WHY GRIDLOCK IN D.C.?

Here’s issue #31 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 5/20/12. Just about everyone is concerned about the political and policy gridlock in our federal government. This issue of the newsletter takes a look at why this is happening.

The Washington Post published an article on April 27 that is the best piece I’ve seen on why we are experiencing gridlock in Congress. It’s entitled, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.” [1] It is important to know that it is co-written by two scholars from two institutions that tend to have different, if not opposing, perspectives. Thomas E. Mann is at the Brookings Institution, which is often described as centrist or liberal leaning. (However, I don’t think it has ever been called progressive or aligned with Democrats.) Norman J. Ornstein is at the American Enterprise Institute, which is almost invariably described as conservative and is often seen as aligned with the Republican Party.

In the article, they state, “We have been studying 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.” They describe the Republican Party as “an insurgent outlier … ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The authors note that both parties have moved away from the center, the Democrats in large part because of the loss of conservative, southern Democrats. They use a football metaphor, where the 50 yard line is the center, to describe the current situation: “While the Democrats may have moved from their 40 yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal posts.” (The goal line is the 0 yard line and the goal posts are actually 10 yards behind the goal line.)

They identify two individuals as key movers in the shift in the Republican Party: Newt Gingrich (Republican Representative from Georgia in Congress from 1979 to 1999) and Grover Norquist (president and founder in 1985 of Americans for Tax Reform). They state that “the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulent anti-Washington base … and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress.” Norquist created the Taxpayer Protection Pledge where signers pledge never to support a tax increase even to close a loophole. Currently, 238 of 242 Republicans in the House and 41 of 47 Republican Senators have signed the pledge. Mann and Ornstein note that this pledge, and others that it has led to, “make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible.”

They note that bipartisan groups “propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach,” and that “In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republic opposition … followed by efforts to delegitimize results and repeal the policies.” Republicans have voted against measures that they co-sponsored to deny President Obama anything that might look like progress.

Procedurally, particularly in the Senate, progress has ground to a near halt. “The filibuster [2] … became a routine weapon of obstruction.” The confirmation process for presidential nominees has also been “abused … to block any and every nominee,” including to “posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws … legitimately enacted from being implemented.”

Mann and Ornstein critique the media, noting that they understand journalism, “But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” They advise the press, among other things, to “stop lending legitimacy to Senate filibusters by treating the 60-vote hurdle as routine. The framers certainly didn’t intend it to be. Report individual senator’s abusive use of holds [on presidential nominations] and identify every time the minority party uses a filibuster.”

In closing, they note that “If our democracy is to regain its health and vitality, the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party must change.”


[1]       Mann, T.E., andOrnstein,N.J., 4/27/12, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” The Washington Post. Adapted from their book “It’s even worse than it looks: How the American Constitutional system collided with the new politics of extremism.”

[2]       A filibuster requires a super-majority of 60 out of 100 votes to end debate and allow a vote on passage of a bill or other matter.

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