This week, by passing a new budget agreement through the House (still waiting on the Senate), Congress finally seems to be learning how to get back to business. To do that requires managing truly unresolveable conflicts, instead of allowing those conflicts to gum up the works completely.
Positions on both sides have hardened to the point where Republicans will not accept even a penny of tax increases, and Democrats will not accept cuts to entitlement programs. That means the usual split-the-difference approaches no longer work. Meanwhile discretionary spending has already been cut more than both sides feel comfortable with. Support for restoring defense cuts in particular cuts across party lines. So how do you craft a budget agreement in this environment?
Many mediators would say that the test of a good settlement is that it leaves both sides feeling equally dissatisfied. I never like to tell parties in conflict that they should be unhappy with a negotiated outcome. If they achieved something better than the alternative that would come with the failure to reach agreement, they should view the agreement as a positive. (By alternative, I do not mean the best possible alternative outcome for each side, i.e., victory for their side, and surrender by the other side. I mean the most likely outcome, which in this case is continued conflict and paralysis.)
Still, one wishes that more could have been achieved by this negotiation process. Not more in the sense that either side could have obtained a larger share of its policy objectives at the expense of the other, but more in the sense that the parties failed to reach a more comprehensive agreement. In the past Democrats have sometimes recognized that reforms to entitlement programs might be necessary to keep those programs on a sound footing. Republicans have sometimes recognized that tax increases might be necessary to close budget gaps. A truly transformational agreement would have required both sides to cross lines that they are currently unwilling to cross, because they have defined those lines as matters of principle. To do that would require both sides to recognize more legitimacy to the others’ point of view than they are currently willing to entertain. As a result, a more comprehensive, transformative agreement remains, at least for the time being, out of reach.