and the pestle.  Responsible, professional and political officials must lead the people and organizations they represent through the grinding and stirring that makes something useful out of sometimes mundane ingredients.

“The job of the mediator is to lead the process of bringing out everyone else’s best leadership”.

Let’s let Senator Simpson and Mr. Erskine Bowles get started doing what they can do better than anyone else – bringing out the best leadership of The President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Majority and Minority Leaders of the House and Senate.  Time is of the essence.

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