The central fallacy of politics is “both sides do it.”
Both sides increasingly delay judicial appointments when the other party is in power. Both sides use procedures like reconciliation in the Senate to get what they want (though Republicans used it in the case of the Bush tax breaks to add trillions to the deficit, the exact opposite point of reconciliation). Both sides operate by prioritizing their donors’ needs over those of average citizens.
But the clouds of gray inevitable in a political process that has from our founding required ugly compromise are helping shade the unprecedented measures Senate Republicans began taking when the Democrats took over the Senate, and escalated into overdrive as President Obama assumed office.
From the night of the president’s inauguration, the GOP has plotted to deny Obama any successes, even as the country languished in a recession made worse by eight years of policies that had the effect of purposely exacerbating income inequality.
The tactics the GOP is using are all reminiscent of previous ways smaller-scale obstruction has taken place. What’s new is the unyielding consistency and a complete disconnect with the wishes of all except the most vocal part of their base that enforces extremism by threatening primary challenges. This is how you get a House that can barely pass a farm bill, even when all the “extraneous pieces” like help for 47 million Americans who rely on food stamps are stripped out.
The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent calls it “sabotage governing.” The New York Times simply says that the House GOP is engaged in a “Refusal to Govern.” Whatever it is, it’s something that has never been seen in modern American politics.
Here are five ways the GOP’s obstruction is unprecedented.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.com
Record Number Of Filibusters
When the Republicans lost their Senate majority in the 2006 election, they decided to use the filibuster to stop the Democratic agenda — all the time. While the procedure to prevent the majority to pass a bill without at least three-fifths of the Senate in agreement had been around for about 90 years, it was rarely used until the 1990s. Suddenly in 2007, the number of “cloture” votes needed to break a filibuster doubled, thanks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his caucus.
The issue today isn’t that we see 50, or 100, or 150 filibusters. It’s that the filibuster is a constant where it used to be a rarity. Indeed, it shouldn’t even be called “the filibuster”: It has nothing to do with talking, or holding the floor. It should be called the 60-vote requirement. It applies to everything now even when the minority does not specifically choose to invoke it. There are no longer, to my knowledge, categories of bills that don’t get filibustered because such things are simply not done, though there are bills that the minority chooses not to invoke their 60-vote option on.
Trying To Filibuster The National Labor Relations Board Out Of Existence
As part of the New Deal, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 created the National Labor Relations Board to conduct union elections as well as investigate and rule on disputes over fair labor practices. There has not been a full Senate-confirmed, five-member board since August 2003, thus the board’s decisions have been struck down several times by federal courts. So President Obama chose his nominees to fill vacancies on the board in April 2009. When Republicans blocked all three nominations, the president used his power of recess appointments to fill the board. He did this, like presidents before him, though Republicans kept the Senate in a “pro-forma” session to prevent such appointments. Earlier this year, a federal court ruled on the side of Senate Republicans and said the appointments were invalid.
Wilma Liebman, who served on the board for 14 years, notes that the president’s nominees are uncontroversial: “At any other time, their confirmation would be a virtual certainty.” To her, it is apparent that the GOP is set on destroying a body that protects workers’ rights without actually changing the law:
…the turmoil of the past few years has been exceptional. The NLRB, a product of the New Deal, has becom a lightning rod for accelerating political controversy not seen since its early days. It became entangled in the bitter partisan fights of the 2012 election season with the attacks on government and the broad campaign to weaken organized labor’s political influence. It weathered aggressive congressional oversight, battles over its budget, including an effort to entirely defund it, repeated assaults in the media and other existential threats. Various Republican senators vowed to filibuster any nominees to the board. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared that for the NLRB “inoperable is progress.”
A Senate Veto Of The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It was enacted into law as part of the Dodd-Frank reforms to regulate financial services and give citizens a place to register complaints and seek recourse from banks, investment houses, payday loan shops, credit card companies, etc. that make money off of lending money — the exact people whose bad loans were responsible for the financial crisis. And the Republicans hate it.
The Senate minority has refused to hold a vote on the appointment of former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, though he’s been widely praised by even Republicans, as CFPB director until huge changes are made to the agency that would take away its ability to function as designed. Among the changes they want are to get rid of a single-director structure and have the organization run by committee.
In the clip above, Senator Warren explains exactly how unprecedented this maneuver is.
But Cordray certainly isn’t the only executive nominee the GOP has tried to block. In Obama’s first term alone, there were as many Senate filibusters of the president’s nominees as there were during the 16 years that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in the White House combined.
Sure, Republican governors don’t want to set up their own health care exchanges. They don’t want to expand Medicaid, even though their residents will be paying for it anyway. Sure, House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 37 times and are planning another repeal vote, along with a vote to delay the individual mandate.
All of that is obstruction, no doubt. But you can’t get to the depths of how far the GOP is going to try to sabotage Obamacare until you point out how they strong-armed the National Football League from advertising the program’s benefits.
America is about to engage in the largest open enrollment for health insurance in our history, and there’s less money to inform people about this process than there was for Medicare Part D, which only affected a fraction of the population. And though Democrats objected to the law’s structure, they didn’t try to stop the government from advertising its expansion of Medicare.
The Department of Health and Human Services decided to try to replicate a campaign used in Massachusetts to inform residents about Romneycare through the Boston Red Sox. But the GOP warned the NFL not to play ball.
How can you understand this any other way than they don’t want 26 million Americans who are about to get subsidies for health insurance to know of the benefits they are due? Even NBC’s Chuck Todd had to point out that Republicans were “trying to sabotage the law.”
Using The Debt Limit To Inflict Pain On The Poor
Objecting to raising the debt limit as Congress inevitably raised it dozens of times during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes is a Washington tradition. In 2011, Republicans for the first time demanded “dollar for dollar” cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit. The result was a crisis that cost taxpayers millions, killed jobs and brought America the first debt downgrade in its history. The result of this hostage situation is the so-called sequestration, which was never supposed to go into effect. But it did, and the poor are paying for it.
Toward the end of 2013, the debt limit will need to be raised again, even though the deficit is about 45 percent smaller than it was in 2009. What do Republicans want now? They want Paul Ryan’s budget to be put in place. This budget — which privatizes Medicare and cuts government to the point it can barely run national parks — became most of what Mitt Romney ran and lost on by five million votes in 2012. Who cares what the voters want?
Apparently, not this Republican Party.