Commentary Magazine


Topic: executive action

The Mann/Ornstein Thesis Is Even Worse Than It Looks

In 2012, When Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein published their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, primarily blaming Republicans for congressional gridlock, they began a campaign of writing op-eds laying out their thesis in various political publications. The two complained, however, that none of the political talk shows wanted to have them on to sell the book. As they told the Washington Post:

“Not a single one of the Sunday shows has indicated an interest, and I do find it curious,” Ornstein told me, adding that the Op ed (sic) had well over 200,000 Facebook recommends and has been viral for weeks. “This is a level of attention for a book that we haven’t received before. You would think it would attract some attention from the Sunday shows.’

Over 200,00 Facebook recommendations and still no takers on the Sunday shows! But in fact it wasn’t so strange. The thesis they laid out in column after column was just plain wrong, and unambiguously so. It might have sold books and fooled the occasional liberal commentator, but those who worked in Washington had at least a basic knowledge of congressional politics, which was all that was needed to know Mann and Ornstein were peddling nonsense on stilts.

In the last couple of weeks, we got additional reminders of that. First came the revelation that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after having effectively dismantled the filibuster, was removing yet one more way for the minority party to have any participation in the legislating process: blocking amendments on a bipartisan bill. Reid’s well-established role in perpetuating congressional gridlock is easy enough to disregard for partisans fully committed to their own blissful ignorance.

Enter Thomas Mann. On Monday he published a long piece at the Atlantic in which he continued pushing his long-debunked thesis. Unfortunately for Mann, today we received yet another indication–this time from President Obama himself–that the talks shows that ignored Mann and Ornstein were doing their viewers a favor. This time the subject was immigration reform.

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In 2012, When Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein published their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, primarily blaming Republicans for congressional gridlock, they began a campaign of writing op-eds laying out their thesis in various political publications. The two complained, however, that none of the political talk shows wanted to have them on to sell the book. As they told the Washington Post:

“Not a single one of the Sunday shows has indicated an interest, and I do find it curious,” Ornstein told me, adding that the Op ed (sic) had well over 200,000 Facebook recommends and has been viral for weeks. “This is a level of attention for a book that we haven’t received before. You would think it would attract some attention from the Sunday shows.’

Over 200,00 Facebook recommendations and still no takers on the Sunday shows! But in fact it wasn’t so strange. The thesis they laid out in column after column was just plain wrong, and unambiguously so. It might have sold books and fooled the occasional liberal commentator, but those who worked in Washington had at least a basic knowledge of congressional politics, which was all that was needed to know Mann and Ornstein were peddling nonsense on stilts.

In the last couple of weeks, we got additional reminders of that. First came the revelation that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after having effectively dismantled the filibuster, was removing yet one more way for the minority party to have any participation in the legislating process: blocking amendments on a bipartisan bill. Reid’s well-established role in perpetuating congressional gridlock is easy enough to disregard for partisans fully committed to their own blissful ignorance.

Enter Thomas Mann. On Monday he published a long piece at the Atlantic in which he continued pushing his long-debunked thesis. Unfortunately for Mann, today we received yet another indication–this time from President Obama himself–that the talks shows that ignored Mann and Ornstein were doing their viewers a favor. This time the subject was immigration reform.

Today’s edition of the New York Times reports that President Obama “has directed the secretary of Homeland Security to delay until after the summer a deportation enforcement review that officials feared would anger House Republicans and doom any lingering hopes for an immigration overhaul in Congress this year, officials said Tuesday night.” The president was contemplating, once again, taking executive action that would preempt Congress on immigration.

Obama’s habit of using executive action has consistently undermined congressional lawmaking authority–the kind of thing that those who are truly concerned about a “broken Congress” would be up in arms about. Those obsessed with blaming Republicans for everything, however, have forgiven such action because they have chosen sides in a partisan battle. (Which is certainly their right, of course.) Obama did this once before: heading into his reelection, he torpedoed Marco Rubio’s bipartisan immigration reform with executive action to keep the issue alive for his party’s base.

