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Coming out on top: negotiation theory and the US government shutdown

The end of the two week-long US government shutdown appears imminent, and a temporary lift to the American debt ceiling is in place. But what do we know about the various theories of negotiation that underpinned…

What negotiating tactics did Republican Speaker John Boehner employ in trying to outflank the Democrats in the standoff over the US government shutdown and debt ceiling? EPA/Michael Reynolds

The end of the two week-long US government shutdown appears imminent, and a temporary lift to the American debt ceiling is in place.

But what do we know about the various theories of negotiation that underpinned the politicking between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.?

During the shutdown, various news articles attempted to explain the shutdown and debt ceiling negotiations in terms of game theory or the Cold War, alongside advice from negotiation experts which proposed solutions to the standoff. Much of this analysis radically oversimplified the complexity of the specific circumstances of the negotiation process and oversold the predictive power of negotiation theory.

Earlier this week, Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley Professor at Harvard Law School published a widely read piece for Bloomberg. He argued that in the context of the shutdown negotiations, powerlessness was actually very powerful.

In a negotiation, you might well have more power if you are powerless. Strength can be weakness, and weakness can be strength.

Sunstein used the economic theory of Nobel-winning economist and game theorist Thomas Schelling to argue that Republican Speaker John Boehner was in a powerful negotiating position because of the lack of control he exerted over intransigent House Republicans.

In Sunstein’s view, the volatility of Boehner’s own position and the impossibility of controlling House Republicans meant that the Republicans should have been able to negotiate an excellent deal for themselves because compromise on their part was unlikely. So, powerlessness in the form of an inability to compromise became a source of negotiating power.

Sunstein also argued that president Barack Obama’s bargaining position was weakened by some interpretations of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which argued that the president had the power to ensure that national debts were paid, even if Congress hadn’t raised the debt limit. Sunstein claimed that this interpretation, if correct, undermined Obama’s negotiating power because it removed the most pressing consequence of not agreeing: a catastrophic national debt default.

Much of the writing in the field of negotiation borrows from economic theory. Like Sunstein’s work, these writers attempt to dissect the negotiation process in order to predict outcomes in negotiation and improve negotiation practices.

The authors of negotiating bible Getting to Yes - proponents of principled negotiation - set out five principles upon which productive problem-solving negotiation is based. These are: to separate the people from the problem; focus on interests not positions; invent options for mutual gain; insist on using objective criteria to govern the outcome; and know your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Harvard law professor Robert Mnookin is one to have applied aspects of principled negotiation to the standoff in the US.

The US government shutdown: more than just a game of chess? soundslogical

Similarly, in the context of the often difficult negotiations following divorce, Mnookin and fellow legal academic Lewis Kornhauser identified five important influences upon bargaining outcomes in 1979. These are: the preferences of the divorcing parents; the bargaining endowments created by legal rules that indicate the particular allocation a court will impose if the parties fail to reach agreement; the degree of uncertainty concerning the legal outcome if the parties go to court, which is linked to the parties’ attitudes towards risk; transaction costs and the parties’ respective abilities to bear them; as well as strategic behaviour.

These approaches to negotiation are useful in helping to dismantle the dynamics of particular negotiations, including the political standoff in Washington. Each approach isolates different variables, which may come into play in negotiation and attempts to determine the importance and influence of each variable upon negotiations. There is a seductive simplicity in such theories of bargaining, including game theory.

But these theories alone can’t explain the whole problem. Sunstein’s account of negotiations over the shutdown oversimplified the messiness and unpredictability of human behaviour. His description of the positions of Obama and Boehner appeared premised upon the rationality of the players. His narrative of power was rigid and remarkably inert. It may be that the disunity among Congressional Republicans did not improve the bargaining position of Boehner, and allowed new players to come to the negotiation table.

Now the shutdown is over, we can begin to know more about what factors were decisive in the outcome. Negotiations often don’t play out as we would predict: negotiators may be tired, important information incomplete or wrong, beliefs false or personal frictions or affections paramount. Sunstein did acknowledge the risks of the negotiation breaking down.

Bargaining power inevitably ebbs and flows, circulating imperceptibly around a negotiating table. Before next February - when the temporary lift to the debt ceiling is set to terminate - we may all have a chance to learn more about the power dynamics of these negotiations.

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29 Comments sorted by

  1. Anvil Springstien

    scribbler and talker of sorts at 'Near the Knuckle Productions'

    Well, so much for Sunstein's theory that 'powerlessness was actually very powerful'.

    I understand the theory; 'Look, I've a load of loose canon here and I won't be able to keep them in check unless you give them what they want' - it implies rational players using irrationality as a bargaining chip.

