Mann and Ornstein: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, photo by Kevin Featherly

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, photo by Kevin Featherly

I attended a presentation Monday by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, the authors of a crucial new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” The book is a much-needed critical appraisal of the state of the U.S. Congress by two very cool Washington heads.

Mann and Ornstein, uncharacteristically given their long standing as even-handed congressional critics and contributors, have come down hard on Republicans in this book, saying that unprecedented GOP obstructionism has pushed the body politic into a critically diseased state. Very much contrary to the Constitution that Republicans are so fond of pledging to uphold, the U.S. Senate–as a result of the constant threat of filibuster–has become a body that no longer works on the principle of majority rule. It now takes 60 of 100 votes in the Senate to overcome a threatened filibuster so that matters can come to a floor vote. Which essentially means that nothing of consequence—the big decisions are the hard ones, after all–ever gets done.

That development, coupled with a win-at-all-costs mentality that gives the destruction of the Obama presidency primacy above all other goals, has the United States in a precarious position. Last year’s showdown over the debt ceiling is likely to play out again with even greater negative force in December, Mann and Ornstein predict. And that, at a point where the financial fiasco in Europe is already threatening to slide the world economy to even greater depths. That kind of “political hostage taking,” Mann and Ornstein suggest, would be near-suicidal.

The Congress, they write in their book, is on the brink of “institutional collapse.” For example, the 2011 debt ceiling showdown was not just “a fandango dance” where the outcome was predetermined–traditional politics, that is to say. In that highly illustrative case, congressional GOP leadership did not know whether they had the votes to push a debt ceiling deal through in advance, so that they could allow the controversy to play itself out symbolically, as it has many times over the years. This time, leaders lost control and the situation was staved off only through a badly contrived deal that delays resolution until after the 2012 elections.

As they write in their book:

“The Republican leaders did not have the votes to pull out just in time, nor were they playing the usual political games to gain more traction on the argument for greater fealty to fiscal discipline. For the first time, major political figures, including top congressional leaders and serious presidential candidates, openly called for default or demanded dramatic and unilateral policy changes in return for preserving the full faith and credit of the United States. For some members, including but not limited to Tea Party freshmen, the real threat of Armageddon was a way of spurning ‘politics as usual,’ of showing that they would operate outside the old-boy network of standard Washington practice.

For Republican leaders, the hope was that the genuine threat of breaching the debt limit would force the president to cave, giving them both a substantive and, more importantly, a political victory over a weak president forced to bend to their will.”

Never before has a party in Congress behaved so irresponsibly, Mann and Ornstein said Monday. And Mann and Ornstein both predict worse behavior at the end of this year.

That’s all in the book, and those subjects took up most of the talk. The most notable new nugget I gleaned from the talk Monday was a prediction from Mann. He suggests the Republicans are likely to take over majorities in both houses of Congress and win the presidency. But even if it happens, he predicts a backlash election in the 2014 midterms, after voters who thought they were electing Republicans to clean up the mess in Washington discover what it is GOP politicians really want to achieve. (What that might be, he didn’t detail, though he did say the first order of business for a Republican majority would be to enact Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s austerity budget program, which liberal NYT economist Paul Krugman calls “a fraud.”)

That will result in a big Democratic win in the 2014 mid-terms, he suggests. But will that, then, be the point at which the national problems—entitlement reforms, decaying infrastructure, fading academic standing worldwide–finally begin to get fixed?

Don’t bet on it, Mann says. That will simply be the dawn of a new age of hyper-obstructionism.

“Then,” he says, “we wind up right back where we started.”

For an interesting discussion with Mann and Ornstein, check out this “Morning Joe” interview, where they get into an animated exchange with the former Republican congressman turned talk show host Joe Scarborough.


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