By: Thom Little, Ph.D.

Last fall I wrote a blog entitled “Unexpected Lessons from the US Senate” that began with the acknowledgment that it was a blog I really never expected to write. Today, I am writing a similarly unlikely blog about the recently signed debt ceiling compromise. On May 19, following several weeks of intense negotiations, Republican House negotiators walked out of the talks with the White House following heated discussions, claiming that the Biden Administration negotiators were being unreasonable. Democrats began to seriously consider invoking the 14th Amendment, a move that could avoid a financial crisis, but even Democrats acknowledged it would likely initiate a constitutional crisis.

And yet, less than two weeks later, President Biden signed into law The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, a bipartisan deal that passed the House 314-117 and the Senate 63-37. So, how did we go from a likely financial or constitutional crisis to a law with solid bipartisan support in both chambers and are there lessons to learn from this far from perfect process? I think there may be so let’s look at how it all happened.

Know When to Talk and When to Shut Up. It is impossible to find a compromise if you don’t keep the conversation going. While there were times that both sides expressed frustration at the process and negotiations were halted, within a few hours both sides came back to the table or agreed to have staffers continue the conversations and look for common ground. While private talks were sputtering and some Republicans were complaining, the White House went “radio silent,” frustrating many Democrats. However, in the end, it may have been that silence and lack of criticism of the other party that helped seal the deal. President Biden, a very seasoned negotiator, knew that publicly antagonizing the other side would move them further from an agreement. Sometimes, silence is indeed golden.

Work from the Middle Out. In this case, as is often the case in group negotiations, some of the most significant differences were between people supposedly on the same side. Republican negotiators had to worry about members on their right (primarily the Freedom Caucus) and Democratic negotiators were being pushed by members on their left (mostly the Progressive Caucus). When it is obvious that you cannot satisfy those on the extremes of your team, you need to start looking for common ground in the middle– work from the middle out until you have enough support to get the deal done.

Everybody Got Something, Nobody Got Everything. This deal was the epitome of compromise with each side getting something, but neither side getting everything as noted by the two lead negotiators. According to Speaker McCarthy, the bill “doesn’t get everything everybody wanted,” and President Biden added, “No one got everything they wanted but the American people got what they needed.” One mark of an effective compromise is that each side not only gets something, but each side gets something that is significant. Each side can claim some victories. In this case, Republicans could rightfully claim they were able to limit domestic spending and cut the increased expenditures for the IRS while protecting and eventually increasing defense spending and Democrats were able to protect their key priorities including Medicaid, Medicare and new clean energy initiatives.

People and Personalities Matter. Some people are effective negotiators, some people are not. Effective negotiators need to be able to remain calm in the face of difficulties. They need to have a deep understanding of the key concerns, issues and positions relative to the negotiations. They need to have the trust of those they are representing and of those they are negotiating with, a trust that usually comes with years of experience.  In Representatives Garret Graves (R-LA) and Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Speaker McCarthy had two such people, both of whom had been critical in helping him attain the speakership. On the other side, President Biden had longtime aides Steve Richetti (from his days as Vice President), Louisa Terrell (from his days in the Senate) and Shalanda Young (former House Appropriations staffer who has worked with House Republicans). It also did not hurt that Young and Graves both hailed from the same Louisiana district and had a longstanding relationship. 

Acknowledge Everyone’s Efforts and Impact. While politicians often like to take credit for public policy, the reality is that in our “separation of powers” system of government, no single person (or institution) can succeed alone and anyone who claims sole credit for a policy is likely poisoning the well for any future cooperation. In this case, President Biden was quick to acknowledge the efforts of congressional leaders, thanking McCarthy, Schumer and McConnell “for their partnership.” In a similar manner, Speaker McCarthy recognized the work of the White House negotiating team, “These people are highly intelligent, highly respected on both sides. They know their work, they know their job, they know the numbers.”

Failure Was Not an Option. While it may not be the best environment for negotiations, acknowledging that failure may lead to a catastrophe (in this case a financial crisis) does add additional incentive for both sides to come to some type of an agreement. While some on McCarthy’s right argued that a default would not create a financial crisis and some on Biden’s left believed that he could use the 14th amendment to address the issue without creating a constitutional crisis, most people on both sides realized that neither default nor unilateral action were realistic options. The negotiators had to come to an agreement. The consequences of failure were just too great.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This process, just like the compromise that it produced, was far from perfect. It took too long for the two sides to get serious about negotiations. It was not clear early on that either side was negotiating in good faith. The public rhetoric from both sides was at times too heated and far from helpful and I definitely don’t recommend putting the national and international economy at risk in order to force a deal. However, the fact is that two sides did come together and produce a bipartisan bill that received significant support from both parties and that has to count for something!