Last Wednesday, I watched the Senate floor with fascination as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had an extended discussion about where blame lies for the Senate’s obstruction and near-gridlock. Reid, bless him, repeatedly referred to my new book with Thomas Mann, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” along with an edited excerpt that appeared in the Washington Post Outlook section.
When Reid began to read an extended excerpt, McConnell interrupted him, saying he could barely contain his laughter, since, he said, “I know Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann. They are ultra, ultra liberals.”
First, I want to thank McConnell and urge him to denounce me whenever he gets an opportunity, and to condemn my book with Mann — all I ask is that he mention the title; if he wants to note that it is available in fine bookstores everywhere, and online and makes a great holiday gift, that would be icing on the cake. Second, I want to say something about the idea that I am an “ultra, ultra liberal.” Senator McConnell, I know Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is a friend of mine. And I am no Bernie Sanders.
Over my decades at the American Enterprise Institute (McConnell also referred to me as AEI’s “house liberal”), where I remain a resident scholar in good standing, I have stood out as a raging moderate, but supportive of enough positions that are not ultra, ultra liberal that I have been called such things as a “right-wing quote machine.” Admittedly, that is no more accurate than McConnell’s description. But a guy who, with his co-author, dedicated his last book, “The Broken Branch,” to the late New York Republican Rep. Barber Conable, and who had “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” receive an enthusiastic endorsement from former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, is not so easily pigeonholed as McConnell would like.
Let me take the set of issues that Reid and McConnell debated to a different level. Who is responsible for the Senate’s constipation? McConnell put the blame squarely on Reid for the practice of filling the amendment tree and shutting Republicans out of the debate. He has a point, one I have made often when exploring balanced ways of reforming Senate rules. But McConnell went on to talk poignantly about how Senate Republicans have repeatedly offered a hand for cooperation, only to have it slapped away rudely by Reid, the president and Senate Democrats.
How to sort all this out? How about using McConnell’s own words from the past three years as a start. Here are four statements:
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President [Barack] Obama to be a one-term president.” — October 2010
“I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have ownership of a bad economy. ... If we go into default, he will say that Republicans are making the economy worse and try to convince the public — maybe with some merit, if people stop getting their Social Security checks and military families start getting letters saying service people overseas don’t get paid. It’s an argument he could have a good chance of winning, and all of the sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy. ... That is very bad positioning going into an election.” — July 13, 2010, said right before the potential default, after months of fruitless negotiation.
“I think some of our Members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage worth ransoming.” — Said right after the deal was made.
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals. Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.” — Said to the Atlantic in December 2010, after the midterms, explaining why Republicans from the start were not going to cooperate with or compromise with any of the Obama proposals.
Let’s add a January 2011 comment from former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) about McConnell’s strategy during the Obama presidency: “McConnell knew the places to go, around the tank, and loosen a lug bolt here, pour sand in a hydraulic receptacle there, and slow the whole thing down.”
Now let’s add a few facts. After saying almost daily in 2009 that the route to a debt deal was to embrace the Gregg-Conrad Commission, a Senate effort to create a panel with real teeth, McConnell joined seven of his GOP colleagues in the Senate who had been original co-sponsors of Gregg-Conrad in voting to kill it via filibuster. I can find no other explanation than the comments made by McConnell to the Atlantic, above.
We have seen an unprecedented number of filibusters and filibuster threats, including on bills and nominations that ultimately passed unanimously or near unanimously. Nominations do not have amendments, so there were no amendment trees to fill. Multiple filibusters have been applied on motions to proceed and then bills where there was no effort to block GOP amendments by filling the amendment tree — just an effort, as Bennett describes it, to pour sand in and slow the whole thing down.
Call me an ultra, ultra liberal, call me irresponsible, you can call me Al, or any other descriptor or epithet. The quotes, and facts, speak for themselves.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.