The good news is, no more gridlock...

By Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein

President Obama obviously faces a difficult (though far from hopeless) battle for reelection. What is less obvious from reading campaign coverage at this point in the election cycle is that, if he fails, it is also unlikely that his party will be able to retain its Senate majority or retake the House. There are twenty-three Democratic-held Senate seats up for contest next November to only ten Republican. Record- low approval ratings for the GOP Congress may mean some Democratic pickups in the House. But GOP gains at the state level in 2010 have given them enough control in enough states to dominate redistricting in a way that has built firewalls around some of their most vulnerable House members. The rest comes down to turnout: if enough conservative voters show up at the polls to unseat Obama, chances are they will have the same advantage in doing damage to Democrats in Congress.

If Obama loses, Republicans will probably control, if narrowly, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the second time in a decade. When that last happened, under George W. Bush—with a nine-seat House majority and a tied Senate— the party succeeded in passing major tax cuts but failed to reduce the size of government or roll back the welfare state, despite riding into town on its usual small-government rhetoric. So too during the Reagan years, when the White House and the Senate (though not the House) were in Republican hands. During both these periods of GOP dominance, entitlement and other programs grew substantially.

The question is, would this time be different? We believe the answer is yes, because of the Republican Party’s shift to the right and its demonstrated willingness to bend, break, or change legislative rules and customs that have stood in the way of radical change in the past.

This will be the case even if the candidate who defeats Obama is Mitt Romney—in our view the only plausible contender in the Republican field who could conceivably garner the nomination and prove an acceptable alternative to the incumbent. (And it would most surely be the case if Gingrich, a proven radical, becomes the nominee and, by some fluke, beats Obama.) While Romney is sufficiently protean in his ideological positioning and stance on particular issues to introduce some uncertainty over precisely what he would attempt to accomplish in office, his recent speeches have outlined a policy agenda well outside the old mainstream and wholly in sync with the new Zeitgeist of his party. Romney is now no less conservative in his positions on taxes, spending, Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, financial regulation, and the overall role of government than his contenders for the presidential nomination and the party establishment in Congress.

Whoever is the standard-bearer, a Republican victory in 2012 would do nothing to reverse or restrain the radically rightward march of the party. The Tea Party movement has accelerated a process that has been under way for many years within the GOP, which is now firm in its identity as the insurgent party, set upon blowing up policies and public responsibilities that enjoyed bipartisan support for many decades. The Democrats are the status quo party— protective and pragmatic. The asymmetric polarization of the two camps is the most significant feature of contemporary American politics.

A President Romney would be in a poor position upon taking office to change the course outlined in his campaign. He is already suspected as an infidel by many Republican activists. His fiscal policy would almost certainly be ambitious, one not unlike the budget resolution written by Representative Paul Ryan and passed by House Republicans. Indeed, this is the course Romney has taken with his professed economic plan, released in early November. If Romney tried to dilute his own proposal, he would be met at the beginning of his presidency with a full-scale revolt on his hands from his own party, both in and out of Congress.

So here is one plausible governing scenario for 2013: After an election in which Republicans prevail, a lame-duck President Obama in December of 2012 lets all the Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 expire. Starting in January of 2013, House Republicans begin a process not only to reinstate all those tax cuts but to forcefully roll back government. Though the 2012 elections have shrunk the House’s Republican majority, that majority is also farther to the right because many of its members are Tea Party types who barely survived tough primary fights from challengers who accused them of having “gone Washington”—that is, voted for a continuing resolution or a debt limit deal. As a result, Speaker John Boehner’s clout is even more eclipsed by “Young Guns” Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, making bipartisan compromises even less likely. So the House passes a budget that is akin to Paul Ryan’s plan, one that massively cuts taxes while repealing most elements of the Affordable Care Act, moving Medicare toward a premium support system for private insurance, turning Medicaid into a block grant to the states and eventually cutting its federal funding by as much as 35 percent, and enacting draconian cuts in discretionary domestic spending.

