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Grading the Negotiation Skills of Congress Grading the Negotiation Skills of Congress

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Grading the Negotiation Skills of Congress

Harvard expert gives leadership low marks, sees lack of creativity


Robert Bordone.(Courtesy photo)

Another week, another nasty battle in Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dared the Senate on Monday to not return to Washington and negotiate with House Republicans over the payroll-tax holiday, unemployment-insurance benefits, and the Medicare “doc fix.” It was a change of heart that began on Saturday, hours after senators left the District, when a faction of House Republicans expressed their dismay with the two-month deal leadership had struck.


To get more perspective on this brinkmanship and the way Hill leaders may be backstabbing each other behind closed doors, National Journal spoke with Robert C. Bordone, a Harvard law professor and director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Program. He talked about the way both parties can find compromise, the Republicans’ superior negotiating skills, and what he calls Congress’s childlike antics. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

NJ: How would you grade the negotiation skills in Congress right now?

BORDONE: This probably won’t surprise you or anybody, but I would give them a really bad grade. Basically, it seems to me that both sides are engaged in a classic game of chicken where they head on a collision course and look for who’s going to swerve first.  It’s stunningly childlike. While these are tough issues where the parties have genuine differences, the truth of the matter is there’s probably a lot more shared ground than there seems to be and relatively little effort to find [it].


NJ: And yet, Congress always seems to come to some deal at the last minute. How does this brinkmanship affect the outcome of the legislation?

BORDONE: Each time you push the negotiation to its deadline and play a game of brinkmanship, even if you reach a deal, the one thing that seems to be worse off is the relationship and the ability of the parties to work together another time. One of the ways we talk about a good outcome is that you get a deal that’s good for you or your position, but you also get a deal that works for the other side. You develop a relationship whereby you can work with the other side. Instead of that improving each time you reach a deal, it seems like it actually gets worse, and that seems like it would be a real problem.

Substantively, I think what ends up happening is that instead of finding a deal in the language we use—a deal that creates joint value—what you really end up with is just dividing a fixed pie. Really skillful negotiators realize that most of the time, they can be more creative.

NJ: It seems like Republicans often earn the reputation of being better negotiators than the Democrats. What do you think?


BORDONE: The classic image of negotiation is that of the hard bargainer who plants his or her feet, takes a position, and wants to claim value for his side. In my view, the Republicans have done that more successfully than the Democrats. Now, that’s one way of thinking about it.

In the academic world, though I work in real-world contexts all the time too, we would not define that as a good negotiator. When really good negotiators look at a pie that’s worth 20 points, often they’re able to make it into 40, 60, or 100 points out of it.

What I’ve seen on the Democratic side is that they’re not good at creating value like that at all. They’ve set up a situation where more often than not, the president is the one who blinks. The president might indicate he will veto something and then he doesn’t. If you continually reward bad behavior, you’re only going to bring about more bad behavior. I think that’s a little bit of the dynamic we’re in now.

NJ: How do the negotiating styles of Congress compare to other sectors like business or medicine?

BORDONE: I think it compares least to business because businesspeople want to reach a deal, and they often are thinking creatively. One really critical difference is that there is more of a zero-sum mentality in Washington, at least right now. It seems like instead of thinking what would be good for the American people or the nation, people are thinking what will be good for my election. There is always self-interest in every negotiation, but it seems like it trumps it at such a high level.

The other big difference is that most negotiations aren’t played out in the 24/7 media spotlight with cable news spinning 20-second sound bites. I don’t think you find any negotiation expert who will tell you, if you want to reach a negotiation, bring everyone into a giant room and let all of the cameras in there.



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