It's Even Worse Than It Looks

How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism


By Thomas E. Mann

By Norman J. Ornstein

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Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process. Congress is deadlocked and its approval ratings are at record lows. America’s two main political parties have given up their traditions of compromise, endangering our very system of constitutional democracy. And one of these parties has taken on the role of insurgent outlier; the Republicans have become ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime.In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein identify two overriding problems that have led Congress — and the United States — to the brink of institutional collapse. The first is the serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Second, while both parties participate in tribal warfare, both sides are not equally culpable. The political system faces what the authors call &”asymmetric polarization,” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.With dysfunction rooted in long-term political trends, a coarsened political culture and a new partisan media, the authors conclude that there is no &”silver bullet”; reform that can solve everything. But they offer a panoply of useful ideas and reforms, endorsing some solutions, like greater public participation and institutional restructuring of the House and Senate, while debunking others, like independent or third-party candidates. Above all, they call on the media as well as the public at large to focus on the true causes of dysfunction rather than just throwing the bums out every election cycle. Until voters learn to act strategically to reward problem solving and punish obstruction, American democracy will remain in serious danger.


Preface to the Paperback Edition

This book is different from any the two of us have done before. We originally wrote it because of our growing dismay about the state of the American constitutional system—and our mutual belief that in the forty-three years each of us has spent immersed in American politics in Washington, we had never seen things so out of kilter. The official publication date of the hardcover and electronic versions of this book was May 1, 2012. We wrote the manuscript under a very tight deadline to capture the destructive dynamic of the 112th Congress and of America’s broader political dysfunction in time for a full airing during the 2012 campaign. We hoped our analysis of America’s increasingly polarized politics would find its way in a timely fashion to a broad audience, but never did we imagine the response that followed.

The key was a two-thousand-word essay drawn from the book that was solicited by Carlos Lozada, editor of the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section. Lozada penned a provocative headline—“Let’s Just Say It. The Republicans Are the Problem.”—and posted the article on the Post website April 27. Within twenty-four hours of going live, a thousand comments were received; the Post hit its maximum count of five thousand comments not long after. Over the next few days, the article went viral, eventually receiving over 263,000 Facebook likes and 4,400 tweets. It was the most-viewed opinion piece on the Post website for all of 2012. The Outlook article, reinforced by scores of interviews, stories, and reviews on national and local broadcast, print, news, and online media, brought the book to the attention of many potential readers (even viewers of The Daily Show) and helped it earn eight appearances on the New York Times bestseller lists from May through November.

It was clear that we had touched a nerve, and two arguments in the book in particular seemed to draw the most intense response. The first was our assertion that the partisan polarization at the root of our governing problems is asymmetric; that the two parties are not equally to blame. We offered strong evidence that in recent years the Republican Party had become extreme in terms of both policy and process. The most quoted line from the book is taken from the Introduction: “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited 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.”

Coming from a liberal columnist or blogger, those words would have been unremarkable. But as political scientists working in Washington for over four decades, we had earned reputations as straight shooters who don’t traffic in partisan or ideological spin and who have worked comfortably with Democrats and Republicans alike in trying to improve the institutional workings of Congress. Many other nonpartisan analysts shared our views but were reluctant to go public, because it seemed to violate professional norms or make them vulnerable to charges of partisan bias, or they thought it would make bipartisan agreement even more difficult.

It was not easy for us to be so blunt, given our long-standing relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But what was striking to us was the tempered reaction of Republicans. To be sure, a number of critical op-eds, reviews, and blogs were penned by Republicans and appeared in mostly conservative outlets. But these were drowned out by favorable commentary in the press and blogosphere. To the best of our knowledge, not a single Republican member of Congress made any public reference to the Post article or book until late August when, after listening to Majority Leader Harry Reid quote a passage from the book for the third time on the Senate floor, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell exploded with a colorful dismissal of those “ultraliberals” Mann and Ornstein. Not surprisingly, we were invited to present findings to the Senate and House Democratic caucuses but not to their Republican counterparts. But scores of self-identified Republicans e-mailed us with generous words of agreement and thanks, and dozens of former Republican elected officials privately embraced our analysis.

We also stirred a hornet’s nest by taking on the mainstream media for failing to do its job of reporting the news in a straightforward fashion, even if that meant in an “unbalanced” way. Our discussion of partisan and ideological talk radio, cable news, websites, and blogs was not particularly controversial. There is widespread recognition of the return of a nineteenth-century-style partisan press, which attracts and reinforces relatively homogeneous audiences with extreme views. These outlets have surely contributed to partisan polarization. Instead, many in the traditional media—commercial (and even sometimes public) broadcasting and national and regional newspapers—took issue with our criticism of their even-handed treatment of the decidedly uneven behavior of the two major parties. Just as in the case of our treatment of the extreme attitudes and behavior of Republicans, we were far from the first to point out the pattern of false equivalence that characterizes much news reporting. James Fallows of The Atlantic has had a “false equivalency watch” for years, and a number of his colleagues in columns and blogs have contributed a stream of examples of the press giving balanced treatment to clearly true and false assertions by advocates. But as two scholars on whom reporters have relied for years for objective analysis and commentary, we had some advantage in elevating this critique and specifically linking it to the inability of the public to understand a major source of our dysfunctional government.

