For a member of Congress, there’s nothing like a trip to the White House — except, perhaps, another trip to the White House. And another. Eventually, it starts to look a lot like the holidays: You look forward to them, but deep down you hope things will be a little better than last year. Much of the experience boils down to repetition — that’s how traditions are made, after all. And like any tradition — visiting certain relatives, attending the same Christmas parties, or listening to the president carry on — it can start to wear you down after awhile.
As Capitol Hill’s would-be dealmakers try to avoid a Thelma and Louise moment over the fiscal cliff, that’s where things sit right now. They have made a pilgrimage to the White House, produced cautiously worded public statements, and over the next few weeks they can look forward to the prospect of doing it all again and again. They all want to succeed. But that will require much more than a few picturesque moments at a conference table.
High-profile meetings with the president are never quite as dramatic as they appear on TV. It is, however, a great stage. The Cabinet Room sits just off the Oval Office with a long row of windows exposing beautiful White House gardens. Smaller sessions might take place in the historic Roosevelt Room across the hall. Coffee service comes on White House china, and seating assignments are indicated by elegantly caligraphied place cards that position the leadership by seniority around the long table. If the vice president attends, he’ll sit opposite the president.
A meeting like this might last upwards of an hour, but the public catches just a quick photo op before the doors close. Newcomers are often startled as the press gaggle storms into the room. They home in on the president, surging forward over the vice president’s shoulder. Cameras thrust out as a gopher-sized boom mike suddenly materializes above the table. It’s an opportunity for the president to earnestly describe the importance of the meeting while all the other attendees sit there like store mannequins and smile.
The phrase “closed-door negotiations,” suggests that dealmakers are getting down to blunt talk and old-fashioned horse-trading. Unfortunately, there isn’t much room for personal exchanges in a room filled with a dozen members of Congress, and another dozen staffers around the room. Instead, discussions usually look more like a choreographed series of statements. The president speaks, and then encourages someone to offer their thoughts. Often, he’ll respond. Then he moves on. President Obama has a habit of describing his guests’ opinions on their behalf, as in: “I know that you believe we should. . .” On more than one occasion participants have politely requested that they be allowed to speak for themselves.
The formal presentation does give attendees the chance to be seen discussing an issue with the president — politicians do love visibility — and helps establish a baseline understanding of each side’s needs and wants. On substance, however, very little is accomplished in the room. The real negotiations, and any real progress, take place between the key players’ senior staff.
Historically, the White House budget director has been the central player in high-stakes budget summits. It’s a pivotal role, filled during the 1990 and 1997 budget negotiations by Richard Darman and Franklin Raines, respectively. Both were well-known figures on Capitol Hill, possessed deep command of budget details, and carried the president’s complete confidence. By contrast, Obama has run through four budget directors in four years, and at the moment, the position is officially vacant.
It’s an omission that could not have come at a less opportune moment. During the most important budget talks in a decade, as Politico reported last week, the most senior White House staffer to meet with Speaker John Boehner’s team was a “legislative liaison.” That’s not a fast track to success. Without the right negotiators in the right place at the right time, the posturing, photo-ops, and trips up and down Pennsylvania Avenue will have been a waste of time.
For most members of Congress, an invitation to the White House — much like Christmas — comes once a year. Even for the handful summoned to the Cabinet Room on a regular basis, it is a request that can eventually take on the aura of a holiday fruitcake. The thought is very much appreciated, but the taste remains far removed from the flowery and festive exterior. Let’s hope that this year the season brings them something more worthwhile.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.