Deliberately Dysfunctional

At no time in the last 150 years has the U.S. Congress been as deeply polarized as it is today. Nearly every bill presented by the Democrats in the Senate is filibustered, delaying its passage indefinitely. If a bill survives filibuster and passes in the Senate, it is sure to be killed in the House. Any partisan bill passed by the Republican controlled House is killed by the Democrats in the Senate. Congress has become deeply dysfunctional.

It turns out this dysfunction is no accident. It is intentional, it is willful, and it is deliberate.

mann-ornsteinExactly one year ago, two well-respected non-partisan political analysts, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, published the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. They were guests on Moyers and Company on Friday, April 26  and gave an update on the situation in Congress. Watch the interview with Bill Moyers here.

Mann and Ornstein write in a calm, even-tempered, fact-laden and non-controversial style. The book was launched with a lengthy op-ed piece published in the Washington Post. A senior editor there decided to give it the provocative title Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem. It caught people’s attention – the column went viral with 1.5 million hits.

These two political analysts are not prone to partisanship; they only reluctantly decided to break form and speak out. In their view the Republican Party has become dominated by a right wing radical element engaged in an extremist no-holds-barred political war against the current president.

In the Washington Post op-ed, the authors express their concern like this:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Dysfunctional by Intent

How did the American Congress reach this dysfunctional state? Mann and Ornstein trace its origins to two main political players: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

Newt_GingrichFrom the day he entered Congress in 1979, Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House: convincing voters that the institution was so corrupt that anyone would be better than the incumbents, especially those in the Democratic majority. It took him 16 years, but by … recruiting GOP candidates around the country to run against Washington, Democrats and Congress, Gingrich accomplished his goal.

Ultimately, the authors say,

the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base — most recently represented by tea party activists — and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress.

Grover_NorquistMeanwhile Grover Norquist was mobilizing the libertarian faction within the Republican Party. He founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and introduced his Taxpayer Protection Pledge the following year. The pledge binds the signers to never support a net tax increase in any form  In the lead-up to the November 2012 elections 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans had signed the pledge. As Mann and Ornstein note,

The Norquist tax pledge has led to other pledges … that create additional litmus tests that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. For Republicans concerned about a primary challenge from the right, the failure to sign such pledges is simply too risky.

It has been said, “Norquist has been responsible, more than anyone else, for rewriting the dogma of the Republican Party.”

The Impasse and Beyond

So, where does this leave Congress? Mann and Ornstein put it this way:

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies.

The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee … solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and … fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading [in 2011] to  America’s first credit downgrade.

They observe that

Republicans often dismiss nonpartisan analyses of the nature of problems and the impact of policies when those assessments don’t fit their ideology. … This attitude filters down far deeper than the party leadership. Rank-and-file GOP voters endorse the strategy that the party’s elites have adopted, eschewing compromise to solve problems and insisting on principle, even if it leads to gridlock.

To be fair, they also state,

Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics. If anything, under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party. They are centrist protectors of government, reluctantly willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits to maintain its central commitments in the face of fiscal pressures.

So what lies ahead? In the op-ed piece, Mann and Ornstein conclude that

If our democracy is to regain its health and vitality, the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party must change.

In the end, they say,

it is up to voters to decide. If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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