Are Political Negotiations Dead?

11/23/2011 08:43 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

I was recently talking with Bob Bontempo, a professor in the School of Business at Columbia University, about the art and science of negotiation. Bob teaches students how to negotiate, and as a result, he spends a fair amount of time studying negotiating techniques in the United States and around the world. (Full disclosure: Bob is also my brother-in-law.)

Bob uses examples of public negotiation from the political arena to illustrate a central point about negotiation -- if you want to understand where a negotiation is likely to end up, you need to know each side's initial position. Most successful negotiations end up close to halfway between each side's starting position. Bob notes that historically, budget negotiations have reflected this pattern, as did the original negotiations over the Bush tax credits.

If only one side understands this fairly common occurrence, they will have a distinct advantage as they can open up the negotiation with a hard-line position. Such an opening bid will mean the end result will be closer to their preferred position. Bob was updating his lectures and asked me if I knew of any more recent examples of political negotiation.

I watched the debt limit debate with his question in mind. But instead of seeing the usual pattern unfold, something entirely different occurred. I wondered: had the art and science of negotiations changed? If it had, was this a temporary change or permanent? And was this a good thing for our political system? Given the recent collapse of the super committee, I fear that the change is permanent, or at least as permanent as things are in politics. If this is the case, it is not for the better.
Many of the newest members of the Republican Party (Democrats, too, for that matter) like to call out the Constitution during political debate and use it to justify their support or opposition to legislation or law. Whether those claims are valid or not I leave for others to discuss, but what is interesting is that the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which also figure heavily in their rhetoric, represents our grandest, and arguably most important, negotiated compromise in our country's history.

On the one side you had the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who favored the Constitution (itself a great compromise) and a strong federal government and did not think specific rights needed to be articulated; in fact, they thought this might be dangerous. On the other side you had the Anti-Federalists led by Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, who thought that without a list of specific rights included in the Constitution, people's liberties would be in jeopardy.

The result of this debate was that the Federalists, in order to guarantee ratification of the Constitution, agreed to the adoption of the Bill of Rights, thus setting the country on the path we still travel today.
What would have happened if the Federalists had said no? After all, they were one state away from ratification when they agreed to bring the Bill of Rights before the new Congress. So why did they do it? The immediate risk was the defeat of the Constitution in New York state, a key state in the new union, but what was really at risk was the reality that unless all the states ratified the Constitution, the new country would not survive.

Even though they would have seen the ratification of the Constitution by the nine states necessary, the Federalists knew the greater importance was the survival of the new nation. So they compromised. They agreed to bring up the Bill of Rights as the first item on the agenda of the new Congress.
Looking back on both the debt limit and the super committee debates, neither side appears to understand the art and science of negotiation as the Founders did, or if they do, they are willing to put political expediency ahead of the greater good.

During the debt limit negotiations, Republicans appeared willing to drive the proverbial car right off the cliff, Thelma and Louise style, if they did not get their way, risking the good faith and credit of the United States. Although a weak deal was ultimately reached, the country paid for this tactic. For the first time in history, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded, not because a deal was not reached, but because political negotiation had failed. Congress was shown to be unable to govern, the two sides unable to negotiate in good faith. Instead of compromise, Democrats blinked because they came to believe that the GOP was willing to let the country go into default and agreed to the one-sided deal.

During the Super Committee debate, neither side blinked, but rather just shouted their talking points at one another, clearly willing to fail as a trade-off for the opportunity to sort out the issues in the 2012 election. In the meantime the United States and other world economies teeter on another recession, the world watches as the United States fails to govern itself, and the example of political leadership that we have shown the world for more than 200 years is sullied. And for what -- so politicians can appeal to their political bases?

The idea that failure to solve a problem is acceptable because politicians are unwilling to compromise is something that would be unfamiliar to our Founders. Given the passion and commitment and monumental issues the Founders struggled over and compromised over -- most of them were, after all, willing to die for their beliefs -- it is hard, perhaps impossible, to understand our politicians today.

The idea that the only time a problem or issue can be addressed is when both sides hold the same position, or by assembling complete control over all levers of government including a filibuster-proof Senate, is unfortunate and disheartening.

So back to Bob Bontempo's question. Are there any contemporary examples from the political world of the art and science of negotiation? Sadly, no.