Mann & Ornstein “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”

It's Even Worse Than It LooksIn their previous book The Broken Branch Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein offered an historical overview of  the growth of partisanship and the decline of regular order in Congress, concluding that Republicans in their fanatical zeal to recapture Washington were primarily responsible for breaking the Branch.   Now comes an update for the Obama Era and a renewed criticism of the problems of partisanship, reemphasizing that Republican's are more to blame that Democrats.

It's Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism  Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Basic Books, 2012


When the Conrad-Gregg proposal to deal with the federal debt crisis was introduced Republican leaders were for it. But then cosponsors Mitch McConnell and John McCain turned against it. Why? Because President Obama was for it. “Never before have cosponsors of a major bill conspired to kill their own idea.” Thus do authors Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein introduce us to the desperate situation in D.C.

The authors identify two sources of dysfunction:

1) The parties are now so polarized and “vehemently adversarial” as to resemble parliamentary parties.  In a parliamentary system there are stridently adversarial voices but the majority is not inhibited from enacting its agenda.  But in a constitutional system such as ours, with its separation of powers, the majority is limited. This implies that effective government rests on negotiation and compromise. But parliamentary-style polarization has meant that majority power is now limited in a manner exceeding that envsioned by our founders thanks to uncompromising partisans willing to play politics.  There is a serious mismatch between our constitutional form and its present parliamentary-style content.

2)  The Republican party is “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited and social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise,unpersuaded by conventional  understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Our problem is polarization but not just any polarization—asymmertric polarization. Republicans are more partisan than Democrats.

Part I The Problem

Chapter 1  The New Politics of Hostage Taking

The Republicans treated the 2011 debt limit crisis as a chance to hold Democrats hostage. No tax increases or no new debt limit.  In the past these episodes of brinksmanship never seriously threatened default.  Now for the first time in our history major political figures were openly calling for default.  Republicans were more concerned with political victory than in preserving the full faith and credit of the United States.

An important policy note is that amidst the brinksmanship the Gephardt rule (see this wiki) was no longer operative. In the past both Democrats & Republicans often invoked this rule which stipulated automatic increase in the debt limit with the passage of a budget resolution. In 1995 the newly ascendant House Republicans waived the Gephardt rule. And though they weren’t fully prepared to breach the debt limit they did manage to cause partial government shutdowns.  But in 2011 they didn’t merely waive it, they repealed it. 

The emergence of the Republican “Young Guns” including most notably Eric CantorPaul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy explains this new partisan intenstity.  Importantly, these young guns had risen through the ranks of the establishment, rather than bursting on the scene as upstarts, making it more difficult for Speaker Boehner to resist or dismiss them and thus less able to negotiate with the President and Democratic leaders in a spirit of compromise.

For the authors the entire debt limit episode– culminating in the Standard & Poor downgrade of the US credit rating– crystallized the crisis of current politics. The Republicans’ take no prisoners approach rode roughshow over meaningful debate, problem solving, respect for adversaries. When Majority leader Mitch McConnell  spoke out on the need for avoiding default it was because the Republican brand might be tarnished, not that our economic well-being was being put at risked. Tribalism and party loyalty prevailed over responsible governing.
Chapter 2  The Seeds of Dysfunction

The authors spy the rise of  parliamentary-style polarization in the 1978 House mid-term campaign.  That year the National Conservative political committee (NCPAC) emerged as a major force.  They produced many negative ads notably accusing Sen Dick Clark of Iowa of being a baby killer.  All this was significant as a precedent for what has become common on both sides, “a nationalized highly ideological independent expenditure campaign.”

But the truly significant event of 1978 was the election of Newt Gingrinch to Congress.  Democrats had controlled the House for 24 yrs.  Gingrich came determined to change that.   The core of his strategy  emerged from his reflections on the fact that people tend to love their representative while loathing Congress.  Thus he adopted a strategy of vilifying Congress itself hoping to negate the incumbunt advantage in elections by associating those incumbunts with a corrupt institution.  He publically attacked Democrats and discouraged Republicans from cooperating whether in committee or on the floor. 

