Let's legislate consensus-building
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The atmosphere encouraged participants to relinquish rote responses and to step beyond their stereotypes. As they got to know each other, they mostly stopped demonizing the other. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. No one was required to give up strongly held positions or to compromise principles. They were asked only to seek solutions acceptable to everyone in the room. Each participant had what amounted to veto power, so there was no need to round up votes to support positions, and participants became adept at putting themselves in one another's shoes. In the end, participants unanimously adopted 29 specific recommendations, including:Skip to next paragraph
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• Tax deductions for charitable contributions from Americans who do not itemize taxes.
• Prohibition of using public funds to support proselytizing.
• Transparency by service providers and government agencies.
• No discrimination against faith-based groups because of their religious beliefs.
Subsequently, Santorum joined Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton to sponsor a compromise bill that included the bulk of the recommendations. President Bush hailed the bill as a "great accomplishment," and most of the recommendations either became law or were adopted as government policy.
To be sure, the group did not address every contentious issue. For example, the participants could not agree on whether faith-based service providers could refuse to hire homosexuals, or on whether government vouchers should be used to support overtly religious programs. In these cases, participants agreed, without rancor, to disagree.
Beyond the specifics, however, the process itself proved it could work even on a highly controversial issue.
"What the consensus group did was to show people on both sides that the faith-based issue didn't have to escalate to the level of the abortion issue that freezes everything around it," said program director Roger Conner.
If processes like this could be expanded to other divisive issues, it would be a transformational leap for US politics. While not every problem is ripe for a consensus-building approach, such processes could drain much poison from the political debate.
Indeed, we have launched similar consensus-building processes on domestic healthcare issues and on prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS around the world.
And a task force - led by Mark Racicot, a former governor of Montana and President Bush's reelection campaign manager, and Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas and former Secretary of Agriculture for President Clinton - has been lobbying Congress to create the US Consensus Council. Modeled on successful organizations in several states, the USCC would institutionalize consensus processes and assist Congress and the president in finding agreement on selected national issues. The USCC would be a private, nonprofit body, authorized by Congress and funded by publicly and privately.
While consensus processes are no panacea, they could certainly disprove the idea that national politics can be practiced only in an adversarial, partisan way. The system doesn't have to function the way it does. People with deeply held, opposing beliefs can find common ground and work together.
There are alternatives to win-lose, take-no-prisoners politics if - and this a huge if - Americans choose to use them.
• John Marks is president and Susan Collin Marks is executive vice president of Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization working in societal conflict resolution in the US and abroad.