Norm Ornstein Gets Congress; WaPo Doesn’t

Result of Republican FEMA brinksmanship described as 'almost accidental'

Remember that New York Times story earlier this week on the (since-resolved) showdown over federal disaster aid—the one that misleadingly treated the standoff as a result of bickering by “Congress,” rather than the product of choices made by specific members of Congress (in this case, the Republican ones)?

Well, as it turns out, the Times was hardly the worst offender on that score. Writing in The New Republic, Norman Ornstein takes The Washington Post to the woodshed for a more egregious version of the same journalistic error.

Ornstein’s target is an article from last weekend in which the Post reporters detail an “unexpected flare-up of partisan rancor,” an “almost accidental dispute” over how to handle disaster aid that threatened to shut down the government. And how did this dispute come to be, when Democrats and Republicans had reached a broader agreement on overall funding levels?

That agreement was still largely intact Friday. But Democrats decided to pick a fight over a side issue: an insistence by the GOP to pay for more disaster relief funding by cutting a popular auto-industry loan program. Republicans refused to back down.

That is, in some of its basics, a true account of what happened. But it’s also a terrible explanation of the actions that led to the standoff. Ornstein—who has literally written the book on how Congress works several times over—offers this alternative explanation:

Here is the reality. Congress’s policy towards disaster relief has always been that money is allocated in the budget, and if more is required because there are more or deeper disasters, Congress provides it in supplemental funding. The roots of this showdown go back to [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor announcing on August 25, while Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc, that he would break precedent and demand offsets for recovery expenditures. Cantor and his House Republicans then wrote their continuing resolution for this year’s appropriations to take money from popular research programs to pay for the disaster relief, and insisted that the Senate accept their plan.

In other words, there was nothing “accidental” about this dispute. It arose because Republicans made a unilateral decision to take a position that represented a sharp break with past practice. You might think the GOP’s insistence on offsets for disaster aid is good policy; you might think it’s bad. But in terms of explaining the roots of the standoff, what matters is that it’s novel. To miss that point, and instead describe this sequence of events as Democrats “picking a fight,” is bizarre. Here’s Ornstein again:

Did Democrats “pick a fight,” as The Washington Post phrased it? Imagine if [reporters Lori] Montgomery and [Rosalind] Helderman’s editor had demanded that they deliberately slant a story to benefit an advertiser, and they and the rest of the reporting staff responded by walking out and shutting down the paper in protest. Would it be accurate to say that Washington Post reporters picked a fight?

What’s especially peculiar is that the Republican strategy of procedural brinksmanship—sometimes referred to as “hostage-taking”—is hardly some obscure development. It is the story of the 112th Congress. And Republicans are hardly coy about it. In the wake of the debt-ceiling standoff, a much-discussed article in a major newspaper concluded with this passage quoting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican:

After it was all over, Obama seemed to speak for revolted Americans—the kind of people who always want a new Washington—when he described the government as “dysfunctional.”

But at the Capitol, behind the four doors and the three receptionists and the police guard, McConnell said he could imagine doing this again.

“I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” he said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this—it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”

The newspaper was The Washington Post. Has the Post forgotten its own reporting already?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.