By Cori Smith Kramer
CEO of Center Forward

In their groundbreaking work “Getting to Yes”, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project describe the importance of knowing your BATNA – or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – and knowing the other side’s as well. 

Much of the focus in the debt ceiling crisis has been on what the BATNA for the most extreme Members of the House Freedom Caucus might be. If they don’t get their way, would they accept a global default as the consequence? The problem with this perspective is it assumes the possibility of any negotiated agreement with these members. They have already proven, with every piece of mundane House business, they view negotiation as capitulation, and yes votes as a sign of weakness.

In any setting, from business, to government, to international affairs, the most inflexible parties are the least likely to produce a workable solution. Real power is found in those with the ability to make deals – and the agility to sidestep obstruction. 

President Biden’s BATNA may involve unilateral action of some kind, which could trigger a constitutional crisis and poison relations with Congress, but is likely seen as a better alternative to either default or a rollback of his agenda. As an alternative to negotiated agreement, the President could also invoke the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 – ironically passed to constrain executive authority – as a legal mandate to ignore both the debt limit and Congress. 

As a known Congressional institutionalist, Biden would probably be loath to follow this path. He must consider what future administrations would do with the expanded power that could come by invoking the ICA as a weapon or reducing its power for oversight. 

It was the ICA, after all, which compelled President Trump to release support funds to Ukraine. But as one of the few Democrats who supported the Line Item Veto while a Senator, Biden may not be as concerned about the actions of future executives as others in his party may be. So using the ICA as a de facto line item veto remains a viable option – with major implications for the future of checks and balances.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s BATNA is hardest to predict – much like John Boehner before him, he enters negotiations with the White House without any visible room to make a deal, as his hard line opening offer only cleared the House with the slimmest of margins after days of negotiation within his own caucus. His BATNA may indeed be stated as either owning an economic catastrophe, sacrificing his speakership, or working out a delay.  

This final and likely best alternative requires a reach to the center, where front line members of both parties face their own difficult BATNA considerations on a daily basis on a host of issues. That’s life in the center. While the extreme ends of the partisan spectrum tend toward rigid BATNAs, centrist members find their strength in flexible alternatives including procedural moves like discharge petitions, initiating their own bipartisan discussions, and seeking legislative and procedural remedies that extend beyond the current crisis. 

These options offer greater opportunities to increase the future BATNAs of centrist members, and could help check both the growth of executive power on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the disproportionate influence of extreme partisans on the other. As in so many Washington dramas, the best alternative for the American people must be found in the center.