John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Negotiation 101

Posted on December 19, 2012

I ran across an article on the Internet written by Barbara Braham, who apparently is an expert on the subject, about the art of negotiation.   Negotiation is an important part of life, and obviously what Congress and the President do on an hourly basis.

Some people are good negotiators, and some aren’t.  I am not a particularly good negotiator.  I don’t have enough patience for it.

I was thinking about the importance of good negotiations in the context of the Fiscal Cliff and the current situation with Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner.   We have been down this road before, with the debt limit negotiation, and ultimately, the President and the Speaker gave way to the compromise reached by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority leader Harry Reid.

Here are her top ten tips:

  1. Know Thyself: In a political context, know what your members will accept (especially a majority of your majority).

  2. Do Your Homework:  Know the issues and know what is important and what is not important.

  3. Double and Triple Think:  Make sure you think clearly and deeply about what is motivating your competitor and go beyond that into thinking what they think you want.

  4. Build Trust:    You can’t negotiate if you don’t trust the other side, or at least have a sense that they are negotiating in good faith.

  5. Develop External Listening:  Listen carefully to what the side is saying, which requires that you stop listening to your internal voice when the other side is talking.

  6. Move Beyond Positions:  In order to come to a negotiated settlement, you have to show that you are willing to make a deal, and that requires that you show some vulnerability to move beyond your stated positions.

  7. Own Your Own Power:    Don’t assume that the other side has all the cards.

  8. Know Your BATNA:  This stands for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.  What happens if you don’t get a deal and can that be better than getting a deal.

  9. Know What a Win Is:   How do you define victory?  How do you define defeat?  Don’t accept defeat.

  10. Enjoy the Process:  A good attitude inspires confidence and hope.  A bad attitude inspires defeat.

Now let’s apply this to the current negotiations.

The House Republican Conference, in the wake of a bad election, is not the same group of members that first captured power two years ago.  Boehner's leadership team has changed as well, emotionally if not necessarily physically.

The President, fresh from a successful reelection campaign, is not the same guy as he was three months ago.  He no longer has to worry about the campaign.  Now he has to worry about his political legacy.

Clearly, the President understands that things have changed, but I think he has over-read his mandate.  He still has to deal with the House Republicans, who successfully defended their position, and they are not likely to bend to his will.   Boehner has consolidated control of his Conference, and seems to understand that he has more leeway to negotiate than he did before the election.  But he is still proceeding very cautiously.

There are a lot of moving pieces in this negotiation, with a myriad of issues clouding up the picture.   The press has focused on higher tax rates for Millionaires, but that ultimately is not the issue that either Congressional Republicans or the President really care about.  Republicans care about entitlement spending and the President wants a deal on the debt limit.   Understanding what is important to your allies and what can be given away is extremely useful knowledge.   Hopefully, an inventory of all the issue and how they play out (and how much they cost) is in the Boehner briefing book.

The President likes to think that he knows John Boehner and he knows what Boehner needs, but I am not so sure that he does.  Boehner, I think, remains mystified and annoyed by this President, who he thinks doesn’t really negotiate in good faith.   If you read the Woodward book on the debt limit, it is hard to fathom how Boehner can trust Obama.

The lack of trust between the Speaker and the President stands in market contrast to the workmanlike relationship between the Senate leaders.  They know how to cut deals, because they do it every day.

It is hard to believe that the President has actually listened to what the Speaker needs in this negotiation.  He keeps talking about taxing the rich more, but the Speaker and Congressional Republicans have already conceded the point.  If taxes are going to go up, though, (and they will, by law), the Republicans want real spending cuts.  The President is pretty good at glossing that over.

John Boehner has showed a willingness to move beyond his position on tax cuts for the rich, but the President has done nothing to give the Speaker something to work with.  For this President, it is his way or the highway.

The plan B play is the way the Speaker owns his own power.  If he can pass Plan B, he shows the world he owns his own troops.  That means he no longer has to negotiate with himself.   Remember what happened in the debt limit debate.  Once he showed the world that he could get a plan through the House, the Senate Majority Leader quickly broke down and started negotiated a final deal.  Same thing here, because the Speaker is owning his own power.

The big question is what happens if we get no deal and we go over the so-called fiscal cliff.  I actually don’t think much will happen immediately, and only over time, will the reality of the new higher taxes actually hit constituents.  For Boehner, it becomes much easier for him to negotiate in January, when he can move to cut taxes, than it is now, when his troops have to vote to raise taxes.  The best alternative for Boehner might be let this whole debate slip into the New Year.   Many Democrats also believe that their leverage increases next year, so that might work out to be the BATNA for each side.

The hardest part is to decide what constitutes a win.  For Boehner, it was never realistic to assume that he would get all of the Bush tax cuts extended.  For him, a win would be some real cuts to entitlement programs.  For Obama, it is hard to make the case that a win would be higher rates on rich people, because that was going to happen anyway.   For him, a win would be taking care of the debt limit for at least a year and maybe longer, and to bring some political certainty to a very uncertain economy.

It doesn’t seem that either side is much enjoying this process.  Maybe that’s because of the tragic shootings in Newtown, maybe because it is in the middle of the Christmas holiday.  But the leader who looks confident and smiles amid the negotiations will ultimately come out looking like the winner.