Sunday, May 25, 2008

Build Consensus Even When It's Hard

Guest Perspective/Lee Hamilton

If you believe, as I do, that building consensus among competing factions is the only way to tackle the persistent challenges that threaten to hamstring our nation, then you have to be prepared to deal with one hard truth: It's extraordinarily difficult to do.

The diversity of public opinion, the intense partisanship of recent years, media coverage that thrives on division - all this and more makes hammering out agreement on difficult issues seem a Herculean task.

Yet Americans want their elected leaders to work across party lines. Over the past year or so, I've been asked on any number of occasions how two groups on which I served, the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, managed to encourage men and women with partisan commitments to produce forward-looking policy ideas on two highly charged issues. We did this in spite of a truly venomous partisan atmosphere in Washington and our keen awareness that powerful interests had much at stake in what we'd end up saying.

Admittedly, both groups were far less complicated than the Congress or a state legislature, where consensus has to be built on scores of issues, not just one. Yet the core principles of consensus-building, I believe, apply no matter how large the body.

Congress certainly understood this in the past. Many times over the years, it has worked in a cooperative way to build consensus behind major legislation. The GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, welfare reform in the 1990s - all took considerable bipartisan legwork to pass. As political scientist Paul Light concluded in his recent book about America's 50 greatest legislative achievements over the past half-century, these accomplishments "reflect a stunning level of bipartisan commitment."

Greatness in policy-making, in other words, requires great effort in consensus-building.

To begin with, it's crucial to work cooperatively, rather than confrontationally. It was clear from the start that in order to do our work well, both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group would have to delve into arenas that were politically touchy for the White House. Rather than trying to bludgeon the administration into submitting information we needed, however, we kept lines of communication open and spent many hours in dialogue with them; we understood their concerns for national security and the prerogatives of the presidency, and wanted to make sure they grasped our determination to fulfill our mandates by having access to key officials and documents.

Some of Congress' greatest achievements have unrolled in the same fashion: by members working closely with one another and with the White House to craft legislation that took into account the concerns of all involved.

Our commissions also came to understand something that veteran members of Congress already know: it helps enormously to find informal ways of getting together. This takes an investment of time that lawmakers these days often feel they dont have, yet it pays big dividends. It is pretty hard to get and stay mad at someone when you know them well. Building a rapport allows people to surmount tensions that might otherwise derail them. They let humor defuse sticky arguments, and build a respect for one another that ensures that disagreements will focus on the issues at hand, not on party interests.

These relationships also encourage lawmakers, commission members and any other group of people considering policy options to take the time they need for vigorous debate - in other words, to deliberate carefully and build consensus methodically.

Perhaps the most important step, though, is to focus on facts. The facts of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, the facts of what was taking place in Iraq - these were neither ideological nor partisan. By agreeing on what had happened, we could deliberate fruitfully on our recommendations and sidestep arguments about whether the Clinton and Bush administrations had done enough to combat terrorism, or which past U.S. policies deserved support or condemnation. In a city where partisanship is as much part of the atmosphere as nitrogen and oxygen, this was an invigorating move. Focusing on the facts may not guarantee agreement, but it enhances the prospects of reaching agreement.

In the end, building consensus is straightforward. Work cooperatively, not confrontationally. Look at your colleagues as colleagues, not political adversaries. Agree on facts before you apply your ideology to policy. Take ample time to understand different views and deliberate on where you're going. Search for areas of agreement, and do not exaggerate areas of disagreement. Get people focused on the national interest, not on partisan advantage. And decide from the get-go that you're going to reach an agreement, not use disagreement to score political points.

I believe Americans are starved for just this sort of approach. Let us hope that our elected leaders are ready to give it a try.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

No comments: