Tuesday, January 6, 2009

(Bi-partisan) Legislative Decision-making

We've all heard the calls for greater bi-partisanship in Congress and Parliament.  Especially in times of crisis,  parties or factions are urged to put aside their differences for the good of the nation.  But exactly how should a legislative body transform its usual approach to decision-making when it wants to operate in a bi-partisan or a consensus-building fashion? And why is this desired only in times of crisis? 

In The Cure For Our Broken Political Process (Potomac, 2008), Sol Erdman and I spell out some of the ways that legislative bodies can operate differently when they are committed to achieving consensus.  To begin,  the body needs to identify the full range of views held by its members on an issue.  Anyone who feels strongly about it should be asked to write down what he or she thinks needs to be done and why.  Then, the rest of the members should be pressed to affiliate with one of these published statements.  The author of each statement can then decide whether or not to modify what they are saying or merge with another author in an effort to win greater support.  When a relatively small number of written positions remains (each with a growing list of supporters), the authors of the remaining statements should be brought together face-to-face to explore the conflicts that remain and to consider ways of bridging their differences. A conversation of this sort should be managed by a professional mediator selected by the leadership, with the concurrence of the authors who have come to negotiate.  By the way, the process I've just described can be used by any legislative body at any time by merely voting to suspend their normal rules.

Notice that parties and party leadership do not play a critical role.  Consensus is more easily reached if party leaders stand aside and let their members participate in the manner I have described.  Then, when a small number of statements remains, the mediator should report back to the leadership of the Congress or the Parliament.  Remember, each remaining statement will contain both a prescriptive section outlining what ought to be done, as well as an explanatory section explaining why that prescription makes sense. At that point, the full membership should be asked to affiliate with one of the remaining statements.  The statement with the smallest number of supporters should be dropped. Members should be asked, again, to affiliate with one of the remaining statements.  This process should be repeated until there is only one statement left with an overwhelming number of supporters. (There may be some members who prefer to drop out along the way rather than affiliate with one of the statements that remains.) 

If this procedure is made explicit in advance, the authors will usually do everything they can at each stage to accommodate as many additional members as possible. The final product will by definition represent a bipartisan consensus. By abandoning majority rule and side-stepping parliamentary procedure, a legislative body can avoid the usual win-lose dynamic.  By emphasizing the reasons that backers should support a statement, it is a lot easier later on for constituents to hold the representatives accountable for the positions they have taken.  So, when members know that their name is attached not just to a proposal but to a list of reasons why that proposal is a good idea, they are more likely to operate in a slightly less partisan way. One can only wonder, why proceed in this fashion only in times of crisis?


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