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The Lost Art Of Budget Negotiations


President Obama and House speaker John Boehner have been holding private conversations about how to avoid the fiscal cliff, but still no deal. That has many in Washington talking about how it wasn't always so difficult to get things done. For some insight, we called John Danforth. He's a former Republican senator from Missouri and spent decades forging deals across the aisle, including the 1986 tax reform law under President Reagan. As he sees it, lawmakers aren't approaching the current problem from the right angle.

JOHN DANFORTH: The kind of process which has existed and which should exist is the first thing that government does is try to decide how much government's going to spend. And then after the decision on the basic budget, then, all right, we're going to have to raise taxes. How do we do that in a way which is least damaging to the total economy, the economic growth. That also hasn't been done.

MONTAGNE: You know, I think a lot of people hearing this would be surprised that this is really like figuring out, you know, for businesses and also for families, what the bills are, and then figure out how you're going to make the money to pay them. Is it really that simple in Congress, though?

DANFORTH: Well, I mean they're big questions here. But, when you think about it, it still is essentially a math issue. I mean somewhere in there is an agreement, and I think that that's what we should try to do. It's going to be difficult. It's real debate in deciding how big government should be, but it's the starting point.

MONTAGNE: We're looking, right now, at a president who is having one-on-one meetings with the speaker of the House, and they don't seem to be coming to anything. Take us back to a time when President Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill had to interact to get things done that they could both claim as a good.

DANFORTH: Well I think that Reagan and O'Neill, even though they disagreed on a lot, genuinely like each other and they liked to get together, and I think that that's probably not the case now. But it's not simply two people. It's not simply the speaker of the House and the president, there are all kinds of people. And back in 1986, it was the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. It was Bob Dole being the Republican leader. My memory of - I mean just so many memories of Bob Dole always asking the question, do you have it worked out yet? And that was the objective. Well, now that's not the case. There is a very deep ideological split in the country. There is enormous pressure from each political party to hew the line in a non-compromising way. The rules in the Senate are applied differently than they were then. The filibuster is used much more frequently than it was. And so, the current system is really built for gridlock. It's built for both sides insisting on their way rather than getting things done.

MONTAGNE: There is all this talk about how people in Congress back in the '80s, the '90s, the '70s, used to work across party lines. Is that idea romanticized or is there really something to it?

DANFORTH: There was something to it. I don't want to suggest that politics wasn't a contact sport. But I can tell you that, you know, on the Senate Finance Committee, which was a very important committee, dealing with taxation and the anti-entitlement programs, everything was done on a bipartisan basis. Nothing could succeed without both parties being together on it. So there was a different feel to it than, I think, exists today. There really has been a breakdown in any sense of bipartisanship and a breakdown in any sense of comity between the two parties.

MONTAGNE: That doesn't bode well for getting something done. How do you think either side will move the ball down the field?

DANFORTH: Well, I think that a lot, now, depends on the president. I mean the president did win the election. The president is in charge. And the question now is, well, what does the president want to do? It's not that the Republicans don't have a responsibility to try to reach some sort of agreement, of course they do. But I think that the lead in this is the president.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

DANFORTH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: John Danforth is a former Republican senator from Missouri and also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.


MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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