The Process

There’s a theme emerging on the backing off from the “fiscal cliff”, exemplified by E. J Dionne’s column in the Washington Post. According to this interpretation, the agreement that was forged at long last, at the very last minute was just the first step in a lengthy process:

But we should at least consider the possibility that this week’s Midnight Madness was actually a first step down a better road. This will be true if Obama hangs as tough as he now says he will; if he insists on more revenue in the next round of discussions; and if he immediately begins mobilizing business leaders to force Republicans off a strategy that would use threats to block a debt-ceiling increase to extract spending cuts. Real patriots do not risk wrecking the economy to win a political fight.

The question that needs to be asked about this interpretation is how do you envision that taking place?

There are several kinds of negotiations. One kind of negotiation could be characterized as “the confidence-building exercise”. In this sort of negotiation the accomplishment may be small but the parties are in closer agreement at the end of the negotiation than they were at the beginning. They like and trust each other more. Both feel that they gained just by coming to the table.

The other sort of negotiation could be characterized as “poisoning the well”. One side, the other, or neither might have gotten what they wanted from the negotiation but at the conclusion further negotiation is more difficult than it was at the beginning if not impossible altogether. All too often divorces are this sort of negotiation.

The problem that I had with the debate over healthcare reform and now with the late debate over fiscal reform is that any practical sense they made was as the first step of many but the process by which they have been conducted made that process less likely, even impossible.

Does the recent exchange of insults by Senate Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Boehner suggest that future negotiations will become easier or more difficult? Do Democrats really believe that, if Boehner is ousted from the speakership, that whoever replaces him will be more accommodating?

For the next two years at the very least the contours of federal government will be that Obama will be president, Democrats will control the Senate, and Republicans will control the House. Deal with it.

If you’re willing to write off the next two years in the hope that the next two will be more favorable to your side, whichever side that may be, you’re engaging in exactly what Dionne decries: risking wrecking the economy to win a political fight.

33 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    I don’t think this is a negotiation as you’re thinking of it. This isn’t two sides hoping to reach some middle ground that allows them to move toward a mutually profitable resolution. There is nothing mutually profitable, this is zero-sum. It’s not about money alone, or policy alone, or good governance alone, it’s about power.

    What Mr. Obama just got John Boehner to do was a bit like forcing the Pope to renounce the immaculate conception. The GOP just voted to raise taxes on rich people in order to finance big government. That’s not negotiation, that’s a beat-down. It was all closer to being a street fight than a negotiation.

    This, by the way, is why businessmen are not particularly useful in Washington. This is not like business. There’s no “we both win.” There’s “I win, you lose.” The question going forward is whether Boehner has been so weakened by this beating that he’ll be easier to roll in two months. Or will he, like some beating victims do, get back up even more determined in round two?

  • PD Shaw Link

    On process, I think:

    1. Reid is not a good majority leader. The examples are too many, but this fiasco is the latest example. I personally think Durbin would be better as the face of the party in the Senate, with either Reid (if he wants to be “pugilistic”) or Schumer as the whip. (see Tom Daschle on Reid’s inability to work with the opposing party)

    2. We are not going to get anywhere with public negotiations. The Boehner/Obama talks went further than these and were skutled by the happenstance of the Senate announcing a compromise, which Obama publicly embraced, killing the negotiations. Had the Senate not gone public, a deal may have taken place.

    3. What I think surprised most estate/tax lawyers/accountants was no deal on corporate income taxes. Most everybody agrees it needs to be made competitive with other OECD countries, but it never happens. The estate tax deal was pretty much the consensus view two years ago, and only now is being enacted. How many times has Dave brought up the SS problems at OTB and been told by a liberal that SS is easy to fix, but yet it never gets fixed? It appears to me we have a packaging problem. We can’t make the small deal, because it gets trapped by a large deal; one suspects that all of the politicians are waiting until their enemies die out.

  • The question is not whether the process was viewed as zero-sum. Of course it was. The question is whether that process is conducive to the sort of gradualism that’s being claimed.

    I don’t think it is. I see no reason to believe that it is.

    So, essentially, you’re left with either a policy error or a process error. Take your pick.

  • michael reynolds Link

    There is zero chance of passing some grand, over-arching vision. That’s a non-starter. See: the ACA. Gradualism isn’t the optimum way, but the only one available.

    Given that, the game must be to weaken and wear down your opponent. Are Republicans weaker? Yes they are. Beating Romney was the first step. Picking up seats in the Senate and House was a small step two. Ramming a tax increase down their throats was part three. The next thing the House did was shoot itself in the foot on Sandy relief. And in the meantime Wall Street is acting as Obama’s very own House whip.

    If this is not a negotiation but a boxing match, then Obama is way ahead on points, and Boehner’s right eye is swollen shut. That does not guarantee future victory, but it’s the only way to get the job done in Washington, in this Tea-stained environment.

  • I guess we’ll need to wait two years to see how effective that strategy will be. On average over the last 21 midterm elections the president’s party has lost 30 seats in the House.

    The recognition of that may be why we have not historically relied upon gradualist approaches. I can’t think of any major changes in U. S. policy that have been enacted that way.

