5 Ways Paul Ryan & the Freedom Caucus Can Negotiate a Budget Agreement

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Bill Rivers, MPA Candidate, University of Pennsylvania
March 21, 2016

Note: This article is part of a capstone research project conducted by second-year student Bill Rivers and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Fels Institute or the University of Pennsylvania.

As divided House Republicans continue FY17 Budget deliberations, Speaker Paul Ryan and Freedom Caucus leaders increasingly face an outcome that carries them further from their goals. With an April deadline looming, time is running out.

Developed by Pulitzer-Prize winner and Wharton School of Business professor emeritus Stuart Diamond, the Getting More model of negotiations has been adopted by Google to train its employees worldwide and by U.S. Special Forces to interact with tribal leaders in Afghanistan. It is credited with solving the 2008 Hollywood Writer’s Strike. In the mid-1990s, it was used to persuade Bolivia’s Chapare region farmers to cease growing coca for cocaine-production and to grow bananas instead.

The model focuses on perceptions, emotional intelligence, and needs, not logic, leverage, or power. Its strategies are meant to be transparent, not manipulative. These are not Frank Underwood’s negotiation techniques.

In his February 3, 2016, address to Heritage Action, Speaker Ryan said it simply: “We have to unite conservatives.” The Getting More model can help the party do just that. Five of its most relevant strategies are outlined below, with a brief explanation of their applicability for House Republicans.

Focus on Goals

Suppose a Hill staffer is en route to Chicago to visit her boyfriend. Her flight out of DCA is suddenly canceled. What is her goal now? Is it to get another flight or to get reimbursed? No, her ultimate goal is to spend time with her boyfriend. Perhaps another flight gets her to Chicago. Maybe a train does it. Or, maybe both agree to meet in Pittsburgh for the weekend. Whatever way, any negotiation she undertakes should advance her goal of spending time with her boyfriend. Arguing with the Delta clerk at Terminal B wastes time.

In any negotiation, participants should ask, “Are our actions meeting our goals?” For House Republicans, emphasis on budget figures, fighting over yesterday, blaming members for policy failures, or attacking one another through the press do not help conservatives achieve a smaller top-line budget or bring about a return to regular order.

Goals must be communicated before they can be met – but communicated without causing conflict. As Diamond writes in his New York Times bestseller, the correct answer to the statement, “I hate you,” is “Tell me more.” This response elicits further information about true goals and perceptions. It helps determine a means of genuinely validating the frustrations of the other—even and especially when both parties disagree. And, persons frustrated about past treatment need to feel validated; only then will they be ready to negotiate. This leads us to the next strategy.

Find and Value Perceptions

U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan used the Getting More model to secure the cooperation of tribal leaders against the Taliban. The American officer began a conversation with the Afghan leader by praising his courage in the fight against the Soviets, in the 1980s. Then the officer said, “You and I have something in common. Neither one of us wants me to be here. Send me home.” As a result of the human connection, American soldiers not only located Taliban weapons and IEDs, they also located Taliban fighters.

The model turns on valuing the perceptions of others. In this example, acknowledging that the villagers did not want American soldiers near their homes and then affirming their capability in the negotiation—“Send me home.” The officer did not bother with who was right or wrong; he focused on his goal. Blame played no role in the transaction.

Getting More advises parties to engage in role reversal exercises before the negotiation. This enables participants to discover perceptions and to genuinely communicate value for them.

Affirming a member’s value to the conference is far more likely to result in a positive response than rebuking them for intransigence on a particular position. And berating a member—a teammate no less—in public or behind closed doors only reinforces that intransigence. As Diamond notes, “The moment you use raw power over someone the relationship is usually over.” This carries special significance for members of an institution with a retention rate of 95 percent.

Trade Items of Unequal Value

Suppose a young Hill staffer approaches her chief of staff and asks for a $5,000 raise. The staffer is competent and dedicated. The chief knows other offices would be glad to accommodate her, but is financially unable to meet her request. The chief instead offers her: 1) a title change; 2) an extra week of paid vacation; and 3) greater access to the member. In considering the offer, the staffer thinks about how she plans to apply to graduate school next year. A promotion on her resume will help her chances at getting into a top program. Greater access to a Member of Congress is never bad. Lastly, her sister has just had a baby and an extra week at home with the family would be special. She accepts.

