By Russ Bleemer
The International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution opened its 2021 Annual Meeting Wednesday afternoon with remarks from CNN’s chief political correspondent, Dana Bash.
Bash, a three-decade veteran at the news network, brought an inside-the-Beltway view and application of negotiation and conflict resolution techniques to an online audience of about 250 conflict resolution professionals from corporations, law firms, academia and government.
[CPR’s Annual Meeting has two full days of program on Thursday, Jan. 28, and Friday, Jan. 29. Registration for the first online event is free and open to the public. See www.cprmeeting.org for the agenda and sign-up.]
Bash described a Capitol Hill where dispute resolution skills seem to be less valued—if not disappearing altogether. “When I first began walking the halls of Congress, it was so different in terms of negotiation and deal making, in terms of conflict resolution,” she said at the outset, “It was different in that–name your topic, immigration, . . . Medicare reform . . . annual budget negotiations–there were always conflicts and partisan battles. But there were also meetings. There were also discussions.”
Bash said that she and her colleagues “used to find rooms where [Capitol Hill legislators] were negotiating across party lines,” and wait out the talks to report the results.
“The expectation was that there would be a deal,” she said. “They didn’t know what, but the expectation was that there would be some deal.”
Things began to change, she said, well before the Trump Administration: fewer meetings, fewer negotiations, with compromise happening less and less, often focused on “low-hanging fruit” like agriculture and defense bills that have many common constituent interests.
Senators and House members, explained Bash, simply weren’t talking like they once did. They weren’t as likely to sit down with one another, she said, and weren’t as likely to have common ground to foster negotiations and address policy conflicts.
Bash offered the meeting attendees several reasons that she said she believes have contributed to the decline in negotiations and the increased impasses in producing federal legislation.
First, she said that lawmakers stopped moving their families to Washington. She said it has origins in political calculation, with many lawmakers attacked because they lost touch with their districts. “A fair criticism in a lot of states,” said Bash.
Unfortunately, she reported, the effect has now become extreme, with members going home weekends “understandably to see their family and not scheduling votes until Monday night or Tuesday.” That doesn’t leave much time to negotiate across party lines, said Bash, and the Senate and House members “don’t communicate the way they used to.”
A second reason for the decline, said Bash, is money. First is the obvious fundraising that is required to mount a House or Senate campaign. Instead of taking time to have dinner or a cocktail with someone across the aisle, she said, candidates are “racing out of the building to go to a fundraiser” or to their party headquarters to dial for dollars.
There’s more. Bash attributed her analysis of the second part of the money factor to “a senior person in the Trump campaign,” who she said pointed out to her the significance of the candidates’ emphasis on the work involved in recruiting small-dollar donors, due to caps on individual donations.
“It connects to grass roots,” said Bash, explaining further, “It’s a talking point. It’s a great form of democracy.” But the incentives of the appeal often means pitching to “the extremes of the party,” she said.
That, Bash concluded, contributes to a gulf that has widened between the parties and contributed to the decline in negotiation efforts.
In addition, gerrymandering has gotten “so much worse,” she said, and with members worried about being primaried by a member of their own party, let alone the opposition, they aren’t looking to middle ground.
And a fourth factor, she said, is the Internet and social media.
President Biden, explained Bash, advocated in the 2020 campaign for a return to the form of face-to-face negotiation that characterized much of his political career.
“Can he recapture that?” Bash asked. She said the first test will be on the coronavirus stimulus bill. His initial $1.9 trillion proposal, she said, is a “pie in the sky” first move that the president clearly hopes will spark talks.
Countering the above trends, and an “anecdote to give hope,” Bash noted that the Senate women pre-pandemic had met monthly for an off-the-record, no-staff dinner, which helped break common ground. She suggested that she expects that and similar efforts to return in the new Congress once it’s safe for such events.
She also cited the weekly prayer breakfast attended by members of the Senate as way for them to get to know one another and increase communications.
The biggest problem in resolving conflicts, Bash indicated, is the beliefs by many citizens in untruths.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” she lamented, adding, “People right now are not coming from the same set of facts. It is so hard to bridge a very deep divide when you don’t agree on the same set of facts.”
She pointed to competitor Fox News, and conservative media. Conservative senators, she said, are “in a tough spot.” She said, “It’s very hard to reason with people who believe a lie and don’t believe in a set of facts,” referring to debunked claims of election fraud.
As to her own role, said Bash, “all we can do . . . in the media is point out things that aren’t true.”
Bash concluded her nearly 45-program with interview questions from host Allen Waxman, CPR’s president and chief executive officer, and from Zoom audience members.
During the Q-and-A, Bash said that the media’s role since she started at CNN in the 1990s had changed considerably, and returned to the problem of reporting facts today. “The truth is more important than ever and you can’t just rely on the traditional journalistic formula of ‘Republican John Doe says X’ and ‘Democrat Jane Doe says Y.’ . . . You can’t do [that] when Jane Doe, [a] member of Congress, isn’t telling the truth. So we just have to stand up for truth in a way we never did.”
Bash went further: “The first time I had to come out and say, ‘What you just heard from the president of the United States is not true,’ I felt like I was going to throw up. . . . Then it happened over and over. The deeper it got, the more of a responsibility, we all felt.”
She said with a sigh, “I will not take our role in democracy for granted, ever.”
After discussing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the inauguration in response to questions, Waxman and an audience member combined to ask what the dispute resolution community could do.
First, Bash said that she didn’t think there would be any fundamental changes in the political system such as a new party.
The ADR community can best act at the local level, Bash suggested. She urged attendees to talk to their neighbors and apply their skills to develop understanding. She conceded that she wasn’t sure how to fully address misinformation, “the echo chamber, and [the focus on] only information that addresses . . . preconceived notions.”
But Bash concluded that the news business—and by extension, the ADR community—has to address what is in front of it. “We have to rightly get back to the human element of things around us,” she said.
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The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation.