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When Politicians 'Bicker,' They're Really Negotiating

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank attracted some attention when he promised not to mention Sarah Palin for a month. He kept his promise. The republic and the Post survived.

I've got a similar proposal for political columnists and reporters. Let's ban the verbs "bicker" and "squabble" -- not for a month, but forever.

You've seen those verbs often if you've been reading about the budget struggles between the Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-majority Senate and the strangely detached Obama White House.

The implication is negative. Children bicker. Small-minded people squabble. When you use those verbs to describe the actions or words of John Boehner, Harry Reid and Barack Obama, you are implying that they are arguing about trifles.

But they're not. They were arguing about big things, vast flows of money, public policies with real consequences.

Yes, there is a certain amount of posturing and tactical advocacy. In every politician there is some mixture of calculation and conviction, in varying proportions.

But it's pretty clear that in the negotiations over the budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, John Boehner and Harry Reid were arguing about big things. That will be the case, if not more so, in upcoming negotiations over raising the debt limit and establishing a budget for fiscal year 2012.

The fact is that the Obama Democrats increased the size and scope of government beyond anything ever seen except in World War II. The Republicans are trying to reverse this trend. Far from arguing about trivia, both Democrats and Republicans are arguing about the most fundamental issues of domestic public policy.

Reporters who use the verbs "bicker" and "squabble" seem to believe that it is silly for opposing parties to waste their time negotiating -- they should just split the difference at the beginning. You can see something like this feeling in the polls showing majorities of voters "disgusted" with politicians.

Why don't they quit arguing and get it over with?

The reason, as anyone who has ever negotiated anything knows, is that negotiations do tend to go on almost to deadline.

This makes sense when you think about it. Concede one issue long before the deadline, and the other side will usually pocket the concession and ask for more. So you wait for the other side to make their concessions first, and that wait usually takes you up close to the deadline.

Consumers of news stories should be able to understand this. Most of us are used to working to deadline. We usually don't get things done until we have to. The dry cleaners doesn't have your stuff ready a day before the promised date.

Moreover, negotiating tends to prod each side to indicate which demands it really cares about. In the fiscal year 2011 negotiations, for example, it became clear Democrats cared more about funding Planned Parenthood than Republican did in defunding it. So Democrats had to agree to additional cuts in order to keep money flowing to the nation's leading abortion provider.

Some labor-management contracts have provisions to avoid such showdowns. One approach is to require both sides to submit an offer and let the arbitrator choose one or the other -- but not something in the middle. The idea is to give an incentive to both sides to make modest and reasonable demands rather than set out a maximalist position and hope the arbitrator splits the difference.

This works in some situations. But it's hard to set up a procedure that can bind officials separately and independently elected by the people.

The ultimate arbitrators are American voters. The Constitution enables them to choose the political players in a variety of ways.

So in 2006 and 2008 they chose Democrats, and thanks to the Constitution's four- and six-year terms, Democrats have a firm hold on the White House and a tenuous majority in the Senate.

In 2010 they chose Republicans, and thanks to the Constitution's two-year terms, they have a solid hold on the House of Representatives.

The Constitution establishes not a single united government but an arena for conflict. The Founders expected the House, the Senate, the president and the courts to disagree, and they hoped the net result of those conflicts would be good governance.

What we're watching is not children bickering but adults with sharply different ideas trying to shape public policy as much as they can. It's not squabbling, it's democracy.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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