    It is however, a ploy. You have to actually be in control of the implied irrationality - or look like you are - to use it successfully.

    Republican Speaker John Boehner wasn't. It's been obvious…

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  2. John Q Citizen, Aussie

    Administrator

    We have family in Ohio, whys is this relevant, Senator John Boehner. or Suntan Tan John (STJ) as he is know to his electorate. STJ is weak he cannot control or does not want to control the radical Right Tea Party. Therefore, he isn't able to strike a balance within his own party let alone at the table with the democrats

    The Tea party see themselves as the saviours of the usa, maybe the free world, frankly the tea party are fools and STJ is still weak...looks great in PR shots though.

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  3. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    If Sunstein really argued that, he should be fired.

    The inevitability of the outcome was plain for anyone with a disinterested mindset to see.

    What was the GoPs BATNA? Exactly what they got: nothing of consequence.

    And Obama's? Letting the GoP cook themselves in their own rancid juices!.

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  4. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    LOL - It's the Money Lebowski!!!!

    Koch funded Lobby groups planned this last year in an attempt to cripple Obamacare, when it became obvious that dems were not going backdown as usual, the Repubs doubled down only to find out that the American people despised them for this.

    As soon as the Debt ceiling got involved Wall St, Koch Bro's and other funders called their elected representatives and said "No you morons, it's THE MONEY LEBOWSKI"

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Well said Michael. Naked self-interest trumps principle every time if there is enough cash at stake and for the Koch's, there is always enough cash at stake.

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  5. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    A bit of an academic raspberry at work.

    I doubt whether anything intelligent was going on with all bluster and blather.

    The Tea Party will take the USA on a hiding to nowhere.

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  6. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I think the author overlooked public opinion, which turned against the Republicans, when the Republicans failed to sell their message adequately to the public.

    The Republicans were actually right.

    Obamacare is a deeply flawed and unworkable system that will send US debt skyrocketing.

    The Obama government also failed to adequately build employment even after massive injections of cash through QE.

    The US now faces the very real possibility that it will default on its interest repayments in the future anyway, when it simply runs out of money to pay the interest repayments.

    China will then own large chunks of the USA.

    The Obama government is probably the most incompetent government in recent US history, but this situation was not adequately explained to the public, resulting in a backlash against the Republicans instead.

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    1. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Obamacare is medicare in the usa. From this then we can see that abort and co will try their damnedest to trash medicare, when of course they have a mandate

      The rich Americans want to laud it over those less fortunate and deny them health care, basic healthcare. Our family has been in law enforcement in several countries across the world. Only I the US do they actually think, after the fact that the person shot may well die as they have no healthcare. This should NOT be interpreted as a dereliction of duty in any way shape or form, as breaking the law is just that.
      An Aunt was generously given free healthcare by the Cleveland clinic as she had lost her job and her treating physician felt enough compassion to try to help her. She lost her battle with breast cancer but in palliative care.
      So take your tea party attitudes and stick them where the sun isn't!

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      You’re very abusive.

      Obamacare will rely on about 40% of adults paying health insurance premiums, but rarely visitng a doctor or a hospital.

      Those 40% of adults will pay their premiums, but that money goes towards funding the other 60% of people who do regularly visit a doctor or a hospital.

      In a country where 7 out of 10 people are on prescription drugs, and obesity and general levels of ill-health are so widespread, it is totally unlikely that there will be 40% of adults rarely or never going to a doctor or a hospital.

      Obamacare is likely to completely bankrupt the US, and that will affect the rest of the world.

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    3. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Frankly Dale, I have family in the USA they are NOT republicans. They tell me they realise things are tough and when you are sick and have no access to healthcover short of very poorly funded community health then things are what we care dire.

      I'm not abusive, I resent your implication. You have the front to call me abusive when the republicans tried their level best to blackmail their own country.

      You by inference seem to think everyone has the right to determine their own path in life. Wrong they don't. Believe it I'm no soft touch. Basic healthcare is a right not a privilege. You I believe from the tone of your post seem to think if a person is poor then so be it that's their fault...grow up lad this is the real world not a business and a monthly P & L on a spreadsheet. This is peoples lives.

      If you don't like it then that's ok, but refrain from calling me abusive frankly are the abusive one!!

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    4. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Typo" If you don't like it then that's ok, but refrain from calling me abusive frankly you are the abusive unrealistic one!!"

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      You’re very abusive.

      About the only companies to benefit from Obamacare will be the health insurance companies.

