July 22, 2011

There are few things in life we dread more than deadlines. And they go back awhile: When Noah was appointed to that famous construction job, you might say he was under a bit of a time crunch.

As President Obama and congressional leaders struggle to strike a deficit-reduction agreement before Aug. 2, a critical feature of this battle, as in many other political fights, is the ticking clock: a deadline under which our leaders sweat, bargain and decide.

“We’re in the 11th hour, and we don’t have a lot more time left,” the president said on Tuesday. By Friday, without an agreement, he sounded even more dire: “We have now run out of time.”

Our nation’s capital has become Deadline Washington. The Congress now scrambling to avert a default managed to avoid a government shutdown this spring with less than two hours to spare. We have deadlines for peace deals. We have deadlines for agencies to issue regulations. We have deadlines for withdrawing troops from occupied lands and for closing military prisons. In the new health-care law, we have deadlines for states to get their insurance exchanges ready. We have deadlines for passing legislation and for producing proposals. We have deadlines for issuing deadlines.

Deadlines are often the only way to get anything done in an age of gridlock and polarization. But they have serious limits. Some are obvious, while others are tied up in behaviors we have trouble recognizing. Social science offers a few insights on the pitfalls of making decisions while staring down the clock.

Deadlines can’t make decisions for us

They are often used, wrongly, to force a solution to a difficult problem. The timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, for example — all U.S. forces are, in principle, supposed to be out of the country by Dec. 31 — became a celebrated proxy for completing the real work of reducing the American military presence in that country. Pentagon officials and other observers believe that the December deadline is impossible to meet, or that if it’s met artificially by pulling out the remaining troops instantly, chaos will follow. The Iraqi government appears on track to miss its own deadline this weekend for asking the U.S. military to extend the Dec. 31 withdrawal date.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary, wrote in April that if the end-of-year deadline is not met exactly, “it will enhance the Al Qaeda narrative about American intentions in the region and also make it impossible to get a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.” Missing an arbitrary deadline, in other words, could make our enemies stronger. But this wouldn’t be a problem if we had not negotiated an absolute deadline in the first place. In this case and others, deadlines become substitutes for the hard work of deliberating and choosing.

Delegating a decision to another group and giving it a deadline can also be a form of procrastination or avoidance. Many deadlines are simply not met. The European Union has for two decades tried to use deadlines to speed up the implementation of its directives, to little effect. From 1995 to 2002, almost 60 percent of the implementation decisions in the Netherlands, for instance, missed the E.U. deadlines.

A similar logic works with our debt-ceiling debate. Obama has repeatedly argued that Washington is “running out of time.” But talks between the president and House Speaker John A. Boehner on a plan that would focus on spending cuts, which appeared promising on Thursday, were off again by Friday evening, with more negotiations scheduled for the weekend. Clearly, the looming clock isn’t hastening a deal.

One way to meet the deadline, and the option that could garner bipartisan support, is to agree to a short-term debt-limit increase and then revisit the issue in a few months or a year. In other words, the most plausible approach to the debt-limit deadline is to solve the problem later.

Deadlines ratchet up stress, limit creativity and force mistakes.

Most everyone — certainly most people who might be drawn to political life — has experienced the unique adrenaline-fueled upsides and panic-inducing downsides of a looming deadline. Some of this stress is useful, but it also strains focus and can be counterproductive. Psychologist Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California at San Francisco and colleagues at Harvard have shown that “bad” stress can cause the human heart to respond inefficiently to pressure and can lead to avoidance of the task at hand.

Another psychological study shows that as a deadline approaches, group participants disregard — and sometimes denigrate — those who voice contrarian opinions. As a result, creative solutions can get shoved aside. This is not as much of a problem if innovative ideas have been developed early on, but deadlines often cause people to postpone such efforts until just before the final hour — and that often means a collective sprint toward the least innovative option.

A few years ago I joined some Harvard Medical School colleagues in examining the deadlines that, since 1992, Congress has placed upon the Food and Drug Administration’s drug reviews. Our research found that medications approved right before these deadlines were considerably more likely to be pulled from the market or have significant warning labels attached later on. More recent studies suggest that that link persists. There are, of course, good reasons for wanting to ensure that new drugs are reviewed with efficiency. The question is whether a deadline for every review, as opposed to focusing on average review times or resources, is the best way to get drugs on the market expeditiously — and our answer highlighted the downside.

Deadlines can slow things down.

