The Congress of the United States is on a “Break” while the federal government faces the possibility of a “shutdown” in less than a week if the seemingly irreconcilable mostly newly elected “Tea Party” conservative republicans can’t find common ground at least temporarily with enough mostly liberal democrats “left over” from the last election. Talk about fiddling while Rome burned.”
Meanwhile in the heartland of our great county, the state of Wisconsin is witnessing its body politic vaporize in the form of the Democratic minority of its state legislators fleeing to its political sanctuary in the state of Illinois in order to stymie the Republican majority’s effort to legislatively curtail the collective bargaining rights of certain Wisconsin Public employees. This occurs while demonstrators on both sides of the issue crowd the public square in the state capital, Madison, Wisconsin, with signs and speeches impugning the intelligence, integrity and decency of the governor, Scott Walker and his ideological opponents including the President of the United States, Barack Obama and his political organization which has been called out to both enhance and rally the pro-union numbers in the crowds.
All of this takes place while most states which are required to pass balanced budgets address fiscal issues generated by “structural deficits” which vary from potentially catastrophic, e.g. California, Wisconsin, New York and Illinois to merely serious, e.g. Maryland without the luxury of being able to print money even temporarily to address them. This limitation leads the elected leaders in these states to propose “structural solutions” such as restricting or eliminating the rights of public employees to collectively bargain for more and more tax dollars to pay for future benefits and salaries. When these elected leaders make these proposals which by definition are neither short-term nor solely economic, they are usually described as “draconian” by the representatives of those citizens whose quality of life and rights are most directly affected. From there the rhetoric usually heads even further south as their plight is rhetorically dramatized even further without any context which would both clarify the reality-based choices generated in part by elections which our democracy have consequences and reduce the drama.
“Well, it ain’t necessarily so,” say two fellow Mediators who have written a book of less than 200 pages which is entitled “The Cure for Broken Political Process”. Sol Erdman is President of the Center for Collaborative Democracy, which he describes as “a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that has developed innovative ways for citizens and politicians to resolve ideological conflicts. Lawrence Suskind is Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He has mediated national policy debates, refereed regional political battles and helped negotiate international treaties including the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
Their insights into conflict resolution and its role in our representative democracy result from mediating among warring interest groups, government agencies, businesses, communities and even nations. These adversaries, the authors point out started out angrier than typical politicians. Examples cited include the work of the Council on the Sustainable Development (CSD) appointed by President Clinton in 1993. It included the CEO’s of Chevron Oil, Pacific Gas & Electric, S.C. Johnson, Ciba Gigy and Georgia-Pacific sitting at the same table and staring across it at the leaders of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Fund. Also interspersed among these long-standing enemies were the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Secretaries of Interior, Commerce and Energy. Some at this table had regularly impugned the other’s motives, patriotism, and honesty. Many were suing each other.
To make a long story short the process was not simple, nor easy. Hostility and suspicion dominated early on. But all had one thing in common – they did not want to keep spending time and money warring. So they agreed to keep meeting as it turned out for over two years.
By February 1996 all twenty –five members of the CSD had agreed on how to make major progress on the key environmental questions of that time. Furthermore they spelled out the details in a 185 page Report. That Report was endorsed by nearly every major environmental group as well as almost all relevant industry associations, labor unions and government agencies.
Why then was the Report ignored by both Democrats and Republicans. The answer the authors suggest is “The Environment” is apparently too good a campaign issue to lose a mere solution.”
Other examples cited directly from the authors’ experience include the National Commission on Retirement Policy’s unanimous recommendations to best meet everyone’s needs in retirement and save Social Security were completely ignored by Democrats and Republicans in both the Congress and the Executive, a pattern that repeated itself when in 2004 the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP) made up of sixteen corporate CEO’s, environmental leaders, academics and former government officials agreed unanimously on how America could best meet its ravenous need for energy and issued a 148 page Report explaining how to cut our consumption of oil, reduce foreign imports and slow down global warming, all at minimal cost. That too was ignored.
The question then is what is it about these ideological adversaries that enabled them to sit down with each other, negotiate and solve problems and why can’t politicians learn from them or even emulate them?
This writer’s short answer is the right people must be in the room and their mindset must be reality-based. Suskind and Erdman suggest a rather innovative approach to getting those “right people” in the room. More on both who the right people are and how to get them in the policy-making room next time.