We were told this part of our book was discussed in a number of newsrooms and provided ammunition to journalists often frustrated by the insistence of producers and editors that they give precedence to fairness and balance over reality and truth. We were afforded many media platforms to discuss this argument, though not on the high-profile Sunday news shows, which have fully internalized the format of competing spin between opposing politicians and pundits. For several months, the ombudsmen or public editors of major media outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times avoided any mention of the problem or our critique, despite its obvious importance and controversy in journalism; finally, after a tough piece by journalist Dan Froomkin quoting us at length, the public editor of the New York Times wrote an excellent blog post on media false balance, but not a column in the newspaper itself.

The publication of this paperback edition of the book gives us an opportunity to update the narrative through the 2012 election, the lame-duck session of the 112th Congress, and the beginning of President Obama’s second term. In theory, the sweeping election victory of President Obama, the Democrats’ stunning and unexpected gain of two seats in the Senate in a year when they were widely expected to lose several seats, and the Democrats’ ability to win a majority of the popular votes for the House, even if they did not recapture the majority, should have changed to some degree Washington’s political and policy dynamic. In the Afterword for this paperback edition, we examine more closely whether much if anything did change. The Afterword gives us a preliminary chance to assess early signs of the accuracy of our analysis, the durability of the forces weakening America’s capacity to govern, and prospects for improvement. Readers of this edition, with the benefit of extra weeks, months, or years of additional experience as the post-2012 election policy and political processes play out, can make their own assessments.


On January 26, 2010, the Senate voted on a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force with teeth, a fast-track procedure to bring a sweeping plan to solve the U.S.’s debt problem straight to the floor for an up-or-down vote. The resolution was coauthored by Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and had substantial bipartisan support, including from Republican leaders like John McCain and Mitch McConnell. The latter did not cosponsor the resolution but had said eight months earlier on the Senate floor:

We must address the issue of entitlement spending now before it is too late. As I have said many times before, the best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal, which would provide an expedited pathway for fixing these profound long-term challenges. This plan would force us to get debt and spending under control. It deserves support from both sides of the aisle. The administration has expressed a desire to take up entitlement reform, and given the debt that its budget would run up, the need for reform has never been greater. So I urge the administration, once again, to support the Conrad-Gregg proposal. This proposal is our best hope for addressing the out-of-control spending and debt levels that are threatening our nation’s fiscal future.1

But on January 26, the Senate blocked the resolution. Fifty-three senators supported it, but it could not garner the sixty votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Among those who voted to sustain the filibuster and kill the resolution were Mitch McConnell and John McCain. McCain was joined in opposition by six other original cosponsors, all Republicans. Never before have cosponsors of a major bill conspired to kill their own idea, in an almost Alice-in-Wonderland fashion. Why did they do so? Because President Barack Obama was for it, and its passage might gain him political credit.

Fred Hiatt, the opinion editor of the Washington Post, wrote of McConnell’s change of position, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved. But here’s one that comes close.”2


Six years ago, we wrote The Broken Branch, which sharply criticized the Congress for failing to live up to its responsibilities as the first branch of government. Based on four decades of watching Congress, ours was a sympathetic perspective, one that reflected our appreciation of the inherent messiness of the legislative process within the constitutional system. Reconciling diverse interests and beliefs in America’s extended republic necessarily involves adversarial debates and difficult negotiations.

But there was no denying the impact of broad changes in America’s wider political environment—most importantly the ideological polarization of the political parties—on how Congress went about its work. We documented the demise of regular order, as Congress bent rules to marginalize committees and deny the minority party in the House opportunities to offer amendments on the floor; the decline of genuine deliberation in the lawmaking process on such important matters as budgets and decisions to go to war; the manifestations of extreme partisanship; the culture of corruption; the loss of institutional patriotism among members; and the weakening of the checks-and-balances system.

