Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Turns out politicians are people, too, only worse.
Just ask pros who make their living in the trenches of everyday human drama such as divorce, family feuds or schoolyard scraps. They recognize in Washington's bitter budget standoff a hint of human nature as they know it, but with the crazy pumped up to absurd levels.
"We're seeing middle school behavior here," says Barbara Coloroso, who crusades against childhood bullying. Psychologist Piers Steel, an expert on procrastination, says Congress has the worst case of it he's seen. Divorce attorney Sanford Ain's assessment is blunter: "It's nuts!"
A sampling of conflict-savvy professionals and scholars interviewed by The Associated Press finds dismay that the nation is in political stalemate after two years of showdowns and near-misses for the economy. Not that these they have any easy solutions, either.
Some dream of locking up President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. R-Ohio, together until the nation's tax and spending issues are settled.
"That's my fantasy: To go into a room and tell them what to do, right or wrong, and make them do it," said Marvin McIntyre, a prominent financial adviser in the District of Columbia who writes political novels on the side.
With lawmakers and the president on the brink of yet another compromise-or-else deadline Friday, the nonpoliticians shared their take on the all-too-human behavior in Washington.
Historian Altina Waller is reminded of the Hatfields and McCoys. Of course, she would be: Waller's an authority on the deadly 19th century feud.
Despite the myth, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict wasn't primarily about clan hatred, Waller said, and she doesn't think today's acrimony between Republicans and Democrats is fully explained by partisanship or ideology.
The Appalachian feud grew out of economic anxiety as farming declined and logging and coal moved in, she said. These days, Democrats and Republicans worry about the economy and the loss of American jobs and influence to foreign competition, and blame each other.
"Like the Hatfields and McCoys," Waller said, "they are personalizing a problem brought about by larger economic forces."
Coloroso, author of "The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander," sees too many politicians acting like the mean girl who taunts unpopular classmates in the cafeteria.
"Bullying is about contempt for the other person," Coloroso said. "Do you see how that fits with some of the people in Congress? Utter contempt, bullying, wanting to bring somebody down. You cannot resolve a major issue like a budget with name-calling, with disdain for the person you're supposed to be working with."
Ain says the political fight illustrates something he's learned in 40 years of striving to keep family law cases amicable: "If you have extreme views and won't compromise, you can't get anything done. It's going to go to war."
Yet a sudden switch to civility will not guarantee that tough decisions get made.
Human brains are wired to put off the unpleasant, says "The Procrastination Equation" author Steel.
We postpone starting a diet, put off going to the gym, keep meaning to write those thank-you notes. Congress members are masters of this.
"They're pretty much the worst, hands down, of any group we ever investigated," said Steel, who has researched procrastination for more than a decade. "They're worse than college students."
What finally gets people moving? A deadline. The paper must be written to pass the class. The house is tidied because company's coming. The expense report is finished because the boss demands it by 5 p.m.
So it makes sense to set deadlines for solving the nation's pressing fiscal problems. Only it isn't working.
Congress and the White House have lurched from the brink of default or government shutdown or "fiscal cliff" to the next potentially disastrous deadline, this time automatic budget cuts known as the "sequester." They've only achieved temporary fixes without resolving the big disagreements over the deficit, taxes and Medicare and Social Security spending. Obama calls it "drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."
Why aren't the deadlines working?
Pushing the limits isn't always procrastination; sometimes it's strategy.
Negotiation expert Robert Mnookin points to labor disputes resolved just before the strike deadline and lawsuits settled on the courthouse steps on the eve of trial. Bargainers tend to play "chicken" like two drivers speeding toward each other in hopes the other will swerve first.
"It's often believed that you won't be able to extract the very best concession from the other side unless you are on the brink of something that's very bad," said Mnookin, chairman of Harvard's Program on Negotiation and author of "Bargaining with the Devil."