The Political Skill We Need Most

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Friday, May 9, 2008
In challenging and divided times, it is imperative to find consensus–builders. Americans want results from Washington on the important issues before the country. Making progress on these issues means hammering out solutions that can command broad support, and we need the politicians who can do it. 

Our country is closely divided ideologically, with political parties and their adherents ready to scrap over every vote at the polls and every issue that comes before the Congress. Yet if we are to tackle the welter of daunting challenges we face, it will only be because political leaders manage to overcome the forces that divide us. In the current political environment, narrow legislative majorities do not build sustainable policies — solutions that enjoy support among the population at large, and legitimacy among the array of policy–makers who must sign off on them and administrators who must enact them. 

Still, as great as the need might be, building consensus on Capitol Hill is about the toughest, most thankless job in politics right now. 

To begin with, the sheer number and complexity of the issues we face means that it is hard for any single politician to devote the sustained time and attention it takes to gather facts and opinions about a problem, listen to the concerns of the various interests involved, spend time discoursing with colleagues who have opposing views, work with them to find steps they can agree upon, bring in other politicians and interest groups to form a supportive coalition, and then build majority support in Congress. 

Pelted with the Iraq war, concerns about the readiness of the US military, constituents losing their homes, a crisis in financial–industry regulation, failing national infrastructure, a global food crisis, an unsustainable health–care system and a plethora of other issues, lawmakers can barely manage to keep abreast of them all, let alone work to find broad–based solutions. 

When they do focus on a particular problem, the politics quickly becomes tangled. Because our country is so diverse in so many different ways, it is rare to find solid majorities in favor of a given approach, either nationally or among a legislator's constituents. For instance, public opinion may support the notion that man–made climate change is real and that governments need to address it, but that's where the agreement ends — and where lawmakers' work begins. Building majority support for an approach to this problem is tough work. 

Moreover, public opinion is hardly the only thing a politician needs to keep in mind. Washington is full of skilled and often well–funded lobbyists whose job is to make sure their points of view are vigorously represented at all stages of the legislative process. Because the stakes are so high and so much money is at risk on most issues, legislators often find themselves pulled in half–a–dozen different directions, making consensus even more difficult to forge. 

All of this can be overcome, but it takes time, care, and a fundamental willingness on the part of legislative leaders and their followers to achieve it. All of these are in short supply right now. Members' schedules are so full that the chance for thoughtful deliberation is rare; simply put, there's precious little time for the extended conversations and interplay of ideas that produce compromise and agreement. 

Nor is there much desire. Years of partisan wrangling and tit–for–tat political maneuvering have left Democrats and Republicans wary of one another, unwilling to share credit, always searching for ways to discredit the other side, and interested more in avoiding blame for problems than in setting aside their disagreements to work together on a solution. 

And because conflict is more intriguing than harmony, the media often play up and even exaggerate disagreements, setting up an environment that makes it harder for policy antagonists to bridge their differences. 

I don't mean by any of this to imply that building consensus has always been and will always be the appropriate approach to making policy. When I first arrived in Congress, when Lyndon Johnson was President and his Great Society was being formulated, he and his party had the votes in Congress and widespread political backing among voters to enact in a matter of weeks Medicare, federal aid to education and the like. They didn't need to build consensus. 

Now, however, we live in vastly different times. Narrow congressional majorities, stark political divisions, the echo–chamber of partisanship, the huge stakes that attend every battle for power — all make it very difficult, if not impossible, to enact responsible and lasting policies by overwhelming the opposition. Building consensus may be difficult, but in today's political environment it is the only realistic course. 

(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.)