America’s Collision Course With The Debt Ceiling
As the nation counts down to default, Diane talks to longtime Congress watcher Norm Ornstein about the debt limit negotiations, what's at stake and whether he sees a way forward.
The 16-day federal government shutdown and last week’s near default shine a bright light on political divisiveness in Washington. Tea party conservatives, a minority group within the Republican party, instigated and lost the most recent battles but did succeed in garnering national attention. What this attention may mean for future election results is unclear. Polls suggest the Republican brand was damaged, but many say our current electoral process practically guarantees polarized results. Diane and her guests discuss Congressional districts, demographics and prospects for moving beyond gridlock.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The bruising battle forestalling a possible government default and ending a 16-day partial federal government shutdown is over, but the repercussions are just beginning. Despite earnest pleas for more cooperation and negotiation from a variety of political corners, some say our election process together with demographic trends insures increasingly polarized politics in the years ahead.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about dysfunction in Washington and what we can do about it, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, and Rob Richie of FairVote. That's a nonpartisan organization based in Takoma Park, Md. I do invite your ideas, your thoughts, your comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Well, welcome to all of you.
MR. NORMAN ORNSTEINGood to see, Diane.
MR. CHARLIE COOKGood morning.
MR. ROB RICHIEWelcome, Diane.
REHMHappy to have you all. Norm, the Republican Party seems to be at kind of a crossroads. You have said that the business community has kind of been out of the picture, and, if they were to come into the picture, there could be a big difference.
ORNSTEINA big difference, but frankly, Diane, not as big as a few years ago. One of the real problems is that the business community enabled a lot of these people who have now turned against them. But their populace -- and this is, you know, in some ways, it's part of a 60- or 70-year old struggle within the Republican Party going back to Robert Taft, the Main Street vs. Wall Street Republicans.
ORNSTEINThe Main Streeters have taken over, and I think the business community may have a monster that it cannot easily control. And, of course, the members who would be responsive to the business community, including the leaders, have been intimidated by the rank and file who are ideologues.
REHMNorm, we heard last week on this program that Sen. Ted Cruz, his brinkmanship was really primarily about raising money for himself. How do you see it?
ORNSTEINI think raising money and raising a profile is a part of it, and I've never seen anything quite like Ted Cruz. In less than a year, he has become the leader of the insurgent radical forces in the party. Jim DeMint must be beside himself. He spent years building that position, and Cruz has supplanted him. But it also reflects a kind of obsessiveness out there with an awful lot of people with Obamacare, which is bizarre in so many ways.
ORNSTEINThis is not a single-payer system. It doesn't have a public option. It's private insurers on exchanges using competition. It's the same plan that Republicans put forward a decade and a half ago to combat Clintoncare, and it's the same plan they have for Medicare. But that obsession is something that Cruz has exploited, and it's what lead to the shutdown and a lot of other turmoil.
REHMAnd obsession gone bad, Charlie?
COOKYes. I mean, I think we've seen a transition, like Norm said. I would call it, on one level, it's the Fortune 500 NAM Republican Party. You know, business community used to run the Republican Party, and now it's more the NFIB. And so it's gone from elite -- the National Federation of Independent Business -- so it's gone from sort of elite to populist or -- and then sort of expanded out.
COOKIt's the Sunday School Republicans vs. the Republicans that play golf or tennis on Sunday mornings, that that's sort of the split in the party. And there was some enabling. And so now, you know, Republicans have kind of created a monster -- or the establishment has allowed a monster to be created, and now they have to figure out how to try to tame that monster because it's costing them politically badly.
REHMAll right. But the focus seemed to be Obamacare. You think it's more about the next election.
COOKWell, I think Obamacare back in 2009 sparked it. I mean, if it wasn't for Obamacare, I don't think there would be much of a Tea Party right now. That's what sparked it 'cause it goes all -- it basically started the fall of 2009 right after the transition from cap and trade to Obamacare, but it's now taken on so many other facets. But, you know, I don't think the Tea Party necessarily exists anymore. But it's had a very, very significant impact on the Republican Party and dynamics within the party and created problems for them.
REHMSo what happens to the so-called safe congressional seats?
COOKWell, I mean, that's why I think a lot of people are kind of getting ahead of their skis a little bit on this because it's still very, very, very hard for Republicans to lose their majority. I mean, right now, you know, in our rating -- and this is after we've moved about 14, 15 races over -- Democrats would have to win 24 out of 24 of their own competitive seats and then win 14 out of 15 Republican ones.
