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Government Shutdown: Negotiation Gone Wrong... or Right?

After three summit sessions in 24 hours, there is still no sign of agreement in Congress over a budget plan that could avert an imminent government shutdown. The impact on many, including businesses, could be significant. So how could politicians fail to negotiate and find a solution to keep things running? Actually, the current budget crisis is actually negotiation gone right, not wrong. What can be confusing is what the politicians are actually trying to achieve and who they're negotiating with.

There are still some difficult issues outstanding that are important to both sides, President Obama says. House Speaker John Boehner says that all believe they can get to an agreement. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says it's not easy, but "doable."


But what is the point of the agreement? To understand a negotiation, you need to know who the players are and what they really want -- and lots of folks have missed what's really going on in the current D.C. confrontation.

I spoke to James Miller, an associate professor of economics at Smith College and author of the book Game Theory at Work, who noted that the standoff isn't a simple zero-sum game. Politicians "want to get reelected," he says. Each side is making use of the conflict to jockey for position in the next elections.

That gets to the question of identifying the negotiation opponent. Many assume that the Democrats and Republicans are negotiating with each other, but that's a mistake, Jim Camp, negotiation coach and author of No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home, told me in a phone interview:

John Boehner's negotiating with the Tea Party and the extreme right wing to create the vision of them that he's their champion. He's not negotiating with us, the general masses. He's not negotiating with Obama. He's not negotiating with Harry Reid. On the other side, they're negotiating with the far left, and they're also negotiating with the independent voters.
The combination of actual goals and negotiation opponents explains why Planned Parenthood funding has become an issue. The amount of money is inconsequential. However, the issue is important to base voters of both parties, and thus magnifying its importance in the respective negotiations.

In fact, the Democrats and Republicans are actually cooperating with each other by focusing on small items. If their goal was to manage budget problems and keep government running, they'd have to look at larger areas of the budget, such as defense spending and entitlement programs. But those are political dynamite that could easily sink a reelection bid.

And so the two sides turn attention to relatively small matters that have emotional resonance to their real respective opponents but little consequence to the budget, and as a result they avoid discussion of where the deficit really came from.

Swinging the BATNA
As Miller points out, to gain advantage, each side has calculated its BATNA, a negotiation theory term that stands for best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It's the fall-back position. The final negotiated result should provide at least as much, if not more, as the BATNA.

However, it's easy to miscalculate the value of a BATNA. This happened in 1995, when Republicans bet that a government shutdown would work in their favor, but actually increased Bill Clinton's popularity, as former George Bush strategist Karl Rove points out. Rove thinks that such a boost for Obama is a possibility. That raises the question of whether House Republicans are more focused on setting the stage for the next presidential election or on their own reelection.

Impact on the country aside, the situation offers some additional negotiation lessons:

  • More often than not, negotiation is not a zero sum game, and that changes available negotiation strategies.
  • Sometimes brinksmanship can distract negotiators from their real goals and cause them to lose what they could have gained.
  • To understand what another party is doing in a negotiation, identify its real goal and its real opponent, which may not be you.
  • Miller notes that having your own Tea Party -- whether a business unit, a group of employees, investors, a lawyer, or even a spouse -- can become a tool in avoiding certain negotiation outcomes. Camp calls such a group a "blocker," but warns that if the blocker is nothing but a tactical trick and not a real principle guiding negotiation, it can badly backfire.
  • Being able to say no is vital. But, like a blocker, it is a two-edged sword. Boehner has done a "great job of using no to drive [negotiations with the Democrats]," according to Camp. And yet, Boehner appears unable to say no to his real opponents because he has no BATNA for not being reelected. The same is true for the other politicians on both sides.
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