Congressmen Ami Bera, David Cicilline, Rodney Davis and Adam Kinzinger talk problem solving.
Most of us in the audience nodded hopefully when H. Woody Brock said that “there are win-win answers to our nation’s problems if we think differently.” We were gathered on Monday in a conference room at the New America Foundation to hear Brock talk about his book, "American Gridlock: Why the Right and Left are Both Wrong—Commonsense 101 Solutions to the Economic Crises."
Brock is a brilliant economist and financial markets analyst with five degrees from Harvard and Princeton who uses complex math and jokes about his dog to illustrate his points. He easily got agreement from the audience on a short list of principles, and then proceeded through deductive reasoning to convince us that American healthcare could be at once affordable, accessible, and plentiful if we took a more common sense, nonpartisan approach to it.
Brock said that he likes to “talk up to the audience” – rather than dumb down his remarks. Indeed. He so successfully stayed slightly above my head that I took a short attention break midway through the presentation to make sure I was tracking his argument. I was wondering: when I leave this room, will I be able to reconstruct his logic? Will I be able to communicate this interesting line of reasoning to colleagues who haven’t heard it before? To those who are stuck in the rut of hyper-partisan thinking?
Reflecting on it, I quickly realized that the first challenge will not be to replicate the flow of his argument. The challenge will be to get agreement on the principles from which he started. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s quick-quick discourse, some values we assume to be as American as apple pie have become political code words that prompt posturing and trigger discord. Take freedom, fairness, efficiency, capitalism, our children’s future, for example. Even Brock’s initial promise is a potential point of contention. I am not convinced that everyone in America is interested in a win-win. And if they were, who would they trust to guide the process to achieve it?
Toward the end of Brock’s presentation, when we were disappointingly short on time, someone in the audience asked about a statement in the printed hand-out: “Politics is about multi-lateral bargaining between interest groups. ‘Good government’ thus achieves a ‘good’ bargaining compromise.”
“What if the groups refuse to bargain?” was the query. Brock said it’s all about the rules; the rules must require bargaining. Think about the rewards as a pie. We all want as much of the pie as we can get, but only through bargaining can either side get any. If there is no bargain, there is no pie.
Such is the power of No Labels’ legislative proposal, I believe. No Budget, No Pay enforces the rules that require bargaining on budget priorities and appropriations by shifting part of the risk of not complying onto the designated bargainers (members of Congress) and away from the rest of us, who have wholly borne the negative consequences of their disregard for too long.
But as important as it is, No Budget, No Pay patches only one break in the much larger systemic dysfunction that federal policy-making has become. Can it be a start for a major overhaul? If we successfully demand that our elected representatives engage in what Brock calls “eyeball-to-eyeball bargaining between interest groups,” will their new behavior result in new habits that solidify new relationships that rebuke ideological extremism and render it irrelevant to the process of public decision-making? Can we wrest those American-as-apple-pie values back from the clutches of partisan politics and replant them in common ground where we can grow the new nonpartisan way of thinking that Brock talks about?
Whatever the answer, it’s going to take plenty of hard work to get anywhere. We can slug it out in the trenches of zero-sum conflict, or we can do the heavy lifting needed to push the process above the fray. We don’t need to track with the whole of Brock’s argument to understand that choice; it’s very clear.