“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.