While we observed some improvement after the Democrats regained control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the most problematic features of the system remained. We thought them unlikely to abate absent a major national crisis that inspired the American public to demand that the warring parties work together. America got the crisis—the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression—and a pretty clear signal from the voters, who elected Barack Obama by a comfortable margin and gave the Democrats substantial gains in the House and Senate. What the country didn’t get was any semblance of a well-functioning democracy. President Obama’s postpartisan pitch fell flat, and the Tea Party movement pulled the GOP further to its ideological pole. Republicans greeted the new president with a unified strategy of opposing, obstructing, discrediting, and nullifying every one of his important initiatives. Obama reaped an impressive legislative harvest in his first two years but without any Republican engagement or support and with no apparent appreciation from the public. The anemic economic recovery and the pain of joblessness and underwater home mortgages led not to any signal that the representatives ought to pull together, but rather to yet another call by voters to “throw the bums out.” The Democrats’ devastating setback in the 2010 midterm elections, in which they lost six Senate seats and sixty-three in the House, produced a Republican majority in the House dominated by right-wing insurgents determined to radically reduce the size and role of government. What followed was an appalling spectacle of hostage taking—most importantly, the debt ceiling crisis—that threatened a government shutdown and public default, led to a downgrading of the country’s credit, and blocked constructive action to nurture an economic recovery or deal with looming problems of deficits and debt.

In October 2011, Congress garnered its lowest approval rating (9 percent) in polling history. Public trust in the government’s capacity to solve the serious problems facing the country also hit record lows. Almost all Americans felt their country was on the wrong track and were pessimistic about the future. The public viewed both parties negatively, and President Obama’s job approval rating was mired in the forties. The widespread consensus was that politics and governance were utterly dysfunctional. In spite of the perilous state of the global economy—and with it the threat of another financial crisis and recession—no one expected the president and Congress to accomplish anything of consequence before the 2012 election.3

Paradoxically, the public’s undifferentiated disgust with Congress, Washington, and “the government” in general is part of the problem, not the basis of a solution. In never-ending efforts to defeat incumbent officeholders in hard times, the public is perpetuating the source of its discontent, electing a new group of people who are even less inclined to or capable of crafting compromise or solutions to pressing problems. We have been struck by the failure of the media, including editors, reporters, and many “expert” commentators, to capture the real drivers of these disturbing developments, and the futility of efforts by many nonpartisan and bipartisan groups to counter, much less overcome, them. We write this book to try to clarify the source of dysfunctional politics and what it will take to change it. The stakes involved in choosing who will lead us in the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court in the years ahead are unusually high, given both the gravity of the problems and the sharper polarization of the parties.

In the pages that follow, we identify two overriding sources of dysfunction. The first is the serious mismatch between the political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution. Sixty years ago, Austin Ranney, an eminent political scientist, wrote a prophetic dissent to a famous report by an American Political Science Association committee entitled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.”4 The report, by prominent political scientists frustrated with the role of conservative Southern Democrats in blocking civil rights and other social policy, issued a clarion call for more ideologically coherent, internally unified, and adversarial parties in the fashion of a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy like Britain or Canada. Ranney powerfully argued that such parties would be a disaster within the American constitutional system, given our separation of powers, separately elected institutions, and constraints on majority rule that favor cross-party coalitions and compromise. Time has proven Ranney dead right—we now have the kinds of parties the report desired, and it is disastrous.

The second is the fact that, however awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited 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. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.

Recognizing these two realities and understanding how America got here is key to taking the right steps to overcome dysfunctional politics.


The Problem


The New Politics of Hostage Taking

The story we recount in our introduction, when seven original cosponsors of a tough Senate resolution to create a deficit-reduction panel voted against the plan in January 2010, solely because President Barack Obama, a Democrat, had endorsed it, underscores how out of whack American politics and policy making have become. But the debt limit crisis eighteen months later—in which Republican party leaders cynically decided to hold hostage America’s full faith and credit in a reckless game of chicken with the president—moved the dysfunction gauge sharply into the danger zone.

The debt limit crisis of 2011 inspired as much coverage as any political story of the year, but we believe we need to revisit it, from its genesis on, to understand its future implications. The crisis underscored for many Americans the utter dysfunction in our politics and the disdain of our elected officials for finding solutions to big problems. To be sure, prolonged and contentious negotiations over important policies are not new, and the endgames usually go right up to the deadlines, and occasionally beyond. But these negotiations were so prolonged and contentious, and involved so many threats by top leaders that they would, according to Jason Chaffetz of Utah, “have taken it [the debt limit and America’s credit] down” unless the Republicans’ inflexible demands were met. The final deal to raise the ceiling left a clear impression that the next time might well be worse.

Watching the debt limit debacle unfold led us to our title for this book: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. As bad as the atmospherics were, the new and enhanced politics of hostage taking, of putting political expedience above the national interest and tribal hubris above cooperative problem solving, suggested something more dangerous, especially at a time of profound economic peril.

