First step in ending DC dysfunction

By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
November 9, 2012


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.

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.

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.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama walks between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner before a health reform legislation meeting in Washington in 2010.  REUTERS/Jason Reed


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Mitch McConnell is one of the biggest road blocks to ending the Congressional stalemate with the fiscal condition of our country. Holding-up the progress of our Nation. He actually had the audacity to appear on Educational Television and give us a lesson on Kentucky’s Henry Clay – The Great Compromiser.

Posted by budfeigel | Report as abusive

Why do these authors continue to write the same article – it makes no more sense recycled than originally. Government spending to stimulate demand? – it did not work. Talk about the Republicans living in the past. A lot has happened since John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s (BTW did not work then either). And why does moderation always mean having to raise taxes? On this theory, let’s double taxes and we will have a wonderful economy.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

If it weren’t for clever gerrymandering, Nancy Pelosi would be our Speaker again come January. Your party lost, Boehner, you’re just not willing to admit it.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

I’m appalled that you would publicly state “…the debt ceiling must never again be taken hostage.”. So, gentlemen, in your “heart of hearts” you don’t think Americans can or should stop increases to the “national credit card”?

The “debt ceiling” is the very vehicle by which economic neanderthals would have us sell all chance of a better future for the “instant gratification” of a more comfortable present. I think that’s incredibly short-sighted.

Look around, gentlemen. Open your eyes. American politicians have been doing this a long time. Such irresponsible collective profligacy is why American financial “policy” (or lack thereof) has failed.

How has it failed? Purported “leaders” of both major parties already agree that America’s present fiscal course is utterly unsustainable. If these people would quit pouring themselves Champagne and get to the “job” of increasing America’s economic competitiveness and productivity there might be some small remaining change of avoiding following the European Common Market and their Euro to oblivion.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The press owns the Congressional dysfunction led by obstructionists GOP. They have played he said/she said for at least four years while the adolescents in the GOP have behaved like spoiled children wanting a lollipop in the grocery store, throwing a little hissy-fit meltdown. The US press is as pathetic as the Tea Party. I hope the election will change that, so that our press resumes its proper role in society instead of competing with Murdoch to be the smuttiest paper of all, but one that keeps the spittle-spewers happy.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

In reference to Sylvan and Boris, an opposing view would be that without Republican consternation, we would now probably have a debt of $20 trillion. The history of the past stimulus efforts and QE effects would indicate that that would likely have resulted in approximately the same number of jobs we have now. If you have statistics that would show otherwise, please feel free to post the data and your sources.

Posted by capinfergie | Report as abusive

If Dubya had not been selected in 2000, we most likely would not have invaded Iraq based on faked intel. There’s about $3 trillion right there, capinfergie.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

To the folks who have commented so far;

1) Sayhey – What don’t you get about the law of supply and demand? When private demand shrinks (as it HAD to after the financial meltdown and while people paid down their PERSONAL debt) the Govt becomes the “spender of last resort” – there to pick up demand TEMPORARILY so that the lack of private demand does not cause further contraction in the economy. Any REPUTABLE private economist has already indicated that the way-too-small stimulus kept us from having a DEEPER recession. Historically these types of times have been a great opportunity to have the govt spend in building/repairing US infrastructure which we need to do any way and which boosts employment and subsequent tax payment from those who are working (vs being unemployed).

2)Sheep – The debt ceiling in not the time to protest or try to prevent spending. This spending has ALREADY been approved and voted on by congress during prior deliberation. If congress does not want further spending then don’t approve the bills that authorize it ! Once it IS approved – the spending (and required debt ceiling approvals) is a foregone conclusion. The only thing accomplished with holding the debt ceiling hostage is to make the USA’s credit rating and reputation SUFFER -which causes our future borrowing costs to INCREASE !

3)capinfergie – TOTAL BS ! There is zero evidence for your claim. The Dems had no additional spending plans that would come close to creating the mythical debt that you reference.

Have you all FORGOTTEN – we have a REVENUE problem to at least the same or greater extent than our spending problem ! The Bush tax cuts brought marginal tax rates to the lowest level since the Great Depression of 1929. Corporations barely pay any tax at all (and don’t start on the 35% rate crap – they have all found ways around that). These tax cuts were SUPPOSED to “unleash” the “job creators” – how did that work out ? It’s the biggest hoax foisted on the American people in our lifetimes.
Raise top earner tax rates, clean up the tax code to eliminate deductions, put a floor of 25% on corp taxes, eliminate holding corp profits offshore, substantially cut defense spending and offer a public health option for people to PAY FOR which will compete with out-of-control private insurance.

