With “Surrender,” John Boehner Shows Keen Negotiation Skills

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On February 11, House of Representatives Speaker John A. Boehner reportedly rendered his Republican colleagues speechless. At a meeting of the Republican Capitol Hill Club, Boehner announced that he would bring to a vote a measure to raise the U.S. government’s borrowing limit without preconditions until March 2015, as reported in the New York Times.

The move was widely viewed as a surrender and a violation of the speaker’s own “Boehner Rule,” which requires that any increase in the debt ceiling be matched by equal spending cuts or changes to the budget. By holding the vote, Boehner ended a series of budget showdowns held over the past three years, each of which shook global confidence in the U.S. economy.

The same day that he revealed the decision to his party, Boehner brought the measure to the floor. The House voted 221 to 201 to support it, relying on Democratic backing to pass.

Boehner’s decision to hold the vote was condemned by Tea Party members and other conservatives who viewed it as a capitulation to President Barack Obama. But contrary to the view that Boehner put his leadership role in jeopardy by conceding on the issue of the debt ceiling, the move may actually have strengthened his hand, writes Jonathan Weisman of the Times.

Boehner reportedly made the decision only after proving to his own party members that they were incapable of rallying around any legislative package tied to the debt ceiling that could actually pass the House. After doing so, he took decisive action, showing “a relish for combat” by taking on House members to his political right.

With his decision, Boehner demonstrated canny negotiation skills. Looking beyond the short-term backlash that he would face within his own party for conceding, Boehner focused on the long-term benefits of closing off the debate over the borrowing limit for the next several years.

Calling the vote effectively ended the risk of the spectacle of future debt-ceiling showdowns, for which the public has tended to blame Republicans. Removing the debt-ceiling issue from the public consciousness frees Republicans to focus on issues they believe can attract greater support, such as efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act. Boehner also extricated Republicans in the House from the uncomfortable position of having to vote for a debt-ceiling increase in the run-up to another potential fiscal crisis.

In negotiation, a combative, win-lose mentality often prevents parties from recognizing the benefits they could gain from walking away from a battle. Choosing to fight on multiple fronts often means you will “win” on none of them. Wise negotiators engage in pragmatic consideration of their strengths and weaknesses, then choose their battles carefully.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Related Article: Robert Mnookin Writes for CNN About “How Obama and Boehner Can Get to Yes”

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3 Responses to “With “Surrender,” John Boehner Shows Keen Negotiation Skills”

  • Quite an insightful strategy to adopt after carefully considering all the options.

    Reply
  • This article offers great insight and understanding of both best practice and situational awareness.

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  • charley m.

    Okay, call me dumb. I don’t get it: “In negotiation, a combative, win-lose mentality often prevents parties from recognizing the benefits they could gain from walking away from a battle.” That would be BATNA right? How exactly did Boehner employ BATNA successfully in calling this vote?

    “Choosing to fight on multiple fronts often means you will “win” on none of them.” Which fronts were those again?

    “Wise negotiators engage in pragmatic consideration of their strengths and weaknesses, then choose their battles carefully.” Wise agreements are those that exhibit wins for all and maintain or enhance relationships among parties. Please parse that one with respect to Mr. Boehner’s choice. I just don’t follow.

    To his credit, he got off his hard bargainer podium and apparently felt the longer-term value was present in this instancemore than any continuing short-term gain. Many of us saw that LONG before he did. Still, his bigger picture demonstrates he had nothing in mind in the way of WIN-WIN between Dems and Reps. No real Wise Agreements here. So how do we view this as Principled Negotiation again? I just don’t get it.

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