CONGRESSIONAL STAFFERS UNITE AGAINST GRIDLOCK

By K. Ward Cummings and Nathan Sermonis

This article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner on February 2, 2019.

The monthlong government shutdown reinforced the painful truth that our leaders in Washington are in desperate need of help where negotiation is concerned.

Looking for a solution to the stubborn political division paralyzing our government, a group of current and former congressional staffers has come together with Harvard University and Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan nonprofit organization, to study the strategies of master dealmakers. In doing so, we may have stumbled upon a path to managing political disagreements on the Hill.

Disagreement among politicians is not necessarily a bad thing. The Founding Fathers assured us of that centuries ago. Even as Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton complained about discord in the government, he understood that the frustration he was experiencing was a consequence of James Madison’s deliberate design to encourage governmental institutions to share and compete for power.

The difference between the political dissension of Hamilton’s day and that which we are currently experiencing is that too many legislators today seem to have given up entirely on the idea of compromise. Many have convinced themselves that they live in a binary “zero-sum” world where they either win or they lose.

Tired of watching as the institution we served got so little accomplished, we organized current and former staffers from both major parties around the goal of building the professional capacity to manage disagreements on Capitol Hill. By combining PSA’s bipartisan mission with the expertise of Harvard’s famed Program on Negotiation, we’ve aimed to improve the toxic culture in Congress from the bottom up.

Over three pilot courses, we have hosted bipartisan colleagues through intensive negotiation and conflict resolution training to learn how to craft deals with winners on both sides.

Among the more difficult hurdles was our naive and sometimes lazy perception of the concept of compromise. The culture on the Hill taught us that compromise and negotiation were about meeting in the middle like a car salesman, when in reality, it’s more about expanding the pie and finding value in trade. By studying the concepts of “creating and claiming value,” “probing interests versus positions,” “high-value and low-value trades,” and “negotiation mapping,” we endeavor to reshape the congressional approach to compromise.

The program has successfully helped nearly 100 congressional staffers to understand the utility of political negotiation and the possibilities that can flow from it. They have formed bipartisan bonds and practiced the strategies needed to work across the aisle on even the most challenging political matters. And, along the way, they have become more confident negotiators and better legislative aides.

We are not foolish enough to believe that our program is the end-all cure for gridlock. But we do hope that by chipping away at the rigid resistance to compromise that has infected Washington, we can begin the change necessary to weaken the grip of partisanship on our governmental institutions.

From the very beginning, it was always our goal to build the confidence to compromise. We were never focused on discouraging disagreement on Capitol Hill. We knew that in the hands of responsible legislators, disagreement was not necessarily harmful.

The Democrats and Republicans who have come together with PSA and Harvard for this program have done so because we know the system is under threat and if change is going to happen, we might have to be its agents.

In Federalist Number 51, Madison argued that “every good citizen must be a sentinel” over our public institutions. If we ever hope to make government work, we cannot just delegate the job to our elected officials. We must each do our part.

K. Ward Cummings is the author of Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers. Nathan Sermonis is the Executive Director of Partnership for a Secure America. Both authors were policy advisers in the U.S. House of Representatives.