First step in ending DC dysfunction


President Barack Obama shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner after Obama's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2012.

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    It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism
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Article Highlights

  • Republican approach for Obama’s first term was simple—use every available tool of obstruction to hamper his presidency

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  • Much can and will be done even in the absence of affirmative steps by Congress

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  • The election, in spite of its status-quo appearance, may have planted the seeds of constructive change

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After the sound and the fury, the public disdain for government — particularly for Congress — the high stakes and looming fiscal disaster and $6 billion, we end up where we began — with Barack Obama in the White House, Democrats with a modest majority in the Senate, and Republicans retaining control of the House.

It appears we are back to the same ingredients that produced the least productive and most destructive Congress in memory, whose public approval plummeted to historic lows. That reality is reinforced by House Speaker John Boehner’s claim of a mandate for House Republicans even as Obama won a sweeping electoral victory for a second term.

But appearances can be deceiving. In this case, they are.

The Republican approach for Obama’s first term was simple — use every available tool of obstruction to hamper and delegitimize his presidency. They opposed anything and everything he proposed, even policies they had recently embraced. The GOP used the filibuster to defeat, obstruct or discredit his every initiative. They took the debt ceiling hostage after their 2010 election victory, which lowered America’s credit rating and slowed the economic recovery, and gave us the “fiscal cliff.” They killed every serious effort in Congress to strengthen the economy, increase jobs and pass a balanced package of deficit reduction and debt stabilization.

The GOP’s unified opposition during a time of economic crisis was only the most recent stage in its evolution from a mainstream conservative party to a radical insurgency bent on undoing a century’s worth of public policy going back to Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Party has become one dismissive of the economic imperative to stimulate demand in the wake of a financial meltdown and severe recession, passionately committed to the efficacy of tax cuts under all circumstances, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, scornful of compromise, and contemptuous of the legitimacy of its political opposition. While neither party is pure or immune from ruthless partisan maneuver, it is the Republican Party that is the driving force behind today’s dysfunctional politics.

This reality could be one of the best-kept secrets in American politics, judging by most reporting. The mainstream media, handcuffed by harsh partisan criticism and economic pressures, has largely ignored this. Instead, journalists found refuge in a false equivalence between the parties. The most recent example was a “60 Minutes” piece on the broken Senate that blamed everyone equally — gliding past the unprecedented and deliberate misuse of the filibuster as a weapon of obstruction.
"Much can and will be done even in the absence of affirmative steps by Congress."
Well-intentioned nonpartisan and bipartisan groups, especially those concerned about deficits and debt, have decided that it is best to pretend the asymmetry between the parties does not exist. So they go through contortions to try to raise revenues without appearing to do so. Responsible business leaders hesitate to speak truth to longtime political allies. As a result, many citizens have little sense of what is actually wrong with our politics.

In spite of this, voters have produced an election outcome that offers a possible path out of our governing problems. Most important, Republicans gambled and lost.  Obama will now have four years to consolidate his first-term achievements with the Affordable Care Act, financial reform, clean energy and improving our education system. Republicans have no ability to repeal them and weak incentives to wage all-out battles to defund them. The administrative and regulatory state will be under the control of Democrats during the next four years.

Much can and will be done even in the absence of affirmative steps by Congress.

It would be foolish to imagine Republicans abandoning their oppositional stance and policy commitments in the aftermath of the election and joining Democrats in a Kumbaya circle around the campfire. But a division within the GOP between the ideologically committed extremists and pragmatic conservative problem solvers is almost certain to emerge. Conservative problem solvers like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee will likely begin to flex their muscles and speak out.

Every Senate Republican can’t be content to remain in uncompromising opposition to Obama during his second term. More than a dozen have indicated a willingness to work with Democrats on the immediate budgetary issues.

The fiscal cliff gives the president powerful negotiating leverage not available during these past two years. Republicans will find the new status quo on taxes and defense spending unacceptable. They need affirmative steps by Congress and the president, not simple opposition, to achieve their objectives.

How the president and other powerful players outside Congress, especially top leaders in the business community, respond to post-election realities will determine the probability of success. The latter need to use their leverage to help construct a reasonable bargaining table. The time has passed for any more indulgence of the Grover Norquist “no-new-taxes” pledge — which has been and remains the major obstacle to responsible policy-making.

Public pressure on and support of Republicans in Congress who privately recognize the need for higher taxes is essential. So too is a clear message that the debt ceiling must never again be taken hostage.
"The election, in spite of its status-quo appearance, may have planted the seeds of constructive change."
Obama, for his part, will need to find the right combination of confrontation and engagement with Republicans in Congress. The hardest nut to crack will be House Republicans. If Boehner is too weak to move key legislation to the floor, one alternative might be Obama’s aggressive use of the bully pulpit. His arguments can be amplified by the broad bipartisan support for change in the Senate and, for the first time in four years, strong support from the business community. Those efforts may persuade the dozen or so Republicans whose signatures will be needed on a discharge petition.

The politics will not be pretty and the ride will be far from smooth. But the election, in spite of its status-quo appearance, may have planted the seeds of constructive change.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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