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Negotiating Strategy Was the Icing; Votes Made the Cake
The past several weeks we have been the audience for “Debt Limit” a one-act play on the national stage with ongoing daily commentary from critics of all persuasions.
The play featured heroes and villains. Impending doom. A President. A Speaker. Rebellious Republicans. Reluctant Progressives. High drama. The outcome always in doubt. Yet, not.
Most of what we saw was performance politics. A ritual that provided legitimacy for the outcome. Icing on a cake that had already been baked.
Everything important about the Debt Limit Bill was decided when the polls closed for the midterm election last November 8. Relative bargaining power was set. Democrats had lost nine votes in the House of Representatives, giving Republicans a slim majority and control of one half of Congress. Power had shifted. Republicans gained some. Democrats lost some. The accomplishments of President Biden’s first two years would not be repeated.
The finished Debt Limit product, the good, the bad, who “won”, who “lost”, reflects that adjustment to the relative bargaining power of the two sides. A bargaining power constructed with votes that delivered, however narrowly, a Democratic President, a Democratic Senate and a Republican House.
Much of the drama was provided by members of the Republican Freedom Caucus and the Democratic Progressive Caucus. Neither, however, had much bargaining power. The Freedom Caucus agenda was basically to end government as we know it. And the Caucus played no part in the final scene. The Progressive Caucus agenda which went against basic Republican instincts had no leverage in a situation where Republican votes were needed.
In a democracy, getting stuff done always has to do with votes. The vote is the unit of power. Without the votes, everything you want to accomplish is just wishful thinking. You need votes from the people to win office. You need votes in Congress and the state legislature to govern.
Elections matter. The major decisions are all made on election day. The candidate who wins is not a blank slate ready to be persuaded by facts or letters and phone calls from constituents. Politics is a team sport. The candidate is recruited by, elected by, and shares convictions with a team. The team the candidate campaigned with is also the team the winner governs with. You dance at the dance with those who brought you.
Complaining then about what Congress does, or urging Congress to do something different, is misplaced. Members don’t change their attitudes and beliefs and go against what they campaigned for. Raising expectations that they might is counter-productive.
In a recent opinion piece, the director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation called on Congress to undo the decision of the Supreme Court that weakened the protections of the Clean Water Act. “Will Congress step up and undo the damage the court has done? … Congress needs to listen to the American people and to the science … It is up to Congress to defend the vision of the Clean Water Act.”
None of that will happen until at least some of the climate change deniers and those who oppose environmental regulations across the board are replaced in an election by members who value the environment and listen to science. Raising the expectation that the current Congress might act and implicitly blaming all members for inaction contributes to the prevailing negative attitude toward all politicians and the general feeling that nothing can be done. The unwillingness to assign responsibility, results in no action plan that points a way forward.
Wishful thinking was part of the problem for the Caucus members who were left out of the final Debt Limit deal. It is easy to overestimate your real bargaining power.
I fell prey to that at the beginning of my third term in the Illinois House. The Democrats had a one-vote majority, and I figured my one vote gave me enough leverage to change the House rules to reduce leadership control and give more power to individual members.
I assumed that even if I were not joined by any other Democrats in reducing the power of the Democratic Speaker, all the Republicans would vote with me, making a majority and getting the job done. The Speaker sent an emissary: “What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want? Chair of the Appropriations Committee?”
I replied I wanted to change the way the House operated. I wanted a revolution. The conversation ended. The Democratic and Republican leaders got together and agreed on rules that retained the existing prerogatives of leadership.
I had enough bargaining power to become Chair of the Appropriations Committee. Not enough to stage a revolution. Acting on that misperception left me nothing.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WVA, had the bargaining power to get what he wanted most included in the Debt Limit Bill. Completion of the $6.6 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline designed to carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia. It was part of the agreement he made last year when he supplied the tie breaking vote in the Senate to pass the most significant environmental bill ever, providing more than $370 billion for clean energy projects.
Some environmentalists who lauded last year’s bill objected strongly to the inclusion of Manchin’s pipeline this year. Without Manchin, however, they didn’t have the votes. Without the votes there was no bargaining power.
Manchin captured the politics concisely. “If you want more liberal policies – elect more liberals.”
Elections matter. That is why so much time, effort and money go into campaigns. Winning is difficult. But that is the only path to change.
We are impatient with the advice Saul Alinsky, a “radical” community organizer in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, gives in Rules for Radicals. “It is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system . . . Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change . . . to build a powerful organization takes time. It is tedious, but that’s the way the game is played—if you want to play and not just yell, ‘Kill the umpire.’”
Alinsky also understood that values and policies don’t stand on their own in politics. They are embodied in persons, in candidates, in office holders. If you want to change policy you have to elect individuals who embody that policy – enough of them to give you the bargaining power you need to get what you want.
After the 1968 Democratic convention, Alinsky told the youth who were deeply disappointed in the Party’s support of the Vietnam War, “Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.”
If you want more of what you don’t have, get more votes. Enlarge your coalition. Build your bargaining power. Adding votes is the key. Replacing one vote with another doesn’t add power. Before the November election, Bernie Sanders lauded the fact that in the new Congress the Progressive Caucus would have more members. The flip side of that, there were fewer Democrats overall. Everyone, all shades of Democrats, lost bargaining power.
We might not like it, but Joe Manchin adds to Democratic bargaining power. With Manchin, the Party has far more influence over what happens in the Senate than if he were replaced by a Republican. You add bargaining power where you can get it.
The common advice when you don’t have the bargaining power is you have to compromise. Compromise, however, might be the wrong word. It conveys the sense of sacrificing principle and giving up something you have. In any negotiation, however, you get whatever you have the bargaining power to get. You are not giving up anything. You never had it.
Since it is the vote that counts, count the votes. Know who you have, how many you have, where to find the extra ones you need, and what has to be done to get them.
The focus should be on the next election. Here in Wisconsin, we all had a hand in the 2022 loss of the 3rd Congressional District. We didn’t make inroads in the 1st which could be winnable. We didn’t add votes in the state legislature. Next year is another opportunity to increase bargaining power.