COOKNow, that's not impossible, but that's a pretty tall order. Now, if we had two or three more shutdowns between now and the next election, that could change things. If you see this morning we had Congressman Tim Griffin from Arkansas, a young guy, you know, second term, announce his retirement. If you start seeing some members retiring that are in potentially competitive districts, and, you know, there's sort of -- and if Democratic recruiting does, in fact, pick up a lot, then that could change things. But it's not there right now.
REHMRob Richie, what about changing demographics within congressional districts? How is that affecting what happens?
RICHIEWell, there's a book out there called "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop that's gotten a lot of attention, but it underscores something that is very clearly happening, which is more and more of the geography of the country is becoming clearly one party or the other in this sort of cultural, political warfare or battle that is now much more consistent in how people vote for the parties, not just for president.
RICHIEBut now they make the same decision on which parties to support for Senate and the House. Particularly the president/House connection is very close. But it even goes further. Like, counties are much more polarized, and, of course, county lines haven't changed.
RICHIEBut state lines in the presidential race -- and you just have more areas that are just locked in for one party so that means the general election, when you look at that in elections for the House and increasingly for the Senate and even for state legislature, the general election is not one that they fear losing. It's the primary. So you have these, you know, sort of a demography of partisan polarization that just clashes with the electoral rules we have. And that's why our focus is on those rules.
REHMSo what happens is that people of like minds move into districts where they know people are of like minds.
RICHIEYeah. There's a theory or debate about how much of it is actual physical movement and how much of it is simply almost a more non-physical movement, but sort of people, where they are...
REHMWhat happens within.
RICHIE...yeah, becoming more connected with their neighbors on these questions. And some of the cultural divisions that have been there or culture differences, say, how people see religion or how they see other parts of -- how they see government, they now connect that with their political choice in a much more consistent way.
ORNSTEINYeah, you know, there are a few things to say about that. One is the homogeneity of these districts may be just as important as the safeness of the seats because they become homogenous echo chambers. It's that people are living with likeminded others, and I think some of it is a desire to be with people who are like you. You know, here in Washington, dinner parties now get sorted out so that you don't have Democrats and Republicans together, or you could end up with a food fight.
REHMWhereas you used to have everybody come in.
ORNSTEINYeah. It's becoming harder and harder. But, you know, the nature of the modern media, the tribal media, along with the amplification of the social media, you talk to some of these members. When they go back home, what they're hearing from their constituents, who get all their information from Rush Limbaugh or local talk radio hosts who are way more radical than Rush, and then the emails that they get that are, you know, headed can-you-believe-this, which is a key to believing that you should believe it -- but people believe weird things.
ORNSTEINAnd then they go and demand things of their representatives. And you put all of that together, and it is a toxic mess. One point I wanted to make, just to amplify something that Charlie said, I don't think this started with Obamacare. It started with the bailout in 2008.
ORNSTEINRemember that the House Republicans, back when George W. Bush was president, rejected the bailout that was basically strongly supported by every major figure in their own party, in the financial community and around the world, that we were on the edge of an abyss, and it took a 700-point drop in the Dow -- back then that was big stuff -- to move it in another direction.
ORNSTEINThat triggered a kind of angry populism against all leadership, and it's -- by the way, if you look at this survey, I mentioned the last time I was on that Ron Rappaport has done of the FreedomWorks people. They're not Republicans. They don’t like the Republican Party, but they're driving the Republican Party right now.
COOKFirst of all, I stand corrected. I think Norm's point is exactly right that, you know, you can say Obamacare. But actually if you trace it back, TARP probably is a better genesis for this. But, Diane, I think you made a good point I'd like to amplify on. Part of it is geographic, I mean, that Democrats tend to be in urban areas and college towns, and Republicans are sort of spread out everywhere else.
COOKAnd so that concentration allows, even without gerrymandering, does work against Democrats. And then you throw in gerrymandering where, for once, Republicans had the pen in their hands as opposed to Democrats in previous generations, previous decades, made a huge change. But also there's sort of a virtual sorting.
COOKAnd Norm and Rob both touched on this where, you know, you could be thousands of miles apart, but if what you're watching is Fox and you're listening to Rush and the local variations of it, it does create communities, virtual communities, where these people -- I think it serves to intensify whatever emotions they had, whether it's right or left.
