Friday, February 06, 2015

Going Around, Coming Around

I found it simply dumbfounding that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured everybody that, with the Republican takeover of the Senate, the obstruction would end, the logjam would break, and things were finally going to get done. McConnell, after all, has spent the past six years conducting a running clinic on how the minority can completely bollix up the works in the Senate—and he did so with a ruthless determination that stunned and dismayed many observers. (Including prominent political scientists. See, for example, It's Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein.) Did he think Democrats weren't taking notes?

Under McConnell's leadership, Republicans made every piece of Senate business (short of naming post offices) subject to a sixty vote super-majority. For six years! Senate rules were single-mindedly exploited to ensure that all business took as long as possible to wend its way through that already slow and deliberative body. The operative goals were maximum delay and outright obstruction. Much legislation never had a chance of pulling free of the procedural tar pit, which largely explains why the past two congressional sessions have been the least productive in modern U.S. history. (The Republican-controlled House also gets a good bit of the credit.) The apparent Republican motto has been just say no. To everything. The tactic was employed from day one of the Obama administration. The principal reason for Obama's early success was Democratic control of the Congress for his first two years, including a brief sixty-vote Democratic majority in the Senate.

One reason McConnell's petulant strategy was so disheartening is that it established a new Senate precedent that might be hard to reverse. Tit-for-tat retaliation is an unfortunate but undeniable aspect of human nature. Senate rules have always allowed a determined minority to bring everything to a halt, but the sheer destructiveness of such an approach has kept its use more or less in check. It has never before been employed as a matter of routine. Did McConnell think Democrats would not be so ruthless, despite his enduring example, when their turn came to operate in the minority?

The audacity of the implied message is stunning: Give Republicans control of the Senate, and we'll show you how everybody can work together for a change—after all these years of our making sure nothing gets accomplished. Isn't that just another way of saying Republicans refuse to participate in governing unless they're running things? Isn't it just another kind of Republican hostage taking, to go along with government shutdowns and threatened debt defaults?

In modern times, Democrats have always been more cooperative than Republicans when they're in the minority. See, for example, the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war, Medicare Part D—all of which received substantial Democratic support. Democrats, it seems, just have a stronger sense of governance than Republicans. It will be interesting to discover to what extent Mitch McConnell has managed to beat that impulse out of them.

(Consider, as a prominent example of mindless opposition, that the stimulus bill passed in the first month of the Obama presidency got exactly three Republican votes in the entire Congress, despite the fact that the country was in the midst of a horrifying economic meltdown. Another: The Affordable Care Act, which is essentially a Republican health care plan, got not a single Republican vote in either house of Congress. Not one. Is that even possible without a concerted strategy of obstruction in a toe-the-line conference?)

McConnell is getting an early taste of what the next two years might be like, although I frankly don't think Democrats have it in them to be churlishly disruptive as a matter of principle or of tactics. But in the matter presently at hand, Senate Democrats are blocking passage of funding for the Department of Homeland Security because the bill contains provisions that would rescind President Obama's recent executive actions on immigration. Republicans only have 54 votes in the Senate but, as Mitch McConnell has demonstrated so masterfully, they need 60 votes to get anything passed—in this case, Homeland Security funding. What goes around comes around.

And no, Democrats aren't playing the "shut it down" game that's second nature to Republicans. They're just rejecting the notion that the majority can attach anything it wants to a funding bill, on the assumption that it's "must pass" legislation. Democrats will happily pass a clean bill funding the department if one should come along. If Republicans wish to take action on immigration—something Obama has frequently urged them to do, and which, by his own admission, would obviate his executive action—that legislation will have to stand or fall on its own merits and political support, as is proper for policy legislation. Compare what Democrats are now doing to the shutdown of 2013, when Republicans demanded that the continued functioning of the entire government be contingent upon (or, more bluntly, hostage to) the repeal or delay of a duly passed law (the Affordable Care Act) that they happened not to like.

Mitch McConnell now has, finally, what those who know him say has always been his dream job. His highest lifelong aspiration has been majority leader of the Senate. Now he's achieved it. It's a shame he has spent six year tearing down the institution he now wants to lead.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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