A negotiated solution to the shutdown

A negotiated solution to the shutdown
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Before the president’s Tuesday night address and the Democratic leaders' response, positions starkly diverged on the wall. President Trump said the government could be closed for “months or even years," and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "we're not doing a wall."

Normal hard bargaining would transform the wall into some kind of physical barrier to be erected in key places; a compromise on money and other border security measures; and a reopened government.

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But these are not normal times. The wall is becoming a proxy for who’s right and wrong, who’s tougher, who will back down.

We’re in danger of becoming mired in this single issue, win-lose negotiation. Neither party is being irrationally stubborn, given their bases and beliefs. But this single-issue structure is a trap.

For Trump, saying “no” to anything without the wall now beats “yes.” Building the wall was a wildly popular campaign pledge, unrealized even with total Republican control of Congress. Now he can blame soft-on-immigration Democrats. Hanging tough fits his self-image and avoids the wrath of conservative media that reflects and stirs up his base.

Democrats are newly armed with control of the House and strengthened progressive elements. They hate the wall and have a good argument for blaming Trump (who obligingly said he “was not going to blame you.”). Why say “yes” to the wall, when even a Republican Senate and House couldn’t deliver it?

So, we’re stuck. To become unstuck, “no” must become more costly and “yes” more valuable.

Bluster about years of shutdown aside, the cost of a deadlocked blame game will reliably rise for each side as federal services and functions become more acutely missed. Even now, preferring a problem-solving government to one that bickers, the public finger increasingly points to both sides in the blame game.

So, as the cost of no deal worsens, how to sweeten “yes”? Dwight Eisenhower pointed the way: “if a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” In this case, we need to transform a single-issue battle into a multi-issue package.

If the two sides can transform “wall v. no wall” into a multi-issue deal, each side will be able to equip themselves with a “victory speech” that persuasively explains to its constituency why it got more than it gave — and the country wins.

Trump hugely values getting his wall. Democrats hugely value DACA, to give relief to the Dreamers brought here before age 16 with clean records, now in school, working, or in the military.

 A negotiated wall for Dreamers package should be natural — except that Trump won’t give on the Dreamers and the Democrats won’t give on the wall. How could this deal be repackaged, reframed and enhanced so that each side ends up with higher value at lower cost? 

We must look again to Eisenhower: add an issue to the package that both sides want but neither has been able to get, best proposed by a bipartisan congressional group.

For example, give the federal government — which has vast buying power — the right to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, an option denied to Washington since George W. Bush’s prescription drug plan. Save money, strengthen Medicare and gratify the large majorities who prioritize lower drug prices.

Allowing the feds to negotiate drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries is supported by a majority of Democrats (96 percent), Republicans (92 percent) and independents (92 percent). This solution would give dealmakers greater negotiating complexity as well as added value for the package and the public (except, of course, the pharma lobby).

Modest alterations could render concessions more palatable. How about a modified DACA as LLPTC, or a limited legal path to citizenship, for young “pathmakers?” (Remember how small changes to the “failed” NAFTA gave way to the “amazing” United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement?) While a big win for the Democrats, the blow would be softened for Trump because this approach is popular over 80 percent of the public. 

Similarly, the $5.7 billion Trump wants might be appropriated for “border security” — that could include the wall, provided that at least 95 percent, say, of families separated at the border were reunited, which is a Democratic priority.

Both sides could declare victory. Trump would be vindicated as the great dealmaker.

The Democrats could tout their successes with proving that they are able to govern by accepting an ugly compromise on the wall; in return, they would restore government functions and services, taking care of the pathmakers. They'd also ensure family unification and the option to achieve cheaper prescription drugs. All for a largely illusory wall that, even if built, won’t detain or mistreat anyone.

Why illusory? The Democrats could note to their base that, because all but about 100 miles of the 1,954 U.S.-Mexico border is in private hands, years of eminent domain lawsuits would likely ensue, which conservatives have traditionally hated. Even money for a border fence approved in 2006 by Congress has been endlessly tied up in litigation.

Of course, the Democrats may play to win this game of chicken — unable to stomach a win for Trump — and overplay their hand, demanding not only DACA but a $15 minimum wage, "Medicare for All" and more.

And Trump may well stonewall. If so, the Democrats, having very publicly agreed to a reasonable package including the wall, avoid shutdown blame. They will have shown willingness to compromise in return for popular policies: reopening the government, helping Dreamers/ pathmakers, reuniting families and cutting drug prices — and positioning themselves for 2020 as the party of governing versus the party of no.

James K. Sebenius teaches negotiation at Harvard Business School. He recently wrote a book with Nick Burns and Bob Mnookin, entitled, "Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level."