Congress flunks Negotiation 101

The causes of the government shutdown are numerous and complex. Nevertheless, if the members of Congress had gone to business school, they would have taken a negotiation class. In that class, they would have learned the following five principles, which could have helped avert the shutdown and can explain why it happened — as well as where we go from here.

You are only as powerful as your best alternative. In any negotiation, the parties' power depends on what they will do if the negotiation fails. Their "next-best" alternative determines how hard they can push by dictating how bad the consequences will be if their counterpart balks. The members of Congress who contributed to the shutdown — on both sides of the aisle — seem to have either ignored the consequences of a shutdown or judged them less severe than the cost of capitulation.

Threats often backfire. When negotiators threaten one another, one of two things can happen: Their counterpart can either crumble or hold firm. If the counterpart crumbles, the threat-maker gets their short-term wish but poisons their long-term relationship. If the counterpart holds firm, not only do they not get their short-term wish, they lose their long-term credibility unless they execute the threat. Because losing credibility is costly, especially in politics, this increases the attractiveness of implementing the threat, relative to the next-best alternative. With statements like "We won't negotiate" and "That's not going to happen," the contributing members of Congress implicitly threatened the other side with a shutdown, ironically increasing the likelihood of a shutdown when the other side said no.

Talk to them in private instead of trashing them in public. Trust is the bedrock of any serious negotiation. It leads negotiators to listen more than talk, finding ways to integrate their own interests with their counterparts'. Trust is only possible when the negotiators make themselves vulnerable to one another by, for example, revealing their priorities. Vulnerability, in turn, is only possible in private, away from the public eye. Rather than exploring their mutual interests in private, the members of Congress seem to have spent more time trashing each other in public. Needless to say, statements like "holding a gun to our head" do not paint a pathway to trust

Agents face multiple negotiations. The members of Congress are not principals in the budget negotiations; they are agents representing all of us. Agents must not only negotiate with each other; they must also "sell" the negotiation to their constituencies and, ultimately, their counterparts' constituencies. Additionally, when negotiating in a team, they must agree among themselves. Members of Congress seem to have calculated that the majority of their own constituencies prefer a shutdown to capitulation; they seem to have ignored the reactions of people outside their constituencies. Even if the first calculation is correct, ignoring the reactions of outsiders may prove problematic if these people turn the tide of public opinion against the authors of the shutdown, as occurred in 1995-1996. At a minimum, the adverse reactions of outsiders could strain the cracks that have always separated the members of Congress who pushed for this confrontation from their more centrist colleagues.

Deadlines focus the mind. The media has decried Congress' penchant for lurching from crisis to crisis. Although this pattern does represent a departure from the calmer appropriations process of the past, it is not worrisome in and of itself. Most important negotiations get serious only when a deadline looms. The problem with the budget negotiations is not the deadline; it is the accumulation of (mis)calculations, like the ones above, that leave the contributing members of Congress without any options before the deadline expires.

In fairness to Congress, many members tried to avoid the shutdown, and some understood or even articulated these principles. It is the institution of Congress, powered by the progenitors of the shutdown, that did not make such efforts. Now that the deadline has passed, a business school negotiation course would suggest that those who tried to avoid the shutdown should step into a leadership role. In that role, the reactions of the people and the gravity of the alternatives would push them toward a private deal — as opposed to the public and threat-laced process that has prevented it.

Brian Gunia, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, researches and teaches negotiation. His email is

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