Over the last four decades, Norman Ornstein has cultivated a reputation in Washington as the go-to guy for journalists in need of astute, clear-eyed congressional analysis.
From his perch at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, Ornstein regularly dispenses quotes and context that have helped legions of reporters, and their readers, better understand the Byzantine world of congressional politics and policy. And for 30 years or so, Ornstein had Congress’s back.
“In the final analysis, I’m a defender of Congress,” Ornstein told the New York Times in the mid-1980s. “If [American founding father] James Madison were here today and looked at Congress, he’d say, ‘This is what we envisioned.’”
Oh, how times have changed. Today, Ornstein churns out blistering critiques of Congress — and especially Republicans — in his role as columnist for the Atlantic and National Journal, as well as in frequent radio and television interviews. Ornstein recently teamed up with Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, to write the 2012 book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” In the tome, the two left-leaning but typically even-handed experts place the blame for Congress’s current abysmal state squarely on the shoulders of Republicans.
Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country,” the authors charged. “The political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats.”
Ornstein and Mann conclude that, “The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.”
The New York Times bestseller was named one of 2012’s best books on politics by the New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
In a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat shortly after the government shutdown ended and Congress finally agreed to raise the debt ceiling so America could pay her bills (for now), Ornstein said the partisanship has effectively sabotaged the nation.
“I’ve never seen our system this dysfunctional in my lifetime and in 44 years of being directly immersed in it in Washington,” Ornstein lamented, his brightly striped socks adding a splash of color to a conservative suit. “This is worse than I’ve ever seen it.”
Hailing from Minnesota, Ornstein earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and his master’s and doctorate from the University of Michigan before landing in Washington. His lifelong fascination with Congress began in the early 1970s, when he arrived in the nation’s capital on a fellowship with the American Political Science Association. He went on to work for several members of Congress and eventually migrated to the American Enterprise Institute, part time in 1974 and then full time in 1980. AEI is solidly conservative and considered fairly “establishment,” but Ornstein said he’s never been scolded by his bosses for espousing left-leaning political sensibilities.
“Nobody here ever says anything to me that is the equivalent of ‘you can’t write or say that,’” Ornstein told us, adding that he has “nice and congenial relations” with his colleagues, although they sometimes write rejoinders to op-ed pieces he publishes around town.
“That’s fine — that’s the way it’s supposed to work,” he said. “I’m still happy here even if I know I give a lot of heartburn to some of the powers that be.”
Ornstein (not known as a political bomb-thrower) asserted that the most recent congressional crisis — a 16-day partial government shutdown in early October, coupled with a near default on the nation’s credit — was almost entirely the Republicans’ fault. The seeds for the current congressional gridlock were planted when President Obama was sworn into office in 2009, he said, and the time-honored tradition of compromise went out the window.
“Republicans decided at that point that they were going to unify and vote against anything Obama wanted to do, even if they agreed with him,” Ornstein asserted. “You saw it right away with [GOP opposition to] the economic stimulus package.”
Ornstein said that at the height of the banking and foreclosure crisis, Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who was then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, into his office. Obey asked Lewis what Republicans wanted to see — or not see — in a stimulus package.
“Obey said, ‘The economy is on its back. Go work with your leaders and rank-and-file members and ask what they want or don’t want,’” according to Ornstein.
Lewis replied that House Republican leaders had instructed him to resist any deal on a stimulus package.
“You have smoking guns here that are very clear,” Ornstein said, adding that the GOP’s refusal to negotiate in good faith extended to the crafting of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. “It turned into a desire to use Obamacare as a sort of catch-all to channel a hatred of Obama and disaffections with what’s going on.”
(Ornstein blames the administration for the rocky rollout of Obamacare, although he also points out that the law — with its individual mandate and private insurance exchanges — is fundamentally a conservative plan.)
Ornstein said Republicans devised new ways to thwart Obama’s agenda, including an unrelenting wave of filibusters and, most recently, ransoming the debt ceiling to extract social spending cuts and a flurry of other demands.
“They were using this in ways they had not been used before, [as] real hostages, not as levers where you are negotiating and where in the end you’re not going to play games with the full faith and credit of the United States,” Ornstein said. “But you had one side saying, ‘Oh, yes we will.’”
