Health Negotiators Could Use A Ref

By Stephanie Stapleton

Tomorrow is the big day for the White House's health care summit. Will it make a difference?

Time to blow the whistle on health overhaul? i
Time to blow the whistle on health overhaul?

Democrats and Republicans have been busy staking out their positions, with President Obama finally releasing his own proposal on Monday. Expectations are running high, but the odds seem stacked against the meeting cracking the impasse over health overhaul. Take a look at the latest dispute over who will sit where.

The situation seems to cry out for a referee. So we asked trained mediator Nancy Lesser at Pax ADR, an alternative dispute resolution firm in Washington, D.C., to size up the health overhaul dynamics.

She used the term of art "competitive bargaining" to describe what she's seen happening so far on Capitol Hill. There is a fixed prize, she said, "be it goodies or benefits or money" or, in this case, the sweeping health overhaul legislation.

Each side is pushing to take as much as it can, leaving as little as possible for the opponents. This type of "zero-sum negotiation," she says, often ends badly. So far, Lesser said, both the Democrats and Republicans have been "very positional, very much 'it's my way or the highway.' "

Lesser outlined one mediation option that sometimes works in such situations. Someone disconnected from the underlying dispute arrives on the scene to takes charge. Imagine, "a stranger almost dropping down from the heavens," she said. In the world of politics, this approach seems far-fetched, she conceded.

A more practical approach might be a "village elder" to referee the proceedings. "That person comes in with instant credibility, is respected by all," she said.

Who could that be? How about a lawmaker about to ride off into the sunset, like New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg or Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican. "You would almost have to find someone who all parties respect, who substantively understands the issues," and, regardless of their party affiliation, "they would be above the politics."

That person would also have to be incredibly persistent, which Lesser said is a key for successful mediation under just about any circumstances.

So what about these particular circumstances? "The Democrats have 59 votes but are holding their heads and moaning that they can't get health care reform passed," she said. "But have they really tried in a way that signals compromise?"

Same thing for the GOP. "We've seen that behavior from Republicans in the past, too. ... This is just unfortunately the Washington game."

But really it's not that different from the problems a lot of us deal with at home. "From the time we are children, we want more of the candy bar," Lesser said. "And if I want more, than that means Joey has to have less."

Bring on the mediators.

Stapleton is an editor for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.



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