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Profiles in negotiation: The Murray-Ryan budget deal

Jill Lawrence

Based on research and interviews with party insiders, this paper offers detailed analysis of how the bipartisan 2013 budget deal came together and what lessons it holds for future negotiators. The talks led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) led to an agreement that raised the debt limit, lifted severe sequestration cuts, and funded the government until Sept. 30, 2015. The Obama administration has cited it as the model for the budget the president proposed in February 2015, and some lawmakers say it could serve as a template for modest future deals. 

By detailing the events and processes leading up to the 2013 deal, Jill Lawrence seeks to answer: How did Murray and Ryan come to an agreement after so many before them had failed? Especially during a time of such relentless political polarization and party rancor?

The way Murray and Ryan worked together, and the circumstances surrounding their talks, are a model of “deliberative negotiation,” concludes Lawrence, a process in which all participants search for fair compromises. Lawrence found that the following elements were present during the budget deliberations, which could be offer useful lessons for future government negotiations:

  • Non-partisan fact-finding. Trying to head off the across-the-board cuts of sequestration was a numbers game. That meant a key role for the Congressional Budget Office, which assesses the fiscal impact of congressional proposals. CBO “scores” are sometimes wielded as weapons in political battles, but both parties generally trust and rely on its calculations. Budget aides say it was extremely helpful during the Ryan-Murray process.
  • Repeated interactions. Party leaders, budget committee members and their staffs had had plenty of contact over several years of failed talks. Murray and Ryan had personally been in touch for months by the time the government shutdown ended and their official negotiations began. The pair’s budget aides knew each other and worked smoothly together, according to both sides.
  • Penalty defaults. Both sides need to fear the consequences of failure. In this case, there was a ready-made penalty default—the across-the-board sequester cuts already in place. Republicans had the additional motivation of trying to undo the image damage wreaked by the shutdown and earlier crises.
  • Privacy. Murray and Ryan had this in spades, for one overriding reason: Their leaders empowered them “to figure it out themselves, very, very privately,” according to a Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations. It didn’t hurt that they were nearly 2,000 miles apart at various points, communicating one-on-one without anyone else around.

Lawrence’s paper is the first of a Profiles in Negotiation series produced by the Center for Effective Public Management. This series features case studies of important negotiations and the government actors involved.

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