  • jan Link

    One Senator being interviewed this morning said that, following the closed fiscal cliff session where the final deal was baked, the Senate had ‘6 minutes’ to read the bill before they were expected to pass it.

    I remember my husband describing the military as a place of ‘hurry-up and wait’ — meaning large contrasts of time of doing nothing, or given no time to accomplish a lot. The last couple of Congresses seem to be under the same drill.

    Has this now become the Congressional ‘process’ — electing robots as our representatives, in as much as they are given commands by their leadership to vote such a way or else?

    Michael seems to be visualizing Washington DC as a boxing match, where the most bombastic party wins. The “game must be to weaken and wear down your opponent.” Ramming legislation down our throats, as he describes it, is the way to go. That is certainly what is happening in the Obama Administration. The ACA, unlike other historical legislation of the past, was a one-sided deal, with nary a Republican vote. Is this supposed to make the nation unified and stronger?

    Today, Obama may indeed be ahead on ‘points.’ However, I wonder how long such brinkmanship will be tolerated by the other half of the nation who disagrees with his vision. The current crop of politicians in the opposition party have wrangled disputes with soft hands and lost. But, calluses form from blisters, and losses often times strengthen spines, while ‘wins’ breed complacency. The mocking from dems, in the long run, doesn’t better their position, nor does it consolidate or safeguard political relationships It only generates resentment, festering ill will, creating the seeds for overthrowing the victors.

    We’ll see……

  • michael reynolds Link


    I don’t think we’ve had this situation before, maybe not since the mid-19th century when we saw the Whigs fall apart and the Democrats fracture .

    We have a minority party absolutely devoted to a completely outdated notion of governance. It’s not just hypocrisy that causes the GOP to cry for cuts and attack the idea of big government and then offer absolutely no details. It’s the fact that their ideology is obsolete. They cannot reconcile the real world as Americans – including most Republicans – want it (a superpower with a safety net, regulation and entitlements,) with their fantasy of a very different world.

    Americans have big government because Americans want and need big government. Republicans preach that big government is evil but when given the chance to actually shrink government, what happens? Did the government shrink at any point? No. So Republicans are pushing an agenda for ideological and emotional reasons that they don’t actually want.

    How does one negotiate when one side literally does not want what it insists it wants? This is why their entire world view has narrowed down to the single point that taxes must never be raised. It’s a panic reaction. Seeing their fantasy evaporate they cling to one article of faith. And now they’ve lost that. Governor Christie wants 60 billion dollars, and Americans want him to have it, because in the real world Americans like big government.

    So, ask yourself: what is the GOP plan? They’ve lost on social issues. They’ve been co-opted on defense. And their economic vision is one they know can never be implemented. They are fractured, scared and lost. And that’s who we’re supposed to work with to strike some grand bargain? No, under these circumstances we push them back, inch by inch.

  • I still just ain’t in the mood. Republicans give me a headache.

  • jan Link

    I personally don’t think people like either party very much — the republicans or the dems. The dems have won a slim majority simply because they are better at the ground game and in the trenches of political castration and humiliation of their opposition.

    Michael is right that the republicans talk small government without doing much about it, which is why the party is fracturing along so many internal lines. The dems are also having problems with their moderate/conservative membership, who don’t like the social progressive prescription written by the current administration for the ills of the country. In the midst of so much dissension on both sides, the independents are the growing nondescript free-floating segment that is coalescing somewhere in the middle of it all.

    Maybe another party is in the makings of being formed by the disenchanted in the middle. I don’t know. Or, maybe the left will retreat from their Keynesian calling, or the right from the rigidity of their social doctrines, pulling individuals back into a given, but moderated right/left two party fold.

    People aren’t happy though, with either the winners or the losers. The fiscal cliff pleased few economists, or so says the latest Times Magazine. The growing weight of deficit spending hasn’t been addressed; people keep clamoring for more money that isn’t there. The Sandy Bill was politicized by spending gimmicks unrelated to the Storm victims it was meant to help. If there was true empathy for those effected by the hurricane, the bill would have focused only on them, and not on more political brinkmanship to cleverly tack extraneous stuff onto this emergency measure — taunting the House to pass it in full or take more grief for so-called inhuman obstructionism.

    Where does honesty start and tackiness stop? Yep, both parties need a heavy dose of rehab, IMO.

  • Maxwell James Link

    I’m going to differ from Michael (and you) on this one detail: it’s not at all zero-sum. 99% of the Bush tax cuts have now been entrenched by law, whereas the Obama payroll tax cut, probably the best part of the stimulus, has been quietly rescinded by all of Washington. That is, from any sane perspective, a huge conservative victory.

    But it’s viewed, not incorrectly, as a huge Democratic victory. Which is why it’s not zero-sum.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I don’t think at this point anyone knows what ‘conservative’ means. It used to mean preservationist, cautious, favoring the least intrusive solution and reluctant to throw our weight around in the world. The last Republican who was an actual conservative may have been Ike.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Maxwell, I think the payroll tax issue was treated as a non-zero sum point by the negotiating parties; they at least appear to have moved very quickly to a consensus on returning it.

