More 'cliffs' to come in new Congress

More 'cliffs' to come in new Congress

POSTED: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - 1:45pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - 1:49pm

 Partisan bickering, acrimony, mistrust, communication breakdowns, lines drawn in the sand and 11th-hour compromises are the new normal on Capitol Hill.

Managing to function in a constant state of dysfunction while fiercely fighting to eke out a better deal during negotiations is what happens when the stakes are high and people involved are deeply vested.

"From the outside it may look like insanity. But it is more complex than that ... both sides are testing their walk away point," said Peter Johnston, a negotiation expert and the author of "Negotiating with Giants."

Just where that point rests will be tested anew in just a few weeks.

Congress narrowly averted the worst aspects of the fiscal cliff in a last-ditch vote just before the steepest cuts in domestic spending were to take effect.

Those cuts, or sequester, had been a centerpiece of the political debate on fiscal matters for months and were cut out of deal negotiated by the White House and the Senate at the last minute. But they are coming around again when Congress revisits the issue of debt and deficits in February.

Both sides are already digging in.

In the moments after Congress averted the fiscal cliff with an agreement on taxes, President Barack Obama called for "a little less drama, a little less brinkmanship" in future dealings.

But he also made it clear that he would "not have another debate" with lawmakers over "whether they should pay the bills that they've already racked up through the laws that they passed."

House Speaker John Boehner swore off trying to negotiate one-on-one with Obama after fruitless fiscal cliff talks.

Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, veterans of countless Capitol Hill negotiations, stepped in to eventually broker a compromise that was approved by lawmakers.

Negotiations on big issues seem to follow a familiar pattern.

"The language that's coming into congressional negotiations is taking on the tone of terrorist negotiations," said Robert Benjamin, a professional mediator. "People lament this and say, 'Isn't this terrible?'"

But negotiation, while critical for human survival, has always come on the backside of wars," he said.

And Congress is certainly showing its battle scars.

Recent power shifts following bruising national and local elections have produced hardening political lines, making compromise difficult compared to more cooperative-minded eras in Washington.

Even traditionally less partisan issues, like the appointment of a defense secretary or spending on road repair, have become acutely confrontational.

Federal spending in a time of record budget deficits is politically sensitive with many new members of Congress in recent years elected to bring fiscal order to Washington and impatient for change.

Related agreements are elusive until the nation's back is against a wall.

Bitter and protracted wrangling over raising the federal borrowing limit, or debt ceiling, in the summer of 2011 led to a vote just hours before the United States would have defaulted on its financial obligations.

As it was, one Wall Street agency downgraded the gold-plated U.S. credit rating in the aftermath of the political fight over debt.

That same year, Congress took consideration of a hotly contested payroll tax cut down to the wire.

The problem with this method of negotiation is "you get to the 11th hour and you get people who are really tired in a room on a complex set off issues and ... it's not as finely tuned as it could be," Johnston said. "It's hard to get creative to get a deal when the working relationship is poor and there's a lack of trust."

And that lack of trust is what makes the current climate feel different.

"There is so little trust. It's not just Boehner and the president who don't trust each other. There are people who don't trust Obama, (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid or McConnell," CNN senior political analyst David Gergen said. "It's certainly extraordinary. Historians would say it's unique. We've had brinksmanship in the past but we've never had government by brinksmanship."

Perhaps not, but Americans, whose earliest heroes exemplified frontier perseverance, especially, may be resistant to compromise and tend to embrace it only after an especially excruciating experience, Benjamin said.

"The question you have to ask yourself is would John Wayne negotiate?" Benjamin said. "The John Wayne way of thinking is that 'I will prove to you I'm right or die trying.'"

Benjamin said that approach has been successful in some cases but may be "our greatest weakness" as issues become more complex.

An innate aversion to compromise further complicates matters, Benjamin said. People inherently mistrust lawyers and politicians, in part, because they are people whose jobs depend on making a deal.

"Compromise is being weak and in some cases being seen as a sell out as you see in the statements of the tea party and the (extreme) left," Benjamin said of criticism faced by lawmakers who try to make deals.

"American culture is founded on the notions of individual initiative and determination and stubbornness. We admire the entrepreneur who is determined, but that same person is also stubborn."

But things can't continue on this path.

"Basic negotiations theory teaches what you want to reach is a win-win," Gergen said.

In the recent series of high-stakes negotiations in Washington "there was no win, win in either case," he said.

"Everybody ought to take a time out and spend a week with the best negotiators and start again," Gergen said. 

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