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The Changing Shape of the Capitol Hill Trial Balloon The Changing Shape of the Capitol Hill Trial Balloon

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The Changing Shape of the Capitol Hill Trial Balloon


(AP Photo/POLFOTO, Kim Agersten)

As lawmakers and their staffs negotiate over the fiscal cliff, and details of those talks begin to seep out, keep in mind that the method of floating a trial balloon just ain't what it used to be.

At least, not according to senior Hill aides and the current head of the Congressional Institute, himself a former chief of staff.

"Because of the 24-hour news cycle, the whole art of floating the trial balloon is a lot harder than it used to be. There's likely to be a lot of subtle conversation going on between staffers," Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute and former chief of staff to one-time Republican Sen. Jim Talent told the Alley.

The issue with trial balloons is that they can cut two ways: Leaks to the media can undermine credibility between negotiating parties, aides say, but they're also a stock-in-trade during behind-the-scenes negotiations.

"Constant leaks lead to mistrust on both sides," a GOP aide said. But what about in the case of the fiscal cliff? "Paper is already being exchanged," the aide said.

One concrete way the practice has changed is the speed at which ideas can be tested.

"A trial balloon can get floated by a single tweet,” another GOP aide said, but they can be shot down just as quickly by another tweet.

A Democratic Senate aide had a similar view.

“You see trial balloons floated all the time, they just have a shorter half-life,” the aide said.

Still, don’t hold your breath for much of the nitty-gritty negotiation to take place via social media, Strand says.

“The most interesting thing that will happen is between the parties. That will be invisible,” he said.

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