Done !

Posted by JohnnyRacer | Report as abusive

It must be really nice to be part of a group of individuals who can do whatever they want and spend all they wish and have it guaranteed by the labor of the population.

Wait, wasn’t that slavery? I guess it’s different when the slave is told that they can elect a new master every few years. Then it’s a Democracy.

You end dysfunction in Washington by putting a box on the ballot that says “Void Position”. Then let the functions of it be replaced by voluntary associations.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

I suggest you take “scholars” away from the description of these authors. They just need to follow Obama’s playbook – this won’t do anything for solving the problem. This article puts a mini skirt on the problem and it ain’t that good looking. So we have a recession brewing so Obama rams through healthcare – that drives down disposable incomes. Healthcare reform has many other shapes but none should be government run. The idea of “forward” ignores history – Real Estate market meltdown – government induced magnified by the slowing of an economy – and oversold by Wall Street. There you have it – all three villains. So spend more on education – why not give tax breaks to employers will to pick up the tab for employee loans – non family. No because of the bank lobby and they talk about helping the small guy. This article just blames the GOP and the filibuster which is used to equal obstruction on the other side of the aisle. This only fans the flame of division. This is not about solving the issues – it is the politics of power. Reuters is hard up for left wing economist — I don’t see anything enterprising about this article. Just two old white guys – who look just like the ones we have in congress and make about as much sense….

Posted by xit007 | Report as abusive

The U.S. citizenry elected a fascist president and Senate. And they will get what they deserve. The authors of this article are obviously disciples of Joseph Goebels (i.e propagandists) and apparently followers of Marx and Engels in economics. See comment by xit007.

Posted by jejohnson2749 | Report as abusive

The GOP is still fighting the Civil War. They would love to return to the time when black’s were slaves, women would not vote, and white men who owned property decided what laws to enforce….
Most of the states in the old South have already filed new petitions to secede from the Union…. look it up…

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

First step in ending DC dysfunction:

Send Karl Rove and Grover Norquist to dinner together. In Syria.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

There is nothing “unprecedented” about using the filibuster as a tactic of obstruction, and to pin it squarely on the GOP its sole user is laughable.

This piece reads like it was written after a bender of scotch and C-SPAN and belongs on the likes of MSNBC or the BBC. I come to Reuters because it is uncommonly impartial in its reporting and even its opinion pieces. post this tripe on a blog.

Posted by smanchwhich | Report as abusive

smanchwhich, what is unprecedented is the rate of filibuster use among you teabaggers and ditto-heads. Congress has historically opted for resolution (even bitter or heated resolution) rather than half-wit tantrum. Not letting something even go to a vote means you’re scared that you’ll lose the vote. Employing a tactic to stop the vote should be rare. If you’re always scared of losing a vote, and always filibustering…. you’re position is probably out of whack with what the public wants. Time to check yourself at that point and ask yourself why your always on the losing side of votes.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@johnnyracer – I’m still looking for the infrastructure created by the $800B “stimulus” package. Too bad it went to propping up public employment – not a good prescription for building the economy or creating wealth. On taxing corporations – there should be no corporate income tax – another example of progressives’ creative ideas to increase taxation (excuse me, “revenue”). To a business, taxes are another expense – just like rent, salaries, advertising, etc. And as with all such expenses, the costs are built into the price of whatever the goods or services being sold. We all pay, not the “corporations”.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

SayHey, most of that stimulus money was given out to state and municipal governments for projects. They’re always asking for more local control and they got it. Are you admitting they blew it and most states can not handle federal money correctly? I kind of think that too. Like in the Homeland Security boondoggle days of Bush. Towns in the middle of Kansas buying bomb robots and smart phones for themselves.

I think we should go back to federal public works like FDR and cut out the Dukes of Hazzard Emergency Response Mobile Tactical Centers….. when dispersing money.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The preposterous thing is that both parties are pretending to be horrified at the impending “Fiscal Cliff” but yet both are essentially committed to yet another increase in the Debt Limit. Hello?

Until BOTH parties agree to NO MORE INCREASES in the debt limit, it will be spend, spend, spend ad infinitum. I certainly agree that Democrats and Republicans would come up with an entirely different list of NEEDS to be funded, and an entirely different percentage and priority for available funds. But what I find alarming is that NO ONE is even preparing to have such a conversation.

I can forecast with 100% accuracy that politicians of both parties will continue to point accusing fingers at their peers across the isle until Hades freezes over as the “reason” nothing ever changes in Washington while every evening they get together for drinks to toast us dumb suckers who accept such drivel year after year.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive