This article was co-authored by Bartholomew J. Timm and James Bailey
To understand why the deal on the government shutdown and border security reached by Congress, and signed by the President, succeeded the second time, it’s a must to understand why it failed the first time. As Santayana extols, “those that ignore history are destined to repeat it.” In today’s news cycle, a month ago is history.
did we learn? The December shutdown threw, in sharp relief, the
difference between what to do from what not to do. That poor practice can be as
instructive as good practice. That negative role models are as powerful
as positive ones. Frankly, failures are as, if not more, important than
few basic principles.
can be convoluted and contentious and confounding. But they don’t have to
be intransigent. Ignoring three principles of well-established sound
negotiation practice prevented the first negotiation from moving forward and
resulted in a stalemate and the longest government shut down in U.S. History.
These concepts are deceptively simple:
Binary positioning paints corners that are difficult to emerge from.
Public proclamations are tantamount to playground bravado.
Principal players should let others do their talking until necessary
the first point, toxicity was injected the moment that the President and
Speaker drew a line in the sand (publicly, which we’ll get to). President
Trump stated he would not sign any budget that did not include $5.6B for a
wall at the US-Mexico border. Speaker of the House Pelosi immediately
responded: “Absolutely no money for the wall, not even one dollar.”
is a prime example of binary thinking: 1 or 0. This “all or none”
thinking and resultant proclamations leads both sides to believe that the
shutters have closed and neither party can pry them open. Wall or No Wall.
$5.6Billion or Not $1. Government shutdown or no government shutdown. State of
the Union address or no Address.
we know there are a myriad of options between these dichotomies. Take the
largest stumbling block, “the wall.” There could have been some “physical
barrier,” language that the president advanced but that gained no traction. It
could have been allocating funds for “advanced technology” at legal entry
points where most narcotics and their derivatives like fentanyl, find their way
into the country. These were prevented from being part of the first
negotiations because of binary thinking.
ground involves identifying terms in a mutually acceptable manner. Words
matter. If parties can agree to what certain terms mean, progress is
guaranteed. If not, at the very least they must agree that those terms
may be modified. Border security, the “wall,” even illegal immigration,
are terms that, if agreed upon, provide a linguistic base for progress.
There is an old saw that “you can’t solve a problem you can’t define.”
in the term, “partial government shutdown” was the notion that it is not
binary; yet all the discussions were about government being open or shut, as if
those were the only available options. Some members of both parties suggested
that more of the government could be opened, but the principals at the public
negotiating table only talked in binary terms.
brings us to the other two lessons we can learn from the first failed
the problem of binary thinking, is when principals of the opposing parties make
public proclamations about what is, or is not, an acceptable outcome. This
public posturing created the risk, and inevitability, of the shutdown. Not only
did they fall prey to binary thinking by defining just two options, but by
doing so in public they made it that much more difficult to step back from, or
alter, positions. Let’s call this self-cornering. Unwittingly, they were
publicly wedded to an outcome that did not seem to be feasible. What may have
been intended as a starting point for negotiating become a line in the sand.
negotiations, in business or in government, public proclamations should be in
the vaguest of terms. In this case, loosely defined platitudes like, “We would
like the most secure border we can achieve at this time” or “We want open arms
with a balance of secure borders.” would have been interpreted by both sides
and the media differently. That’s the point; because they are not
well-defined, there is room for the parties to actually negotiate and change
position without losing face or risking public condemnation for hypocrisy. Some
people call this diplomacy, which seems to have worked well for the last
century or two. We’re not talking about “waffling”, but rather keeping
avenues open so that all options that serve the greater good can be
negotiating in public, both sides were trapped by their promises to far ranging
constituencies that could not be backed away from, and they were forced to dig
in deeper. Just like boys posturing in the playground, publicly proclaiming
“double-dog dare you”, leads to escalating commitments that severely limit
movement. It became about positions, not resolutions. About saving face
instead of saving grace. In addition to creating expectations, public
statements are reputational, and can have long-term consequences, like the
longest government shut down in history.
leads to the third point: principal players laying low until critical
moments. President Theodore Roosevelt, and President Jimmy Carter both
earned the Nobel Peace Prize for helping overcoming intransigence on the part
of world leaders. Before the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, Tsar Nicholas II
Emperor of Russia publicly drew a hard line regarding any territorial
concessions. The Empire of Japan drew an equally hard line regarding
their interests in Manchuria and Korea. President Teddy Roosevelt offered to
act as an intermediary and in three weeks, in 12 sessions, was able to
negotiate a peace agreement. He did this by negotiating privately, not with the
two Emperors, but with delegates.
1978 President Anwar Sadat of Egypt publicly expressed his positions on a
number of items and his disappointment with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem
Begin, who likewise spoke openly of his positions and disappointment. President
Carter requested and obtained a summit meeting which re-opened dialogue. After
the Camp David summit the negotiations did not involve the leaders interacting
directly, but most often through President Carter or others, often sprinting
between cabins at Camp David.
these three simple principles are why the December calamity failed and the
February one succeeded. A bit of chronicle displays how the process
the President and the Speaker fought but then compromised on a secondary issue:
having the State of the Union Address. These weren’t huge compromises, and they
weren’t long-term – but they were a start, and signaled the possibility of
compromise on the primary issue of border security.
they withdrew from conducting the negotiations publicly and put together teams to
develop tangible outcomes. The vocal demands of the President and the Speaker
were part of the negotiations; they were still present, but they were no longer
omnipresent. These teams were able to explore alternatives without the glare of
public spotlight, and with few if any of the details made public. When
negotiating, the less said publicly, the better.
the teams worked in relative anonymity, which greatly helped the process. As
Harry S. Truman famously quipped, “A great deal can be accomplished as long as
you don’t care who gets the credit.” With public egos out of the way an
agreement could be reached that belongs to both sides, and to neither side.
can see that the two negotiations contrasted with each other and with the
positive outcomes achieved by Presidents Roosevelt and Carter, show that having
the final decision-maker at a public negotiation table is almost always a very
bad idea. The President and Speaker are prideful creators. Legitimately
so. But pride is an emotional thing that obscures the logic of
beyond binary options, not committing oneself publicly, and delegating details
to third-parties are just common sense. Principles are not compromised in
doing so. Rather, they are realized to advance the common good. We
don’t pretend to pass judgment on the President or Speaker or Republicans or
Democrats, or the press. Our goal is identify ways to fix the problem, not fix
natural to think in ones and zeros. Doing so makes the world simpler and
linear. Telling others what you’re going to do is a form of braggadocio that is
stuffed with self-importance. Removing yourself from the details is an
act of surrender that’s hard for anyone who craves control, as do the
principals in this crisis.
sense ain’t common,” says Will Rogers.
offered just three lessons. None of them are mysterious or difficult to
implement. Applied in the second negotiations, they led to
resolution. Agreements are not stumbled upon or discovered like
continents or planets. They are made. And the way they are made
Bartholomew J. Timm is a retired
professor of management at George Washington University and Georgetown
James Baily is Professor and Stacy and Jonathan Hochberg Fellow of
Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business