The Review story / 'A worthy enterprise: Using compromise to address gridlock in Washington'
I studied four cases of congressional negotiations that worked during a period we do not usually think of as an era of good feeling. This year I updated them and turned them into a little book I shamelessly called "The Art of the Political Deal."
At the end of 2013, after months if not years of paralysis, there was a well-publicized moment of success – a budget agreement reached by Patty Murray and Paul Ryan, who were at the time chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees.
Around that time, the American Political Science Association was coming to some conclusions about what kinds of conditions you need to have a successful political negotiation. And Elaine Kamarck, founder of the Center for Effective Government Management at the Brookings Institution, heard Patty Murray talking at a panel about what helped her and Paul Ryan manage to reach their agreement.
That inspired Elaine to suggest a case study of their negotiation, and that eventually turned into more case studies and my book. Some of the cases and players were well known, like the veterans deal that involved Bernie Sanders and John McCain. It was nominally about the wait-time scandal – the Veterans Administration keeping two waiting lists, a real one and a fake one, to hide how long people were having to wait for appointments. But it ended up with both sides slipping into their traditional ruts to argue about what role the government should play in health care. Sanders of Vermont, the only socialist in Congress, wanting to bolster the VA and prove it could work; his opposite numbers – McCain and Jeff Miller of the very conservative Florida Panhandle – castigating the agency's performance and pushing hard for private-sector alternatives.
But other cases did not feature headliners and were absent from national headlines either entirely or for most of their gestation. One was a farm bill deal that took many years to finalize and got caught up in racial politics during the 2012 presidential campaign – a first for a bill about commodities and dairy supports. The other was a public lands package that had to balance conservation and development interests, with dozens and dozens of moving parts, some of which had themselves been under negotiation for up to 10 years.
There was a lot of handwringing during those years, as there is now. It felt really good and, to be honest, really important to be reporting, researching and writing about solutions instead of obstruction. There are some problem-solvers on Capitol Hill. They were overcoming differences and obstacles and making things happen. Nothing was perfect, of course, and there was backsliding. but the deeper I got into these cases the more fascinating I found the details and the more I felt it would be useful to lay them out for future negotiators – not just in Congress but in any legislature or city council.
In the back of my mind and sometimes right in the forefront were the principles the political scientists had come up with as a way to predict success. As I go through them, it will be obvious that we've strayed miles and miles from the very basic ideals and preconditions that make for a healthy negotiating climate.
Start with nonpartisan fact-finding. In all of the cases in my book, both parties had faith in the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It is now led by an economist handpicked by Republicans. And yet many Republicans have been dismissive of its projections – at times wanting to rush huge bills to votes without even waiting for the CBO to report back with what is called its score. Republicans don't like hearing that 9 million, or 16 million, or 23 million fewer people would be insured under their health plan – or that the deficit would explode under their tax plan. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor and the co-sponsor of the last health bill that failed, flat-out said CBO was wrong about his bill.
Another condition leading to compromise was what the political scientists call penalty defaults – in plain language, fear of failure and its consequences – for real people and for their own political careers. This was a very powerful incentive in the cases I studied. You don't want the whole government shut down or decimated by indiscriminate cuts because you can't do your job. You don't want to throw the world into financial chaos by defaulting on our debt. God forbid you have to go home and face voters when you haven't done anything to help veterans waiting months for health care. And you don't want to punt on a farm bill so many times that we're in danger of going back to a 1949 law that would drive up milk prices to $7 a gallon.
Those were clear incentives. But the incentives are now mixed. Republicans desperately want to deliver for their base and their donors, and that means repealing the Affordable Care Act and changing the tax code in ways that disproportionately benefit corporations and the wealthy. But these goals are not popular with the broader public. That could threaten their congressional majorities in 2018 and their hold on the presidency in 2020. They could also get a lot of deficit hawks and fiscal conservatives made at them if they explode the deficit. There's no clear advantageous path forward.
Generally speaking having a deadline in the cases I studied was crucial. And it didn't necessarily have to be a crisis. Some of these negotiations were driven by a recess, the last bill leaving the station, the legacy achievement somebody important wanted before he or she retired. That was the hook for the public lands bill. You had a very conservative Republican chairman of the House Interior Committee, Doc Hastings of Washington state, who wanted part of his legacy to be a Manhattan Project national monument – it had three sites and one of them was the Hanford nuclear reservation in his district. You also had Harry Reid foreseeing the end of his reign as Senate majority leader. He and his party understood they were likely to lose their Senate majority in 2014 so he assigned some staffers to push projects he wanted on both the development and conservation sides of the ledger, and he was of course an expert at making things happen, so his clout and skills were invaluable.
It was also very helpful, although not essential, that the chief negotiators – both lawmakers and their aides -- knew and trusted each other. In some cases, personalities were very important. Murray and Ryan got to know each other and found common ground in football and fishing. Even more important, they saw that things they said to each other did not end up in the press, so they concluded they could trust each other.
Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee from 2011 to 2015, also drove negotiations with her personality. She has been called an underrated senator, and I think this case study proves the point. Republican staffers called her an energizer bunny who never missed an opportunity to make her points directly to them. Her final sparring partner in a very long saga was Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who was old school in his insistence on getting to know people, and the two made a very successful trip together to a big farm event in Cleveland, Mississippi.
The political scientists also said privacy was very important. This is counterintuitive at a time when transparency is supposedly the gold standard, and administrations are judged by how transparent or secretive they are. In a way, it felt like being a traitor to my profession of journalism to be writing about the virtues of secrecy, but I think the case studies illustrate why it made some agreements possible. The budget and public lands bills were prime examples of that. In cases where disagreements played out in public, including much of the veterans process and the food stamps chapter of the farm debate, it's clear that made compromise much more difficult.