Because that bill, like the Ryan plan, would vastly widen the deficit, it runs into a problem when it moves to the Senate. According to the “Byrd Rule,” any budget bill that increases the deficit cannot be brought up under reconciliation— the process that allows budget bills to be voted on without being first subject to sixty-vote supermajority “cloture” votes. This means the legislation can be effectively bottled up if as few as forty Democrats threaten to filibuster it— which, of course, they do. Under Majority Leader Harry Reid back in the Bush and Obama years, the Senate hewed to the Byrd Rule. But the new Senate majority leader, Mitch Mc- Connell, has two precedents to rely on: the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, both adopted under reconciliation (the latter on a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Cheney breaking the tie). He pushes the 2013 bill through reconciliation.

This move is sufficient to bring the tax-cutting parts of the budget bill up for a vote. But other parts of the legislation, including many of the Medicare changes, are still subject to cloture votes. To get these past the Democrats, McConnell faces a more daunting set of challenges. He could ignore the Byrd Rule—by appealing the ruling of the chair that the Byrd Rule applies—and thus undo it by majority vote. But that step would do more than just cause howls of outrage from Democrats and editorial writers. It would also require unanimity or near unanimity on the part of Republican senators, including several who are up for reelection in 2014, like Susan Collins, Saxby Chambliss, and Lamar Alexander, and others, like Olympia Snowe, who would object to many parts of the plan. McConnell would likely have to adjust it and dilute it some—but with what conservatives would see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for revolution, he would extract the best and most extreme plan he could in order to make it happen.

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein collaborated on this article. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


  • Hopeful on January 05, 2012 10:59 AM:

    Wow, never thought of it that way. I tend to think of all politicians as corrupt usurpers. You make it seem appealing, thanks.

  • Rothgar on January 14, 2012 11:03 PM:

    My prediction from 2008 was that if the GOP managed to demogogue (or in fact filibuster) their way to victory in 2010 they will win in 2012 and cease to exist by 2020. The fallout for ordinary Americans of this going to be harsh. I sincerely hope I am wrong; occupy is giving me hope that I will be wrong.

  • Anonymous on January 17, 2012 5:34 PM:

    This is a quote from an article on the web site Balkinization. I like their opinions better.

    "Barack Obama is a "reconstructive" president in Skowronek's model, by which I mean that we are at the beginning of a new party system that will be dominated by Democrats."

    "Suppose, though, that I'm wrong. (Indeed, Skowronek himself does not think that Obama is a reconstructive president, or at least is unsure about that.) In that case, we are still in the Reagan/conservative era. With that assumption, Mitt Romney looks an awful lot what Skowronek calls a "disjunctive" or end-of-regime presidential candidate."

  • FriscoSF on January 17, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Sorry, the future is GRIM

    EVEN when Obama had OVERWHELMING MAJORITIES in Congress..
    He was too weak or cowardly to overturn the Bush Tax cuts

    The Bush tax cuts are pretty much Permanent under Obama

    Maybe if Obama wins in 2012 and then resigns...
    Joe Biden might have the courage to end the tax breaks

  • wally on February 10, 2012 6:20 PM:

    I don't see McConnell going "nuclear." That, I recall, was the term to be used for essentially eliminating the filibuster. Too much power would be lost for Repub senators in the future. I just dont' think the Tea Partiers have that much sway in the Senate. Indeed, McConnel and DeMint might be for it but I don't think they could sway their whole caucus.

    That said, I agree with others that if the Repubs do go nuclear, then the disruption in society will be so immense that the old, sick and lower middle class will suffer immensely but then later the Republicans will pay.

  • micoz on March 10, 2012 8:39 AM:

    Remember what prosperity and growth were like? Remember when the unemployment rate was way below 8 percent...like about 5.5 percent? Remember when businesses were expanding, jobs were plentiful, part-timers were people who wanted to do a little something in their retirements to keep busy, investors could count on 11 percent a year, housing was booming, there were construction cranes in all the big cities, and America wasn't deep in debt and awash in ever expanding entitlements?

    Remember when most Americans felt security and optimism in their financial lives?

    That's what it will return to when Republicans rescue America from the left-wing community organizer.

  • Doctor Chim Richalds on March 11, 2012 4:30 PM:

    @micoz Like in the Clinton era? Yeah, that was pretty awesome!