How Bush can forge consensus

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The newest Washington buzzword is "common ground."

As former Vice President Gore said in his concession speech: "This belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny."

Less than an hour later, then-President-elect Bush noted that "now it is time to find common ground and build consensus to make America a beacon of opportunity in the 21st century."

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Finding common ground will not be easy. Our system generally encourages politicians to highlight differences during campaigns. Partisan divisions could well be particularly pronounced in the next two years, given the heated rhetoric of the extended campaign, and the divided House and Senate. One place the new president could turn for a different way of making policy is the "consensus councils" that have been established over the past 10 years in a number of states. These seek to resolve divisions on policy issues through cooperative deliberation.

Consensus councils came into being because leaders of state executive and legislative branches had trouble getting beyond quick-fix compromises that did not address the root causes of the states' problems.

In Montana, an ad hoc group of farmers, environmentalists, legislators, and federal administrators held a series of meetings in 1992 that eventually led to a proposal for this new kind of body. Gov. Marc Racicot (R) eagerly endorsed the idea and created the state's council with an executive order in early 1994.

Seven other states have institutions that function more or less like the Montana council: Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Oregon. More than half the remaining states have some sort of alternative dispute-resolution service.

For example, Ohio used consensus processes to save more than $100 million on long-term care in Medicaid. Montana's consensus council has made progress, most notably in how the state handles the always-controversial cleanup costs at hazardous waste sites, especially when one of the companies responsible for the pollution has gone out of business.

In the summer of 1995, such a question was referred to the state's consensus council. It started by interviewing the concerned groups and organized a study group that included business and environmental groups and representatives from local, state, and federal agencies. After a year of meetings and research, the participants agreed to a plan that would meet everyone's most valued goals by creating a process to determine financial responsibility for cleaning up sites and establishing an "orphan fund" to help groups that were liable for cleanup costs that exceeded their resources. The two proposals were turned into legislation, which passed by overwhelming margins.

The governor appoints a board of directors, including leaders in the industrial, environmental, educational, and agricultural communities, plus state House and Senate members. The governor serves as an ex-officio member.

Almost anyone can refer an issue to the council. When it gets a referral, the council's professional staff begins consulting all the individuals and groups with a stake in the issue. The staff facilitators help the participants seek possible points of agreement that satisfy at least a good proportion of every group's interests over the medium to long term.

The consensus council does not make policy itself. Once the working group reaches an agreement, the proposal is submitted to the conventional policymaking process. However, because key policymakers have already participated in the agreement arrived at by the council, the legislation typically passes overwhelmingly.

Consensus councils do more than just solve pressing policy problems. As people discover that cooperation can lead to making better and more enduring public policy and do so faster, they come to rely on consensus councils on a more routine basis. The rancor that is so common in political life today has begun to diminish, and public faith in political life is being restored in states where these councils have been in existence for a number of years.

Finally, the councils can reinvigorate our democracy by maximizing participation by individual citizens and the whole array of organized groups that are affected by the issue under consideration.

Consensus councils do not work for all issues or at all times. The stakeholders must be willing to work constructively with each other, since everyone involved has what amounts to veto power over the council's actions.

But the experience in Montana and elsewhere is encouraging enough that we believe the Bush administration should consider establishing one at the federal level and help other states and communities create them as well.

Roger Conner is director and Charles Hauss is senior associate at Search for Common Ground USA.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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