Venture: A peek at how 'let's make a deal' works in Washington

August 1, 2011

Sam Hudzik and Ashley Gross

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(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Watch out, economy. Looks like the debt ceiling showdown is moving into another arm-twisting phase in Washington. To get a clearer picture of the maneuverings so far, today we're taking a look behind the Capitol curtain. We wanted to know what happens during high-level negotiations, and who's actually writing the legislation that could save or sink something as critical as the nation's credit rating? So we tracked down some former top congressional aides to get the scoop.

Scott Palmer is in Maine this summer, enjoying the retired life. But a few years ago he was among the most powerful people in Washington during the late Clinton years, and much of George W. Bush's time in office. As chief of staff to Speaker Dennis Hastert, he helped the Yorkville Republican run the U.S. House of Representatives. Occasionally, they'd take a trip up Pennsylvania Avenue for a White House meeting.

“The type you've been seeing on the television lately with everybody sitting around the fireplace there in the president's Oval Office, or more likely the cabinet room,” Palmer recalled in a phone interview last week.

TV cameras are ushered out of those meetings before the real talk begins. The negotiations are respectful, Palmer said. Even "seasoned" Capitol Hill veterans are a bit cowed by the White House atmosphere.

That formality, though, does not apply outside those meetings, when politicians engage in what Michael Johnson called “the public education process.”

Johnson was a top aide to Peoria Republican Bob Michel, who served as minority leader of the House through the 1980s and early 1990s.

Johnson said the talking points used by congressional leaders and the president are an important part of negotiations. But he said "fairly often," the strong-willed statements do not track with the real progress that's going on behind closed doors.

“In the public education process you have to deliver a message, deliver it again, and deliver it again and keep repeating it because it takes so long for it to soak in to the public consciousness,” Johnson said last week. “In the negotiating process, you're moving from one issue to another, to one to program to another, or one project or another and reaching interim agreements and then moving on to others.”

That's not to say these politicians have their laptops out, drafting final legislation right there in the Oval Office.

“Those meetings were not places where the fine details were worked out,” Palmer said. “They were usually places where the big sticking points - might be a top-line number or some policy rider that might be attached - where there'd be a discussion of those kinds of things.”

And sometimes politicians would go into a room and agree on some bold solution that just wasn't a solution at all.

“It would sound so simple to them and logical,” Palmer said. “But you'd step back from it, and you'd think, 'We can't do that. There are legal problems with that. Or there are technical problems with that that.'”

And that's where staff expertise comes in, particularly on really complicated stuff like the debt limit. This includes staff from committees, including lawyers and accountants.

“For example, if you decide to take $500-billion dollars out of Medicare, you've got to go to the Ways and Means Committee or experts in healthcare, and say, 'You know, how can we do this? Would this work if we took 60-billion dollars out here? Or would this work if we increased the age of recipients?'” Johnson explained. “All of those details have to be addressed by staff who know what they hell they're doing in those areas.”

A lot of the attention in the recent debt debate has focused on negotiations with the White House, but Scott Palmer said negotiations within Congress should not be overlooked. He recalled a situation when he was trying to craft a deal between two particularly testy committee chairmen.

“There was so much bitterness between this chairman and his counterpart on the Senate side that we stopped having meetings with them there,” Palmer said.

To keep the peace, Palmer had to shuttle back and forth between the chairmen, looking at proposals.

In a meeting with one House chairman, “I sat with him and I tried to soften him up a little bit ahead of time, and say, 'You know we really got to try to make a deal here. Let's see if we can't find the good things in this proposal and minimize what we object to.'”

The thing is, there had been a paperwork mix-up. This House chairman was staring at his own proposal, not the one from the Senate. But he didn't notice.

“Our chairman was so tough he actually rejected his own proposal, not quite recognizing it. And he said, 'But, you know, there's progress here. Let me tell you what a few things.' And we just kind of finessed it over and eventually came to an agreement,” Palmer said. “But that was kind of a funny story. I finally told him about it some years later, when I was telling him how tough I thought he was. A good negotiator, but a tough negotiator. I said, 'You rejected your own plan.'”

In that story, Palmer is a mediator. Of course, top staff can also be ideological or partisan bulldogs. But in critical times, it pays to look at the big picture.

“I used to think that that was kind of a role I used to play on the speaker's behalf sometimes in these negotiations was to truly understand what the basic needs of each side were - maybe even what their political needs were,” Palmer said. “Because only when you know that can you begin to try of fashion some kind of a compromise.

Palmer said the president - any president - needs to understand that a congressional leader can't snap his or her fingers and get all the members in line. That applies to his time working for Speaker Hastert, and to the deadline-daring debate over the debt ceiling.

And for everyone upset about the last-minute nature of Washington deals, Mike Johnson - who's a registered lobbyist now - notes that's nothing new.

“Politicians usually don't perform unless they're under a tight deadline. So you would have legislative sessions where before a recess or before an adjournment, an awful lot of legislation would have to be brought to the floor at the last minute. And so it would go 'til midnight, one, two o'clock in the morning. Or you're eating cold pizzas at 2 a.m. trying to get that done,” Johnson said. “And that happened quite often.”

And - let's just go out on a limb here - this won't be the last time it happens.

And now, cue the relaxing music...

All those 2 a.m. meetings, all those intense phone calls from John Boehner, probably lots of folks in D.C. could use a good neck massage.

I'm Ashley Gross, with our windy indicator, where we ask people you might not have thought of: How's business?

TAPE: Hi Karen, how are you today? Pretty good.

Meet Madge Lockwood, massage therapist.

Full disclosure – I myself once got a rubdown from Magic Madge.

Today, Lockwood's client is here not for a regular massage but for something a little more obscure.

LOCKWOOD: Manual lymph drainage

Didn't catch that? She said manual lymph drainage.

GROSS: What is manual lymph drainage? Doesn't have the most appealing name.

LOCKWOOD: no, it does sound kind of awful.

But Lockwood says it's a gentle technique she learned in Germany to move fluid around the body... especially useful for people who have swelling.

Lockwood says demand for regular massages has been eh, so-so.

She says knowing how to do manual lymph drainage has kept her business going – and set her apart.

Once, she forced herself to google `massage therapy Chicago' to try to find her own web site.

LOCKWOOD: It ended up being I think page 23 when I finally came up – I was ready to give up at page 13 but I forced myself to continue just to see.

But when she googled `manual lymph drainage Chicago,' she came up first.

Lesson? In this tough economy, find a niche.

Next week, making hay out of the housing slump.