Negotiation Blog

Politicians' Negotiations -- What Can We Learn?

By Thomas Wood

Whatever the nature of our negotiations (commercial, legal, regulatory, internal, etc) we can learn from the ups and downs of some of the most prominent public negotiations. With the Euro in serious trouble and economies worldwide shaken, government negotiations over economic strategies are around the clock and very public. The US negotiations over federal budgets, taxes and spending are a prime example.

With several US significant tax and spending provisions set to kick in (or lapse) in December and January, official Washington will be furiously bargaining at year’s end. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: the fate of the US national economy, the credit rating of the U.S. government, and the confidence of the American people in their elected representatives’ ability to tackle big problems.

In last summer’s negotiations, President Obama and the Congress' House Speaker John Boehner came close to striking a “grand bargain” on long-term debt reduction. It combined restrictions on the growth of entitlement programs (which are trades dear to the Democrat party) with increased taxes on the wealthy (which is anathema to the Republican party). But at the last minute the deal fell apart. Examining elements of this failed negotiation through the prism of Best Negotiating Practices may well provide insight into what could happen at the end of this year, as well as provide guidance for our daily bargaining.

The 2011 budget talks were prompted by a deadline—namely, the need to raise the US government’s debt ceiling so it could borrow more money to pay its bills. Congressional Republicans used this deadline to try to force concessions: they refused to increase the government’s borrowing authority without obtaining agreement by the Administration to substantial budget cuts. While absolute deadlines can be helpful in focusing energy and avoiding unnecessary delay, skilled negotiators can also use arbitrary deadlines as tactic to gain advantage.

The Republicans took a position opposed to any tax increases.  The President’s position was that he would not accept the level of cuts in entitlement programs sought by the Republicans without an increase in taxes on the wealthy. For both sides, the interest was to achieve debt reduction while maintaining the support of each party’s political base. Negotiators sought a solution—as good negotiators should—that served the two parties’ interests, even if it seemed to violate their positions (raising taxes by closing loopholes rather than raising rates, for example).

When the deal collapsed, Democrats charged that Boehner had lacked sufficient authority to bargain, and had been overruled by his Republican colleagues in the House. Negotiators should always have sufficient authority to strike a deal, but not absolute authority: carrying limited authority allows them to postpone or deflect unwelcome proposals. In the end, both sides decided that no deal was better than what they viewed as a bad one. They could both revert to the same, ready-made Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA): elections, in which each side might achieve at the polling place what it couldn’t at the bargaining table.

While political negotiators in each country and all governments have special advantages and restrictions, everyone involved in negotiation can benefit from studying their successes and failures. It will be interesting to see if the US federal budget negotiators busy later this year are among those who have learned anything.

Negotiating Tip

When negotiating, give good news in small chunks. Give bad news all at once.


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