10/03/2011 05:33 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Nobody Getting Along Here

Declaring the current D.C. Council as "the worst ever," in the words of veteran Councilmember Jack Evans, begs the question of what standards we might apply to determine "the worst" legislature on record. Taiwan, Ukraine, South Korea and the Czech Republic pose pretty stiff competition. At least Kwame Brown and Tommy Wells have not yet started slapping each other, so far as we know. But the eruption of personal tensions among our local legislators, triggered at least in part by egregious instances of ethically challenged behaviors, is an embarrassment for a city government that can ill afford public ridicule.

I have long thought that the District of Columbia's semi-colonial status contributed to the lack of serious government here. Infantilize the government and the governors will act like children. "Home rule" infantilizes the District of Columbia by injecting congressional oversight on just about any topic the overlords might choose. You kids can make some of your own rules so long as we approve of them. Home Rule is like student council, a modest grant of some benign self-governing privileges to the youngsters in the hope that they will learn some leadership skills, plan a few nice parties and community service projects, but otherwise stay out of the important stuff like commuter taxes and gun control.

Under such patronizing conditions, how many serious citizens really want to hold public office? Fortunately, we've had quite a few -- I had the privilege of working as a legal intern for the great Julius Hobson on the original D.C. Council after Home Rule came to be, and I truly admired the leadership of David Clarke and John Wilson, both tragically gone too soon. Charlene Drew Jarvis, John Ray, Linda Cropp, William Lightfoot, Betty Ann Kane, Carol Schwartz, Kathy Patterson -- just looking at that list of legislators who served in the past makes me long for the bright early days of the D.C. Council.

Of course, the overlords up the street aren't doing so well on the getting along scale, either. Threatening to shut down the entire federal government in a fit of pique over funding disaster relief reveals a particularly wretched ideology of governance. Cooler heads finally prevailed over the weekend, but still! Don't we have a government to stand by us in times of crisis?

What's quite clear is that nobody is getting along here, neither in the Wilson Building nor at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue among the solons of Congress, and this dyspeptic environment is treacherous for the nation. The people for whom the government is supposed to be functioning know this -- the most recent Gallup poll says that 81 percent of Americans are fed up with the government, a record high rate of dissatisfaction.

Back in my student days, when deliberately disruptive behaviors and dreams of revolution were all the rage among students, we political science majors at Trinity had to take a course on the Theory of Conflict, which turned out to be one of the most useful courses in my career. We didn't just study theories, we engaged in simulations of conflict and negotiation strategies.

I recall one class where we had to learn negotiating skills when people communicated in different ways. My team represented a warrior culture that did not have language for negotiation and compromise. We played our roles to the hilt, entering the classroom that day chanting grunts and carrying field hockey sticks, sitting on the floor in a circle while we pounded the floor and refused to talk to the opposition whose task was to get us to agree to share some of our money -- chips of different values we held in plastic cups. The other team, playing a more mainstream role, found us very frustrating, accusing us of taking the game to an extreme, asking the teacher to stop the experiment. She refused. We all sat there long after the official end of the class period, each side daring the other to give up. Finally, the leaders of each group began to communicate through gestures and pantomime, ending with hugs and agreement to share the wealth. We were relieved since we needed to take those hockey sticks out to a game.

I fear what might happen if we gave our legislators hockey sticks. But a refresher course in conflict management and negotiation skills might be a useful requirement for all members of Congress and the D.C. Council!