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Block Obama!

Pete Souza/White House
President Obama having lunch with congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell at the White House, May 2012

“Never before have cosponsors of a major bill conspired to kill their own idea, in an almost Alice-in-Wonderland fashion,” write Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein in the introduction to It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.

In Washington, Mann and Ornstein are a brand. They’re the town’s most respected—and oft-quoted—scholars of Congress. They’ve tutored generations of legislators in the ways and history of the legislative branch, written or edited dozens of books on the subject (including multiple editions of the invaluable Vital Statistics on Congress), and generally proven, through unflagging devotion, their commitment to the institution. They’ve even got bipartisan credentials: Mann is at the center-left Brookings Institution, while Ornstein works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. And at this point, it’s fair to say they’re scared.

Congress, Mann and Ornstein routinely remind readers, comes first in the Constitution, and is given far more power than the other branches of government. But over the last decade, they’ve come to worry that “the First Branch” is not living up to its responsibilities. In 2006, they published The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, which criticized a variety of worrying trends in Congress, including the decline in real floor debate, the outsourcing of authority—particularly on foreign policy—to the executive branch, the dizzying rise in partisanship, the rampant corruption, and much more.

But Mann and Ornstein believed the problems, severe as they were, would abate in the face of a major national crisis that forced Congress to come together. They were wrong. “America got the crisis,” they write. “What the country didn’t get was any semblance of a well-functioning democracy.”

In order to underscore the irony of the current moment, political scientists will sometimes bring up the American Political Science Association’s 1950 report “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” Back then, the concern was that the two parties were insufficiently polarized and that the absence of clear and distinct political coalitions would permit the majority party to grow lazy and entrenched:

The fundamental requirement of accountability is a two-party system in which the opposition party acts as the critic of the party in power, developing defining and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice in reaching public decisions.

The report was published alongside a number of commentaries, including a prescient dissent from from Austin Ranney of the University of Illinois, who wrote:

No matter how much the President and Congress may wish to “cooperate,” a responsible party system can hardly flourish in a constitutional system where a small bloc of senators can filibuster to death any part of the winning party’s program, where it is impossible, because of the staggered calendar of elections, to replace the entire government at any one election, and where, most important of all, a Supreme Court elected for life and largely beyond the reach of any popular majority can, for all practical purposes, declare any of the majority party’s leading measures null and void.

As Mann and Ornstein write, “Time has proven Ranney dead right—we now have the kinds of parties the report desired, and it is disastrous.”

The 2011 debt ceiling debate is but one example. As Mann and Ornstein note, between 1960 and August 2011, Congress had raised the debt ceiling seventy-eight times, forty-nine times with Republican presidents and twenty-nine times with Democratic presidents. The ceiling is raised regularly because to do otherwise would be absurd. Increasing the debt ceiling simply permits the Treasury to pay for spending Congress has previously voted for. It’s the equivalent of deciding to pay your bills. And the consequences of saying, in public, that America will not pay its bills are almost unimaginably awful. A failure to raise the debt ceiling would spark a global financial crisis as investors reevaluated whether US Treasuries, the bedrock safe asset that much of global finance rests upon, are really so safe. And even once that crisis abated, America’s borrowing costs would likely be permanently higher.

And yet, in 2011, Republicans in Congress held the debt ceiling hostage. Worse, they did so at a moment of extreme economic fragility, and the best data we have suggest the consequences were severe. As the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers noted in Bloomberg View, the economy, which had been adding an average of more than 175,000 jobs a month, decelerated to an average of 88,000 jobs a month for the duration of the battle, and Gallup’s consumer confidence measure registered a larger drop than after the fall of Lehman Brothers. The aftermath of the debt ceiling battle delivered one further humiliation. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating, explaining that “The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.”

Given all this, you might expect congressional Republicans to be chagrined. Perhaps a letter of apology to the country would be in order. The reality is quite the opposite: they see the debt ceiling debate as a policy success that deserves to be repeated. “Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again,” said Mitch McConnell. “Then we will go through the process again.” Speaker of the House John Boehner was even more direct. ”We shouldn’t dread the debt limit. We should welcome it.”

This is, to be fair, not a failure of Congress as an institution. It’s a strategy of one of the two parties inside the institution. And Mann and Ornstein don’t shy away from stating that fact. The truth, they say, is not that Congress is broken so much as that one of the two major political parties is broken:

We believe a fundamental problem is the mismatch between parliamentary-style political parties—ideologically polarized, in- ternally unified, vehemently oppositional, and politically strategic—that has emerged in recent years and a separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.
Students of comparative politics have demonstrated that the American policy-making system of checks and balances and separation of powers has more structural impediments to action than any other major democracy. Now there are additional incentives for obstruction in that policy-making process.
Witness the Republicans’ immense electoral success in 2010 after voting in unison against virtually every Obama initiative and priority, and making each vote and enactment contentious and excruciating, followed by major efforts to delegitimize the result. And because of the partisan nature of much of the media and the reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes, it becomes much easier for a minority, in this case the Republicans, to use filibusters, holds, and other techniques to obstruct. The status quo bias of the constitutional system becomes magnified under dysfunction.

Mann and Ornstein argue, convincingly, that while both the Democratic and Republican parties are moving toward their respective poles, the Republicans are moving much further and faster—a phenomenon political scientists call “asymmetric polarization.” But what has made this condition doubly dangerous is that the key political institutions and actors have had trouble adapting to the change, or even describing it clearly. “It is, of course, awkward and uncomfortable, even seemingly unprofessional, to attribute a disproportionate share of the blame for dysfunctional politics to one party or the other,” Mann and Ornstein write.

Reporters and editors seek safe ground by giving equal time to opposing groups and arguments and crafting news stories that convey an impression that the two sides are equally implicated. Scholars often operate at a level of analytic generality and normative neutrality that leads most treatments of partisan polarization to avoid any discussion of party asymmetry. Many self-styled nonpartisan and bipartisan groups seeking to advance policy and process reforms are heavily invested in a search for common ground between the parties, a strategy made difficult if not untenable when one is a clear outlier.

The problem is compounded by the rules of the Senate, which are built to encourage consensus, and so have proven particularly ill-suited to the modern Republican Party, which mounted more filibusters during Obama’s first term than there were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s combined. As Mann and Ornstein put it:

The minority party in the Senate has an effective veto over a president and his majority party. Senators’ overuse of the filibuster has created a routine supermajority hurdle that the framers never anticipated and that has not occurred before in American history. No other democratically elected leader around the world faces such a hurdle.

All of this confuses the members of the broader public, as they’re not following the ins and outs of congressional procedure very closely and no one they trust is doing a very good job telling them what’s going on. And so they end up punishing whoever is in charge—which in turn rewards the Republican Party for these tactics and convinces them to keep using them, as evidenced by Boehner and McConnell’s embrace of future brinksmanship over the debt ceiling.

In a refreshing change of pace from other books in this genre, Mann and Ornstein spend considerable time debunking the pat solutions that have traction in the public debate but little chance of actually working—and could, in many cases, make things worse—like third parties and term limits. The pity is that they don’t have particularly plausible reforms that can work. As they say, the “the most powerful potential leverage in any democracy is the ability of the citizenry to ‘throw the bums out,’” but the reality is that “during difficult times such as the present, [voters] tend to broadly condemn Washington or Congress, which is more likely to reinforce the structural dynamics that produce gridlock than to generate a constructive call to action.”

Nevertheless, they have done the public a great service—and have been much braver than many in the media, the think tanks, or Congress—in using their personal credibility to clearly describe what has happened to American politics in recent years, and who is primarily to blame.

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