He also discouraged his fellow Republicans from moving to DC, advising them to spend as little time possible in the  capitol, thereby burning one of the traditional bridges to bipartisanship.  Mark Sanford and others under Newt’s influence slept in their offices. 

Newt’s strategy of attacking adversaries and delegitimizing Congress undermined public trust. Colleagues became enemies. Confrontation and obstruction became the new norm. He nationalized congressional races thereby helping establish the permanent campaign–meaning electoral politics trumps policy-making. Eventually many of Newt’s allies would make their way to the Senate, infecting this historically restrained branch with tactics of confrontation and obstruction.

It wasn’t all one-sided.  Democrats took Newt’s tactics to a new level with the Bork nomination in 1987. Still Gingrich is the man who set the tone.   

But there are deeper roots than Newt and Co. He and his adveraries were operating in a polarized landscape.   This growing polarization has become the biggest problem in our politics. Today the degree of ideological overlap between the parties is nil.  The most conservative Democrats are more liberal than the most liberal Republicans. The public is also similarly polarized.

Pundits like to attribute the divide to gerrymandering but that’s too simple an explanation according to Mann and Ornstein.  One must consider the weakening Democratic stronghold in the south alongside the rise of the counterculture and the conservative backlash. The culture wars. And not to be overlooked were the many demographic shifts–notably older northern Republicans moving south or the exodus of Republicans from the west as Asians and Hispanics moved in, transforming the nature of the electorate. All this occurred in tandem with a national tendency to ideological sorting.

Increasing polarization meant that by the 90s both parties began to shift resources from their safe districts to the few remaining competetive ones thus involving everyone in the larger effort to claim majority status. Regular order—the rules and norms that had characterized Congress for so long—took a backseat to political maneuvering.  Debates and amendments were constrained, the conference committees that had occurred behind closed doors became almost extinct. The rise in partisanship meant that it became better to tout an issue than a bill. Party-line voting even spilled over onto issues devoid of ideological content.

And then the authors emphasize that the polarization has been asymmetrical.  Our media like to appear fair and typically present both sides as equally guilty of partisanship. But reality is quite different. The Republicans have  purged their moderates and shifted sharply to the right. Geoffrey Kabaservice has documented this transition in his book Rule and Ruin.
Propelled by Grover Norquist,  the Republican’s categorical pledge not to increase taxes is perhaps the best indicator of its ideological bent.  Democrats have become the centrist protectors of status quo government.  Today more than 70% of the Republican electorate identify as conservative or very conservative while only 40% of rank and file democrats call themselves liberal or very liberal.

Then we must consider the explosion of media–internet, blogs, cable tv. All this has fragmented audiences and radically altered media business models.  In the past network news thought of itself as a public trust. We have lost the experience of a common set of facts and information.

The FOX business model—“combative, partisan, sharp-edged”—has proven the most successful. MSNBC is a tamer FOX for the left.  CNN places a hardline liberal opposite a hardline conservative thus reinforcing the view that our sole dialogue is a polarized one.  

Amidst all this the email has enabled a new and improved version of the urban legend, expanding the capacity to spread false information.

Lastly the authors mention the problem of money in politics.  Robert Kaiser in his book So Damn Much money has ably exposed the corrupt lobbying phenomenon.  And the authors “have heard the same story over and over:  a lobbyist meets with a lawmaker to advocate for a client, and before he gets back to the office, the lawmaker calls asking for money.”  

Yet all do not operate in the flamboyant manner of an Abramoff. Newt Gingrich’s groups made $150 million advising businesses and organizations. Gingrich denies lobbying but then the authors wonder what those clients were buying if not influence.

The 1990s saw the rise of soft money (see this wikipedia entry) and almost unrestricted sources of campaign money. The intensity of outside influence grew thanks to a loophole in the regulations that allowed for so-called “issue ads.”

