Everybody knows Washington is dysfunctional and can barely work together long enough to keep the lights on. Everybody knows that politics is so divided that finding common ground is just giving your opponent a clear shot. Everybody knows that accomplishing big things is impossible these days with a divided government and a polarized electorate.

Making broad assumptions is not good. This year, the President signed the biggest land conservation bill that Congress had even considered in a decade, and it passed with huge, bipartisan majorities. The new law creates five new national monuments, expands several national parks, adds 1.3 million acres of wilderness, and permanently reauthorizes a fund that supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects. The scale of this legislative achievement is exactly what is not supposed to be possible. So how did this happen?

Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” had it all wrong. Instead of an initiative beginning and ending on Capitol Hill, the public lands preservation bill went from wish list to the biggest conservation law in a decade because the process started long before it was a bill on Capitol Hill. Well before anyone in Washington started voting, they engaged the public, built coalitions, and found compromises, providing a playbook for how to get things done nowadays in the process. Big, bi-partisan majorities don’t just happen. In this case, politics made stranger bedfellows than mere Democrats and Republicans: hippies and hunters, chamber and conservationists, Civil War buffs and Civil Rights activists. To get this done, they had to throw out the modern playbook that says there can’t be winners without losers. From the jump, they crafted this as a win-win for all involved.

Schoolhouse Rock Bill
Image credit: Schoolhouse Rock/Disney Education

Because of this early action, lawmakers were able to take a something-for-everyone approach that would allow both liberal conservationists and conservative hunting enthusiasts to declare victory. To build trust, they negotiated the details that are often left to the administration to work out in implementation—down to a tenth of a mile in one case. This was all-but-literal horse trading for actual horseback riding trails.

I have found in my career that when you stop trying to make the opposition lose and begin working for mutually assured production you can achieve some surprising results.

  • When I sought to help protect thousands of American jobs by persuading the Army to develop a plan that transitioned an Army ammunition plant into a viable commercial zone, we built a broad coalition. This included not only Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate but also the employees themselves as well as local and state officials.
  • Before the U.S. federal government successfully launched a working group on Russian disinformation to push back against false stories coming from the Russian government designed to mislead public opinion, I worked tirelessly to demonstrate the need for this framework and built consensus across multiple Executive branch agencies, which had not seen the existence of such a group since the end of the Cold War.
  • We successfully utilized mutually beneficial partnerships and targeted outreach to convince numerous foreign governments to implement sanctions against Iran and its proxies.
  • And, today, we are forging new relationships between businesses and governments, not just between governments but often within government and across government agencies, finding areas of cooperation where previously there had been only rivalries.

The reason seeking a win-win is so vital is that it’s not just leaders who lose—it’s the public they represent. When the public’s not happy, no one’s happy, whether it’s siting a major pipeline through culturally sensitive areas, picking a location for a second headquarters that would inevitably have tsunami-like effects on local housing prices, or introducing a disruptive technology to a city with a ready-shoot-aim attitude.

As the triumph of the public lands bill shows, you can’t climb to the top of Capitol Hill if you slip up on the grassroots. It’s not about being a bill on Capitol Hill because the cake is baked long before it gets to Congress. To accomplish big things in Washington, take care of the small things first, whether we’re talking about the details of exactly what land you’re talking about or making sure that the right people are at the correct table. In an era of finger-pointing and name-calling, a well-executed comprehensive strategy can still get big things done.