REHMCharlie Cook, he is editor and publisher at the Cook Political Report. He's also political analyst for National Journal. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we've been talking about what's happened to our Democratic process in the last few years with social media, with media, with people living in likeminded districts and somehow coming together with their neighbors to really create pockets where you have people voting in absolutely the same way. Here's an interesting email from Auburn, Mich.
REHMTim says, "Could we disband districts and assign representatives by state based on popular vote? For example, give Democrats or Republicans six to 10 seats if they secure 60 percent of the vote in a given state. It seems as though this would undermine the ability of states to manipulate districts for partisan purposes." Charlie Cook.
COOKWell, something like that might work. I think more realistic, at least in states that have ballot initiatives where you could get something like this through, is something -- whether it's like Iowa does where you have effectively statisticians drawing the districts, and they look about as -- you know, about -- roughly like what God -- where if God drew the lines.
COOKOf course, Iowa's got square counties. And it's all white, so that's kind of easy. But California changed their process, and we saw more -- between their primary reform and their redistricting reform, we saw more competition in California in the last election than probably the previous 10.
REHMInteresting. Rob Richie.
RICHIEWell, the writer actually lays out in brief what we're talking about, which is that, you know, the problem really is more districting than redistricting. And that is a statutory choice. We often get fixed in the electoral roles we have and think that it goes back to James Madison. But the idea of single-member districts for the House does not.
RICHIEIn fact, in the first 50 years of the country, more than a quarter of House members were elected statewide. They weren't elected by this non-winner-take-all proportional system that the person writes about, but they could've been. And that's a statutory decision. But that -- there's a lot of different ways that it can be done, but we actually have a very nifty feature at -- if you go to FairVoting.us, we have maps for every state in the country showing what these -- what multi-seat districts might look like.
RICHIEWe'd -- rather than go statewide, we say, well, let's have some districting, keeping it to, say, bigger districts that would have three, four or five seats. So they'd be bigger, but they'd have more seats. And then within those districts, you would use a candidate-based system, so it's still based on voting for candidates -- actually already done in several cities in the United States -- where it wouldn't take 50 percent of the vote to win.
RICHIEBut it would take, like, one-fifth of the vote to win, one out of five. You use that in the primary as well, and then you start getting people coming out of the primaries who reflect the differences within major parties. And then out of the districts, you get representatives who reflect the full spectrum within the district. And you get naturally a kind of left, center, and right for every district.
REHMWhat do you think, (word?) ?
ORNSTEINWell, Rob is absolutely correct that this is not a constitutional matter. And we've had a number of instances in the past, including within our lifetimes where you had at-large voting, sometimes where a state couldn't reach a redistricting decision, and you would elect the members for one cycle at-large.
REHMBut what do you have to do? You have to have a referendum on a state ballot or...
ORNSTEINNo. The state itself could pass a law that would change those rules.
ORNSTEINOne thing, you know, that -- this is -- we're many, many steps away from anything like this happening. One thing that's important to keep in mind is the Senate has polarized itself as well, very substantially. But the difference between the Senate and the House is still quite striking because senators tend to reflect more heterogeneous communities.
ORNSTEINSo when you see extraordinarily conservative right wing senators, like Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania who vote for a fiscal cliff resolution and people who vote to get us out of the shutdown dilemma --and then it goes to the House -- and their own House members all vote against, it tells you something about what happens when you have this homogenous echo chamber at work.
COOKWell, I don't disagree with Norm. But, to me, the biggest problem with the U.S. Senate is that you have two leaders that are each the most partisan and bitter fighters that we've seen in their leadership posts in probably 70 years. I mean, Harry Reid, you can't find another partisan and combative leader on the Democratic side in 70 years, and same thing for Mitch McConnell.
COOKAnd when you have two leaders that despise each other and that, you know, loathe the other side, it makes it very, very, very hard to get anything done. I can't tell you how many times I've had members either -- on both sides say, you know, we tried to get something together, and then either one or the other or both kind of scotch it.
RICHIEWe just did a piece on our website on Friday that points out that 22 senators -- or 22 percent of the Senate is from people who won in a state that the other major party's candidate carried, so that you have more than one-fifth of the Senate where those senators have a particular incentive to be showing their ability to work across party lines because, you know, their nominee lost their state.
