Failure and Gridlock in Washington – Lessons in Negotiation We Can Learn From the Current Situation

As anyone who views our website’s home page will discover, our organization’s dedicated focus is on helping individuals and organizations thrive by helping to empower them to be more effective in communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution. The country is currently awash in commentary about our government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis situation, which is almost universally viewed as textbook example of a failure in governance.  But what does this situation have to do with a small consulting organization and its blog site?  I hope, as you read this post, that the connections become clear.

GridlockObviously, today’s political situation in Washington has very complex roots. Many argue that there are fundamental issues that have led us to this point of rancor and governmental gridlock. Some point to causes as far back as the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, which changed the process for electing United States Senators, from a process in which the individual state legislators chose their representatives to the upper house, to one where the general electorate chose them.  They argue that this Amendment, combined now with the added influence of money in elections, illustrated by the Supreme Court Ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission[1], has led to entrenched, single or narrow-focused interests, driving impasse in Washington.


United States Supreme Court

Others point to the oft-times bizarre and obviously highly-gerrymandered congressional districts that many states have created, which seem to enable individuals representing narrow interests to remain in their elected position, despite a more moderate general electorate, should the district be more inclusive and representative of the wider constituency.  Similarly, others point to the lack of term limits, which enables vested parties to retain a secure position, despite calls from their own constituencies for change.

John Adams

John Adams

Whatever the root causes, we now find ourselves at one of those points in American history where the actual ability of our national government to function at all is in question.  In fairness, this is not a situation that is unique to our own generations.  Our national government has approached gridlock, at times, dating back to the presidency of John Adams, and our founding fathers, being inherently distrustful of a powerful centralized government, intentionally designed our system to be decentralized between the state and federal governments, between the three branches of government (judicial, legislative, and executive), and between the two houses of congress – The House and the Senate. The situation is now so bad, that some[2]have even called for unilateral action by the President to raise the debt ceiling. They claim a basis in several provisions of the Constitution.  However, many would argue that unilateral action would be in violation of the separation of powers and, clearly, there would be ramifications that would occupy Constitutional scholars for decades to come.

The United States Capitol

The United States Capitol

Thus, our system is inherently and deeply rooted in the principal that governance should not be easy and subject to the potential abuses inherent to overly centralized power.  In our system, the various, decentralized branches of government must work together and overcome designed-in inertia, to enact laws and to govern. This is where the lessons in negotiation come in.

A system such as ours, which is inherently decentralized, also inherently requires communication and negotiation in order to govern – that is to get anything done. While, in recent weeks, we have seen a flurry of communication coming out of Washington, with Senate and House members of both parties railing and expressing their frustrations about the “other guy” the “other party” or the other “group of crazies,” what we have not seen (until possibly the last few days) is much communication between these groups.

Governance in our system inherently requires communication, and for the communication to result in anything, this communication, inherently involves a negotiation process.  Negotiation cannot occur without communication.  For years, I have taught negotiation training programs that involve exercises that illustrate how situations can be completely log-jammed until communication is allowed.

The White House

The White House

In any negotiation situation, one of the first questions the parties must ask themselves is “Is there any reason to engage in discussions with the other party or parties?”  So, for example, if you are not interested in buying a new TV or selling your vintage car, there is no reason to spend time engaging in discussions, where your interest and the interest of the others are entirely different.  But, in the case of governing a nation, this simply is not so.  In this case all parties share a common interest in the welfare of the nation and its common good.  The health of the national economy and the common good that flows from a stable, predictable, rational, and solvent government is clearly a shared interest of everyone in every branch of the federal system of national government.

So, how do the principals of sound negotiation apply in this case?  Well, let’s see … While it is perfectly legitimate for all parties to zealously press for their position, whether that position is to relegate the Affordable Healthcare Act to the junk heap of history, or to not reopen legislation that has been duly passed by the Legislature, signed by the Executive, and tested by the Supreme Court, to govern means to engage.  So, when one takes the position that they will not engage because one does not like the opening position of the other side, it essentially guarantees no progress until dialogue is somehow forced upon them. Today, dialogue is forced by the severe consequences of no dialogue, and we now find the national government negotiating in a “brinksmanship” context, where stop-gap measures are much more likely and meaningful long-term outcomes are far less likely.

Munich Agrement (29/9/39) : Hitler and Chamberlain after signing

Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, Munich 1938

So, how could this have been different without either side compromising its own deeply-held beliefs? I assert that dialogue, in itself, never compromises beliefs.  I suspect some of the skeptics among you would point to examples of dialogues that have become in themselves a metaphor for appeasement.  One might point to historical situations, such as Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1938. But let us not confuse engaging in dialogue and opening negotiations with bad outcomes in a negotiation.  The quality of the outcomes in a negotiation is dictated by negotiating skill, not by avoiding negotiation.  Avoiding negotiation does lead to outcomes, but more typically these are  outcomes over which the parties have less control and a lower ability to predict.

