Congress and the White House have lurched from the brink of default or government shutdown or "fiscal cliff" to the next potentially disastrous deadline, this time automatic budget cuts known as the "sequester." They've only achieved temporary fixes without resolving the big disagreements over the deficit, taxes and Medicare and Social Security spending. Obama calls it "drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."
Why aren't the deadlines working?
Pushing the limits isn't always procrastination; sometimes it's strategy.
Negotiation expert Robert Mnookin points to labor disputes resolved just before the strike deadline and lawsuits settled on the courthouse steps on the eve of trial. Bargainers tend to play "chicken" like two drivers speeding toward each other in hopes the other will swerve first.
"It's often believed that you won't be able to extract the very best concession from the other side unless you are on the brink of something that's very bad," said Mnookin, chairman of Harvard's Program on Negotiation and author of "Bargaining with the Devil."
Both the Republicans and Democrats have die-hards pushing to keep charging ahead.
"It's a hugely dangerous game to play," Mnookin warns, "because people aren't always rational in their behavior."
What happens if Democrats and Republicans collide head-on this time? Some $85 billion in automatic federal budget cuts over the next seven months, with more in following years.
Obama says that would weaken the military, disrupt programs Americans rely on, eliminate jobs and weaken the economy. Boehner calls it "an ugly and dangerous way" to reduce spending. These cuts were designed to be so distasteful that politicians would agree on more rational budget-cutting to stop them.
But there's another way out. Lawmakers and Obama could agree to block the cuts, before or after they kick in, and once again postpone making big fiscal decisions that might cost some of them re-election.
That's a problem with artificial deadlines: They're hard to enforce.
Economist Christopher Kingston, whose research ranges from 19th century dueling to modern game theory, says what lawmakers need is a strong "commitment device." He cites the story of William the Conqueror burning his ships after his invading army landed in England, ensuring his soldiers couldn't retreat.
A less reliable commitment device: A shopaholic cutting up his credit cards. That works unless he gets new ones and start running up debt again.
"It's really hard to create a commitment device artificially, particularly if you don't have an external power that's going to enforce it," said Kingston, an associate professor at Amherst College.
Congress and the president have no judge, no referee, no board of directors. Washington won't hear from the voters again for two years, and even then the message may be unclear.
With human nature against them, how can politicians escape gridlock?
A few tips from the pros:
Shock them with kindness. "Try to do something unexpectedly nice for the other side," advises Ain, and your surprised opponent may reciprocate.
Avoid the "zero-sum" trap. Just because something is good for one side doesn't mean it's bad for the other. "There are all kinds of deals that the president and the Congress could make that would be better for the economy and the nation as a whole and in that sense would benefit them all," Mnookin says.
Get a mediator. Maybe the special 2011 deficit committee could have reached agreement with the help of a trusted outsider. It's worth a try, Ain says, because "that works in major litigation and all sorts of situations."
Shame the bullies. If politicians denounced their fellow party members who display contempt for the other side, Coloroso says, it would squelch the mocking tone.
America's citizens also are mostly silent bystanders right now, the author said.
"What are we going to do about it?" she asked. "Do we just stand by and shrug our shoulders?"
Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ConnieCass
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