RICHIEThat's only 6 percent of the House. So you have a different culture that's created by that. So you still have, you know, the problems that Norm and Charlie talked about, but you have different incentives within the body to try to work for cooperation, which you saw them leading the way toward the settlement last week.
REHMNow, on the media I saw something about this last week. Tim in Baltimore writes, "In the last week, two instances of how FOX News manipulates public opinion have come out. One was a closer look into claims made by guests on the Sean Hannity Show that Obamacare was hurting their small business. A follow-up with these couples showed how distorted their claims were.
REHM"Yet the damage of false perceptions was done. Another instance of FOX News manipulation was a story by David Folkenflik which showed how FOX News staff contributed bogus replies in forums in order to manipulate public opinion."
ORNSTEINYou know, I read that story about the Sean Hannity case, and it was absolutely fascinating and absolutely devastating. It was three couples who came on who talked about how they were either losing their insurance or the business was going to be devastated. Turned out the fellow whose business he said was going to be devastated has four employees, which is not affected at all by Obamacare.
ORNSTEINThe others, when you look at it, were going to be able to have insurance at a fraction of the cost of what they were actually paying now. Now, you know, these were people who went on -- they didn't lie. They just didn't know. They never looked. They had no clue. But, in fact, what we have with a tribal media now is, you want to get a message out there. And that message is what attracts the kinds of viewers that you get.
ORNSTEINAnd what's going to be interesting now is to see whether Rupert Murdoch, who has a lot of broader interests in a society just as many others in the business community who would not have been well served by a default, who isn't particularly well-served by some of the turmoil we have now, where that clashes with the business model that makes FOX the biggest profit gatherer of the entire empire.
COOKWell, before I'd go over to media bias, I read that article. And I think part of the article was false. And, with all due respect to my good friend Norm, part of something he said was false. It is false to say that employers under 50 are not affected by Obamacare, their health care. As an employer of five people, mine is.
COOKI mean, we are going to be forced into the D.C. exchange. I mean, our health care policies are going to change. So you can't say that small businesses aren't affected. Now, I'm not going to, you know, argue whether it's pro or con Obamacare. But you cannot say the small plans, small businesses are not affected.
REHMNow, it was my understanding it was small employers with employees under 50 employees...
COOKCook and Company, six employees.
ORNSTEINYeah, you have healthcare, right? He didn't have healthcare for his employees. He was saying he was going to be forced to have coverage for his employees, which is false.
COOKRight. But the fact checker said companies with fewer than 50 employees are not affected by Obamacare, and that's not true.
ORNSTEINThat's if you already have insurance. What this guy was saying was he was going to be forced by the government to provide insurance where he wasn't doing it otherwise, which is not the case.
REHMSo two different understandings of that, but my understanding has been if you had fewer than 50 employees and did not provide health insurance, you were not forced into it.
REHMSo surely that applies to you as well.
COOKNo. I provide 100 percent premiums for my employees.
COOKBut we are affected.
REHMHow? How are you affected?
COOKThe provisions of our health plan are going to change, and they're not going to be as good as they were.
REHMWhat do you mean?
COOKWell, I mean -- I'm not our plan's administrator, but all I know is what I'm told in the office is that our plan will not be as good as it was. And this is on the top of -- let's see, this year's premiums are 35 percent higher than last year's, and the year that we're coming into is 35 percent higher than it was last year. So, you know, look, I think we need to do something about healthcare. We need to do some healthcare reform.
COOKBut for people to say that, you know, nobody's going to be hurt by this, nobody's going to be affected isn't exactly right.
REHMAll right. And tomorrow we're going to do an entire hour on what is happening with the healthcare system. Why is it so difficult to get on exactly who is and is not going to be affected? We've got lots of callers, 800-433-8850. And first let's go to Earl in Raleigh, N.C. You're on the air.
EARLGood morning. How are you?
EARLI just wanted to point something out. And I've been following the news, and I know it's really popular right now that -- and a lot of the major media outlets are taking great pleasure in dissecting and, you know, kind of trying to sideline the Tea Party. But I just want to give you a perspective from somebody who doesn't have any real political affiliation.
EARLAnd I'll tell you why the Tea Party is not going to go away. It's because, in my opinion -- and I think about this quite a bit. In my opinion, I see no faction in Congress with a serious approach and a serious commitment to fiscal responsibility other than the Tea Party, not mainstream Republicans and certainly not mainstream Democrats. I don't -- and ultimately, for the average guy on the street, someone like me who works in business and has to deal with the realities of life every day, all I see is more and more spending.