In the current situation, refusing to open discussions unavoidably took alternatives out of play.  Professional negotiators categorize two types of negotiation.  The first type, know as distributive negotiation, focuses on negotiating over one item, such as the sales price of house or of a car.  The focus is on a single commodity – currency or how many of something in exchange for something else.  More for one, equates to less for the other, depending on the skill used in and outcome of the negotiation. The second form of negotiation is known as integrative negotiation. In this type of negotiation, the parties put several things on the table and can then work to help one another meet their interests by using alternatives to what may have been initially suggested. This form of negotiation inherently requires dialogue and a deeper understanding of what the others involved see as their overall goals. Giving more of something of value to the other is typically offset by the other receiving something else of value in exchange.

While our current national situation has been cast by many as the federal budget and now the debt ceiling held hostage for changes to elimination of “Obamacare,” it didn’t need to stay that way.  There are interests behind each position and, yes, some of those are viewed as sacred, but the approach to meeting those interests are invariably open for exploration. I am convinced that if the principals engaged in a deeper exploration into the interests of even the most extreme segments of Congress, they would find overlapping interests among the parties.

Let me give you some likely examples. While, the Affordable Healthcare Act may be held by many as a sacred “done-deal,” is it not in the interest of all Americans to see that this complex new law is implemented efficiently and with minimal unintended consequences to small businesses, insurance companies, and the American Public in general?  If one explores why even the most zealous opponents rail against “Obamacare,” there are underlying interests. These interests range from protecting small businesses to defending the American public from perceived erosions in our government structure and creeping socialism and entitlement growth. Likewise, if one examines the President’s rationale for refusing to even engage in discussion about the Affordable Healthcare Act, one can see among other things a strongly-held interest in protecting the Executive Branch of government from allowing Congress to use the budget process to try to leverage changes to acts of Congress that are already the law of the land, as approved by the majority of Congress.

I believe that when people look at the underlying interest of both sides they see merit to possible discussions and ripe possibilities to meet all of the interests identified.  We can see what refusing to engage yields – not talking to the “hostage-takers” has led us to the brink of a national financial disaster, which has already cost the American people billions in lost productivity and adverse consequences for businesses large and small. Should impasse lead to a national default, this will cost the American public trillions of dollars in interest alone – expenses to the people for which they receive absolutely no benefit or services. The value of government efficiency and costs management are issues that both parties claim to hold as important, yet their behavior in refusing to negotiate effectively dishonors these interest.

dialogueTalking does not mean yielding, it means expanding.  It means exploring other avenues to achieve the same goals.  If, for example, the fear is that the Affordable Healthcare Act will lead to unintended, adverse consequences, isn’t it in both parties interests to identify and address them? Why not reach agreements on approaches to identify possible consequences and be open to later adjustments to the Act?  How will we achieve anything unless we implement and then adjust once actual issues appear, rather than speculative concerns? Likewise, if the concern is containing cost relative to entitlement programs, how does driving one party completely away from the table achieve that?  Will it not be more productive to engage and explore the ways that a rational, sustainable and balanced federal budget can be achieved?

I am myself a small businessperson.  Since establishing my firm, my business model relied heavily on my experience and expertise working with large, complex organizations, such as federal agencies and national laboratories. I always believed that this business model had advantages.  After all, the federal government would always pay my invoices, right?  Now that business model is called into question.  The national sequestration and the federal shutdown have destroyed any confidence I held in that approach.  That is ok.  Small businesses must be inherently agile and adaptive.  That is the beauty of free enterprise.  However, even if we avoid falling over the brink of a federal debt-ceiling disaster, I suspect that I will not be alone in my mistrust of a business model that puts its unquestioning faith in the stability of our national government. Who would have ever imagined that this would have been the case? To a large degree the damage to our national reputation is done, domestically and abroad.

So to me, the lesson is that it is never a weakness to engage. It is only a weakness to fail to deeply understand and protect your own interest in the process and, if we fail to protect our greater shared interests out of small-minded zeal for a narrow issue, can we claim that as success?


© Bruce J. MacAllister, 2013, all rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced in any manner without express consent of the author.

[1]Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission[1], 558 U.S. 310 (2010), is a US constitutional law case, in which the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions. The conservative lobbying group Citizens United wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts in apparent violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as the McCain–Feingold Act or “BCRA”).[2] In a 5–4 decision, the Court held that portions of BCRA §203 violated the First Amendment.” Synopsis quoted from Wikipedia.

Comments (7)

  1. Reply

    To govern means to collaborate. And it does start with engaging and talking. Ultimately, there has to be collaboration. By the way, the analogy of Chamberlin and Hitler, I had the thought the other day that there were some similarities. Thank you for pointing this out. You may not have intended to, but the story is exceedingly relevant to not walking away, and to continuously engage everyone, including those who have very loud and non-productive agendas.

    • Reply

      Thank you for pointing out how continued engagement is also useful in many other situations! You’re always welcome to post thoughts, exceptions and comments here, Susan! Your depth and breadth of experience are so valuable!

  2. Reply

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