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Could the Next US Congress Achieve Spectacular Success?: A What If? Analysis

Would you be surprised if six months from now the new US Congress had passed landmark bills on abortion rights, gun safety, childcare credits, and immigration? Most prognosticators now expect the opposite to happen, anticipating that the Republican Party’s ultra slim majority will give the far-right Freedom Caucus substantial power, allowing it to block proposed legislation or impose amendments that will force President Biden to cast a constant series of vetoes.

As Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema demonstrated in the current Senate, when the balance of power is almost equal, a few individuals can exert considerable influence, threatening to —and often succeeding in—blocking legislation.

A similar dynamic is likely to play out in the newly elected House of Representatives. Many predict a legislative wasteland marked by infighting within the Republican Party as well as with the Democratic Party-led Senate.

This dismal outcome could be avoided if Democratic and Republican party leaders decide to form a government of national unity. Instead of being obstructed by extreme factions, Democratic and Republican leaders could agree to construct a new “operating framework” that would curtail the power of the most disruptive elements of both parties.

  • The key element of the framework would be for Democrats to work with Republican leaders to elect a Speaker of the House acceptable to both parties and create a bipartisan group to identify legislation that could pass the House without dependence on a small group or members who would hold the Republican leadership hostage to their agendas.
  • Similarly, Republicans would pledge the support of enough Republican Senators to pass bipartisan legislation, ensuring that one or two Democratic Senators could not hold their leadership hostage.

How this could come about is described in the following What If? scenario:

  • On January 3, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy fails to gain enough votes to become Speaker. Alternative candidates also fail to gain sufficient votes as Freedom Caucus members demand concessions that the bulk of the party finds unacceptable.
  • Democrats offer to form a government of national unity, agreeing to cast enough votes for a moderate Republican candidate (e.g., someone like the late Senator Richard Lugar) to win without needing the votes of the Freedom Caucus.
    • Alternatively, party leaders could agree to elect an apolitical Speaker who is highly respected by both parties but not a member of the House, such as the likes of Colin Powell. Under current law, the Speaker does not have to be a member of the House.   
  • As part of the agreement, Democratic and Republican leaders would develop a national unity legislative agenda, focusing attention initially on issues that two-thirds of the US population support.
    • For example, bipartisan legislation could be drafted based on Chief Justice John Robert’s formula for dealing with a woman’s right to an abortion or providing permanent legal status to individuals covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
  • The focus of power would shift in the House from the Freedom Caucus to the Problem Solvers Caucus or a newly formed bipartisan and bicameral group.
    • Established in 2017, the Problem Solvers Caucus is equally comprised of Democratic and Republican House members, and is committed to championing ideas that appeal to a broad spectrum of the American people and breaking the gridlock of today’s politics.
  • Both political parties would benefit from this shift away from political polarization to productive compromise. The power of the most extreme conservatives and progressives would be largely neutralized, and key legislation supported by the majority of members from both parties would be enacted.

Adversarial Collaboration Techniques

If Congress were to establish a government of national unity, its prospects for success would be greatly enhanced if it abandoned its traditional Team A-Team B approach to legislating and adopted Adversarial Collaboration techniques initially championed by Nobel Prize winner David Kahneman.

Kahneman was appalled by the absurdly adversarial nature of academic debates where hardly anyone admitted error or acknowledged learning from the other.  Adversarial Collaboration techniques strive to understand and address the other side’s position rather than simply dismiss it. A key advantage is that they bring to the surface critical items of evidence, logic, and assumptions that that the other side had not factored into its own analysis.
Instead of seeking common ground, the Team A/Team B approach puts each side on the defensive and inserts a counterproductive emotional element into the deliberative process.Six approaches are described in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis: Mutual Understanding, Joint Escalation, Nosenko Approach, Key Assumptions Check, Argument Mapping, and Analysis of Competing Hypotheses.

You can learn more about the value of applying Adversarial Collaboration techniques in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed. (2021)

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