The political scholar ditches academic niceties to blast Republicans for embracing tactics that he said would’ve been unthinkable not that long ago.
“The idea of threatening default in a real way — demanding outlandish concessions with a loaded gun to the country’s head — only emerged in 2011,” Ornstein argued in a recent National Journal piece, in which he said that any concessions by Obama on the debt ceiling or continuing resolution would ensure that basic government functions would “become regular instruments of extortion in the future.”
Ornstein says Democrats — widely viewed as having won this last round of brinkmanship for not caving into GOP demands to defund Obamacare — have actually capitulated a great deal, in particular by agreeing to trillions of dollars in spending cuts that he says are disastrous for America’s long-term economic health.
Beyond the downgrade in credit and reputation that America has suffered over the debt ceiling and government funding fights, Ornstein says the effects of the sequester budget cuts (which, he points out, were deemed so harmful that no one ever thought they’d go into effect) are far more insidious. “The FBI has had to reduce its focus on white-collar and organized crime to deal with the higher, immediate priority of cybersecurity. The food-inspection infrastructure has been hit, reducing the number of inspectors in the U.S. and in foreign plants that ship food to the United States,” he wrote in an Oct. 16 column. “Basic research, as I have written before, is taking devastating hits…. Some of the damage will never be repaired. And the nation’s economy will grow more slowly, adding to our deficits and debt.”
That epic battle over deficits and debt has given rise to what Ornstein bluntly calls zealots and ideologues.
“No matter what the damage is in the short run, [Republicans] unleashed a set of forces that pragmatism couldn’t control,” Ornstein said of about 80 tea party and ultra-conservative Republican House members that spearheaded the most recent funding showdown. “The radical fringe of the party has become the driver.”
The tea party, a fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party, obviously doesn’t see it that way. Many argued fiercely that raising the debt limit should not happen unless there was a corresponding reduction in federal spending.
“In a sane Washington, hitting the debt ceiling over and over would cause a change in behavior on spending,” said a statement on the Tea Party Patriots’s website as the government shutdown came to a close in mid-October. “However, that takes political courage, and as we’ve seen in recent months, bravery in Congress is an endangered species.”
Ornstein, though, levels similar charges against mainstream conservatives for bowing to “radicals” who aren’t interested in limiting government, but are out to demolish it altogether.
On that front, he says House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is in a particularly difficult position. Ornstein said Boehner’s instinct is to cut pragmatic deals to avert fiscal crises, but he faces mutiny by a sizeable minority within his caucus. The elimination of earmarks a few years back also prevents Boehner from enticing wayward members with pork barrel projects in their home districts.
“Boehner has a relatively small majority, 231 to 200, but in effect he has about 80 members who distrust their own leadership,” he said, calling Boehner’s leadership “passive-aggressive.”
Ornstein said the speaker can’t force his troops to chart a moderate course with him, so he has to work with Democrats to get anything passed through the chamber at all — something he’s been reluctant to do because it weakens him in the eyes of his own party (and breaks the informal Hastert rule, whereby the House speaker won’t introduce legislation that doesn’t have the backing of the majority of the Republican Party). The result is that the House has increasingly become the place where legislation goes to die.
“There are only so many times you can bring up bills where you lose the vast majority of your own party and are passing them on the back of the other party,” Ornstein noted.
He said Boehner will typically let the House’s far right flank make noise and obstruct, and then he occasionally — at the last minute in the case of the recent debt ceiling debacle — makes a deal with Democrats. In this case, tea party Republicans in the House gave the speaker a pass.
“It’s a weird dynamic. It keeps him in power and keeps his own party from wanting to tar and feather him and ride him out on a rail, but it also costs the country $23 billion in the process,” Ornstein said, referring to the estimated losses that the 16-day government shutdown cost the national economy.
Despite House Republicans’ general ineffectiveness — and they’re getting hammered in national approval polls — Ornstein said Boehner is likely to hold onto his leadership post, at least until the 2014 midterm elections.
But that doesn’t mean the tea party wing will particularly care if the speaker continues to stumble politically.
