Identifying Priorities and Pursuing Them: IGP Hosts Skills Workshop on Legislative Negotiation

By Katherine Noel
Posted Apr 01 2024
John Sullivan
John Sullivan of the Partnership for a Secure America advises student negotiators. [photos/ Chris Taggart]


In today’s deeply polarized political climate, training policymakers in strategies and providing them tools to negotiate across the aisle is critical. 

The Center for Legislative Negotiation instructors develop training programs for federal and state legislators, NGOs and other key stakeholders throughout the United States.

Cook and Betram
Ben Cook (left) and Chris Bertram are senior instructors with the Center for Legislative Negotiation.

On March 22, IGP and the Center for Legislative Negotiation hosted an IGP Skills Workshop for a group of IGP Student Scholars on the fundamentals of successful legislative negotiation. The training was led by Chris Bertram and John Sullivan, Executive Director of Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan think tank. 

“It’s incredibly important to understand what your priorities actually are,” Bertram, who has held senior positions in the US House of Representatives, US Senate, and the Executive Branch, told the group of students. “What are you actually trying to achieve, what are the most important issues, and what are the ideal outcomes you want in what you are negotiating?”

Another valuable skill, he said, is the ability to see things from a counterpart’s position. “You also want to get a sense of people on the other side of the table, and actually discern what they care about, what motivates them, and what their priorities are.”

The students participated in a simulation in which they were charged with negotiating an energy policy bill before Congress. They were put in pairs for the one-on-one simulation – randomly assigned to roles as either Democratic or Republican senators – and asked to address the final six issues on the bill: nuclear power; addressing climate change; offshore drilling; investment in renewable energy; safeguarding the electrical grid; and funding offsets.

Yes, you want a good outcome for your side — but overall, the deal has to work for both parties.

— Chris Bertram

Points were assigned to possible options on each issue – positive points for options that benefit the negotiator’s position, negative for options that hurt their position – with the end goal being to get as many points as possible while still achieving a deal. The objective of the exercise was to “consider ways to create value in negotiation through trading on differences in priorities,” per the course material.

Student Negotiators
Students worked in pairs to negotiate a package of hypothetical legislation.

Bertram told the students that “you need to think of all six of those issues as a package, as trying to put together a mutually agreeable package that will work,” he said. “You’re not trying to come up with an agreement on just one or two issues. The goal of the exercise is to come up with a whole package of results.”

Bertram recalled how he and his team spent “days of preparation” for every hour at the negotiating table, which involved identifying and understanding what the goals and priorities are going into a negotiation, having a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and understanding the other side’s priorities and interests as well.

“Yes, you want a good outcome for your side, but overall, the deal has to work for both parties,” Bertram said. “You’re trying to find a bipartisan deal, something that has good outcomes for both sides.”