Why Washington gridlock is here to stay

It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Basic Books, RRP$26

Words are funny things. Gridlock, polarisation, hostage-taking, even chicken – each of these nowadays evokes Washington. In some cultures to be “partisan” is to be respectable. In America, it is pejorative. To be called bipartisan is very heaven. It follows that the more partisanship there is, the more reason to worry.

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two veteran Washington scholars, are profoundly worried. Their book, It’s Even Worse Than it Looks, is even gloomier than it sounds. Six years ago they wrote Broken Branch, about the growing dysfunctionality of Congress. They were concerned but even-keeled. Their shift in tone since reflects their justified pessimism about the chances Washington will correct itself.

Almost 20 years after Newt Gingrich engineered that fateful midwinter government shutdown, it is routine for Americans to profess contempt for Washington (Congress recently fell to a historic low 9 per cent approval rating). What in 1995 seemed a temporary Republican over-reach after 40 years of Democratic monopoly now looks to have been the starting point of a new normal in US politics.

Out went old traditions, such as “crossing the aisle” and “the Georgetown salon”. In came camp beds in Capitol Hill offices, “party-line voting” and a coarsening of dialogue. Nowadays government shutdowns are old-fashioned. Today’s action is in risking full-blown sovereign debt defaults. Part one was last August. Part two may arrive before Christmas.

As for passing budgets, scrutinising legislation, and providing oversight of the executive, Congress long since grew tired of that routine. Either nothing happens, or it must be Wagnerian. Not only is it worse than it looks. It is even more damaging than it appears. Since its causes are deep and multiple, Washington’s ills may well be incurable.

Perhaps this is an exagerration. Yet as a description of Washington’s problems it is only mildly so. And it understates the accumulated woes Mann and Ornstein lay out. There are many good things to say about their book. And one criticism.

On the plus side, the authors know what they are talking about, lay it out clearly and are right to broadcast their concern about the health of US democracy. They are also correct – and brave – to emphasise the asymmetric nature of America’s polarisation. There are Democratic firebrands. But they are too diverse to match the unity of purpose of their relatively homogenous Republican opponents.

By the same token, Mann and Ornstein are right to assign some blame to the mainstream media. The authors’ impatience with spurious “balance” is made known very early in the book. The public routinely blames the majority party when Washington is not functioning (even when it is the minority in the Senate that stops things from moving). But for better-informed journalists to assign equal blame – or none at all – is, they argue, a form of “sanctimonious” malpractice.

The authors are right on much else, including the futility of hoping a third-party white knight will break the party duopoly, the benefits of making voting compulsory, and the desperate need to reform the Senate’s chronically misused filibuster. Their list of dos and don’ts is well-judged.

Yet they are sometimes too caught up in the trees. Instead of going to the heart of the matter and calling for a constitutional convention, they prescribe modest reforms, some of which are almost as unlikely to see the light of day. To be fair, they acknowledge this and at one point liken their proposals to “erecting a thin line of sandbags to alter the course of a tsunami”.

And the dilemma they lay out is inescapable: if you combine partisan politics with the separation of powers, things will grind to a halt. Since it would be utopian to hope that everyone will just get along, the alternative is a constitutional overhaul. That is hard to imagine. In today’s America, what amendment could command the support of two-thirds of each chamber and three-quarters of the states?

The question answers itself. Yet it is only American to shoot for the moon. And most of the book’s remedies feel too modest. But this is largely quibble. The book is chiefly about what ails Washington – and its diagnosis is depressingly convincing. The authors are right to point out that things may be even worse than they seem. If the era of ill-tempered partisanship is here to stay, then gridlocked governance is also a fixture. So, therefore, is America’s decline.

The writer is the FT’s chief US commentator

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