“They get elected individually so the speaker’s endorsement [of their re-election campaigns] or lack of it will make no difference to them. They are far more worried about a challenge from the right,” Ornstein pointed out.
On that note, he criticizes the redistricting that has created “homogeneous echo chambers” and made House Republicans immune to larger political trends and public opinion. Rather, their main concern is losing their jobs to a more hard-line candidate in a primary challenge.
He also decries the flood of outside money from groups such as Heritage Action and the Koch brothers to cleanse the party of moderates, fueling a toxic environment where some Republicans are only interested in attacking the administration on anything from Benghazi to Obamacare, rather than working with it to break the legislative standstill.
In addition to genuine GOP antipathy toward Obama, Ornstein cited the party’s aversion to taxes as the root of current government dysfunction. Since 1986, Americans for Tax Reform, a taxpayer advocacy group led by Grover Norquist, has convinced a large swath of Republicans in Congress to oppose any new taxes, under any circumstances. (In 2011, all of the Republican presidential hopefuls famously said they would reject a deficit deal that gave them $10 worth of tax cuts in return for $1 in tax increases.)
In the 112th Congress of 2011 and 2012, all but six of the 242 Republican members plus two Democrats in the House of Representatives — a majority of that body — signed Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. All but seven of 47 Senate Republicans, plus one Democrat, also signed the pledge.
“The key to any agreement that would have really moved us much further along to getting the economy revitalized and stabilizing the debt at a reasonable level was blocked by a rigid pledge that basically paralyzed the possibility of compromise,” Ornstein argues.
He told us that some modest “revenue” — tax increases, user fees or closing international banking loopholes — would have helped stabilize the American economy more quickly after the economic crash of 2008.
“It’s become almost religious among the activist rank and file,” Ornstein said of the Republican anti-tax mantra. “You also have the [conservative, anti-tax] Club for Growth ready to pounce and primary anybody with a lot of money who decided to support anything defined as a tax increase. It’s this mania — no taxes at any time, no matter what, whether you’re in good times or bad times.”
Ornstein suggested that this intransigence missed a prime opportunity to turn the recent bad times around.
“The great frustration for me is that we were not far away, in 2009 to 2011, from recovering dramatically from this economic malaise,” he said. “A little bit of movement on revenues also would have stabilized to some degree the big programs — Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — that are going to be the drivers of government growth for several years simply because we’re growing older and living longer.”
Ornstein said that if the U.S. government had added some tax revenue “and put some money into infrastructure and getting the economy moving in the short run, we would have seen the economy take off.”
He also suggested it could have helped pull other countries out of their economic doldrums.
“Corporations had almost $2 trillion in cash they were holding onto and not investing out of uncertainty,” he said. “It would have had a sort of upward spiral effect. It also would have had a dramatic impact on the global economy. It was only political dysfunction that kept us from doing that.”
Despite his dismay at the polarization and paralysis of today’s Congress, Ornstein said the United States is actually faring pretty well compared to other top-tier economies.
“We’re doing better than European countries, including Britain,” he said. “We’re finding that even some command-and-control economies like China are struggling now. We’re at least getting some growth even if it is sluggish growth.
“European countries that have doubled and tripled down on austerity have discovered that it doesn’t work, but they keep doing it,” Ornstein said, adding that government gridlock is not endemic only to the United States. “Divided government is becoming sort of the norm around the world in Western countries.”
Nevertheless, the world is increasingly worried about America’s broken Congress.
“From what I can see, including my own discussions with ambassadors around town, it matters,” he said. “They understand this isn’t just politics as usual.”
And it’s not just amusing political theater to them, either.
“They’re worried for a number of reasons — our allies, particularly, but other countries are as well,” Ornstein said. “If you’re looking realistically at who is going to be a force in the world, no one is going to fill that vacuum if the United States leaves it. That’s not a good thing for stability, freedom, democracy and all kinds of other values.
“They also recognize that given the size of the American economy, if we keep doing things out of political dysfunction that hampers growth and adds to our own unemployment and our known economic inequality, it’s going to be bad for the rest of the world,” Ornstein added. “We now live in an interconnected global economy, so you can’t root for other countries to crater because it will bring you down as well.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.