Martin: Negotiations require nuance, understanding
Why doesn’t U.S. House Speaker John Boehner go ahead and recognize the hard facts?
The president won the election. A majority of the country wants rich people to pay more taxes while everybody else’s rates stay the same.
In the end, Boehner will have to give up on this issue. Some say it would be better to get this out of the way and concentrate on the many other differences that will be even harder to resolve.
There are several reasons Boehner does not want to give in right now.
First, there are the members of his Republican House caucus who have signed the “Grover Norquist” pledge never to support any tax increase.
Another reason has to do with negotiation strategy. It is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I was preparing to become the legislative liaison for the University of North Carolina. Jay Robinson, my predecessor and coach, told me I needed to see Rep. Joe Mavretic to work out some simple retirement legislation for university faculty. Mavretic, who later became speaker of the N.C. House, chaired a subcommittee that had responsibility for retirement and pension funding issues.
The UNC system had a long-standing arrangement that allowed faculty members to participate in a national academic retirement system in lieu of the regular state employees’ system. As part of this arrangement, the legislature regularly shifted the funds that would have gone to the state system and made them available for individual accounts of faculty members who chose the national system.
Complicated, but not very controversial.
Mavretic was the key. His committee was drafting the legislation that would include this pension adjustment. When I dropped by to be sure he had not forgotten to take care of the university’s provision, he surprised me.
“I don’t know what I am going to do,” he told me. “I am hearing some complaints about this arrangement. The university is always asking for special treatment. We’ll have to see about it.”
I was stunned, but when I told Jay Robinson that Mavretic was not going to help, he told me to calm down. “Old Joe is just trying to hold on so he will have something to trade when he is trying to persuade another legislator to support one of Mavretic’s special projects. He doesn’t want to give up that leverage too early.”
Robinson told me to keep after Mavretic, but be patient and try to understand that he had a reason to postpone taking care of us now.
“You don’t want to argue with him or go around him now. There are too many other ways he can hurt us if you get him mad.”
I waited. Whether Mavretic was able to trade support for the retirement provision for something he wanted I never knew. But, in the end, he included our provision.
What does this old story have to do with Speaker Boehner’s reluctance to concede the tax-the-wealthy issue at the very beginning of the fiscal cliff negotiations?
Simply this: President Obama should take Jay Robinson’s advice and understand that Boehner needs to hold on to his position on the tax-the-wealthy for a little while. It has value to him as something he can use in trade once the negotiations really begin.
The speaker’s position might not be worth a lot in trade value. But Obama should understand and respect that when negotiations begin, everybody, even Boehner, is entitled to look for something in return when he gives up something important.
Be patient, Jay Robinson would say to Obama, and try not to make the other side mad just because they don’t give you what you want until it gets something it wants from you.
I wish the president had a Jay Robinson to guide him these next few weeks.
D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs, visit www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/.