“Eight Questions to Negotiate Resolution of the Federal Budget Crisis”

Victoria Pynchon
Thanks to Victoria Pynchon for this excellent cross post, originally published on Forbes.com — it’s jam packed with advice Congress really ought to take before the next seemingly intractable debate.
Be sure to read down to recommendation #8. Seems like great minds think alike 😉

As the Charlotte Observer noted this morning, with six days remaining before “expected economic chaos,” our leaders “not only can’t agree on a grand vision for how to get America’s debt under control, they can’t even take the basic steps needed to pay all the bills and avert financial panic.”  Until the crisis is solved, we will continue our series of negotiation advice for the Democrats and the GOP from some of the leading lights in the negotiation world.

Today, I’ve posed eight questions to author, lawyer and negotiation trainer and consultant Carol Frohlinger, co-author of Her Place at the Table: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating Five Key Challenges to Leadership Success and co-founder of Negotiating Women, Inc, which provides practical skills training women can use immediately to be more successful at work.

1. Is there an optimal negotiation strategy where one side is willing to risk catastrophic consequences for the political prize of ideological purity?

Frohlinger:  The challenge here is that some of the Republicans do not believe that catastrophic consequences will follow if the parties don’t reach agreement. They do not think that the markets will collapse, that interest rates will rise, that investors will rethink buying U.S. debt and that the ratings agencies will downgrade the credit rating of the U.S.. Instead, they are convinced that there will be no financial Armageddon and that things will sort themselves out in the way they believe is the right way. One strategy would be to offer proof that their thinking is flawed – explore whether there are economists they respect who do not share their beliefs and enlist them as allies.

2. The GOP seems to be carrying a cynanide pill to prevent themselves from possible compromise. Is there any way for them to get out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into without losing face?

Frohlinger: It is very difficult for the GOP because some on the far right have taken positions that put them at odds with their leadership. Speaker Boehner is in a situation that requires him to negotiate with them as well as with the Democrats. My guess is that Boehner is finding the negotiations with the Democrats a great deal easier. Boehner has to find a way to allow these Republicans to save face – or find enough votes without them to get his bill passed. But even if he can do that, it won’t pass the Senate as things stand now.

3 . If you had one piece of advice for the Dems and one piece of advice for the GOP, what would it be.

Frohlinger: I’d advise them both to pay attention to process – agree on the ways they will negotiate, at least. For example, agree that neither party talks to the media (or only at pre-determined, scheduled times), agree on the number of hours they will spend a day in negotiation, etc. The parties do not trust one another so need to find ways to work together by first reaching agreement even on seemingly trivial things – that builds momentum and a way to create trust.

4. Where party interests are as incompatible as they appear to be here, is there any hope of agreement?

Frohlinger:  Yes, because the leadership of both parties have a common interest – avoiding an economic meltdown. The problem is that the GOP is deeply divided and some don’t share that interest because they don’t believe there will be a disaster.

Each side has to decide what it can live with – each needs to give serious thought to its BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). That’s where the 14th Amendment may have been of help to the President (see, House Democratic Leaders to Obama: Use the 14th Amendment). I’m not sure why he made it clear he wouldn’t go that route but there must have been a reason other than the stated one. Or perhaps there is some sort of arcane procedural anomaly they can find that will avert the need to reach agreement before August second. (see Jack Balkin’s post on that at Balkinization) And each side has to count votes and potential votes – identify those who may be persuaded and ask them what are the issues that will make the difference to them.

5. Much of the fighting seems to be based on different projections about the future based on the same facts. Are there negotiation techniques such as contingent concessions that could satisfy both side’s need to avoid catastrophe?

Frohlinger:  Usually identifying objective criteria and agreeing to use it to break a stalemate is a helpful technique but if one side won’t accept facts as such, it’s not going to work.

6. Does the side that refuses to compromise always win when someone has to blink?

Frohlinger:  Not necessarily – what if neither blinks? Then there will be no agreement. But in this situation, one side has offered many concessions but the other side has not accepted – and now the side that hasn’t accepted the concessions is pushing for even more concessions. The President, however, is in a more difficult situation because of his responsibility to lead the nation – the buck stops with him.

7. What if failure is what both parties want?

Frohlinger:  Failure is not want either wants – they are politicians and they know they will be evaluated by voters on how successful they are at getting it done.

8.Any other thoughts you have about ways to break the impasse with the least harm to the players and the economy?

Frohlinger:  Perhaps they might ask for counsel from women!

Carol Frohlinger

Known for her energy and informal style, groups to whom Carol Frohlinger has spoken include the Accenture Women Senior Executives Conference, the Atlanta Women’s Network, the Association of Financial Professionals, Ernst and Young, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG International, Howrey LLP, and the National Association of Women Lawyers.

Carol’s advice has been featured by NPR, Martha Stewart Living Radio and The New York Times among other mainstream media. An affiliated faculty member of the Simmons School of Management, Carol is a former sales executive, commercial banker and practicing attorney. She holds a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. 

Frohlinger is also a contributor to Forbes Work in Progress Blog.


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.