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Bring back Simpson and Bowles

The election is over. The result, which is “divided government,” is clear. But the “fiscal cliff” remains, and the projected drop to the bottom of the economic and political black hole beneath it looks more and more ominous.

That is the case the longer divided government takes to collaboratively take the steps necessary to avoid two things. One is the draconian increase in taxes and cuts that will be required in the short term (before Jan. 2) if the government doesn’t act. The second is the perilous uncertainty that will inevitably result from markets perceiving a lack of a clear, coherent policy and commitment directed to restoring stable economic growth, and predictable and reliable long-term deficit reduction.

A solution can only be reached through negotiation by the leaders of the divided government we just elected – albeit in a lame-duck session of Congress this month. The good news, perhaps, is that the leadership of the Congress and the president won’t change next year, so what they agree to can carry forward into next year. But haven’t we seen this political theater before? In fact, we have seen this production on multiple occasions for the last two years – and each time, it was less entertaining.

What can we do to prevent the usual partisan political theatrics from visibly intruding on these important negotiations, and thereby disrupting the development of the sound budgetary public policy-making and implementation that this country needs so badly and quickly? The answer to that question was born with the establishment by President Barack Obama in January 2012 of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which became known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, after its co-chairs, former U.S. senator and Harvard professor Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former chief of staff to President Clinton Erskine Bowles.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission consisted of 18 members – six senators, six House members and six representatives of the general public. Its task was to produce a report recommending budget steps that would address short-term and long-term fiscal issues. After months of meetings, 11 of the members signed on to a report recommending that the federal government take dramatic action. However, that number was short of the supermajority requirement of 14 votes necessary to send the package to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Nevertheless, the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report remains the most credible and most frequently mentioned debt/deficit reduction plan on the table. And since it was issued, the already great prestige and credibility, as well as the leadership skills, of both its co-chairmen have grown. Both Simpson and Bowles enjoy the almost universal respect and admiration not only of the other members of the commission, but also of the president and the leadership of both sides and parties in Congress – including those members of the commission, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., who voted against their plan. Indeed, as MSNBC commentator Joe “Morning Joe” Scarborough has noted, “Simpson and Bowles are now a part of our pop culture.”

In “Ten Leadership Lessons from Simpson-Bowles,” an insightful and valuable governance study authored by the Brookings Institution, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies Darrell M. West and Research Associate Ashley Gabriele point out that “the co-chairmen were responsible for identifying viable ideas, building support and negotiating with individual members. Through a series of one-on-one meetings and shuttle diplomacy, they were able to determine what each member supported, where they were absolutely opposed, and identify areas of compromise.”

Now, if that isn’t a working and practical combination of sophisticated, facilitative, evaluative and even transformative mediation techniques, I’m not the trained mediator that I think I am. It’s also called “leadership.” The two roles of mediator and leader, particularly in a political context and in public policy facilitation, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in this instance, the combination is essential.

For that reason, this writer urges that the fiscal cliff negotiations between the leaders of both chambers of Congress and the president be mediated by Simpson and Bowles.

I suggest this while fully recognizing that it will be even more challenging to reach an agreement when negotiations are between elected officials, particularly the most powerful elected officials in the country. All the more reason for the respected senator and the former White House chief of staff to be able to have the kind of candid, confidential and unrestricted discussions that build trust with the each of the nation’s leaders, while building relationships to achieving a politically viable, fair and comprehensive resolution of this complex political and public policy dispute.

Private discussions helped Simpson and Bowles in their roles as commission co-chairs to write a tentative plan they called the “Chairman’s Mark.” At Brookings, West and Gabriele described the “Chairman’s Mark” as “a key and very useful starting point in commission negotiations.”

If that isn’t analogous – if not identical – to what mediator trainers and experienced mediators refer to as a “mediator’s proposal,” then I am suffering from mediator hallucination. It may be that the use of such sophisticated techniques by these skilled mediators and leaders in the face of the budget impasse is essential to success in this high-stakes negotiation. As Simpson-Bowles Commission Staff Director Bruce Reed explained, “The key to success of bipartisanship was actually listening to what the other side had to say. The more time spent meeting one-on-one, the more we could figure out what it would take for each side to reach an agreement.”

The process best suited to facilitating these listening sessions – and then following up on them to achieve a final agreement on these heretofore intractable issues – is mediation, with Simpson and Bowles as co-mediators. Former Budget Director Alice M. Rivlin has described them as the “yin and yang of deficit reduction,” one of them the “numbers guy” and the other the “color commentator,” articulating reality-based tradeoffs and choices.

Robert C. Fiskis and Peter S. Adler, in an article in the 2007 edition of AC Resolutions ironically entitled “Leading From Behind,” wrote: “If conflict is the crucible of leadership, negotiations are the mortar and the pestle. Responsible, professional and political officials must lead the people and organizations they represent through the grinding and stirring that makes something useful out of sometimes mundane ingredients.

“The job of the mediator is to lead the process of bringing out everyone else’s best leadership.”

Let’s let Sen. Simpson and Mr. Bowles get started doing what they can do better than anyone else: bringing out the best leadership of the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the majority and minority leaders of both House and Senate. Time is of the essence.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a monthly column for The (Baltimore) Daily Record. He can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com.

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