Mitch McConnell, Master of the Filibuster
Photo-illustration by Donkey Hotey, Flickr/Creative Commons
Regardless of the outcome of the health care vote this week, the new trope in Washington has been set, probably to last for the balance of the President Obama’s first term in office. Historically, the party that loses power lays low for semester or two, giving the new leadership a chance to do at least some of what it promised in the previous election. No more. The Republican policy of unified obstruction, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has established the no retreat, no surrender meme as one for the record books—one for the pros to study as a new tool with which to obstruct the "legislative process."
Never mind offering a moment of bipartisan cooperation, a moment President Obama courted to no avail; the simple act of lying low has sufficed in many a new administration but not this one. Think of the first Reagan year in office, or W going to war. This is a move the Democrats have down. It is called capitulation. Not that I am knocking capitulation. When markets fall, it is said the moment of final capitulation sets the stage for the new rise to come.
The Republicans didn’t get the memo. Never mind that their base is no longer under their control, and that many elements of their message filter out as a libertarian grotesque. Within the walls of the Senate they are making a goal-line stand as if they weren’t irrelevant old codgers at all.
From the street we hear: I don’t want your government interference rammed down my throat. Rammed down my throat: everyone is on message even at the ramparts, even beyond the control of the McConnell acolytes. Democrats will never get this. If this playbook were handed out in Democrat-school, we would all be left behind. Admit it. We just can’t stay on message. Our sound bites, on the whole, suck. Their sound bites? “I don’t want your government health care rammed down my throat.” So evocative. And on message. The week death panels came out last summer I scored a dozen Republican Senators on message—dead on with that two-word trope. And now, rammed down our throats.
Why didn't we think of, “I don’t want your Republican filibusters rammed down my throat?”
The unified obstructionists refer, of course, to the newfound Democratic resolve to actually pass something. I believe we can thank President Obama for leveraging a little spine here. Presumably he just told everybody, hey, you have two choices; you might get voted out of office for standing for health care. Or you might get voted out of office for standing for nothing. And thus reconciliation and the new toy—deem and pass. Yes, deem and pass is legal. Yes, it could be applied in this instance, though it was designed for far smaller magnitudes of bill correction when it was devised in the 70s. You don’t need to repass an existing bill, you just pass the fixes. See Joe Conason on this topic in yesterday’s Salon.
This has been called the “Slaughter Solution" after Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter. So now we witness the birth of a sound bite in real time—at virtually the same moment the phenomenon arises. So, of course we are once again playing catch-up in the sound bite wars. But looking beyond the tightly scripted indignation of the back benchers, how did we get here?
Again, the refusal to acquiesce to the majority led the Republicans to resort—legally and inappropriately—to the blanket filibuster threat, which, by the way, is now a hopelessly outdated “nuclear option” since we have so many new options de jour. Both sides have resorted to what one might call precedent creep. But it all started with the filibuster. Though both sides have expanded the range of the filibuster through precedent creep, numerous studies have shown that Republicans led that charge more often than not.
It is nothing more than their legal and inappropriate use of the filibuster threat that gave occasion to reconciliation and deem and pass. All three tools of the legislative trade have propelled the back bends and somersaults that mark this legislative campaign. Because over time, the Republicans have expanded the precedent as needed, pulling reconciliation out of their hats to pass the Bush tax cuts—no small potatoes there.
And so, if, today, the Dems are just a little guilty of murking up the precedents for deem and pass, perhaps we should remember how they arrived at this juncture in an age in which a legislative majority is no longer such in the Senate, and every bill can and will be stopped by unified obstructionism.
Just Say No
Going forward, unified obstructionism will write its own ticket, at least into the mid-term races and most likely beyond. Once you have screamed to the bloody rafters about having government rammed down your throat, called the other side socialists and Nazis, and used racially denigrating photos of the sitting president in your official fund raising strategy sessions, you can hardly go back and get bipartisan about some other topic, like financial reform.
Granted, 11 Republicans joined the Democrats to pass a jobs bill yesterday, but who can oppose anything with the name “jobs” on it in these perilous times? It is more the exception that proves the rule than a harbinger of things to come.
And so it begins to make perfect sense that the health care roadmap will be applied to financial reform to keep the unified obstructionism pure and uncluttered as a sound bite. No collaborators here. We just saw that play out over the last ten days with Senator Chris Dodd’s version of financial reform being rejected by his momentary collaborators, Republicans Richard Shelby and Bob Corker, after Republican pressure was applied their way.
If we are left with well-intentioned but flawed reform on both fronts, health care and finance, that is not the worst thing that could happen. That Democrats will be punished for both, as well as for the stimulus package, goes without saying. Unified obstructionism demands it, even if the Republicans know, in their gnarly hearts, that the whole Party of No thing is just something Mitch McConnell threw against the wall and it stuck.
“Would I love to have the election tomorrow? I sure would. Early signs are that this could be a good year, but we have a long way to go,” McConnell said last month.
It certainly helps to have the top-rated cable news network in your back pocket. It helps that the other side got blamed for your own Republican Treasury’s last-act bank bailout. It certainly helps to have populist patriots out in the street shouting down legislators in the town square. Dumb luck? Yes, I suppose, but orchestrated like a Texas drill squad as compared to the precision anti-synchronicity of the left.
The upshot of all this is that we have nothing but more of the same to look forward to until November—fill in your own year. For the Republicans, the immediate upside of unified obstructionism is that it works right now. The downside, though still off in the distance, is more difficult, for them and us. At some point, the electorate wakes up from this Groundhog Day scenario to find its jobs gone, safety net gone, health care out of sight, plundered 401ks—and either way, the Party of No has its fingerprints all over the mechanism that jammed, gummed, and broke the works—if anyone cares to notice.