A Capitol that works together


What if, in the weeks leading up to the State of the Union address, the president invited the leader of the opposition party to the White House to talk about their goals for the country?

What if the two leaders focused on their areas of agreement and drew up a list of the objectives that they both want to achieve?

What if the president then delivered an address that spoke to and for all Americans, not just one party, and that brought the entire audience, not just one side of the House chamber, to its feet? What if there were no need for an opposition response?

Pure fantasy? I don’t think so. This consensus-driven approach to governing is not only possible but necessary if we are to break the cycle of fighting and gridlock that has paralyzed our political process.

As a former governor, I know it can work. I’ve seen Republican and Democratic colleagues bring about progress and innovation by building relationships with political opponents and working with them to pass budgets and other vital bills. They would look for the best ideas and practices and forge a vision that reflects the aspirations of both political parties and the collective interests of constituents.

We did this in Utah. We can do this as a country.

As a co-chair of No Labels, a movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents who value problem-solving over partisan point-scoring, I’m helping to launch a three-year campaign for a governing process that we believe can bring about the kind of wholesale change in Washington that Americans seek — and that the country desperately needs.

The process begins with both sides coming together to discuss and develop goals for the country that they both support. The mutually agreed-upon goals would form the basis for a national strategic agenda, a shared vision of where our country is headed and what it can achieve.

Today, the default mode in Washington is to fight. On health care, immigration, the national debt and other issues, too many “leaders” retreat to their partisan corners before there’s a clear sense of where we’re headed. If members of both parties came together first to determine overall goals and destinations, the hard work of developing policy would go more smoothly.

History is full of success stories from this sort of “goals first” process. The mid-1990s were replete with government shutdowns and dueling agendas. But once President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, agreed on the goal of balancing the federal budget, they got it done.

Similarly, President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat, crossed swords on foreign policy, the size of government and more. But their effectiveness was based on more than their famous collegiality. They found common ground in goals such as their mutual desire to make the tax code simpler and fairer. Once they agreed on that objective, they created a bipartisan coalition that enacted one of the most comprehensive tax reforms in U.S. history.

In the past century, our nation has rallied around such bold agendas as universal public education, the interstate highway system and sending a man to the moon. These goals mobilized political will across the partisan spectrum and led to landmark achievements.

But little progress has been made in the past decade, especially in the economic matters crucial to U.S. competitiveness. The United States is unusual in not having a national strategy — and we’re losing ground as a result.

Political leaders like to talk about forging consensus and being “uniters, not dividers,” but they seldom explain how they would achieve this political holy grail. No Labels’ call for a new governing process — developing goals together that provide the shared vision for a national agenda — is a blueprint.

The American people, if not their elected officials, are fairly united on major goals for the nation. No Labels asked more than 1,000 registered voters late last year what our government should be focused on. Majorities from both parties pointed to priorities such as creating 25 million jobs in the next 10 years, securing Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years, a balanced budget and energy self-sufficiency.

We know the public is on board: In our poll, 80 percent said the country should have a unified agenda that reflects the goals of both parties by the time the next president takes office.

What if the 45th president consulted with the opposition before taking the oath of office? What if he or she delivered an inaugural address that spoke to the hopes and dreams of both sides?

It may sound like a fantasy. But if the alternative is the status quo, it’s a fantasy worth making a reality.

Jon Huntsman, a former Republican governor of Utah and former U.S. ambassador to China in the Obama administration, is co-chairman of No Labels.

Special to The Washington Post

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