J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
Snow falls on the Capitol as the partial government shutdown continues in Washington, Thursday night, Jan. 17, 2019.

Under the “leadership” of President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, two competitive negotiators, our government has shut down over an easy issue. Most Republicans and Democrats agree that we need immigration reform and border security. Why, then, have two such self-acclaimed artisans of the deal pushed our nation to a standstill as they posture over issues that can be easily resolved?

The answer begins with an understanding of the negotiation styles of the president and the speaker. As competitive negotiators, Trump and Pelosi see the world as a single pie. They have promised their respective bases total victory and humiliation of the other side. The combination of competitive negotiators and win-at-any-cost bases (clients) is a prescription for disaster in any negotiation.

The president and the speaker have reached an impasse. The president, who reneged on the first deal to keep the government open, fueling distrust between the negotiators, has finally made a first offer to get the ever-recalcitrant speaker back to the negotiating table. The speaker, however, has remained steadfast in demanding that the president open the government before any meaningful negotiation can take place. She also insists, much to the delight of her rabid base, that she will not agree to a deal involving a wall, effectively demanding unconditional surrender from the president.

Competitive negotiators often get a “better deal” for their clients, but they are also more likely to lose the deal. The problem in this case is that America cannot afford to lose the deal. The government must reopen and reform a failed immigration system, ending the impasse that is devastating the lives of unpaid public workers, harming an otherwise flourishing economy, creating an immigration crisis, and lessening faith in government and our leaders.

But how do we settle a seemingly intractable battle of wills between the president and the speaker? A lesson from our founding era provides a model for resolving the differences.

At the founding, there was a heated disagreement over whether a written Bill of Rights should be added to the Constitution. Most people believed in rights, but they were locked in a fierce battle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the power of the national and state governments.

James Madison, perhaps our nation’s greatest negotiator and surely our nation’s greatest lawmaker, was a leader in the House. The House, at his insistence, passed a version of the Bill of Rights. The Senate responded by passing a much different Bill of Rights, a version that did not include a provision about securing the right of conscience against state infringement. The two very different versions of a Bill of Rights were sent to a conference committee tasked with resolving the differences.

Resolving major differences was a challenge. Nevertheless, in just three days, the conferees, six trusted senators and House members, including Madison, quickly reached a compromise. In the process, Madison lost his coveted limitation on the power of state governments regarding the right of conscience, but America had its Bill of Rights.

We can earn a similar victory today, if members of the House and the Senate will take their oath of office seriously and each pass a bill designed to reopen the government while providing immigration reform and securing the border. The Senate can pass the president’s version and the House can pass one of the many versions previously supported by Speaker Pelosi. A bipartisan conference committee of trusted members of the House and Senate can then be formed to work out the differences.

If a conference committee in the founding generation could resolve a dispute over something as significant as a Bill of Rights, in just three days, surely trusted conferees can resolve a lesser dispute today. Under a fair deal, the president will get additional dollars to increase border security by funding a wall at critical points of entry, creating more Border Patrol officers and immigration judges, and increasing border security in other forms. The speaker will win, as well, by providing a pathway to citizenship for dreamers and creating a more humane immigration system.

4 comments on this story

There are representatives in both parties ready to perform the role of facilitating the deal. Sadly, those legislators in both parties who are willing to deal are forced by the president and speaker, and angry party bases, together with a few partisan media figures who fuel their anger, to be loyal at all costs, thereby forgoing their duty to pass legislation. If we demand that our representatives go to work and set aside partisan bickering, we can permit the president and the speaker to take their coveted victory laps. More importantly, we can get government back to work.