Yes, Congress is that bad
America's unprecedented political paralysis is undermining the country at home and abroad.

White House/Chuck Kennedy

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2012.

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    It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism
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Article Highlights

  • The American political system was not designed by its framers to look pretty or smooth.

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  • Americans are disgusted by much of what they see in Washington. Congress is deadlocked and the 2 parties are polarized.

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  • The Democratic and Republican parties have been moving ideologically apart since the 1970s, but it has accelerated.

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The two of us have each been immersed in Washington politics and policymaking for more than 43 years -- and we have never seen them this dysfunctional. Our concern about the direction of America's political system motivated us to write a blunt new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. The title was deliberate: The American political system was not designed by its framers to look pretty or smooth. It was designed to be, and usually is, slow-moving, fractious, and at times maddening. The old saw that one should never look at sausages, or laws, being made applies fully to the United States. We have lived through many of the most contentious periods in U.S. congressional history, including the divisions over the Vietnam War and the presidential impeachment hearings of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But this is worse.

Americans are disgusted by much of what they see in Washington. Congress is deadlocked, and the two major political parties are ideologically polarized and engaged in a permanent state of war. Problem-solving and compromise have given way to pitched doctrinal battles and obstruction at any cost. Even the perilous state of the economy has been insufficient to break the political stalemate. As the public loses faith in the government's capacity to solve pressing problems, the U.S. Congress garners the lowest approval ratings in polling history -- a dismal 10 percent this past summer.

What has gone wrong? Two sources of dysfunction are central to the current impasse:

The first is a mismatch between the checks and balances built into the U.S. system and the extreme polarization now separating the two major political parties. By constitutional design, U.S. policymaking moves slowly; the president cannot dictate what happens in Congress, and legislators use separate procedures in the House and Senate that then must be reconciled to write law. In the past, eventual compromise was the standard outcome, at least when some legislators worked across party lines. Not anymore.

The Democratic and Republican parties have been moving apart ideologically since the 1970s, but in the past 10 years this has dramatically accelerated. For the first time in the more than three decades since National Journal began compiling vote ratings for the U.S. Senate, the tallies for the last Congress showed that there was not a single Democrat more conservative than the most liberal Republican; the center, in other words, cannot hold -- because it has disappeared. Instead, American parties now resemble parliamentary parties: Party leaders crack the whip, and fewer members are willing to flout orders and compromise. The result: gridlock.

The second major dysfunction has to do with the asymmetry of this polarization. The Republican Party has become the home of ideologically extreme insurgents who shun conventionally understood facts, evidence, and science, and scorn the very idea of working out compromises with a legitimate political opposition. This radicalized GOP is now willing to use all the levers in the constitutional system even if it means delay and deadlock.

In a parliamentary system, a fiercely oppositional minority party is to be expected. In the American system, it cannot work. With the Republicans deciding to use the filibuster in the Senate as a routine tool of obstruction (they have resorted to the filibuster with a frequency in the last three years unprecedented in U.S. history), passing legislation now in effect requires not a majority but 60 votes out of 100. What's more, any legislation that manages to pass under those conditions, taken without broad bipartisan consensus, divides the country and is seen by many as illegitimate or ill-advised. That is the story of Barack Obama's first two years in office. Democrats, who were in charge of both the House and Senate, pushed through a wide range of measures from health-care reform to economic stimulus to financial regulation, but the minority made a concerted effort to delegitimize them.

What came after was even worse: The 2010 midterm elections produced a divided-party government, genuine gridlock, and the least productive Congress in memory. This year saw the enactment of only 83 laws, a quarter of them naming post offices or making other symbolic acts. Of course, quality is more important than quantity (whatever else the famous "do-nothing" 80th Congress did, it passed the Marshall Plan). In the case of this 112th Congress, however, the quality is as abysmal as the quantity; the most significant public-policy action was the debacle surrounding the debt ceiling, which resulted in the first credit-rating downgrade in America's history. Now, following that reckless hostage-taking of what should have been a standard legislative act, a totally unnecessary "fiscal cliff" looms, threatening another recession. The problems here are not redeemable with quick fixes because the divisions are tribal and the problems are as much cultural as structural.

This lethal combination of forces has serious implications not just for America's ability to solve its problems; it also poisons America's standing in the world -- its ability to project its values abroad, garner the trust and respect of allies, and serve as a role model for nascent democracies and a counterpoint to autocracies.

Thomas Mann, a 2012 FP Global Thinker, is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Norman Ornstein, a 2012 FP Global Thinker, is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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