This is trading items of unequal value. The staffer gets non-monetary compensation valued at $5,000; the chief keeps a valued team member and avoids the hassle of having to find a replacement who may not be as good of a fit for the office.

Broadly speaking, conservatives want a smaller budget. Speaker Ryan wants regular order. What can either side credibly trade the other?

If Speaker Ryan is unwilling to go lower than $1.07 trillion, can he trade items that Freedom Caucus members might value as much as a top-line that costs $30 billion less? Can the scope of the negotiation be expanded to include actions outside the budget deal itself? Outside of Congress? For the sake of argument, Speaker Ryan might begin by offering intangibles like:

- Securing a primetime network news interview for lesser-known members

- A visit by the Speaker to the member’s home district

- A telephone town hall with the member to district constituents

- Introductions to national organization or groups (including donors)

- An offer of guaranteed access upon request

As Heritage Action has pointed out, policy promises made in exchange for votes are hard to enforce. Non-policy-oriented promises may be easier to achieve, and do more in both the immediate and the long-term to build relationships.

Obviously, Congressional ethics laws must be upheld and trading intangibles should not be construed as encouragement to illegal activity. The point is to find where the other party values items or actions that have relatively low delivery costs.

Be Incremental

The FY17 Budget agreement is a staggering $1.07 trillion. This figure should not be the starting point for talks. Nor should the $30 billion reduction.

Start with coffee. As members meet for talks, the convener should poll attendees in advance and ask what kind of coffee they would prefer at the meeting – say, Starbucks, Dunkin, or Caribou. Members arrive; the winning coffee is ready and piping hot.

The convener has demonstrated he or she values attendee preferences and is willing to abide by team decisions. Consequently, attendees have a marginally greater reason to trust the convener in the future. This is a tiny step. This is incrementalism.

Incrementalism asks simple questions: “Does everyone here want to reach an agreement?” For some members, the answer may be “no.” This does not mean they lack goals. It may be possible to structure a deal via intangibles that addresses those goals. These members then might become willing to negotiate. Other incremental questions—none of which relate to budget numbers—include:

- “Should we agree that no one will interrupt anyone else?”

- “Can we agree that the Republican Party is the only party willing to rein in government spending?”

- “Can we agree that we do not have to agree on everything?”

- “Should we focus on those things where we do agree, however few they may be?”

Affirmative answers to each of these questions generate a standard to which the convener can return if tempers flare later. If an attendee becomes emotional, the convener could say, “You said at the start of this meeting you wanted to reach an agreement. I am taking you at your word. Does what you just said help us get to a deal?” This segues to the model’s next tool.

Use Standards

Getting More affirms an efficacy in using others’ well-considered criteria as a basis for a decision.

In a statement on March 15, 2016, Speaker Ryan said, “I promised in this speakership, we’re not going to have a top-down, cram-it-down-people’s-throat kind of leadership. We’re going to make decisions as a team.” This statement marks a clear departure from former Speaker John Boehner’s tactics of leverage and power that often engendered bitter resentment from his party’s more conservative members. It also offers a standard for Freedom Caucus members.

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador’s statement of last week returns the courtesy: “We want to help with the process, we want to have a budget [but] we want to have a budget that complies with what we promised the American people.”

The standards have created a space for a negotiation to take place. They can also be used to hold both sides accountable, especially with hard-bargainers. “Did you mean it when you said ABC on XYZ date? If yes, why are you saying something different now? If not, what can you do to credibly demonstrate that you really mean what you’re saying today?”


The $1.07 trillion budget agreement is not a math problem; it is a trust and perceptions problem. Increasing appreciation of perceptions will help build trust, which will open up room for movement on the numbers.

Asking members to betray values or constituents for ill-defined promises or benefits is unlikely to yield a deal. Valuing perceptions, then demonstrating how an alternative approach better serves deeply-held values or constituents is more likely to foster an agreement.

Far from a “secret weapon” to be deployed by one side against the other, Getting More works best when both sides invest in the process.


Fels Institute of Government

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