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By Jeremy Schwab
When Congress ended its 2013 session in December, the legislative body had passed just 56 laws—putting it on track to become the least productive Congress since 1947. To give a sense of how gridlocked Congress has become, keep in mind that just 10 years ago the 108th Congress (2003-4) passed 504 laws over two years.
Like many political observers, the leaders of the American Political Science Association (APSA) have become alarmed at the extreme partisanship and distrust in Washington. So last year they decided to devote their energies to finding out what mechanisms (structural, political, and psychological) are in play that keep Republicans and Democrats from building consensus and forging compromises.
Then-APSA President Jane Mansbridge asked CAS’ Cathie Jo Martin, a professor of political science, to co-chair with her a task force to investigate the failure of Congress to successfully negotiate policy issues. An expert in comparative politics, Martin brought to the table an understanding of how political institutions in other developed countries either facilitate or impede political actors’ ability to negotiate solutions to problems.
The task force dug into its work, sharing knowledge in a series of workshops involving dozens of experts in six working groups. In addition to the comparative politics working group headed by Martin, the working groups examined the psychological underpinnings of negotiations, the specific barriers to compromise in the U.S. Congress, and the problem of negotiating international agreements.
On December 16, Martin, Mansbridge and two other members of the Task Force on Negotiating Agreement in Politics presented their findings to members of Congress and their staff in a packed briefing room. “They were very interested in hearing why Congress has become more polarized,” recalls Martin. “Everyone in Congress hates [the gridlock].” But Martin also acknowledged that a current group of legislators prefers stalemate to activist government, and this political agenda further bolsters tendencies toward gridlock.
The crux of the group’s findings was that U.S. political institutions work against meaningful dialogue and compromise. Essentially, political systems are best able to produce win-win negotiations when they incorporate a role for nonpartisan technical experts and encourage diverse interests to engage in extended, intimate negotiations. In contrast to many European countries, where centralized business and labor groups are recognized by the state and empowered to negotiate policy accords amongst themselves, the United States has a fragmented body politic with few recognized groups to speak on behalf of broad swaths of the population. Furthermore, when Congress establishes commissions to come up with solutions to policy problems, the legislators often find it easy to disregard the groups’ findings.
Not all political problems may be negotiated because entrenched interests are too far apart on the issues; however, in a great many cases, negotiators often walk away from the table without realizing all the benefits that could be obtained from a successful bargain. Martin and Mansbridge’s task force partially blamed this frequent failure to reach an encompassing deal on a few psychological traits common to most people that can impede negotiations, even when a negotiated outcome could be beneficial to both sides. “Our brains tend to have all these little quirks that bring us to make bad choices,” she explains. One of these traits is a “sibling rivalry problem,” or the desire to win at all costs, making what could be a win-win scenario into a win-lose scenario. Another trait is a “self-regarding bias,” which makes us the protagonist in our own movies, unable to easily see the world from others’ perspectives. Finally, there is the human tendency to focus on short-term goals instead of long-term ones because the future is so uncertain.
Martin stresses that the only way to overcome these human biases against compromise and long-term thinking is to repeatedly meet with one’s opponents in a private setting (with no media present or leaks to the media) in order build trust and consequences for manipulative bargaining. Only then can defenses become relaxed and common ground be teased out and built upon.
The task force came up with four rules for successful negotiations—essentially conditions that need to be met in order to overcome our natural human biases against compromise. Rule number one: there must be a role in the decision-making process for neutral parties or technical experts (such as the Swedish royal commissions). Rule number two: there must be repeated interactions among the negotiating parties over an extended period of time so that they can build trust and learn what exactly each side wants. Rule number three: there must be some autonomy from scrutiny by the press so that the negotiating parties can be frank with each other and open—an irony is that transparency for the public can make the actual negotiators clam up and become more opaque. Rule number four: there must be penalties for failing to negotiate a solution.
“These things used to work better in America,” says Martin. She points out that think tanks, which might have served a more fruitful role in forging compromise, have instead become extremely politicized in recent decades so that they instead serve to fuel the partisan divide. Another barrier is that there are so many competing lobbies that lawmakers and the two political parties face a cacophony of voices. This also means that it is hard for lawmakers to find negotiating partners out in society that are unified and strong enough to speak for broad swaths of the population.
The large size of the United States may make it harder to find consensus than in smaller, more homogenous European countries; this phenomenon explains why we see more cooperation at the state and local level, according to Martin. The huge cost of getting reelected encourages lawmakers to support very narrow initiatives pushed by well-funded groups in order to ensure campaign donations rather than focusing on broader compromises.
Finally, there is the simple fact that in this country we have only two political parties, and neither is able to gain the upper hand for long. “Change is very difficult to pull off right now because the two parties have been so well-matched, and so utterly determined to destroy one another,” says Martin. “You tend to get more cooperation when one is the clear majority party and the other is not.”
Martin, Mansbridge and their colleagues concluded that our political system has a long way to go to match the productivity of our business, cultural, and social sectors. “One of the ironies is that we have this fabulous, dynamic society, and this political system that just doesn’t do a good job,” Martin laments.