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. —Robert Mnookin, negotiation expert
WASHINGTON — Turns out politicians are people, too, only worse.
Just ask pros who make their living in the trenches of everyday human drama such as divorce, family feuds or schoolyard scraps. They recognize in Washington's bitter budget standoff a hint of human nature as they know it, but with the crazy pumped up to absurd levels.
"We're seeing middle school behavior here," says Barbara Coloroso, who crusades against childhood bullying. Psychologist Piers Steel, an expert on procrastination, says Congress has the worst case of it he's seen. Divorce attorney Sanford Ain's assessment is blunter: "It's nuts!"
A sampling of conflict-savvy professionals and scholars interviewed by The Associated Press finds dismay that the nation is in political stalemate after two years of showdowns and near-misses for the economy. Not that these they have any easy solutions, either.
Some dream of locking up President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. R-Ohio, together until the nation's tax and spending issues are settled.
"That's my fantasy: To go into a room and tell them what to do, right or wrong, and make them do it," said Marvin McIntyre, a prominent financial adviser in the District of Columbia who writes political novels on the side.
With lawmakers and the president on the brink of yet another compromise-or-else deadline Friday, the nonpoliticians shared their take on the all-too-human behavior in Washington.
Historian Altina Waller is reminded of the Hatfields and McCoys. Of course, she would be: Waller's an authority on the deadly 19th century feud.
Despite the myth, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict wasn't primarily about clan hatred, Waller said, and she doesn't think today's acrimony between Republicans and Democrats is fully explained by partisanship or ideology.
The Appalachian feud grew out of economic anxiety as farming declined and logging and coal moved in, she said. These days, Democrats and Republicans worry about the economy and the loss of American jobs and influence to foreign competition, and blame each other.
"Like the Hatfields and McCoys," Waller said, "they are personalizing a problem brought about by larger economic forces."
Coloroso, author of "The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander," sees too many politicians acting like the mean girl who taunts unpopular classmates in the cafeteria.
"Bullying is about contempt for the other person," Coloroso said. "Do you see how that fits with some of the people in Congress? Utter contempt, bullying, wanting to bring somebody down. You cannot resolve a major issue like a budget with name-calling, with disdain for the person you're supposed to be working with."
Ain says the political fight illustrates something he's learned in 40 years of striving to keep family law cases amicable: "If you have extreme views and won't compromise, you can't get anything done. It's going to go to war."
Yet a sudden switch to civility won't guarantee that tough decisions get made.
Human brains are wired to put off the unpleasant, says "The Procrastination Equation" author Steel.
We postpone starting a diet, put off going to the gym, keep meaning to write those thank-you notes. Congress members are masters of this.
"They're pretty much the worst, hands down, of any group we ever investigated," said Steel, who has researched procrastination for more than a decade. "They're worse than college students."
What finally gets people moving? A deadline. The paper must be written to pass the class. The house is tidied because company's coming. The expense report is finished because the boss demands it by 5 p.m.
So it makes sense to set deadlines for solving the nation's pressing fiscal problems. Only it isn't working.
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.3 comments on this story
"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?"
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