      Meanwhile, it appears Obamacare may actually make it more difficult for people to get a job.

      “Forty-one percent of the businesses surveyed have frozen hiring because of the health-care law known as Obamacare. And almost one-fifth—19 percent— answered "yes" when asked if they had "reduced the number of employees you have in your business as a specific result of the Affordable Care Act."”

      Another 38 percent of the small business owners said they "have pulled back on their plans to grow their business" because of Obamacare.

      http://www.cnbc.com/id/100825782

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    6. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Hello Dale, If I was a nasty republican like you we wouldn't be having this purile discussion.
      Now go away have a nice cup of English breakfast and lie down before you say something you'll regret
      I have my opinion polar opposite to you and you have yours, now we will never agree and sadly for you I dislike having discussions with fools like you, good bye

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    7. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "I have my opinion, polar opposite to you and you have yours, now we will never agree and sadly for you I dislike having discussions with fools like you, good bye

      Try the camomile Dale you really should chillax before that coronary your're about to have, you have!

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    8. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Well now mr dale bloom you appear to be fixated or stalking! The chaps and I had a chat about your unique behaviour over an Irish Breakfast.
      We concluded that the 'silver spoon' you believe to be silver is in fact epns. This old chap means you are in a spot of bother. Your chums no doubt have a real silver spoon, alas you do not.
      Indeed my silver spoon or should I say spoons plural The Apostle set, Birmingham UK hallmarks are more real than you will ever be.
      So old chap been an interesting time, though somewhat repetitive and as we shall never see common ground we shall terminate this forthwith.
      Oh yes as for the epns (Electro Plated Nickel Silver) cheap, though decorative and I have to say the stains on one teeth, fingers and position in society cannot be removed.
      Good day to you sir and please no need to reply as you are out of your depth, in case you hadn't already realised.

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    9. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      You’re very abusive.

      You have not stated one fact and referenced nothing, but you have made up a lot of stories, carried out a lot of name calling, and carried out a lot of abuse.

      BTW. Where did you receive your education?

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    10. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Don't forget the valerian, it aids a good nights sleep, now stop stalking or i'll dob you in.
      My education is in two countries and at the tertiary level and the less you know the less it can hurt you.
      You on the other hand are a boarish (sic) republican, no consideration for anyone else's opinion, or your fellow man/woman /child
      The sum total of my life and its experiences makes snobs like you look like a boy scout on his first jamboree.
      You believe everyone has the inalienable right to be poor!
      So why don't you disappear and be a good chap! Tea anyone

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    11. Geoff Henderson

      Graduate

      In reply to John Q Citizen, Aussie

      John Q Citizen:
      Call it quits mate. I rather suspect you are talking to a scripted bot (robot) anyway.
      And frankly, without rancor, your "discussion" with Dale Bloom is of a pretty low intellectual standard.
      But it takes two to bullshit - one to say it, another to listen and in this moment that's me. But please, give it a rest.

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    12. John Q Citizen, Aussie

      Administrator

      In reply to Geoff Henderson

      Yes agreed, I was beginning to think it was a little to robotic, I disagree it is of low standard when the person am allegedly conversing with is of that standard, pitch to your audience! That last effort was my last effort, frankly I have other things to do like the rest of us!
      kind regards
      John

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  7. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Well, while Nicola's words on our own bastardry back home drowned out the US woes, it's like back to the future for them at the last minute with some folding of not just new freshly printed US notes for a three month reprieve.
    Behind all this drama is however the much greater drama for in going back to the future we'll see in three months time that groundhog re-appearing and one really wonders where all this can end other than with a great deal of pain.
    Like, even the GFC was said to have its roots…

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  8. Geoff Henderson

    Graduate

    Hello all. I am Australian and so if you don't appreciate a comment from a foreigner that is fair enough, but I don't mean to offend. To mitigate my alien nature, please know that even as a child, and many times since then I have visited and traveled America. My wife is American.

    As a boy, America was the centre of the free world and a place next to Gods own domain. My adoration was cemented by JFK and his stand against the USSR. I recall precisely where I was and what I was doing when my mother…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Looks interesting...............another stitch in America's tapestry of political culture.

      How far will it get?

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Ground teams in almost every state, already convinced state rep's in texas and new york and they introduced the resolution to call for an article V convention and last I heard it was pending in Massachusetts.

      However, it is not uncommong for a state to call for an article V, it is uncommon for it to gain any traction with other states. You need 2/3 of the states so still a long way to go.

      The good news is that every single american recognises the problem, that if you have even 1,000 to donate…

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      If you are interested look for an update on calls for constitutional convention next week, it's moving

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