EARLAnd our national debt is just spiraling out of control. We're spending over a billion dollars a day in interest. And this is the fundamental reason why a lot of people identify with the Tea Party. And this is the fundamental reason why burning them in effigy, so to speak, in the media, it's just kind of -- it's a placebo for a lot -- or it's really more of a sedative to the national consciousness about fiscal responsibility.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Norm.
ORNSTEINYeah, I mean, there's some -- I certainly sympathize with a lot of the anger out there and a belief that we've got to do something about spending. There are a couple of things, though, to keep in mind. One is that we have actually, having come through the worst economic crisis since the Depression, have dramatically moved to reduce spending and to stabilize our debt. It's at a level as a share of our economy that's too high, but it's come down pretty dramatically.
ORNSTEINAnd we've had about $2.5 trillion of debt reduction built in, which is out of the 4 trillion goal that we had from all of the different commissions already. And discretionary spending, which is most of what we see in government, other than the entitlements, is down at the lowest level as a share of the economy in 60 years. In fact, it's causing enormous damage to the economy. The other thing to keep in mind is that some of the tactics that have been used in the name of fiscal responsibility have made the situation dramatically worse.
REHMGive me an example.
ORNSTEINWell, what we've just been through. Standard & Poor said that the shutdown cost the economy about $23 billion. And that drop in the economy, which is going to mean less revenues, which is going to be extremely costly to get programs back up, is going to have a multiplier effect in costs. So we've made our deficits and debt worse in the presumed goal of trying to make them better.
RICHIESo the caller really speaks to the fact that there is this very real perspective that I think -- getting back to the question about the origins of the most recent run of polarization -- is the bailout, but then the stimulus package and then this sort of sense of government spending getting out of hand, even though the economy demanded something like that at that point. But I think that that points to the fact that, you know, in early 2009 Republicans in the Congress got together and had a very strategic decision to be against any -- you know, to be against the Obama Administration to define themselves as a no party.
RICHIEAnd so they didn't participate in that stimulus conversation. They didn't participate in healthcare. And so then you take a very real perspective that this caller reflects. And you have a party that has said there's no -- you know, that they're not part of any realistic movement toward things that had to happen like the stimulus package. And it pushes them toward a perspective of opposition that I think didn't have to happen.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Charlie Cook.
COOKI agree with everything that's been said, that I think the Tea Party is -- basically it's a primal scream of frustration of people that are just very upset. And I understand that. I also think though that their frustration has not been channeled in constructive ways even to try to -- you know, to cause the effects they're looking for.
COOKFor example, I don't think it's ever appropriate to shut down the government. I don't think it's ever appropriate to hold up a debt ceiling increase. But the thing about it is they were doing it for -- they weren't even doing it for entitlement. I mean, you know, they're not even channeling it in a way that would be most constructive for what they're really talking about. We haven't had a discussion about entitlements all year. And that's where the real money is. And that's not even what they were really talking about.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Gainesville, Fla. Hi, Denise, you're on the air.
DENISEHi. I am standing in Ted Yoho's district, and I've got to tell you guys, I think that there's a couple of things that are being vastly underreported. Blood-red districts aren't necessarily as blood red as you might suspect they are. There were demonstrations at Ted Yoho's office almost every day. And there are a certain percentage of the population that believe in alien abduction.
DENISEThat doesn't mean that the Tea Party has any grasp on reality because they're not being given any kind of facts. They're being pumped up by FOX News. And I think that the business interests that really spent the money fighting against Obamacare, funding these operations to push back against it with false claims have to be examined. And that's being underreported as well.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Norm.
ORNSTEINYou know, one of the interesting elements of this, I think, you know, Ted Yoho comes out of this movement and really believes deeply. There was a fascinating profile of him in the Washington Post about the need to make these dramatic changes. And of course he's the one who said that a default would be great because the financial markets would love it. But I saw a comment from Rod Dreher, a conservative, who said he talked to a Tea Party person who told him, don't you dare touch my Medicare or Social Security. And, of course, don't touch defense. But, boy, you better cut that spending.
REHMNorm Ormstein, and he's the co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," now out in expanded paperback. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We've gotten lots of emails to this effect, Charlie Cook: "How can you blame your premium increases on Obamacare? Premiums have been going up every year for a very long time."