And all indications were that he would do so again. His congressional allies such as Chuck Schumer were openly threatening Republicans that if they didn’t pass a bill the White House liked within a defined period, the president would take executive action again. Having killed immigration reform twice now (once as senator, to the chagrin of Ted Kennedy, and once as president), Obama seems hesitant to do so yet again.

But more than that, he’s also making clear that he understands that such executive action–and the threats that come with it, even implicit ones like the deportation review–only serve to further grind Congress to a halt and impede the business of legislating public policy. And so he’s backing off this time.

This argument may sound like it goes around in circles, but actually Mann’s latest contribution is quite revealing. While President Obama thinks the solution to partisan deadlock is to stop impeding bipartisan legislation and enable the two sides the space to find common ground–which they’ve already done on this issue–Mann thinks the solution is:

Perhaps more promising are approaches that focus directly on the parties as they exist within our constitutional system. One-party government seems an essential first step, one that can sustain itself in office long enough to put in place and begin to implement a credible governing program. The second is nudging the Republican Party back into being a genuinely conservative, not radical, party that aspires to win presidential as well as congressional elections over the long haul. The third is dampening the intense and unrelenting competition for control of Congress and the White House, which is itself an historical anomaly.

That’s right–one-party rule, which he makes clear would be the Democrats. During the time when the Democratic Party can do whatever it wants with no accountable check on power save the high court, Republicans would be “nudged” to … become more like Democrats. That would be followed by the “dampening” of electoral competition.

Welcome to the brave new world of Thomas Mann, where a balance of power is replaced by hundreds of immensely powerful lawmakers who agree with him. Maybe if he phrases it that way he’ll get those TV invitations he’s been waiting for.

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Obama Still Needs Congress

“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

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“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

That is where the president has found himself on the issue as of late, and it’s a mostly ignored but somewhat fascinating consequence of Obama’s obsession with usurping Congress’s authority. At the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer explains:

Start with the particular president who is requesting this authority. He is no George W. Bush, to whom Congress granted such authority. President Obama has made it clear that he will enforce those parts of any legislation or treaty that suit him, de facto amend legislation without seeking congressional approval, and write regulations that order nonenforcement of laws he does not like. Congress refused to pass his Dream Act, so he ordered the authorities to treat illegal aliens as if it had; enforcement of Obamacare’s employer mandate at the date specified in the law became inconvenient, so he unilaterally postponed it; he has decided not to enforce the federal law against the sale of marijuana. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that a provision in one of these trade pacts that benefits some industry or company that later fails to toe the presidential line or pay financial obeisance to Democratic campaign committees will disappear in a haze of bureaucratic rulings. In short, whatever the theoretical benefits of free trade, they must be weighed against increasing this president’s ability to exercise even more extralegal power over American businesses. One example: The Asia deal might include a concession from Japan to ease imports of made-in-America vehicles. It is not beyond imagining that the president will interpret that to apply only to the green vehicles of which he is so fond.

The discussion about the president’s plans to announce in his State of the Union address that he will continue taking executive actions in lieu of recognizing the existence of Congress has, appropriately, centered on the legality of the proposed actions. That is, can the president do that?

Another interesting question, and one raised by Stelzer’s piece, is: even if the president can take such action, should he? We often speak about the president’s executive actions as if the only downside to them is if they get overturned later on by the courts. But the trade conundrum in which the president finds himself suggests there’s another possible downside: neither party trusts him to follow the law.

This is a damaging assessment, and it is one that is generally independent of public opinion. And that is potentially more of an obstacle to Obama anyway. He is no longer running for reelection, so public support only gets him so far. And there are only so many actions the president can take on his own. At yesterday’s White House briefing, Jay Carney said the president would work with Congress where he can, and do the rest on his own: “this is not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and.” Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, don’t seem to agree.

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