The head-knocking style of governance

THE HEAD-KNOCKING STYLE OF GOVERNANCE…. It’s fairly common to hear pundits and various political players suggest that reasonable solutions can be reached if only decision-makers get thrown in a room together. Magically, the theory goes, worthwhile agreements are reached when this happens.

In his column today, for example, the NYT‘s David Brooks argues that a deficit-reduction commission is unnecessary. Why bother when we can just throw decision-makers into a room together?

The way to do that is to break free from the polarized committee structure. Invite a dozen handpicked senators and House members and stick them in a room three times a week for six months.

After they’ve come up with a debt-reduction plan, have them send it up in secret to the presidential deficit commission, which President Obama was smart enough to create.

Like Dylan Matthews, I find this unpersuasive. Indeed, every time I hear the larger argument, it’s always unpersuasive.

In June, RNC Chairman Michael Steele was asked how he’d lower health care costs. “[I]t’s easy,” he said. “Get the people in a room who have the most and the most direct impact on cost, and do the deal. Do the deal. It’s not that complicated.”

In 2006, John McCain explained his solution for the war in Iraq: “One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit.'” In 2008, McCain explained that we could resolve FISA-related controversies by having policymakers “sit down together and work this out.” A month before the presidential election, McCain said he had a plan to address Social Security issues: “We’ve got to sit down together across the table.”

Digby once famously described this as the “head-knocking style of governance” — complex problems can be resolved through force of will. Once the relevant players have a conversation, everything will just work out. How? It doesn’t matter; it just will.

But as Brooks should know, the policymaking process tends to be more complex than this. Decision-makers have competing goals and divergent ideologies. As Matthews put it, “Does Brooks really think the reason, say, Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley can’t agree on deficit reduction matters is reflective of the fact that they haven’t sat down together and talk about these things enough? Is it possible that these things are intractable because there is serious disagreement about what the government’s priorities ought to be?”

I realize it’s nice to think well-intentioned people can sit down in a room and resolve complex issues, but if policymakers could fix historic challenges by getting stuck in a room with one another, they would. For those of us above the age of 11 who try to take government seriously, it’s just not that easy.