COOKYes, premiums -- I mean, we've never had our premiums go down. We had...
REHMNor have I.
COOKRight, right. And we've had some single-digit increase years. We've seen low double-digits, 11, 12, 13 percent. To have 35 percent back to back years, now, is that, A, insurance companies preparing, you know, to protect themselves for Obamacare? Maybe. Is it really because of Obamacare? Maybe. Is it gouging? Maybe. But the thing is, A, it's gone up, and it's kind of hard to say there is no association whatsoever.
REHMHow do you see it, Norm?
ORNSTEINI'm a little skeptical. I do think that there may be some gaining by insurance companies who want to get their premiums up as high as they can knowing that there may be some pressures otherwise. But what we have seen, where exchanges have been out there with plans -- and in every state the requirement is that you have a basic plan that goes all the way up to a gold-plated plan.
ORNSTEINAnd virtually every case the premiums by those insurance companies on an exchange, which is what you'd expect with competition, have been less than they had been. And I suspect we'll see that happen even more as time passes. And they're not going to be manipulated where you get one or two employees who get devastating illnesses, which I've seen with companies with 100 employees, where their premiums then go right through the roof.
ORNSTEINMostly what companies have done to protect themselves against premiums going up is to increase the co-pays by their employees or change the drugs that you can have. No doubt, we'll see some of that. It's private insurers. It's the same thing. But by almost every standard and what we've seen so far, the rollout and its disaster notwithstanding, where states have done their own exchanges, is it's been dramatically better for people.
REHMAll right. As I said, we're going to get more to that tomorrow when we talk exclusively about Obamacare. Rob, talk about the two top primary system currently being used in California and Washington State and the Supreme Court's ruling that that was unconstitutional.
RICHIEWell, there's -- the Supreme Court ruling came out about 10 years ago saying that California's old blanket primary system was unconstitutional. That was one where you could go into the polls -- this had been used in Washington State for decades, used in Alaska, and then had been just adopted in California a few years before. And in any given race in the primary, you could decide which party to vote in.
RICHIESo you could vote for Republican for governor. You couldn't vote also for the Democrat. You would just vote for one. And then you would go down to Senate, and you might say, oh, I'm going to vote for the Democrat in here. But that is essentially -- that was seen as a violation of party association rights, that people who aren't part of a party were having a chance to vote in the other party's primary to would allow certain kind of gaming and, you know, you're not really a Democrat, but you're pretending to be or what have you.
RICHIESo top two was a response to that, and what it is, it's now -- it's what they first did in Washington 'cause they had this tradition of a blanket primary. Then they went to this. And now California has done it. Louisiana has had a version of this for many years, where they have a primary, and you can vote for one person in the primary. And all the candidates, regardless of party, are presented before you, and you vote for one. Then the top two advance to November. So in each contest, you can vote for whomever you want.
RICHIEThere's a certain freedom in that. There's a couple problems that have emerged. One is not that many people still vote in the primary. California had actually historic lows in its primary vote, so you still have really the most committed voters who are participating there. And then only two people advance. So they winnow the field to only two, and certainly in Washington, you get -- almost every race is a very traditional Democratic, and it's a very traditional Republican with nobody else on the ballot.
RICHIEAnd so, anyway, the one thing that Norm and I have been talking about is that you could advance more than two. So to have that winnowing primary winnow the field but not sort of eviscerate it to just two, and have maybe four, and then use a system like the Australian system, one used in a number of U.S. cities, a rank choice ballot that would handle having four candidates. And that would allow you to have more choice in November but still get those benefits of a more free primary vote.
REHMSo what you all seem to be saying is we've got to make some major changes or see some major changes made in order to get back on track. Charlie.
COOKWell, yeah, I mean, I think each institution's a little different. I mean, for example, in the House, the House is a body that was designed for majority rule. But now with this "Hastert Rule," which isn't a rule, put in place that basically says that Republicans aren't going to be bring anything to the floor that doesn't have the support of a majority of a majority, which they violate a couple times. But what that means is plurality rule in the House. And that's not -- that's not what anybody intended.
COOKAnd, in fact, had they had that in place back when President Reagan was in the White House and Tip O'Neill was the Speaker of the House, then all of the accomplishments that Republicans like so much, domestic accomplishments, would not have gone through. I mean, the Kemp-Roth tax cuts wouldn't have been enacted if they had had a Hastert Rule in effect then 'cause Democrats would've never allowed votes on them. So it's -- they're unique problems to each institution, but they've all come together like a perfect storm so that we now have a process that just no longer works.