The short-term consequences of the standoff were serious, as Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history, noting that “[t]he political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policy making becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.”1 Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in as well, with unusually pointed criticism of Congress: “The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well.”2 Voters were, if anything, even angrier; a New York Times survey completed after the votes showed the highest disapproval levels for Congress since it began recording them, at 82 percent, with Republicans suffering voters’ unhappiness more than Democrats.3


The debt limit is a vestigial organ created in 1917 to facilitate Congress’s ability to raise money on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. Until then, Congress had to appropriate money through short-term debt instruments, like Treasury bills. So a device to enable Congress to issue longer-term debt instruments, even for specific appropriations, both lowered interest costs and made the borrowing easier for the Treasury Department. The process was altered to pull all spending requirements together and create a single, overall debt limit in 1939.

There are other ways to deal with the problem of raising money besides nineteenth-century methods, including the passage of a budget (something which Congress did not do until after enactment of the 1973 Budget and Impoundment Control Act). Since the debt limit simply accommodates debt that has already been incurred, raising it should, in theory, be perfunctory. But politicians have found it a useful shibboleth for showing their fealty to fiscal discipline, even as they vote to ratify the debts their previous actions have obligated the country to pay. The symbol of railing against debt has proven politically beneficial, even if not substantively meaningful.

Congressional efforts to raise the debt limit are not rare events. Between 1960 and August 2011, Congress had done so seventy-eight times, forty-nine times with Republican presidents and twenty-nine with Democrats in the White House.4 Many efforts to raise the debt limit were contentious, and not a few pushed the issue to the brink, going right up to the date at which the Treasury Department declared that default would occur absent congressional action. Indeed, in 2002, Congress pushed well past the point at which the Treasury said the formal debt limit would be breached and after it had exhausted most of the informal measures, such as borrowing temporarily from federal retirement accounts. With the prospects of default looming, the House passed an increase in the debt limit by a single vote.

Most votes on the debt limit, including the one in 2002, were partisan. Lawmakers’ votes could be predicted best by looking at whether they shared party identification with the incumbent president. Most votes involved overheated rhetoric, either in the service of fiscal discipline or in the dire consequences of denigrating the full faith and credit of the United States. Notably, many on both sides of the aisle had a history of voting for and/or arguing both sides of the issue at different times, including leaders like Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, and, yes, then Senator Barack Obama (who voted against raising the debt limit when George W. Bush was president). Many of the votes involved razor-thin margins. On several occasions, most recently in 1977, the eleventh-hour votes did not leave enough time to finish the formalities of enacting bills into law, resulting in a technical default (i.e., no legal authority for the government to pay its bills) for a matter of hours. But, as evidence of the underlying danger of the issue, this modest technical default—no bills went unpaid—actually resulted in a rise in interest rates because it led to questions about America’s reliability in its promises to lenders.

Pyrotechnics and symbols aside, on every occasion on which the government needed to raise the debt ceiling, the key actors in Washington, including presidents and congressional leaders, knew that almost nobody—until now—had any intention of precipitating a default. Leaders of the president’s party told us privately on the eve of more than one ostensibly nail-biting vote, including in 2002, that they knew in advance that their counterpart’s members, along with some of their own antsy colleagues, were willing to switch if it looked as if the debt limit vote might actually fail with the deadline looming. Until 2011, both parties tacitly accepted the hypocritical political posturing that always accompanies the debt limit discussion, even as it brought heartburn to the president and his congressional leaders, who would have preferred not to rely on the private promises of reluctant lawmakers afraid of attack ads hitting them for fiscal profligacy. And until 2011, when Republicans insisted that the president and Democrats cave in to their demands on sweeping spending cuts (and no tax increases), no debt limit increase had any preconditions attached.

Frustrated by the drama accompanying debt limit votes, both Republican and Democratic leaders frequently invoked the so-called Gephardt Rule (named after its author, former Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri), which, starting in 1980, automatically increased the debt limit with passage of a budget resolution that itself set spending and taxing levels.

When the Republicans took the House in 1995, they waived the Gephardt Rule, setting up a confrontation with President Bill Clinton, but they blinked when it came to breaching the debt limit and instead sought to use the threat to shut down the government to reduce spending. (The result was two partial government shutdowns and a huge backlash against the Republicans.) In 2011, after retaking the House, Republicans did more than waive the Gephardt Rule. They repealed it, setting up a new and more serious confrontation.

We know now that the result of the 2011 debt limit fandango was by no means preordained. The Republican Party leaders did not have guaranteed 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 they would operate outside the old-boy network of standard Washington practices. 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. They were joined by major outside opinion leaders like hedge fund manager Stan Druckenmiller, a staunch conservative, who told the Wall Street Journal that he had no fear of a default—that he was more uneasy about a deal between the parties that would compromise his ideology.5

The Young Guns


On Sale
Apr 5, 2016
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Thomas E. Mann

About the Author

Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He is a former executive director of the American Political Science Association. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Norman J. Ornstein

About the Author

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a weekly column for Roll Call, called “Congress Inside Out.” He lives in Washington, D.C. Both are fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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