Monday, October 14, 2013

Negotiation and Compromise

I would estimate that approximately half of my job duties involve some matter of negotiation.  Not only the big issues like resolution of litigation at settlement, but also things as small as when documents will be produced, when a deposition will take place, and even deciding in what office certain meetings will occur.

The terms "negotiation" and "negotiate" have been used often in relation to the government shutdown and the debt ceiling.  In particular, it has been suggested by those on the right (and even middle-right) that the President, and his Democrat counterparts, will not negotiate to make all these problems go away.  The semantics of this have bothered me, but I haven't been able to put my finger on exactly why.  After thinking about it over the weekend, I think a more accurate complaint is that the President won't "compromise" on his position, which is much different than "negotiate". 

The sequester, or Budget Control Act of 2011, was a compromise.  No matter how you look at it, the President and Democrats gave up a significant number of concessions to make cuts in federal spending, something they were not willing to do in the midst of a recession, with little to no return in revenue.  Here's a chart projecting federal spending as a percentage of GDP:
Another showing the competing proposals for non-defense spending cuts, including the BCA & Sequester that was adopted:

(Update: My friend Mark suggests that these charts may be misleading as they relate to federal spending as a percentage of GDP and recommends an article from Reason magazine as counter.)

So at the very least, when we are saying that the President should "compromise", we should do so acknowledging that he already has.  The discussions over passing a Budget to keep the government open are premised on spending levels already arrived at through compromise.

But why do we negotiate?  To reach a mutually agreeable solution.  What happens to the process when the party you negotiated with wants you to compromise on the mutually agreeable solution?

The crucible that created the BCA did so under the threat of default and fundamental premise that this would be the new normal, as mutually distasteful as it may be.  Stripped of partisan interests, I am not quite sure how anyone could expect the President to compromise again?

Putting it in context, if this happened to me in my work, I could never in good conscience recommend that my client accept an agreement with the other side if that party was known for re-opening negotiations after an agreement had been reached.  We would go to trial.  Every time.

I heard Ezra Klein say over the weekend that the parties are much further apart than everyone thinks they are.  I also heard Senator John McCain suggest that the White House is standing firm and essentially watching Republicans bleed out from their self-inflicted wounds.  Both sound right.  Both sound like we are headed for disaster.  You can blame the President for not compromising this time, but you can't blame him for not wanting to.

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love.  Please consider buying tickets for this weekend's Fire and Ice Gala benefiting the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department.