ORNSTEINYou know, Diane, one of the big challenges we have is that this is as much a cultural problem as it is a structural problem. It's a tribalism out there that we, you know, write about a lot in the book that has people looking at those on the other side and saying, if you're for it, I'm against it, even if I was for it yesterday. It's much more difficult to deal with culture than it is to deal with structure. Having said that, we have to deal with structures to try and change things along.
ORNSTEINAnd, to me, the primary one, as Rob was talking about, is we've got to enlarge the electorate so that we don't have quite the same over-weaning influence of a relatively small group of activists, which is what has intimidated Speaker Boehner to some degree into doing what he has done.
ORNSTEINAnd that's where, if we're not going to do anything radical, which we're not, having open primaries as they have in California, with some preference voting -- so you're not going to encourage extremes or end up with, as we had in one district in California, an overwhelmingly Democratic district where the top two were both Republicans, 'cause the Democrats all split their votes -- where you can begin to get a larger group of Americans involved and engaged, and even if it -- what it does is it gives an incumbent a little bit more protection against the threat of a challenge from the base voters, it would be a positive thing. It's small steps. But we've got to start somewhere.
REHMSo what is your expectation for the budget process, Charlie? As we go forward, you've got this huge committee now working to find compromise. Given what you all have said this morning, how do you?
COOKI think we can -- we're going to come very close, if not have another shutdown. I mean, I don't -- I think the people that forced the last shutdown do not think they made a mistake. Now, I think there are a lot of Republicans that believe that a mistake was made, but the people that were the primary instigators, they're blaming other Republicans for caving in. And so I don't know that the underlying dynamics have changed enough that we could say from now till the November election there's not going to be any more of these kind of showdown situations.
ORNSTEINYou know, the budget conference is going to be dominated by four people; Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Patty Murray, the chairman of the Senate Committee, and their counterparts, Jeff Sessions and Chris Van Hollen. Keep in mind that Paul Ryan voted against the deal that ended the shutdown, as did Jeff Sessions.
ORNSTEINAnd the question is, can they be creative enough to make some modest changes that open up the sequester so we don't have these damaging, mindless, across-the-board cuts? Can they maybe bring in Social Security and Medicare a little bit? But if you can't find revenues, not by defining them as taxes by user fees or other ways, find a way to get some infrastructure spending to provide a balance on the other side. If they can't do that, Charlie's absolutely right. We're heading for another confrontation.
REHMHow worried are you?
ORNSTEINI'm very worried. And I'm worried in the short run because I think Charlie is absolutely right, that you've got a new narrative that's developed out there. Rush Limbaugh started it. Our weak-kneed, spineless leaders caved just when we were on the verge of victory. We would have gotten through. So what if there's a default? Nothing terrible would've happened. We would've paid our debts. And Obama would've caved. And that is something Ted Cruz picked up on afterwards, and you see it with an awful lot of other members. That continues to drive the Republican leaders in the House.
ORNSTEINThat's the short run. The longer run is the more we get divided into these camps where you're talking past one another and you don't share a common set of facts, and the other side is the enemy, the more the system itself comes under a kind of stress. It's one thing to be the laughing stock to the rest of the world, but where we're still pretty much, you know, in the private world, we're keeping our act together and this is flesh wounds, you could easily reach the point where flesh wounds turn into something much more serious.
REHMCan Republicans afford to do this again, Rob?
RICHIELet me -- that's a great way to get -- realize that it's still grounded in structure. So all of what Norm and Charlie have said make sense. But a majority of the House is represented by Republicans in a district that Mitt Romney beat Obama in, in a very choice type election, right? So 2012 was a clear choice. You know, Romney won a big majority of districts, and a majority of Republicans represent one of those districts -- or a majority of the seats are held by them.
RICHIESo electorally, they in a sense have this, you know, quirky mandate based on, one, we have a checks and balances system, of course, which, you know, many countries don't have. They have parliamentary democracies where the executive comes out of the legislature. We don't. So to make that work, we need to have the parties within legislatures not act like, you know, group think, single type parties.
RICHIEBut they are, and that's because of this polarization and because of our electoral rule. So at the end of the day, you know, things can happen. We'll somehow muddle through to something, but we have a very -- we have a real clash, clash of mandates because of the rules we have, and we don't have a way to resolve them, I think, without change the rules.
