Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann caused a stir earlier this year when they singled out Republicans as the root cause of Congressional gridlock. But their authority as non-partisan, scholarly observers of Washington hasn't earned them much of an audience with the purported culprits. While the GOP might not listen to them, Ornstein believes it will take heed from another outside force: the market.
On Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid began reading a Washington Post op-ed by Mann and Ornstein on the Senate floor as objective proof of Republican obstructionism. Mitch McConnell broke out in guffaws—then cut him off. "The reason I'm having a hard time restraining my laughter—I know Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. They're ultraliberals. Their problem with the Senate is their deputies don't have 60 votes any more," the Senate GOP leader said, according to a preliminary transcript of his remarks. "Their views about the dysfunctionality of the Senate carry no weight, certainly with me."
In fact, at that very moment, Mann and Ornstein were addressing the House Democratic Caucus, members of which were delighted to hear scholarly affirmation of their long-held ideas about the Republican modus operandi. "Our members were inspired," said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the caucus chair, praising the pair for daring to name names. "It took a lot of courage." But how will congressional gridlock end if Mann and Ornstein's assessment simply reinforces the existing stalemate—and, in fact, becomes another weapon in partisan warfare?
For the moment, neither is too hopeful, even as Congress hurtles toward the fiscal cliff, with potentially disastrous consequences for the economy. Ornstein believes that the only thing that can break the impasse is a force from the outside: namely, the markets and the business community. "If you get a market reaction, I think that will force some action," Ornstein said.
In fact, the AEI scholar believes that the business community has spent too much time sitting on the sidelines for these congressional debates, despite the potentially harmful effects for their own bottom line. In his conversations with legislators, he says that few described being approached by CEOs or other business leaders over last year's debt-ceiling debate, for instance. "It puzzles the hell out of me," he said. Instead, Ornstein says, business leaders need to step up and realize their roles "as being part of a larger society, and not just focus on the next quarter's profits."
Certainly many industry players are already worrying about the economic fallout of the fiscal cliff: Morgan Stanley, for instance, released a new report describing the potential harm, explaining there's already been a drop in business orders and hiring, as my colleagues Zach Goldfarb and Michael Fletcher explain. But Ornstein believes that CEOs need to approach legislators directly with their concerns to give them an "outside jolt."