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Local politics

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Mediation ignored on Capitol Hill

Experts lament impasse, lack of negotiation

Mitchell
MacLean

– Local mediation experts say Congress has ignored basic rules of conflict resolution during a federal budget standoff that has closed parts of the government since Oct. 1.

Lawmakers are bent on posturing and politics rather than communicating and governance, the experts agree.

“If you wanted to start a fight, you increase the threat level, which they have done,” Fort Wayne lawyer and mediator Janet Mitchell said Thursday. “You perceive the people (involved) as the problem. You increase the number of people involved.

“You have no investment in the relationship,” she continued. “You have inappropriate expression of emotion and no attempt to acknowledge or meet the other side’s needs and no skill at collaborating.

“And to work through differences, you do the exact opposite,” Mitchell said.

Somebody in Congress or at the White House should be acting as a go-between for the Republican House and the Democratic Senate, according to Charles MacLean, an assistant professor at the Indiana Tech Law School.

“To truly mediate would probably involve shuttle diplomacy in the beginning,” MacLean said. “When the groups are that antagonistic toward one another, getting them in a room is not particularly helpful. Having them in separate rooms is typically more helpful.”

MacLean said he would be surprised if one or more federal officials have not become behind-the-scenes mediators by now.

“I think those who favor governance in the traditional historic sense and understand and appreciate the value of accommodation and negotiation have got to step up now,” he said. “We’ve had an opportunity for all those at the extremes to be heard; now it’s time to return to the business of government.”

If talks proceed on congressional spending levels, raising the national debt limit and restoring government services, “everybody has to end up roughly equivalently dissatisfied to have it be an effective negotiated result,” MacLean said.

Adam Lamparello, an assistant professor at the Indiana Tech Law School, said the government shutdown was set up by legislators’ refusal to reduce the budget deficit by cutting spending and increasing tax revenue as they did in the mid-1990s.

“Both parties are not willing to make those choices, and that’s why it results in a breakdown in the communication process because there is a real lack of engagement, which then leads to distrust between the two,” he said.

Lamparello believes Congress would function better if it stuck to regular order – the process by which legislation starts in committees, is debated, amended and voted on by one house and then the other, and differences are patched up by negotiators from both chambers.

“It would improve the process tremendously because I think at the core, both parties feel the need to have their voices heard and to have a credible stake in the argument,” he said.

As for the current impasse, Congress and the White House should employ an outside mediator, suggested Mitchell, who runs Midwest Mediation Center.

“It just seems ironic that the U.S. urges the use of mediation for national sports (labor) conflicts, and every federal department has mediators, and the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service is there, but why aren’t they using mediation when it’s the most important time to do it?” she wondered.

Lawmakers “don’t even use principles of mediation, … but they encourage every one else to do it,” she said.

MacLean and Lamparello said they have made daily references to the Capitol Hill stalemate in classrooms to illustrate instruction on negotiation, mediation, arbitration and constitutional law.

“I think it’s a valuable real-world lesson for our students,” Lamparello said, “and it’s an important lesson for the American people because the Constitution was designed to benefit them and vindicate their voices, and the political and democratic processes are doing the opposite.”

bfrancisco@jg.net

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