A key point made by Mann and Ornstein is that sustaining the prerogatives and powers of the legislative branch in tension with those of the executive and judicial branches is absolutely essential to our form of government. It has also been a natural counterbalance to excessive partisanship for much of our history. One of the key concerns raised by the authors is that this balance has been significantly undermined by current era of excessive partisanship. One of their proposed remedies to this disease is the same as what I propose in Accountability Citizenship: a grassroots effort to restore balance and compromise.
Mann and Ornstein also highlight how gerrymandering and self selection have led to almost all of the congressional districts being predominantly single party districts. This allows candidates to cater to the extremes of each party’s philosophy and makes it hard for centrists to get elected or stay in office. In Accountability Citizenship, I highlight the intellectual polarization that results from people choosing only those information sources that are in their “comfort zone.” Combined with a lack of participation by voters in the center, the result is the same: an institution where it appears many representatives and senators place loyalty to party ahead of doing the best thing for the country.
Another important thread in the book deals with the tension between allowing appropriate deliberation on legislation while still getting things done. If one allows endless use of all of the procedural mechanisms for extending debate or delaying consideration of a bill, then it can slow down the agenda so much that important things are left undone. With rising partisanship, majority party leaders have felt it necessary to change the rules under which legislation is processed, considered and voted upon. Use of so-called “closed rules” prevent use of delaying techniques and can shut out the minority party and deny appropriate time for debate and deliberation. Traditionally, voluntary adherence by members of both parties to customary restrictions on such tactics made excessive use of “closed rules” unnecessary. The current level of partisanship has eroded this tradition and led to almost reflexive use of closed rules.
There are a number of other important topics and trends discussed in the book. For me, as pervasive as the problems described by the authors seem to be, the bottom line remains that we have the power to replace 87% of Congress in November of 2014 if enough of us vote against incumbents. That may be the fastest way to break the unhealthy level of partisan politics in Washington and restore the power of the political center.