LAW LIFE: Our conflicts don't have to last forever

By Steven I. Platt

The Daily Record Newswire

Congress is on break while the federal government faces the possibility of a shutdown in less than a week if tea party conservative Republicans can't find common ground at least temporarily with enough mostly liberal Democrats left over from the last election. Talk about fiddling while Rome burned.

Meanwhile, in the heartland, Wisconsin is witnessing its body politic vaporize as Democratic legislators flee to Illinois to stymie the Republican majority's effort to curtail the collective bargaining rights of certain Wisconsin public employees.

This occurs while demonstrators on both sides of the issue crowd the public square in the state capital, Madison, with signs and speeches impugning the intelligence, integrity and decency of the governor, Scott Walker, and his ideological opponents, including President Barack Obama.

All of this takes place while most states, which are required to pass balanced budgets, address fiscal issues generated by structural deficits which vary from potentially catastrophic, e.g. California, Wisconsin, New York and Illinois, to merely serious, e.g. Maryland, without the luxury of being able to print money.

This limitation leads elected leaders in these states to propose structural solutions, such as restricting or eliminating the rights of public employees to bargain collectively for more and more tax dollars to pay for future benefits and salaries.

When these elected leaders make these proposals, which by definition are neither short-term nor solely economic, they are usually described as draconian by the representatives of those citizens whose quality of life and rights are most directly affected. From there the rhetoric usually heads even further south without any context which would clarify the reality-based choices generated in part by elections.

"Well, it ain't necessarily so," say two fellow mediators who have written a book of less than 200 pages entitled "The Cure for Broken Political Process."

Sol Erdman is president of the Center for Collaborative Democracy, which he describes as "a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that has developed innovative ways for citizens and politicians to resolve ideological conflicts." Lawrence Suskind is director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

Their insights into conflict resolution and its role in our representative democracy result from mediating among warring interest groups, government agencies, businesses, communities and even nations. These adversaries, the authors point out, started out angrier than typical politicians.

Examples cited include the work of the Council on the Sustainable Development appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It included the CEOs of Chevron Oil, Pacific Gas & Electric, S.C. Johnson, Ciba Gigy and Georgia-Pacific sitting at the same table as leaders of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Fund.

Interspersed among these longstanding enemies were the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior, Commerce and Energy. Some at this table had regularly impugned the other's motives, patriotism, and honesty. Many were suing each other.

The process was not simple or easy. Hostility and suspicion dominated early on. But all had one thing in common -- they did not want to keep spending time and money warring. So they agreed to keep meeting, as it turned out, for over two years.

By February 1996 all 25 members agreed on how to make major progress on the key environmental questions of that time. They spelled out the details in a 185-page report which was endorsed by nearly every major environmental group as well as almost all relevant industry associations, labor unions and government agencies.

Why then was the report ignored by both Democrats and Republicans? The answer, the authors suggest, is that "the environment is apparently too good a campaign issue to lose to a mere solution."

What enabled these ideological adversaries to negotiate and solve problems and why can't politicians do the same?

The short answer is that the right people must be in the room and their mindset must be reality-based. Suskind and Erdman suggest a rather innovative approach to getting those "right people" in the room. More on both who the right people are and how to get them in the room next time.

This in turn yields a universal lesson to both political leaders and mediators for very different reasons: It shouldn't be about you, so get over yourself.

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

Published: Tue, Mar 1, 2011

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