• Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Rich Barlow

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 2 comments on Could More Backroom Deal-Making Save Congress?

  1. “Her task force report challenges some cherished assumptions about how our democracy should work”

    Where in the constitution does it mention the word democracy? It does mention the republican form of government we are assured but sit ays noting about democracy. In fact, mentioning the word democracy in the course of conversation about our republic makes a mockery of the constitution and the real intentions of the founders. The multiple levels of government were in fact put in place as checks and balances to to create log jams not usurp them.

    “Long incumbencies to promote prolonged interaction among members”.

    Longer incumbencies? Ha, has she never read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense? On the contrary perhaps if these career politicians had term limits to face that ultimately forced them to live under the rules they create for the rest of us they would have more of an incentive to viable constitutional solutions to the problems facings our republic today.

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Barlow, I had a pretty different view of what our Task Force said. Logrolling, smoke-filled rooms and quid-pro-quo exchanges are definitely not our idea of a functional deliberative Congress. Rather, we wonder why some countries – with just as many checks and balances as we have – do a much better job at locating pragmatic solutions to pressing policy problems through political negotiation, using the very norms of cooperation that we Americans teach to our children and often practice in our communities. Why are we paralyzed by extreme deadlock when they managed to engage in genuine negotiation (what we call “deliberative negotiation” not old-time log-rolling!) and a politics of cooperation?

    We think that governments elsewhere have adopted four procedural rules that, when combined together, often make for much more functional and democratic government. All of these rules have been shown to improve the chances for negotiated outcomes in private negotiations and we think that they matter to national institutions as well. First, these countries set up nonpartisan task forces with representatives from all parts of the society to think about policy problems, long before these problems ever are considered by legislators. These task forces – such as a Swedish Royal Commission to consider environmental problems – help different political parties and interest groups to build a common understanding of a problem. The task forces produce policy knowledge that is very different from the way policy knowledge is produced in the US. Here think tanks are often funded by deep pockets and create dueling narratives about problems – climate change is the obvious example. These nonpartisan tasks forces also produce a mandate for action and legislators have a harder time capturing the issue for their own electoral needs.

    Second, these countries have arrangements in which legislators and interest groups from different sides meet repeatedly to consider problems. Party leaders in coalition governments meat repeatedly to hammer out policy deals or even to form a government; similarly, business and labor representatives meet repeatedly over months and years to consider labor market policies. If you know that you are going to have to confront the other side again and again, you can’t get away with lying or other devious behavior. We used to have these repeated interactions in Congress when Congressional hearings were true deliberative bodies. But now important decisions are made in the party caucuses.

    Third, these countries impose consequences for non-action, or what we call “penalty defaults.” If parties in a coalition government can’t produce legislation, they get voted out of power. If business and labor groups can’t negotiate a deal on part-time work, the government takes over. “With great power comes great responsibility” (citing Spiderman’s uncle), and these countries have ways of lowering the boom on politicians that just want to hold up progress because they see it as a golden opportunity to build a bridge to nowhere.

    Finally, we come to privacy, an issue that we discuss extensively in the task force because we also have deep concerns about returning to smoke-filled rooms. People need a chance to talk to one another in an open way, and the media circus gets in the way of this. Congressional hearings, for example, used to be places in which folks from both sides of the aisle could engage in free-ranging dialogue about how to accomplish a range of concerns. This can be a simple quid-pro-quo exchange, but it can also be a moment for thinking outside of the box. Having the space to think – instead of to posture before the cameras – is necessary to political negotiation. Therefore, the task force thinks a lot (discussing the many pros and cons) about how to provide some space for private negotiations while maintaining democratic legitimacy. We offer lots of examples of how countries and the EU pull of this magic trick.

    We argue that adopting these rules encourages a kind of deliberative negotiation, in which participants search for fair compromises and often recognize win-win deals that are often swamped by zero-sum conflicts and a priority on politics over substance. Of course, this only works in areas where there is some common ground and participants have a genuine desire to achieve a deal. Today in Congress, a minority of legislators are committed to blocking action. They don’t want to make political deals and they don’t want to do the job that they were sent to Congress to do. We pride ourselves on our community spirit, civic engagement and dynamic society, but politics today is dominated by intense party polarization and little common ground among our political leaders. This is why I’m pessimistic about the current state of affairs. But America is one of the most economically and socially vibrant countries in the world and there is no darn reason why we should have to put up with such a ineffective political system.

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