When deadlines are imposed, decisions and bargains that could happen more quickly — because of momentum or normal work flow — often end up getting put off until the last minute. Social scientists have referred to this as the “eleventh-hour effect,” and we see it both in experiments and in real life. This April, for instance, Congress and the White House agreed at the last minute on the fiscal year 2011 budget and narrowly averted a government shutdown.

Because of the eleventh-hour effect, a deadline can actually slow things down. In the debt-ceiling battle, partisans on both sides expect their representatives not to back down until the very end. An early solution or compromise from either side is interpreted as giving in. The Senate’s “Gang of Six” provides an example of this phenomenon. The bipartisan group is working on a plan that could lead to raising the debt limit; it’s been in progress for months and appeared to have been abandoned two weeks ago. Yet in the face of the Aug. 2 deadline, the group may come to agree on essentially the same type of spending-reduction plan it first took up as early as January.

Deadlines don’t always make the timing of decisions more predictable.

We might think that if deadlines don’t accelerate decisions, at least they make it clearer when a decision will be made. Yet a study I co-authored with Stanford political scientist Justin Grimmer shows that sometimes the opposite can occur. Once a decision-maker misses a deadline — and many, many deadlines are not only missed, but are expected to be missed — there is usually much less incentive to continue speedy work. This results in some decisions that meet the deadline and others that go way past it. In an examination of FDA data, we showed that the agency’s review times were certainly no more predictable (and probably less predictable) after deadlines were introduced.

Let’s say that Obama and congressional leaders are unable to work out a deal before Aug. 2. The carnage could be significant: Financial markets may react badly, and the administration would be forced to pick which financial obligations it can meet and which — Social Security payments, veterans’ benefits — it has to put off. That’s all bad news, but it’s especially bad for compelling a solution. Once we are over the cliff, there might be much less immediate pressure to produce an agreement — the deadline will have failed and will no longer provide an incentive. This doesn’t mean that substantial harm won’t be done. Quite the opposite. There will just be less deadline pressure to reverse it.

Many deadlines are missed, leading to disenchantment and poor coordination.

People are generally bad at predicting how long it will take them to do something, and they’re even worse at guessing how long it will take other people to get something done. In many cases, that’s because people work under their own internal deadline — sometimes consciously, sometimes not. An externally imposed deadline interrupts a person’s or group’s independent work schedule.

Political scientists have also found that, compared with agencies not operating under a time limit, agencies making rules under a deadline are far more likely to give inaccurate predictions about when the final rule will emerge. When deadlines are repeatedly imposed and repeatedly missed, people begin to doubt their value. Unless used judiciously, deadlines can make themselves less credible and less effective.

The deadline is a human convention — a taken-for-granted way of doing things — that has changed our lives. We need deadlines, but we don’t need them all the time, for every problem. For centuries we’ve accomplished things without them: solving scientific puzzles and inventing new technologies, passing legislation, fighting wars and securing peace, deliberating the guilt or innocence of a criminal suspect, building infrastructure, and learning. Yet it often seems as if we can’t think, work or live without them.

To be fair, the debt-limit deadline that lawmakers are struggling with is not an arbitrary or negotiated date. Aug. 2 is when the Treasury Department is projected to run out of money, unable to borrow beyond the current $14.3 trillion limit. Yet the deadline hovering over our national leaders is probably inducing more stress and vitriol than we’d see in the usual fights over taxes and spending.

Should we just assume that deadlines are now an unavoidable part of governing? Or should we think more creatively?

Maybe one answer lies in a deadline-related announcement from the Obama administration this month that had nothing to do with the debt ceiling. The health-care lawpassed last year set a Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for determining whether states would have their new insurance marketplaces ready by 2014. If they weren’t on track, the federal government would take over. This month, new regulations granted states “flexibility” and stated that they could earn “conditional approval” for progress, even if they were far from ready to launch.

This kind of flexibility — the act of softening the “dead” in a deadline — could be a model for how we deal with the Aug. 2 deadline: some version of the proposal floated by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which would get the country off this immediate ledge by deferring a longer-term decision.

In the midst of final exams some 20 years ago, a remarkably low-stress college roommate said to me, “If you haven’t stared a deadline in the face and watched it blink, you haven’t lived.” At that moment, he was free of the deadline worship on which Washington seems to function.

Perhaps in the future we can find a more sober, less foreboding, less stressful approach to dealing with the clock. Could we get there without a deadline to push us along? Eventually.

Daniel Carpenter is a professor of government at Harvard University and the author of “Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA.”

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