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold Act) regulated soft money until the supreme court began overturning prior decisions including most importantly the Citizens United case.  Now we are in a veritable Wild West.  And it’s now possible to evade disclosure laws. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GPS claims status as a 501(c)4 (nonprofit social welfare organization) but its real purpose is to elect Republicans. Rove created the group so donors might be spared a Rove association. Evasion of disclosure laws is primarily a Republican issue.

Then the D.C. court of appeals issued the SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission decision which offered new ways to overcome campaign contribution limits. Enter Super PACs. So the money is out of control. Candidates spend more time raising money than thinking about policy.

Chapter 3  Beyond The Debt Ceiling Fiasco

Parliamentary-style partisanship and hostage taking have greatly increased since Obama. Republicans are less cooperative than ever.  In an unprecendented move Eric Cantor demanded cuts from other programs before he would consent to funding relief for Hurricane Irene and other disasters even as citizens were suffering.  Then on the issue of subsidies to small airports John Mica proved so intransigent that thousands of workers suffered furloughs and 24,000 construction workers lost their jobs. The episode cost $300 million in lost airfare taxes.

In the Senate hyperpartisanship has meant that holds and filibusters have become political weapons they were never designed to be.   H.R. 3548 which sought to extend unemployment benefits  passed 98-0 but it didn’t fly through the senate in a day or two as one would expect. It took a month because Republicans launched two filibusters during the course of its adoption.

Judicial and Executive appointments instead of taking a few weeks can take half a year. Many of Obama’s various department appointees were held up for months. On Memorial Day 2002 Bush had 13 nominations pending.  On Memorial Day 2010 Obama had 108.

The behavoir goes beyond partisan rivalry intent on scoring political points. Republicans are now effecting a new nullification. They are “blocking nominations even while acknowledging the competence and integrity of the nominees, to prevent the legitimate implementation of laws on the books.“

There was Donald Berwick, Peter Diamond, and Elizabeth Warren.  No matter how qualified the nominee the Republicans obstructed simply to prevent the law they oppose from being carried out.
In America, more than in any other Democracy, policy-making is hampered by our separation of powers, our system of checks & balances. This is why the parliamentary style polarization is so pernicious and destructive. The majority can’t get anything done. 

The Democrats are not blameless but they are more centrist and open to bargaining and compromise. The Republicans are so extreme that effective governance is difficult.  A Republican return to the mainstream would eliminate much of our dysfunction.

Part II What To Do About It

Chapter 4 Bromides to Avoid

There are those who belive that the American system will correct itself.  David R. Mayhew presents this view in his books “Divided We Govern” (2005) and “Partisan Balance: Why Political Parties Don’t Kill the Constitutional System”  Mayhew challenges the notion that there are major differences between the parties or that the majority is prevented from getting anything done. Filibusters aren’t so bad in his reckoning. Things work out. 

But Mann and Ornstein maintain that the first few years of the Obama administration have been game-changing.   Mayhew’s critique would now have to reckon with asymetric polarization, the demise of regular order, a dramatic decline in legislative productivity, plummeting approval ratings of congress and trust in government; and “The hostage taking of the full faith and credit of the United States” along with an unprecedented downgrade of our securities; we’re in a dire economic situation.

Some see our salvation in third parties.  But those who believe that most Americans are centrist and or contemptuous of the the two parties are deluded. In reality 90% of voters identify with either of the parties. So-called independents are closet partisans [see Keith, The Myth of the Independent Voter]. 

Contrary to Thomas Friedman or Matt Miller, there is no real evidence to support the notion that a centrist could attract a serious following.  Besides there are by now too many institutional barriers to third-party viability and any such candidate is merely likely to play spoiler and siphon support from centrist Democrats to the boon of radical Republicans. And to a lesser extent vice versa.

A constitutional amendment to balance the budget is unlikely to help much either. Left open is the question of agreement on the concrete steps to make this a reality.  There is no such hope on the horizon. PAYGO was a workable solution but the Republicans instituted CUTGO in 2011.

