When Washington Forgot How to Negotiate

When members of Congress return from summer recess next month, they will have less than a month to act before the farm bill expires—and face long odds that they can clear the partisan hurdles set up between the Democratic Senate, the Republican House, and final passage.

On the debt ceiling, the sequester, immigration reform, and fixing the tax code, Democrats and Republicans have tried and failed to come up with comprehensive solutions to the country's problems. But the farm bill stands out as a case study of Washington's descent into an almost unbridgeable partisan divide precisely because the type of grand bargain President Obama and some Republican leaders now seek has been achieved so many times before—and now achieving one seems so far out of reach.

The two sides are fighting over portions of the bill that allocate billions to food-stamp programs. The bill the Senate has already passed reduces $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a deep cut that has Democrats upset. The House has signaled it will take up the two halves of the bill—farm aid and food assistance—separately.

That shreds a bipartisan legislative coalition that has existed since the 1973 version of the farm bill, when food-stamp funding was added to the bill to attract urban Democratic votes to a bill that had, until then, mainly benefited rural communities. The stalemate is the latest sign that Washington has either forgotten how, or is no longer willing, to negotiate to build bipartisan coalitions.

It wasn't always this way. Even as Republicans made inroads in rural districts once held by Democrats while Democrats came to rely more on urban and suburban states, the coalition between backers of farm subsidies and food stamps held. Those who negotiated earlier farm bills took as a given that both pieces were necessary to build the bipartisan coalition that would ensure passage. The 2008 farm bill enjoyed such widespread support that 99 House Republicans and 35 Senate Republicans voted with most Democrats to override George W. Bush's veto.

The farm bill has always led to contentious debate. Back in 2002, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and then-Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, led conference-committee negotiations over loan-rate structures and energy title and conservation provisions that Harkin backed, and on payment limitations and target price structures that Combest supported. The negotiations took weeks. The conference committee met first on the House side of the Capitol, then on the Senate side. When a deal seemed close, the conference committee met in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office, just off the Senate floor, to hammer out the final compromises. Daschle was intimately involved with the conferees.

Those involved in the negotiations said the two sides built up from a foundation they could both support. When Harkin realized he was outnumbered in opposing a so-called Freedom to Farm provision, which had been included in a previous iteration of the farm bill, he dropped his opposition in exchange for the loan-rate structure he backed. The final bill included what's now called the Conservation Stewardship Program, another Harkin-backed last-minute addition that came out of the conference committee.

"You build from a base of mutual interest and build upon that mutual interest to reach accommodation, not by saying you can't get what you want and I can't get what I want," Harkin said in an interview, recalling his legislative strategy. "I had dance partners. Sometimes they liked to polka and I liked to waltz. They liked to tango and I liked to line dance."

"Everybody was going to have a part" of the bill, Combest recalled. "You've got the parameters that are established and you end up somewhere in the center."

The farm bill, Daschle added, was classic legislative construction: The bill was crafted to give members in each state the buy-in they needed to vote for the final product. "If their state has no stake in the bill, the only way you get them is by getting them invested in the bill," Daschle said. "You've got to figure out a way to make this relevant to them."

That buy-in-based, ground-up approach to legislating has become almost extinct in the capital today. Most congressional observers and former legislators in both parties point to the conservative contingent of junior Republicans, who wield huge amounts of influence over House GOP leadership and who are more interested in cutting the size of government than they are in cutting deals.

"The problem in the House is a Republican majority committed to oppose anything associated with the president," said Thomas Mann, the Brookings Institution scholar who cowrote a recent book explaining Washington's dysfunction. "Our governing problems are primarily a consequence of the radicalization—ideologically and procedurally—of one of our two major parties."

But the White House deserves some measure of blame, too. While President Obama has been frustrated by his inability to sell Republicans on elements of his agenda that borrow heavily from earlier Republican ideas—health care, the stimulus package, and cap-and-trade legislation, to name a few—some Democrats are critical of his approach. Capitol Hill Democrats fault the White House for failing to negotiate with Republicans from a stronger position; by beginning with old Republican ideas, those Democrats believe, Obama gives away too many of his own bargaining chips before the real bargaining even begins.

"A good lawyer compromises on the courthouse steps. In other words, you compromise just before you walk into the courthouse. It seems like Obama is willing to compromise at the get-go," Harkin said.

Obama also has a habit of confessing a certain measure's shortcomings, almost right out of the gate. He will frequently acknowledge that a compromise he has offered doesn't contain all the elements he wanted, while urging incremental progress nonetheless. "So while this compromise didn't contain everything I wanted or everything that these families wanted, it did represent progress," he said of a bill to strengthen background-check requirements on April 17. "The bill introduced in the Senate doesn't include everything I want," Obama wrote in a Miami Herald op-ed on May 7. "It doesn't contain everything I want," he said five days earlier, meeting the press alongside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Obama's pessimism started even when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress: "It may not have everything I want," he said when introducing credit card reform legislation at an event in New Mexico, back in May 2009. The president, it seems, is so determined to win over Republicans that he denigrates his own legislation.

Negotiating big deals, Daschle said, "shouldn't be lose-lose, it should be win-win. And finding ways to frame a deal as win-win is leadership."

It's also something Washington has simply forgotten how to do.