Saturday, July 30, 2011

Guest Post: Alex Cahill on Debt Ceiling Negotiations

Editor's Note: In this afternoon's post, Alex Cahill, friend of the bloggers, puts his certification in negotiation in good purpose in an interesting discussion of the negotiation options had by Democrats in light of what appears to be significant Republican intransigence. We extend our thanks for his expertise. -- A.S.

With the ongoing political strife between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling, the art of negotiation is on full display. Negotiations have been ongoing for months with Vice President Biden leading a bipartisan group of congressional officials in an attempt to craft a long term debt reduction package coupled with raising the debt ceiling. However, negotiations remain stalled and with Republicans walking away from two debt reduction meetings (i.e. Eric Cantor walking out of VP Biden’s sessions and Speaker Boehner apparently unwilling to agree to a $4 trillion debt reduction deal), the question emerges as to how Democrats can negotiate with a party who may not be interested in negotiating in good faith?

The Harvard Negotiation Project took up this vexing question and produced the book “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” that provides the “textbook” response for negotiating in difficult situations. First, the book notes that it is important to “separate the people from the problem.” Emotions and egos can become a major stumbling block during negotiations, which adversely affects a negotiators ability understand the other party's underlying interests. This results in adversarial rather than cooperative interactions. This step involves:

  • Clarifying perceptions
  • Recognizing and legitimizing emotions
  • Communicating clearly

Second, it is important for political leaders to separate “positions” from “interests.” Interests can be satisfied through a range of solutions where positions only allow one party to succeed. In the current debate, Republicans have taken the “position” of no new taxes, with an underlying interest of not officially raising tax rates while being semi-amenable to closing tax loopholes and eliminating subsidies. As negotiations continue, it will be important for both sides to ask clarifying and empowering questions of the other to clarify interests in order to reach a solution.

Third, when faced with a party that acts in bad faith, a negotiator should insist that each party use objective criteria to evaluate potential solutions. For instance, both parties acceptance of Congressional Budget Office “scores” (budget analysis) of potential budget deals would mandate that fair standards and procedures be used during the negotiation process. By using fair standards and procedures, principled negotiation is encouraged, thereby encouraging dialogue between the parties and allowing the party acting in good faith to pressure the other side to accept an agreement.

Now, you might say that using objective criteria is great, but what happens if the other party uses “dirty tricks” such as lies, pressure tactics, or continues to act in bad faith? Usually, unskilled negotiators facing these “dirty tricks” will either attempt to appease the party acting in bad faith or conduct reciprocal dirty tricks. Either act results in a less than ideal negotiating outcome. Instead, when confronted with the “dirty tricks,” negotiators should utilize a three pronged approach:

  1. Recognize the trick being played (From the Democratic perspective—Republicans desire to allegedly tackle the debt issue, but their continued refusal to agree to a meaningful compromise. And from the Republicans perspective—President Obama’s desire to reduce the national debt, but his political party’s unwillingness to restructure Entitlement Programs)
  2. Draw attention to the trick being played (seen through numerous press conferences by both Republicans and Democrats)
  3. Negotiate about the negotiation itself (i.e. about the rules with which the negotiation will be conducted. This can be seen in regards to whether President Obama is negotiating with the desire to reach a $4, 2 or 1 trillion debt reduction agreement—the desired number determines the issues discussed and the process of the negotiations.)

Lastly, I want to mention one other possibility rarely mentioned in news commentary or analysis; namely, that the current ongoing dispute regarding the nation’s debt truly epitomizes a “worldview conflict” about the proper role and size of government. Worldview conflict involves our most deeply rooted values and often emerges through the words religion, politics and personal identity. For many Democrats, the issue of raising taxes on those with great wealth is a matter of not simply debt reduction, but a fundamental act of social justice. Similarly, for many Republicans, debt reduction and balanced budgets serves as the premier value that forms their political identity. While arguments are easily made about the hypocrisy of many political leaders positions regarding these fundamental values (i.e. how can Republicans value balanced budgets but vote for two unfunded wars, or conversely, how can Democrats support tax increases, yet fail to rein in Wall Street’s flagrant excesses through Dodd-Frank?) What is important to recognize is not the hypocrisy prevalent among political leaders, but instead the deep seated values inherent in this debate and perhaps the scary reality that our political fissures may not be solved through a quick compromise, but rather will ultimately require a new political culture based on recognition and acceptance.

Stay tuned for Alex’s post-mortem of the outcomes in the debt ceiling ‘negotiations’ – just as soon as they’ve concluded, that is.

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