Term limits do not seem seem to be the answer. The evidence thus far is damning.  In States where limits have been enacted they have increased  the erosion, inefficiency and unresponsiveness of lawmakers causing them to concentrate on how to use their limited time as springboard to future opportunities.   Thus focused on the short-term, long-term problems are more readily bequeathed to the the next wave of short-term successors. They are generally less beholden to their constituents. (See Kousser: Term limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism (2005), Carey et al, Term Limits in State Legislatures (2000), and Kurtz et al, eds., Institutional Change in American Politics: The Case of Term Limits; Legislating Without Experience (2007).
Lastly, the authors do not consider the full public funding of elections to be a promising reform.  The Supreme Court has returned campaign funding to a state of nature. Lawrence Lessig and others make compelling arguments that reduction in private funding would weaken special interests.  But ideological polarization means ideas trump interests.  Public funding does nothing for our parliamentary mismatch. Getting rid of filibusters would be more helpul than getting rid of private funding.  With the rise of independent spending groups that fund-raise on behalf of their preferred candidate, it would be virtually impossible to control the flow of private money anyway.  Until we get a new FEC and Supreme Court, or until Congress starts seriously regulating money spent in federal elections, the best hope seems to lie in finding ways to encourage small donor fund-rasing.[Lessig is in agreement here]

5 Fixing the Party System

The parties have become internally homogenous. That they are roughly equal in strength raises the intensity of the conflict.  Ideological purity gets support from new media and new activist groups. Extreme partisanship and a permanent campaign have become the rule.  The asymmetric nature of the polarization amplifies the perniciousness of partisanship.

The authors’ first recommendation is to expand the vote.  We might begin by moderninzing our outdated registration system.  In most Democracies the burden of registration is on the state but in the U.S. it is on the voter.  This could be remedied with automatic electronic registration. Additionally government could work with private entities to improve voter lists  to monitor eligibility.  Governement should also work to make voting more convenient—people should have more voting options.  We should institute election day registration (EDR) at the national level.

Efforts to restrict voting must be defeated. Republicans have been interested in restricting voting for partisan purposes.  Congress should pass a new voting rights act that would include enabling IDs to be obtained for free. Congress might also establash a separate federal ballot to avoid confusion on state tickets.

And there’s no reason why we should vote on Tuesday.  A 24hr voting period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday makes better sense.  We should also make attendance at the polls mandatory.  The Australian model would be ideal though the authors evince little hope that we will adopt a similar one.  Even so such a system would moderate partisanship by increasing the need to appeal to the center; at least such has been the case in Australia.

Redistricting reform is another way to alleviate hyperpartisanship.  However Mann and Ornstein are not convinced that an end to gerrymandering would significantly reduce polarization.   Just look at the Senate, which is not subject to districting. But reform might at least contain the infection. [see Thomas E. Mann “Polarizing the House of Representatives: How Much Does Gerrymandering Matter?” in Red and Blue Nation? Volume 1, eds. Nivola & Brady, 2006]. 

Possible reforms include establishing an independent redistricting commission, judicial intervention using the Voting Rights Act,  and finding ways to introduce transparency and get citizens more involved.
Open primaries are another way to repair our polarized party system.  Specifically top-two vote getter (TTVG) primaries might ameliorate hyperpartisanship.   

Relatedly, we could find alternatives to our winner-take-all system which leads to large areas dominated by one party (see Duverger’s Law).  Such alternatives might include instant runoff voting (IRV) or even proportional representation (PR), especially suited for us is the single transferrable vote (STV) with multi-member districts. 

On a cautionary note PR can wind up favoring extremist parties “because they can get a foothold and seats in the legislature and force unnatural conditions in which extreme groups hold the balance of power.”  The authors note that in Israel the minority interest ultrareligious parties have been able to hold the majority hostage.

Funding Campaigns. The authors strongly support laws that mandate disclosure. They support the DISCLOSE Act which was shot down by Senate Republicans including strong supporters of reform such as John McCain and Olympia Snowe in yet another display of asymmetric polarization. Also necessary is the reinforcement of laws keeping independent group funding from the candidates they support. 

