Negotiation Expert Weighs In On Washington Stalemate

Oct 3, 2013

With the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans stalled in Washington, D.C., Here & Now turns to a negotiation expert.

We ask, what would get both parties to agree?


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And on the third day of the government shutdown, Democrats and Republicans seemed no closer in Washington. Here is Republican House Speaker John Boehner after meeting the president at the White House last night.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The president reiterated one more time tonight that he will not negotiate. We've got divided government. Democrats control the White House and the Senate. Republicans control the House. We sent four different proposals over to our Democrat colleagues in the Senate. They rejected all of them.

HOBSON: Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was Boehner who, quote, "couldn't take yes for answer." He was referring to President Obama's position that he's willing to negotiate after Congress has taken action. Here's the president talking to John Harwood on CNBC.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As soon as we get a clean piece of legislation that reopens the government - and there is a majority for that right now in the House of...

JOHN HARWOOD: But no negotiation until after that?

OBAMA: Until we get that done, until we make sure that that Congress allows Treasury to pay for things that Congress itself already authorized, we are not going to engage in a series of negotiations.

HOBSON: So how do you get two sides this far apart to reach an agreement? We called an expert, Robert Mnookin. He's professor and chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. His latest book is "Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight." Mr. Mnookin, thanks for coming in.

ROBERT MNOOKIN: It's my pleasure to be here, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, so what do you hear here on the issue of negotiation? A side saying they don't want to negotiate until this happens or this side is not willing to negotiate. Is it appropriate right now for the president to negotiate with House Republicans?

MNOOKIN: Well, I think what's going on now is both sides are really playing a game of chicken. On the one hand, the president is saying without a clean budget and a debt ceiling increase, I won't consider doing anything else. And on the other side, the House is saying you should be prepared to negotiate. After all, you're negotiating with Syria. You're negotiating with Iran. Why not with the House?

HOBSON: Well, so what would you tell them at this point? Both sides are saying they are in the right and their opponents are wrong.

MNOOKIN: Well, I think the problem with the game of chicken is that it's like two cars driven by teenagers heading towards an intersection. And what both sides - each side is trying to do is convince the other they're not going to swerve. And they're each trying to credibly commit at kind of maintaining their position. In fact, for the country, this is a very dangerous game.

HOBSON: Does the threat help - the threat of a government shutdown, which obviously has come to pass now, does that help lead to a solution in any way?

MNOOKIN: Well, it's a little bit like in a labor dispute having a strike or in a dispute over a contract, if you and I have a dispute over a contract, someone threatening to file suit and then filing suit. In fact, it's the beginning of a process that can be a very costly for both sides. And what's characteristic of a threat is if you have to carry it out, the person making the threat is damaged too. And that's why, after the fact, there's often the temptation to try to find some way to back down.

HOBSON: Well, this is something that we've heard from lawmakers that we have spoken to. I spoke with a Republican last week who said, well - I said, well, President Obama says he's not going to negotiate, for example, over raising the debt ceiling. He said, well, he did last time.

MNOOKIN: And it's true. I mean, President Obama - I think part of the reason he's trying to be so firm is that during the first term, he was really was prepared to negotiate, and he didn't get much from it. And therefore, he thinks I've got to sort of credibly now establish a reputation for someone who's not going to.

I, nonetheless, think there's an ambiguity in the word negotiate, and I disapprove in one respect of what the president is saying. He's saying, without meeting these pre-conditions, I won't even sit down and talk seriously. That, in my view, is a mistake.

HOBSON: Hmm. You think he should be sitting down and talking even if the pre-conditions are not met?

MNOOKIN: I think he should be doing that or someone from the administration should be doing it, probably secretly to the extent that's possible. But it's a little bit like - I'm reminded very much - Nelson Mandela, who's one of my heroes, after being in jail for a number of years and when the ANC, his party, the African National Congress, had a policy that no negotiations with the South African government until they made lawful both the - our political party and the Communist Party, until they dismantle the apartheid, only after they did those things will we negotiate about what the constitutional structure should be in the future.

Now, in fact all the time people are making preconditions - which essentially ask the other side to capitulate - before they'll even sit down. I think far better to see if, in fact, in a problem-solving way, you can't discover some options that don't require capitulation.

HOBSON: And, of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. We've just had this situation with Syria and the famous redline that was set out over chemical weapons, and then no use of force in the end - at least so far. But do you think that that has played into what's going on here?

MNOOKIN: You know, it's very hard to say. I think that internationally, of course, what's going on now with our government, domestically, has an international impact in terms of international finance. From the earlier reports, you know it could be - have a very substantial impact worldwide. Moreover, our power internationally is based not simply on our military, which is absolutely number one, but also on our economy. And to the extent our economy is weak, that also weakens us internationally.

HOBSON: So what do you think needs to happen here? Not just over this government shutdown battle, because it's just one of many, of course. There is a farm bill that hasn't gone through, the issue of food stamps. There's the debt ceiling coming up now. It's just issue after issue after issue that both sides cannot agree on. How can this impasse be broken?

MNOOKIN: Well, what I would do is focus on two things: One is the budget, and the second is the debt ceiling increase. I think the president was wise to tie them together. Second, I think the president - the deal that has to be made is one in which the budget and the debt ceiling increase, those two pieces of legislation really should be clean.

But what I would say, as a mediator, what I would suggest is let's find a way to, in fact, perhaps have administrative and legislative reappraisal of some aspects of Obamacare and some discussion of what's, in the past, been called the grand bargain as part - happening simultaneously.

In other words, I don't think it should be preconditioned, where the Republicans have to do it before the president makes any commitments. But what I would imagine is a scenario where both renounced at the same time.

HOBSON: Robert Mnookin is professor and chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. His latest book is "Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight." Professor Mnookin, thanks so much for coming in.

MNOOKIN: Thank you so much for having me, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And, listeners, let us know what you think. What could break the impasse in Washington? Go to We'll be back in one minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.