Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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Getting closer to the deadline for avoiding the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the budget negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker Boehner have reached a delicate stage, with the president suggesting concessions some of his supporters are having difficulty swallowing, and the speaker threatening a “Plan B” that would circumvent the deal the two principal negotiators have been discussing. These negotiations are a little different from those that typically occur in mediation, where the negotiators (usually lawyers) are usually constrained by the clients in advance from offering anything the clients have not authorized. In this negotiation, the “clients” take the form of members of the House and Senate, an unruly bunch on both sides. The extent of the authority they have granted to their “lawyers,” represented by Boehner and Obama, may not be known until the package is voted on.

The real “clients” are of course the public. The most politically active members of the public are asserting their settlement authority by loudly advising their representatives that the deal that is being floated may already have crossed some lines. For the Republican base, that line is represented by raising anybody’s taxes and the failure sufficiently to rein in perceived out-of-control government spending. For the Democrats, it is possible cuts to their most beloved programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the possibility that the president may back down from his promise to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. 

What I would say to try to calm these hysterical “clients” is to remind them that it is best not to say no too soon.
Show some flexibility and movement if you want the other side to do the
same. Wait until the other side has presented what seems close to their
best offer before deciding whether or not to accept it. And don’t
compare the other side’s offer to the ideal of what you think you are entitled to.
Compare it to the alternative of no deal.

Because in the real world, we don’t often get exactly what we think
we are entitled to. Instead we get a choice between the deal we can get
the other side to agree to, and the alternative of no deal at all. And
we might have to offer to accept less than we would like just to find
out what the possible deal is.

Looking objectively at the current budget negotiations between
Speaker Boehner and President Obama, I don’t see anything for either
side’s supporters to be panicked or outraged about at all. Both sides are following
fairly standard negotiating tactics. Both are giving ground very slowly.
At this stage, the two sides don’t really seem all that far apart. And
the outlines of a final deal don’t seem all that unreasonable.

Everybody knows the final deal will consist of a combination of
revenue increases and spending cuts. For the Republicans, the revenue
increases will be too large and the spending cuts too small. For the
Democrats, the opposite. But look at how much progress we have made
since the stalemated budget negotiations of last year, when the
Republican side would not agree to any revenue increases at all.
Suddenly, the Republican side seems willing to accept tax increases of
approximately equal size to spending cuts, which would have been
unthinkable for them last year. And to give up their attacks on Medicare.
To get those concessions, the Democratic side has had to show some
willingness to trim slightly their demands for tax increases on the
wealthiest Americans, and to tinker with the cost of living formula for
Social Security. This all looks like standard negotiating to me. Neither
side would be getting closer to a deal, which the parties are, without
showing this kind of flexibility. People are kidding themselves if they
think that the other side in these negotiations would bend if their
side just held firm to their initial positions. Negotiating just plain
doesn’t work that way. The way it works is the way we are seeing it
unfold in public.

Both side’s supporters should feel confident that their
representatives are doing their best to obtain the best deal possible,
and are using every bargaining chip and bit of power at their disposal.
At the end of the negotiations, we might quibble about whether one side
or the other left a little money on the table. But for now we have no
reason to think anybody is going to get anything less than the best deal
possible for their side.

If the parties do reach a negotiated solution, nobody is going to be
entirely happy with it. That’s one definition of a negotiated solution.
The test is whether it is better than the alternative. Critics of
the concessions their side is considering in the negotiation process,
would do well to consider the serious negative consequences of failure.
Those include tax increases for nearly all Americans, layoffs for
federal employees and contractors, market reversals and credit
downgrades that will affect the financial condition of the entire
country. And perhaps most importantly, the growing sense that this
country is so polarized and dysfunctional that it can’t even reach
agreement on something as basic as a budget, something that should never
have been so politicized in the first place.

It’s a budget, and it necessarily has to reflect the spending and
taxing priorities of all of us. The only way it could truly fail would
be for the budget to end up making one party cheer and the other party
feel that its priorities were ignored. So people should be happy if we
end up with something that the most partisan advocates on each side are not entirely happy about. The alternative
is worse.