Getting to Maybe: The Critical Need for Compromise in Congress

Saying no has been the modus operandi of the 112th Congress. For too many of our elected representatives, it has been either my way or no highway. Progress for the American economy and Americans has been compromised because there have been few attempts at compromise.

Now that the country has a newly elected Congress, we hope those congresspersons and senators who will take part in the lame duck session and who will take office after the first of the year will realize that they are in Washington, DC to do the people's business. They are there to solve problems and craft pragmatic legislation rather than to impose their own personal and partisan agendas and ideologies. They are there to negotiate not to negate.

We don't expect the members of Congress to be able to move directly from saying no to Getting to Yes (the title of Roger Fisher and William Ury's classic book on negotiations). But, perhaps they can start by getting to maybe.

Getting to maybe establishes a framework for meaningful discourse and dialogue and the consideration of a range of acceptable alternatives, options and trade-offs. From there, it should eventually be possible to get to yes and by doing so to restore citizen respect for this badly tarnished and increasingly reviled institution.

We are not delusional or naive enough to expect that getting to maybe will be an easy task. We recognize that over the past few years, compromise in Congress has become an oxymoron and bipartisanship a dirty word.

On the other hand, we are not skeptical or jaded enough, to think that getting to maybe is impossible. That's because getting there is a necessity for continuing our democratic system of governance and our country. Put us in the camp of former defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, who, speaking at an event in September sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and other organizations said, "My hope is following the presidential elections whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country back in order."

It takes courage to compromise -- especially when you are reaching across party lines and defying conventional party wisdom. We saw that courage demonstrated by the five senators: Tom Coburn, (R-OK), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Kent Conrad (D-ND) on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform who voted for approval of the Commission's full report.

Unfortunately, this type of compromise is becoming more and more unusual. That's because, as E.J. Dionne pointed out in a recent column, "Democrats, a more moderate and diverse party, believe in compromise far more than Republicans do." Dionne explains this is true for both the Democratic Party faithful and their candidates for office and indicates that the tea party influence has changed the composition of the Republican Party and their candidates to make them extremely more conservative and unwilling to compromise.

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two of the foremost scholars on the operations of Congress, make a similar but much more strongly expressed point in their book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism published earlier this year. In it, they write, "Today's Republican Party... is an insurgent outlier. It has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.'

This is a harsh assessment and possibly overstates the case. We do know unequivocally, however, that the Republicans and Democrats are at very different points on the compromise continuum. The majority of Democrats tend to be in the middle, malleable and movable while the majority of the Republicans are far right, intractable and intransigent.

If that's the situation, how do we begin getting to maybe? We recommend the following as starting points:
  1. 1. Change the mindset
  2. 2. Change the rules
  3. 3. Change the methods

Change the Mindset: Today many legislators believe aligning themselves with those from the other party on an issue is an act of cowardice and surrender. As long as this attitude prevails and leaders punish those who cross-over, the journey to maybe cannot start. We need to replace it with the understanding that compromise is an act or courage and success. It is a necessary pre-condition for achieving shared solutions not a capitulation or sacrificing of principles. The subtitle of Fisher and Ury's book Getting to Yes is "Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In." That says it perfectly. Negotiating to reach a common ground is getting things done not giving in.

Change the Rules: Steve Kroft did a 60 Minutessegment titled "The Broken Senate" on the Sunday before Election Day. During that segment, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pointed out that when Lyndon Johnson was leader of the Senate he had to try to override one filibuster compared to 248 for Reid. The filibuster allows the minority to thwart the will of the majority because it requires 60 votes to get a piece of legislation passed. Scholars Mann and Ornstein place it at the top of the list for reform in a chapter they devote to "Reforming U.S. Political Institutions" in their book. The nonpartisan group No Labels also has the filibuster near the top of its 12 proposals to Make Congress Work. We are not in complete agreement with the No Label proposals nor with all of the Mann/Ornstein recommendations. We are in absolute agreement, however, with the need to change the rules and to make Congress work.

Change the Methods: One of the main reasons that Congress doesn't work is that is has become so balkanized. There is virtually no effort at coming together to work together. It didn't used to be that way. As Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) said in the Sixty Minutes segment when Bob Dole was majority leader, "He would say go to my office at 8:30 in the morning and work it out. He was so intent on making sure that we came up with a solution to the issue that was before the Senate."

In contrast, today the Senate and House members often convene in private and purely intraparty meetings and sessions where the emphasis is on competition not collaboration. One such gathering is Democratic caucus lunches. A lot of which, according to former Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) are about, "OK, we're a team. We gotta stick together. We got to beat the daylights out of the other side. We can't afford straying from the team. If you do, that doesn't help us."

These one-sided meetings in which a group develops and hardens its own positions without input or participation from the other are counterproductive and conflict-producing. They lead to what Fisher and Ury call "positional bargaining" in which each side opens with a position and then the two positional combatants struggle mightily and frequently futilely trying to reach a common agreement.

To correct this, Fisher and Ury recommend "principled negotiation" as opposed to positional bargaining. The four principles of this approach are: (1) separate the people from the problem; (2) focus on interests not positions; (3) generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement; and (4) insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria.

As we stated, changing the mindset, changing the rules and changing the methods are starting points for getting to maybe. There are other governance areas such as fair districting, open primaries and expanded voter participation that need to be addressed in order to get to yes. We discuss them in our Huffington Post blog "Overcoming Electoral Rigor Mortis" that we posted after the elections of 2010.

Our focus here, however, is on getting started on getting to maybe. The good news is that what is required is not costly in financial terms. It is elected men and women of good will with the courage to compromise. The bad news is that getting started requires true leadership (both official and unofficial).

When Senator Coburn, was asked why it has been so difficult to compromise, during the Sixty Minutes interview, he responded, "It's leadership. It's pure leadership. When the goal is always to win the next election, rather than to put the country on the right course, whether it's a Republican leading it or the -- a Democrat leading it, the Senate is not going to work."

If the Senate doesn't work and the Congress doesn't work, the country doesn't work. With this election, we will see if we now have courageous leaders who realize this and are prepared to begin the journey to Maybe and to compromise by putting country first rather than party first. The future of America and the American dream depends on their doing so.

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