COOKYou know, we've put the spotlight on all the problems or many of the problems in the Republican Party. And I agree with all that. However, if this debate, once it somehow gets over onto what do we need to do about Social Security, once it goes to chained CPI, once it goes to entitlements, you're going to see many of the same kind of fights that you're seeing on the Republican side today, you're going to see on the Democratic side.
COOKAnd, you know, there are very few problems in our political process that exist in one party that don't also exist in the other under the right circumstances. And when the circumstances changes, I think you're going to see some big fights on the Democratic side.
ORNSTEINWell, a couple of points to make there. One is President Obama after being asked by Senate Republicans to not just talk about how he would do some reform in Social Security Medicare, but to get more specific, put chained CPI into his budget and mention it in his State of the Union. In return, there was supposed to be some give on the other side. There hasn't been. Having said that, when you get one party that moves so far off the rails, it almost inevitably brings a counter-reaction.
ORNSTEINAnd Ted Cruz is going to do more to activate a kind of left wing or liberal base saying, why should we compromise when look at what we get that will provide headaches if and when we move to a point where you could actually begin to get some of the compromise that's necessary to move the system along?
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones to Jerry in O'Fallon, Mo. You're on the air.
JERRYI think one of the previous callers kind of was a picture of what the issue is, is that people invent things or things are invented for them to get angry about without benefit of explanation, as he was talking the debts are spiraling out of control. And my questions is -- I had seen Ted Cruz multiple times state something on the order of, this Obamacare is going to destroy the lives of millions of Americans.
JERRYAnd I've yet to hear someone ask the second question. Could you please explain how this going to destroy the lives of millions of Americans? And it's this kind of rhetoric that is allowed without criticism, without examination that, I think, drives at least a lot of the people that I know that are absolutely furious about what I think Mr. Ornstein categorized as a relatively minor change to our -- the way our healthcare insurance system functions.
REHMAll right, Jerry, thanks for calling. The question obviously would be one word, how?
RICHIEWell, I'm going to let Norm and Charlie get to how, but I'm going to -- just a quick part of the Ted Cruz political story. So a year ago he was in the primary. In the first round, he -- they have a runoff system, so this is how rules matter. In Texas he lost the first round pretty badly. But you got to get 50 percent in the primary, and so he had a runoff.
RICHIEAnd the way he won that runoff was being a very polarizing candidate, right, to really define things in a very clear, polarizing way. And he kind of got this surge of conservative support, and he surged past someone, who on the day that they voted in the first round, if it had been a one-on-one race would've won. But basically polarization can work politically in a one-on-one, zero sum environment, which is why we need to change that environment, but he's been rewarded by it.
REHMSo, Charlie, in answer to our caller's question, why not ask that simple question, how is Obamacare going to literally ruin millions of people's lives?
COOKWell, I think the essence of what the question was saying is there's hyperbole in why is he not being called out on out. And the thing is hyperbole is a part of American politics.
REHMThat's the way it goes.
COOKYeah, I mean, it shouldn't be, but that is the way it is.
REHMBut he hasn't been challenged on how.
COOKWell, no, you're right. But lots of people don't get challenged on lots of things. I mean, that just is what it is. I mean, the thing about Ted Cruz that's interesting is he's been an outsider all along. He hoped to get a top tier job in the Bush administration, George W. Bush administration. Instead he got kind of a third tier job, and so that kind of set him off.
COOKHe ran for the Senate against an establishment candidate. I mean, this guy's never been part of the establishment and has sort of grown angrier and angrier and angrier. And so I think there was no way that Ted Cruz was ever going to be a team player, and this is more about Ted Cruz than about anything else.
ORNSTEINIt's also about this irrational hatred of and obsession with Obamacare, which is -- could be called Hatchcare or Grassleycare or Durenbergercare for the...
REHMBecause they all...
ORNSTEIN...conservative and moderate conservative Republicans who came up with the idea of a mandate, a regulated set of exchanges with private insurers, and premium support. And, again, it's the same plan that Paul Ryan has for Medicare starting in 10 years. It's private exchanges with insurers, regulated with premium support, so it's -- there's nothing rational about it.
REHMNorm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He's also the coauthor of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," with Tom Mann. A new expanded paperback is now out. And Charlie Cook of the "Cook Political Report." Thank you all. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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