Saturday, December 14, 2013

Budget progress

This week, by passing a bi-partisan budget bill through the House (still waiting on the Senate), Congress finally seems to be learning how to get back to business. To do that requires managing truly unresolveable conflicts, instead of allowing those conflicts to gum up the works completely.

Congress did it right this time, first by choosing representatives who command trust from each side. Conservative Paul Ryan and Liberal Patty Murray fit the bill perfectly. The negotiators also had to respect the other side's most important interests. That meant conceding to the Republicans that taxes would not be raised, and conceding to the Democrats that entitlement spending would not be cut. (Instead it's federal employees' pensions that will be taking a hit.) Within that framework, the parties found room to restore some discretionary spending that both sides wanted, and also include spending cuts and revenue increases that won't take effect for some time, thus allowing both sides to say they achieved some important interim goals, and that the short term deal is better than no deal.

Is there a lot of unhappiness with this agreement? Of course. The hard-line conservatives are bemoaning the spending increases, and complaining that the deal does not do enough to rein in social spending in the long term. Liberals remain frustrated with the spending levels to which the government has become constrained.

Many mediators would say that the test of a good settlement is that it leaves both sides feeling equally dissatisfied. Personally, I never like to tell parties in conflict that they should be unhappy with a negotiated outcome. If they achieved something better than the alternative that would come with the failure to reach agreement, they should view the agreement as a positive. (By alternative, I do not mean the best possible alternative outcome for each side, i.e., victory for their side, and surrender by the other side. I mean the most likely outcome, which in this case is continued conflict and paralysis.)

Still, one wishes that more could have been achieved by this negotiation process.  A truly transformational agreement would have required both sides to cross lines that they are currently unwilling to cross, because they have defined those lines as matters of principle. To do that would require both sides to recognize more legitimacy to the others' point of view than they are currently willing to entertain. As a result, a more comprehensive, transformative agreement remains, at least for the time being, out of reach.

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