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With the U.S. Treasury deadline to raise the debt ceiling just days away, the United States inches closer to a first-ever debt default with possible ramifications for the global economy. Why have negotiations not led to a compromise?
We asked Kevin Rockmann, professor of management at George Mason University's School of Business, and co-author of the book Negotiation: From Conflict to Agreement.
How did we get to this point in the negotiation process?
Thanks to the U.S. system of checks and balances, neither the Speaker McCarthy nor President Biden can truly be seen as the more powerful party in the debt-ceiling negotiations. Each of them holds the hierarchical high ground in a separate sphere. When there is a single, obvious issue on the table (e.g., raising the debt ceiling), such a power dynamic naturally lends itself to a stalemate.
How can negotiators keep the talks on track?
In these situations, the best way to keep things moving forward is to add items for negotiation, turning a single point of contention into a buffet of options from which negotiators can pick and choose. That way, the negotiation can become more nuanced, offering greater scope for compromises that all parties can live with. Indeed, we have seen this in the debt-ceiling talks—with the addition of spending cuts and work requirements as points for debate and discussion.
What role does trust play in the negotiations?
Negotiators must trust each other enough to be honest about which compromises they’d be willing to make. That level of trust is hard to come by in this highly polarized political environment. Biden and McCarthy are all too aware that any concession would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by their respective voter bases.
What if negotiations fail?
A default is in no one’s best interest. And while Biden could invoke the 14th Amendment, he can’t be sure of vindication in the legal furor that would surely ensue.
So what is likely to happen?
I anticipate that the outcome of these current negotiations will be—no lasting outcome at all. The two politicians will find a face-saving way to kick the can down the road, by agreeing to raise the debt ceiling for now and postpone the larger conversation by, say, six months to a year.
How can this be prevented in the future
Lifting the deadlock and achieving real progress will occur only when the matter is transferred to bipartisan groups such as the centrist “Gang of Ten” in the Senate, who, after several rounds of failed negotiations, brokered a compromise infrastructure bill in 2021. Cooperative pockets such as these may be Washington, D.C.’s last bastion of creative compromise—an essential last resort of realpolitik.
Rockmann can be reached at email@example.com.
For more information, contact Benjamin Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About George Mason University
George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls nearly 40,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity, and commitment to accessibility. In 2023, the university launched Mason Now: Power the Possible, a $1 billion comprehensive campaign to support student success, research, innovation, community, and sustainability. Learn more at www.gmu.edu.