Negotiating While Rome Burns
Pointing fingers. Casting blame. Passing the buck.
Any cliché that implies fault accurately describes what happened on Capitol Hill last week as senators and members of Congress did everything they could to deflect responsibility over a possible government shutdown to members of their opposing party.
They played the same blame game over the problem that would have caused the shutdown too—balancing the nation’s budget.
In the 2008 book The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, authors Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, and Sara Schley call this behavior shifting the burden. Another trite cliché implying fault? Yes. But this one’s from a systems perspective.
Shifting the burden happens when a person or group refuses to accept responsibility for an issue. Rather than just ignore the issue till it goes away, the person or group places the responsibility they refuse to accept on another person or group. Tensions between the two parties escalate. Problems snowball. And, in the end, nothing really gets resolved. At least not in the long-run. Instead, some short-term patch or fix gets applied until the problem resurfaces.
We just saw that happen on Capitol Hill as the clock ticked toward the midnight deadline on April 8th.
One group had called for a large amount of spending cuts--$61 billion to be exact, according to an Associated Press article. The other, much larger group disagreed and used its majority rule to strike down the proposed cuts. And so the battle began—a battle of words, of finger pointing, of casting blame, of passing the buck. A battle that left no permanent legislation in place to finance federal offices and services for the remaining six months of the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
Until the April 8th deadline, the federal government had been getting by on a series of bills that cut spending and provided “enough money for the government to function for just weeks at a time,” according to the Associated Press.
In the end congress approved a budget bill and averted the government shutdown almost an hour shy of deadline by applying the same short-term fix they’d been applying all of this time—extending the deadline on certain parts of the bill that had caused the ruckus. The blame is still shifted. The only problems that have been solved are the ones created by the process itself.
“Not surprising, when we—individuals, companies, non-profits, governments—first acknowledge problems,” Senge, Smith, Kruschwitz, Laur, and Schley wrote, “…our instinct is to do the opposite, to apply exactly the same kind of thinking that created these challenges in the first place.”
And the burden will eventually be shifted again. Each time we shift it the real issue—ensuring longevity for future growth—gets farther away.