Program on Negotiation Faculty On How To End the US Government Shutdown

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The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column by Jenna McGregor asked renowned negotiation experts to describe how the government shutdown in Washington, DC, could be ended at the bargaining table.

Among the experts interviewed were Robert Mnookin, Chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (PON) and author of Bargaining With The Devil: When To Negotiate, When To Fight, Robert Bordone, PON Executive Committee member and co-author with mediation pioneer Frank E.A. Sander of Designing Systems and Processes for Managing Disputes, and William Ury, co-founder of PON and co-author of Getting to Yes, a foundational work in the field of negotiation written in collaboration with PON co-founders Bruce Patton and Roger Fisher.

In evaluating the current situation in Washington, the experts had consensus around three points:

- The situation may deteriorate further before showing progress
- US President Barack Obama need not compromise his principles, but he may have to allow Republicans an exit strategy
- And that there remains room for negotiation even while in the middle of a crisis

Robert Bordone used the term “mutually hurting stalemate” to describe the situation in DC, a situation in which “[people] are falling victim to psychological biases. … This might be hurting me, but it’s hurting you more.”

Bordone also says that the Democrats are in a stronger bargaining position but, as Robert Mnookin points out, Republicans must have “a way to climb out of this tree,” saying, “The obvious deal, if I were to make a prediction, is for there to be a clean budget and a clean extension done simultaneously with an agreement that there’s going to be some bipartisan approach to improving the health care law. Nothing would be done to delay the implementation of Obamacare. … But there would be a commitment to a legislative process to rather promptly explore how the Affordable Care Act can be improved.”

The Republican devotion to the repeal of “Obamacare” might be because of what Bordone and Mnookin label an “expectation interest.” Republicans’ long-held claim that the Affordable Care Act can be repealed has “created a monster. It ties the negotiators hands at the negotiation table” according to Bordone.

Of course, even in the middle of crisis negotiations, there is still room for talk. William Ury, an expert in the field of crisis negotiations, advocates for this principle and offers this insight from his experience in hostage negotiations: “They don’t give in on key principles, they don’t let the hostage taker go. But they’ll say ‘do you need a hot sandwich, do you want something to drink?’ And maybe they allow them to get the message across.”

For more insight on the government shutdown negotiations, see also:

Program on Negotiation Faculty Discuss the Government Shutdown Negotiations
Government Shutdown Negotiations: Robert Mnookin on NPR’s “Here & Now”
PON Chair Robert Mnookin Discusses the Stalemate Between President Obama and Congressional Republicans
Searching for a Debt Ceiling: Boehner’s Uncertain BATNA

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