    I think for the Democrats, the continuation of the vacation risked financially weakening SS; they tend to be fairly conservative about tinkering with New Deal heritage programs; and they fear that without the payroll tax SS would become demeaned as welfare program and lose popular support.

    Republicans have their own reasons for preferring the payroll tax (St. Ronnie; flat tax with cap), but I think their first preference is the type of reform and overhaul George W sought. I think you can make an argument that returning to the status quo on the payroll tax was the first preference of many Democrats, particularly those skeptical of any tax cuts to be stimulative.

  • I don’t know how many of you grasp how exasperatingly insulting this last election cycle was to an engaged woman.

  • Top that with my particular personal (yet sexist) experiences, and I’m taking gunnery from my brother, the Howitzer marksman.

  • This place is something like a gym shower.

    You got two girls here. We have to stick together, jan. Otherwise we’ll get testosterone poisoning.

  • Remember, senora, we outnumber them.

  • steve Link

    “The problem that I had with the debate over healthcare reform and now with the late debate over fiscal reform is that any practical sense they made was as the first step of many but the process by which they have been conducted made that process less likely, even impossible.”

    Look at the names they put on their bills or the bills of the opposition. How often do we see the words job killing? It is clear that both sides really do not like each other. I am not sure it matters that much. AFAICT, things have been worse before, and things have been better, but things still got done. Heck, they used to beat each other and have duels. I really dont think they are that fragile.

    That said, things are different this time because the filibuster is used much more freely. You also have a group committed to opposing compromise. That is not unknown, but it is an inauspicious time to have such a group emerge. But, in the long run, as Dave likes to point out, each individual congressperson won an election and wants to win again. When there is a good reason to reach a deal, they will.


  • michael reynolds Link

    If you go to the Tea Party sites what you see is those people getting themselves worked up to attack the Republicans who voted for the fiscal cliff deal. The idea that Democrats can somehow compromise with these people just ignores reality.

  • Andy Link


    We have a minority party absolutely devoted to a completely outdated notion of governance.

    I agree with you…unfortunately we have a majority party with a different, but still completely outdated notion of governance. What is the Democratic plan for fiscal sustainability? What’s their plan for economic success? It’s not the 1930’s anymore.

  • michael reynolds Link


    Basically, I agree. The difference is that the Democrats 1) still believe, and 2) are still looking for a way to pay for it, and 3) understand compromise, and 4) still think their job is to govern, and 5) live within consensual reality.

    We are supposed to have a Mommy Party and a Daddy Party. The Democrats are still Mom. Sadly, Dad is falling down drunk, waving a gun around and ranting about commies and queers.

    I would never and have never argued that the Democrats are entirely right or entirely logical. They are meant to be one pole in a bipolar system. When the other pole is insane, that forces all the responsibility onto Mom and Mom has her limitations.

  • PD Shaw Link

    steve, the front page of my newspaper has a large picture of Republican Senator Mark Kirk, climbing the steps at the Capitol after his stroke, accompanied by Democrats Biden, Durbin & Manchin. Its a very collegial picture. I don’t think all of the politicians “do not like each other.” Sure, people like McCain personalize their ideological disputes, as do voters and blog commentors.

    I don’t believe you can blame the fillibuster for inaction in the Senate when the Republicans control the House. The reason Senate Democrats had a record 92% party unity percentage is because “Dictator” Reid prevented votes that would divide his party and make his Senators from red states vulnerable in elections. Link (see Party Unity tables) In 2014, there are six to eleven potentially vulnerable Democratic seats in the Senate (and arguably no Republican seats). I believe Reid will not support any filibuster reform that will make life more difficult for his “red state” senators.

  • TastyBits Link


    When the Republicans were calling for an end to the filibuster, I do not recall any Democrat who thought it was a good idea. The Democrats thought obstructing Federal judges from being appointed was a swell idea. If the Republicans had implemented the Democrats’ plan, there would be substantially more conservative judges.

    Of course, the Republicans who thought it was a swell idea when they were in control have been silent.

    Until VP Biden begins settling disputes with a pistol, it ain’t no different than before.

  • TastyBits Link

    @michael reynolds

    01-03-2013 10:42AM (CST)
    … It was all closer to being a street fight than a negotiation.

    01-03-2013 9:16PM (CST)
    … 3) understand compromise …

    Vietnam 1968
    We had to destroy the village in order to save it.

    President George W. Bush 2008
    I’ve Abandoned Free Market Principles to Save the Free Market System.

    Let me guess. It’s different this time.

  • steve Link

    @TB- The party in power always wants to end the filibuster. Meh. What is clear is that it keeps getting used more, unless they just dont bring up legislation at all. You also have the House rule (is it true for Dems) that requires a majority of the mojority to pass a bill. That is also a problem.

    @PD- Good point, though note is mostly old guys.


  • PD Shaw Link

    My politically incorrect side can’t help but notice the lack of after-hours drinking in Congress, so we might need to blame women, Mormons and Southern Baptists.

  • Their way of dealing with it is to bypass, lie, change the rules…it’s going to be a long four years.

    My dream is to never hear Harry Reid’s voice again.

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