Advice to Washington: Negotiate to Resolve a Problem Not to Perpetuate One
Now that the elections are over, everyone in Washington is energized to get back to the real business of being a politico and that means the “Beltway Cotillion” is about to begin. This is an elite happening; only attendees from within the Capital Beltway are invited. Still it’s often referred to as the “Dance of the Dunces.”
Each new cotillion season – and this has all the indications of being a good one – has its own unique theme and intricate choreography, but all are based on some fear-provoking peril that suggests “the very future of our country and democracy” is teetering on a cliff of devastation. The routine is for the dancers – congressmen, senators, special interest groups, lobbyists, members of the White House and even sometimes the president – to whirl around the dance floor in a feverish contredanse. But to the astonishment of observers, all parties end up exactly where they began, not moving from their initial starting point.
There is no group more agile at performing these prescribed dance steps than the Beltway Coalition. It is an amazing sight to see; it’s like a modern day “Perils of Pauline” reality show where the heroine faces a life-threatening crisis in every episode. Except the “Beltway Cotillion” is so popular that it dominates the media. It’s the subject of more pre-game shows, analysis and coverage than even the NFL. It is always trending on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And without trying to denigrate the beauty and social importance of the cotillion season, some have suggested that this latest dance recital is nothing more than the modern version of the traditional three-ring circus– except it’s more exciting and entertaining. Others have likened the cotillion to Cirque du Soleil on donkeys and elephants.
There’s No Business Like Show Business
Like any good floorshow, the dance on Capitol Hill has a popular new theme. And this year the theme for the cotillion catastrophe is being called the “fiscal cliff.” This so-called financial precipice is offered up as a pandemic-like crisis that will lead the nation to damnation and destruction. That is, unless the attendees in Washington can heroically stand up, stand together and dance their way to a solution that will once again “save our great Democracy” from financial ruin. After which, it is expected that all of us who live outside the beltway will bow down and offer heartfelt hosannas of gratefulness to our beloved heroes. And, of course it goes without saying, we’re expected to show our gratitude by reelecting them in the next election. (Cynical? Who me?)
As with past crises, this “financial cliff” was created by those who now set themselves up as the only ones who can solve it. That’s like the fireman who becomes an arsonist so he can be honored as a hero putting out the fire. The “financial cliff” might be a crisis, but it is man-made and self-inflicted. And the arsonists in this case created the accelerant for this bonfire of the vanities by failing to negotiate a reasonable, workable solution to the increased debt-limit “crisis” of 2011 when they had the chance.
An Old Issue Gets a New Set of Dancing Shoes
Part of the current “crises” – the debt ceiling – is a dance that’s as routine as a “time step” by vaudeville tap dancers. The US government has incurred debt since the American Revolutionary War. Debt has encourage our nation to grow and prosper. Each year, Congress creates a budget and each year the debt limit or ceiling is raised accordingly. Every president since the 1940s has added to the national debt and the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since 1962, including multiple times by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama.
But, in 2011, the Congressional dancers in their misguided wisdom passed a measure that would plant the seeds of subsequent crisis by mandating higher taxes and implementing something they called “sequestration.” (No, it had nothing to do with Mitt Romney’s horses.) The idea was that if no long-term solution to the problems of deficit government spending and rising national debt was implemented by the end of 2012, then taxes paid by virtually every American would increase and automatic cuts in government spending (sequestration) would take effect. (Something our heroes hoped we would never accept.)
Of course our beltway heroes knew full well that 2012 was an election year and the chances of anything happening – let alone enacting serious legislation like debt reduction or tax reform – was about as likely as Romney releasing 10 years of tax returns. But that was okay, because failure to act in 2012 would create this “financial cliff” crisis that could only be resolved by the coming together of our Congressional heroes to negotiate a plan that would “save America.” And the waltz would continue. (Do you follow that logic? If not, it’s okay because we are not supposed to.)
So what we have here is not a failure to communicate, but a charade of intense, high-pressure “negotiations” between Congress and the president, supposedly driven by the “fear” that the “crisis” of careening over the “financial cliff” is upon us. This may be positioned as a serious effort on the part of our political saviors to negotiate a real solution to the country’s fiscal problems, but shame on us if we think so. This is simply another self-made crisis on the dance cards of our beltway barons who are simply setting themselves up to be heroes and prepare for the next election.
Define Your Terms
As any high school debater can see, the real problem here is defining the concept of “negotiation.” The dance partners in Washington dearly want us to believe they are in serious negotiations to resolve the crisis of the “financial cliff.” But it’s a phony issue. What we are actually witnessing is more akin to bartering, posturing, threatening, wheedling, finagling and haggling. Clearly, it is not negotiation.
Negotiation is a serious effort, made by serious parties, to come to an agreement to achieve an objective on the basis that all involved parties win. The objective of negotiation is to resolve a problem, not paper it over and perpetuate it. At the heart of real negotiation is a willingness to understand and give the other party what they need, in exchange for what you need; and that is the only way to achieve the objective and resolve the problem.
Unfortunately, the approach to “negotiating” in Washington is the diametric opposite of this philosophy. In this dance, each side is determined to get as much as they can, while giving nothing. To say the parties are dancing to different tunes is a gross understatement.
The Republicans believe the solution to the “fiscal cliff” can be found in significant reductions in government spending (except for defense) and minimal, if any, increase in taxes. The Democrats argue the solution can be found in “soaking the rich” and in making the distribution of entitlements more efficient and cost effective. When left to dance with each other, they would end up stepping on each other’s feet (throats, actually), but they are not alone on the dance floor.
Also attending the dance are clusters of beltway groupies and they are by no means wallflowers. Lining the dance floor are lobbyists, think tank advocates, and trade groups, all eager to cut-in during the dance so they can whisper sweet-nothings into congressional ears, and all hope to influence and shape the outcome to suit their partisan needs. (Sometimes it seems these dancers may be grabbing the ass of their partner, but they are simply pickpockets filling their own wallets.)
Clearly, this is not an environment conducive to real negotiation and serious problem- solving. So don’t be surprised that when all this whirling and twirling on the dance floor ends, what we will have is another paper-mache solution. The cliff crisis will be covered over, patched up and passed on to future legislators. This will be followed by the perennial parade of protagonists telling us how difficult it was to do the right dance steps, but they did it for us and to “save America.” All will be well till the next “Beltway Cotillion.”
And the Moral of the Story …
Sometimes these “Beltway Cotillions” morph into real life television soap operas. Like the cotillions in Washington, they have intrigue, drama and a complicated plot line filled with intractable problems that are talked about for years, but never resolved. These problems can never end because the show would be over and the actors out of work. So, too, with the “Beltway Cotillions.” If there were to be a serious effort to actually negotiate and arrive at a solution to serious problems, then the music would stop and those within the beltway would not be able to show us what great dancers they are.
So a word of advice: The next time you hear about how intense, furious and difficult the “negotiations” to resolve the “financial cliff” are, you can smile knowing that these are not negotiations at all, but just another dance in a long line of “Beltway Cotillion” dances.