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Playing Chicken To Cut The Deficit

U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) speaks as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) listen during a hearing before the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee, also known as the supercommittee.

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U.S. Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) speaks as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) listen during a hearing before the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee, also known as the supercommittee.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you've ever thought that most of politics is game-playing, you're right. Political scientists often use mathematical game theory to describe how Congress works. And when they look at the current battle over how to handle the deficit, the game that comes to mind is chicken.

Steven Smith is a professor of political science at Washington University, and he says yes, Republicans and Democrats sometimes remind him of two cars driving as fast as they can toward a cliff.

"So in politics, we often times see two sides...showing the same thing, with one party trying to persuade the other party, that it is willing to walk away from the table even if that risks disaster," says Smith.

In this summer's debate over raising the debt ceiling, the game of chicken fell apart. Both cars swerved, both sides claimed victory, and nothing happened. No one wants a repeat of this, so Congress has changed the stakes of the game by creating a supercommittee.

They've put the supercommittee behind the wheel and filled each car with both political parties' children — budgetary items each party holds dear. If neither side swerves, automatic cuts will be made.

"The Republicans do not presumably want the defense budget cut, and Democrats do not want the domestic discretionary programs cut," says Smith.

The hope is that in the face of a treacherous crash, "they will work their way through to an agreement."

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