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What Stalled Congress On The Fiscal Cliff?


The simplest explanation to what's going on in Washington is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans command majorities in both Houses and control of the White House and you can throw in political realignment as an explanation. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have been diminished to the point of near extinction. But even so, Democrats and Republicans in Congress in years past somehow managed to make deals and legislate despite profound differences.

What is so different about the way Capitol Hill works these days? Well, joining us now is Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And Norm, was there some time when Congress just was more productive than it is right now or was that every time until now?

NORM ORNSTEIN: Congress has had its ups and downs, but this is the least productive period, not just in numbers of bills enacted, but in the breadth, depth and scope of what's been done in our lifetimes. It's a different period. Divided government, in the past, worked often. The two parties felt they were in the same boat together. Now, put them in the same boat and each one wants to drill a hole in the bottom so that the boat will sink.

SIEGEL: You say before we get to actual tactics and rules in Congress, the attitude, you said, of essentially Republicans in the House is the biggest difference between now and then.

ORNSTEIN: It's a Republican Party problem more than anything else and it's partly driven by ideology, partly driven by the outside pressures. They're in districts where the primary is all that matters and the wind machine outside, talk radio and the like, pulls them in a different direction. But it's an attitude of a parliamentary minority party - oppose reflexively, a tribal attitude, if this president is for it, we're against it - that makes compromise so much more difficult than we are used to over the last 50 years.

SIEGEL: What you're saying is if this were a parliamentary system, such behavior is rational. You're in a permanent minority and the majority by definition controls the government. But in our system, that doesn't check out.

ORNSTEIN: Exactly so. The expectation that voters have is the two parties are going to come together and find some common ground and that's what makes the decisions legitimate.

SIEGEL: One reporter observes today that the way that a deal used to be lubricated in the more legislatively productive days was by getting those last few members on board with a sweetener, very likely a local project known as an earmark, something that's now considered an affront to good civics. If they were even trying to put together majorities, would that sort of thing make it harder to do so?

ORNSTEIN: It does now. You know, it used to be the case and you could even go back a very few years. If you look at the maneuvering that took place on the House floor over the Medicare prescription drug bill, getting those last few votes on board was done in significant part by either promising members that they would get something back home or threatening them that they would have those things deleted.

That worked. Now, we don't have earmarks in the same way, but frankly, there are many inducements that leaders can use and they don't always work either.

SIEGEL: You've been talking about the House and the Senate. We hear about the increased use of the threatened filibuster or the hold. Do these actually account for the lack productivity in the Congress?

ORNSTEIN: They have a big impact on the outcome. We've seen the filibuster used in ways in the last five years that it had never been used throughout the history of the United States. Not as an expression of a minority feeling intensely about a big issue, but as a simple weapon of pure obstruction on routine matters - bills that passed in the end unanimously, nominations the same way - because the most precious commodity if you wanted to do something is floor time and they soaked up a lot of floor time.

It turned the Senate from what is usually a body that doesn't act very swiftly into one that was totally, if you'll forgive the word, constipated.

SIEGEL: Norm Ornstein, thanks a lot.

ORNSTEIN: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He's co-author with Thomas Mann of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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