A process for developing the basis for major legislation

We should have a non-partisan process within the Democratic Party to be sure we understand major issues before we draft or take a position on major legislation. In the past, the Democratic Study Group (DSG)  provided top notch policy analysis for daily use by Members, but it has been defunct since 1995 when Republicans axed it. Why not resurrect  it in a more powerful form? Here is my proposal...

Re-establish the DSG, but instead of staffers doing the analysis, have the staff co-ordinate a process that brings together top experts together in the same room to discuss and render opinions on major issues. This would be much more effective than having individual lawmakers (and staff members) trying to synthesize responsible policy from individual sources and trying to reconcile the conflicts themselves. It would lead to more ideas and hopefully better policies. At a minimum, it would give lawmakers a neutral, third-party, expert analysis of major issues and thus provide an important foundation on which lawmakers could craft major policy/legislation. 

Unfortunately, we aren't doing our policy this way today. When Bush made his stem cell decision, he didn't appoint a non-partisan committee to provide input on the pros and cons. He tried to synthesize all the conflicting inputs himself. Energy policy is another perfect example: a secret committee that selectively listened to input determined the policy that went in front of the House.

How can we possibly create a responsible short term energy plan for America if we have no clear vision of the long term? The answer of course is that we can't. More importantly, our top experts have never had a venue for meeting to provide us input. So we try to synthesize the result from guessing, rather than convening our brightest minds in one room to hash out the issues.

So what prevents us from adopting the process below? I think nothing. In fact, I'm working with Congress now to do this with energy policy. So it can be done. If we can do this for energy, why can't we do it for other key policies?

The process

  • DSG staffers do preliminary research to frame the core issues and points of contention
  • DSG staffers determine 6 to 10 of the best people in the country on the topic
  • The group convenes for 1 day in Washington, DC. Staffers and interested Members are invited to attend. The group is tasked with addressing the problem at hand, e.g., "we've received conflicting input on whether drilling in ANWR is necessary to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Here is the conflicting data we have. What is your verdict?"
  • For major issues, such as energy, a more extensive agenda should be employed. For example, for energy it might be determining a long term vision, as well as a short and long-term strategy to achieve that vision. In the case, a possible process would be to have the group:
    • Meet amongst themselves to determine a strawman position (vision, goals, strategy)
    • Listen to input from other experts in the topic area, ideally representing all major constituencies. The team should select this group. Some topics may require several rounds of input (progressive refinement of the position), e.g., first from a group of 30 to refine the position, then open it up to a wider audience.
  • The group should always render a final report, but it is critical that we do not require consensus since the whole point is to understand where the experts stand on the issues. Where there is a disagreement, it should be noted in the final report (as in a Supreme Court decision). Example:
    • "8 of us think the renewable goal should be 20% in 10 years; 2 of us think the goal should be higher at 40%; all 10 of us think it should be at least 10% in 10 years. 
    • 3 of us think wind should comprise 80% of the power generated in 10 years; 9 of us think wind should be at least 25% of the energy mix in 20 years; all 10 think wind should comprise at least 10% of our power 10 years from now
  • The final report from this group is then used as a basis for the creation of legislation and policy by our elected representatives. It can also be adopted and promoted to the public by special interest groups (unlike a report from Democratic staffers which would be viewed as partisan). If the credentials of the expert panel is unimpeachable, such a report can be a powerful rallying point because it can help the public resolve the conflicting data that they hear.

Why "blue-ribbon panels" have failed in the past

  • the committees are too big to get anything done
  • the committees are usually populated with people chosen for political reasons 
  • the panel is tasked with coming to a consensus, but the problems don't yield themselves to consensus 
  • a responsible solution (from the committee) and a politically viable solution are many times at odds 
  • lawmakers may ignore the work of the committee due to: (a) political reasons (b) they consider the committee report to be one more data point

Why this approach would avoid those problems

  • keep the committee to under 10 people total
  • appoint the best people in the country (rather than return political favors)
  • actually use the results (too many blue-ribbon panelists have been soured because their final report is ignored)
  • the committee is not directed to achieve consensus; it's goal is to elucidate the possible approaches and describe the implications of each. 
  • ensure that the committee seriously listens to and considers input from all constituencies (30 to 50 qualified input sources)