The FCC should require that political ads on radio and tv operate under full real-time discloure laws. The SEC should demand all public corporations reveal political contributions. Leadership PACS should be abolished, lobbysists should not be allowed to contribute to any campaign.
The authors favor a system supporting matching funds for small donors at a ration of 4 or 5:1. This would encourage more participation with the citizenry and less fishing for the big donors.
[see the Authors, et al, “Reform in an age of Networked Campaigns”]

Chapter 6 Reforming U.S. Political Institutions.

We have to think big because our problems are big.   The authors want reforms that would correct the mismatch between our constitutional system and our parliamenteray style polarization. Eliminating House midterm elections would reduce dividedness.  The Senate could move to every 4 yrs or 8yrs. The authors acknowledge that there are no easy solutions here. 

Shifting power from Congress to the Executive would also help. Restoring majority rule in the Senate is crucial.

Then we might limit the actions in the Senate that are eligible for filibuster. Further reform should entail allowing only one filibuster per debate;  the minority party should be required to take the floor rather than the burden being on the majority in providing quorum;  delays external to the filibuster should be eliminated;  rules should require a vote on nominations along with time limits for holds.
[See Binder, “What Senators Need to  Know About Filibuster Reform”]

Chapter 7  Navigating the Current System

We need to change the political culture. We can start with a restoration of public shame.  “People like Colin Powell, Robert Gates, Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, George Schultz, and Oprah Winfrey, ideally through some collective effort, should have the goal of recreating in society some sense of shame for distortions, lies, and other efforts to coarsen the culture and discourse.”  Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft should get together and find ways to reduce the falsehoods spread over the web.

We need to re-create a public square ideally with a new source of funding, with a public media model along the lines of The PBS Newshour, Charlie Rose, and Diane Rehm.

We can create a shadow congress in which former legislators across the spectrum convene and engage in robust civil debat (Congress rarely engages in meaningful debate, this could be one way of compensating for this shortcoming).

The ideologically exteme Republicans must be reigned in.  Democrats are not without fault but they stay within bounds.  There is some hope for change from within the Republican party in resposne from criticism from conservative comentators like Ramesh Ponnuru and Steven Hayward who have chastisted Republicans for their ideological rigidity.

The power of the citzenry should be harnassed.   In our present climate a “throw the bums out” mentality will likely only reinforce hyperpartisanship.  We are not a dircect democracy but a Republic and we need leaders and representatives who can shape the debate responsibly, setting the tone for the voter.

Obama wanted to be postpartisan but he ran into a Parliamentary Republican Party intent on obstruction. The best Presidential strategy in such a situation would be to not give in to the opposition and thereby expose their extremism, the President should continually shine a light on their obstruction.  There is then hope that the public will turn on Republicans in the next election in a manner more informed than a 'throwing the bums out' approach.

Traditional media must stop pretending that the partisanship is equal. The public must be properly educated on the meaning and reality of asymmetric polarization.  Politician’s lies or distortions about facts should be emphazised in news stories not buried in back pages. Reporters should reveal when a minority party kills a bill by filibuster and not treat a 60 vote hurdle as customary.  It is of utmost importance that traditional media clarify the differences in the party platforms.

Voters must punish extremism and seek to restore & maintain norms. They must also question the use of filibusters, and beware of centrist candidates as they are most likely to merely play spoiler.

The authors conclude with a nod to a Westminster-style parliamentary system. It enables the majority to put its program in place and when the next election cycle arrives voters have a clear idea of the majority party's successes and failures. Accountability is clearer and cleaner than in our present mismatched politics. 

Still the authors see hope in the patriotism of Americans, their belief in freedom, their flexibility in responding to crises.  And there are signs of hope in the country at large, such as the ability of many of our metropolitan areas to form public-private partnerships to solve problems.  Social movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, despite some unsettling elements, reveal an honest desire to get America back on track.