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Political extremism led to shutdown, authors say

Nick Prete/SHFWIRE
Thomas E. Mann speaks at American University about the future of Congress – how extremism has created a rift that separates parties and eliminates compromise.

WASHINGTON – With the government shut down now for eight days, people all over the nation have been asking, “What is wrong with Congress?” Two congressional scholars pointed to political extremism as the answer Oct. 3 in a discussion at American University.

The problem – “tribalism.”

Norman J. Ornstein and  Thomas E. Mann, authors of “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” spoke about political deadlock and what can be done to fix it. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and Mann is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member on the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Ornstein and Mann said the government shutdown was caused by a disappearance of moderates in Congress and a widening divide between the parties. The same divide could also lead to an unprecedented default. 

They both emphasized that if Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, proposes a clean continuing resolution, then the nation will just be back in this situation in another few months. 

“Worse than a public default would be a short-term extension,” Ornstein said. “What’s out there is the longer-term solution to the debt problem, taking it off the table permanently.” 

They propose to take the debt ceiling off the table with the “McConnell rule,” which is an option proposed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. It would allow the president to unilaterally raise the debt limit, unless a supermajority in Congress opposed. 

Mann said that the debt ceiling is no longer needed. 

“Just get rid of it! It’s like an appendix; it has no useful purpose anymore. Just cut it out and we’ll all be better as a consequence,” he said. 

Most developed countries do not have debt ceilings as the United States does. According to Moody’s, a major fiscal credit rating and financial market research firm, the one country that has any similarity to the U.S. system is Denmark. The last time Denmark raised its debt ceiling, it was raised much higher than the actual debt to keep it out of political discussion for several years.  

The negative to the McConnell rule is that it may weaken congressional power under the system of checks and balances. However, by using that power, Republicans in Congress are at risk of losing more than they’ll gain. 

“That’s why it’s absolutely critical for the president to maintain the position he’s taken,” Mann said. 

Breaking the impasse is up to Boehner. He could offer up a clean resolution for a vote to end the shutdown, but doing so could cost him his position as Speaker of the House. 

“If he doesn’t give up the notion that he has to run ahead of his crazies to stay in charge, so he can keep the perks of the speakership, then I don’t see a strategy here that’s leading us in a positive direction,” Ornstein said. 

While the default seems ominous, Mann said that he believes Obama still has a trump card that he could play to protect the American economy.  

“In the end, if Republicans are crazy enough to let it go forward he should exercise what I believe to be his Article II powers,” Mann said, referring to a part of the Constitution that he said may give Obama the power to declare the debt ceiling “null and void.” 

“He would be beloved by the country and the world for taking the initiative,” Mann said, but it would also invite impeachment proceedings. 

Nick Prete is a junior multimedia journalism major. He is currently participating in the Scripps Howard Foundation Semester in Washington program. He may be reached at [email protected].

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Political extremism led to shutdown, authors say