Decoding Republican Obstructionism

by Lane Florsheim

A spending bill to defund Obamacare passed the House Friday, so the Republican crusade to kill the president's healthcare policy is set to move onto the Senate. The continuing resolution to defund the policy, by all accounts, faces a zero percent chance of staying in the Senate's version of the bill.

"In case there's any shred of doubt in the minds of our House counterparts," Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said. "I want to be absolutely crystal clear: Any bill that defunds Obamacare is dead, dead.”

Even if the impossible occurred, and the bill passed Senate, President Obama would veto it. Should a version of the bill not pass in the next 11 days, the government will be thrust into partial shutdown.

So, why, why are Republicans wasting much time and energy pushing through useless legislature? House Republicans have now tried to pass a measure to repeal Obamacare into law over 40 times. Forty! Let's think about all the important issues Congress could be tackling right now instead of the illogical attempt at a repeal: immigration, gun control, and how about, you know, making actual progress on the debt limit so that the U.S. can avoid government shutdown?

But this time it's going to work! At least according to Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS0, who told the Huffington Post, "None of the other votes were on must-pass bills. They were on individual bills." Huelskamp proceeded to compare the House's past attempts to defeat Obamacare to baseball. "We've had 42 different swings at the bat. Forty-two different exhibition games. But we've never actually had a regular season."

Ezra Klein of Wonkblog has a slightly more nuanced take. Here's what House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is hoping will happen, according to Klein.

1) The action moves to the Senate, and reporters stop reporting that Boehner doesn't have a shadow of control over his Republican members;
2) Sen. Ted Cruz tries and fails to defund Obamacare in the Senate's continuing resolution;
3) The Democrat-led Senate sends the House a continuing resolution that doesn't defund Obamacare;
4) Boehner shrugs, says he tried, and persuades his members to let him bring the Senate's bill to the floor;
5) The House passes the Senate's measure, President Obama signs it, and everyone moves onto the next crisis.

But, as Klein points out, trouble arises at number four, because Boehner isn't going to just shrug and say he tried and bring the Senate bill to the floor — instead he'll tell his members that they they need to save their fight for the debt ceiling debates, where they may be able to force the Obama administration into delaying Obamacare for a year by threatening to trigger a government shutdown. Saying these threats are irresponsible is an understatement, though not a particularly surprising one.

The choice of Congressional Republicans to use obstructionism to the detriment of any kind of significant governmental progress has been a theme, perhaps the theme, of Obama's presidency.

As Michael Grunwald details in his book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, Republican leadership planned to obstruct Obama before he even took office — including secret meetings led by House Republican whip Eric Cantor in December 2008 and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in early January 2009.

“If [Obama] was for it,” former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, “we had to be against it.”

Isn't our bipartisan system a beautiful thing?

Grunwald also reports on Boehner and Cantor's plans to thwart the stimulus bill. Boehner urged his members to trash Obama's stimulus on cable, YouTube, and the House floor. Meanwhile, Cantor announced his initiative to have not a single Republican vote to pass the bill — not centrists, not those from Obama-friendly districts, no one. If a few Republicans voted for it, he feared the White House would slap the bipartisan label on it, which given the financial crisis the country was in, definitely would have been the worst thing in the world.

Republican obstructionism was born. Or should we say, born again.

"It was stunning that we’d set this up and, before hearing from the President, they’d say they were going to oppose this," Obama political aide David Axelrod said. "Our feeling was, we were dealing with a potential disaster of epic proportions that demanded cooperation. If anything was a signal of what the next two years would be like, it was that."

Republican obstructionism has impeded headway on many issues. Predictably, not a single House Republican voted to pass the stimulus bill or the health care reform bill. Just one voted to pass the Small Business Jobs Act, and three voted to pass the Wall Street reform bill. They held the federal budget debt ceiling debates hostage in 2011, requiring $900 billion in spending cuts in ten years — even though raising the debt ceiling allows the government to make payments Congress itself has already authorized.

Since becoming the Senate minority in 2007, Republicans have also taken extraordinary filibuster measures in the Senate. Filibusters now require three-fifths majority to pass bills into law (so 60 votes when all 100 senators are present and voting). As the ever-helpful Klein points out, the issue here is not how many filibusters are used, but how the practice — which was once a rarity — has become a constant.

Says Klein:

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. That’s why Harry Reid says things like “60 votes are required for just about everything,” though there are a small number of bills where the majority uses the budget reconciliation process to short-circuit the 60-vote requirement.

What's more is that Republican obstructionism on Obama's judicial nominations during his first term were unprecedented, which further demonstrates the power of the filibuster. Obama is the only one of the five most recent presidents for whom both the average and median waiting time from nomination to confirmation for court nominees was greater than half a calendar year during his first term.

This should not have been the case. Obama had a same-party Senate majority during his first term (and course still does), so he should have had the best results over any recent president. What's been different for Obama is the extension of the filibuster to cover every single nominee. (Comparatively, Democrats filibustered selected judicial nominations during George W. Bush's presidency, but only at the circuit court level, and not every single one.)

As the Washington Post's Jonathan Bernstein explains, the delays weren't just bad for Obama, but the federal court vacancies were also detrimental to the ordinary people who wanted to get their legal matters taken care of promptly.

Which presents the real problem with obstructionism: It not only hurts Obama and his fellow Democratic politicians, but is also harmful to the citizens who have elected Congresspeople to act in their best interest.

Not only could obstructionism hand Congress to Democrats next year, but, in an ironic twist, it turns out a government shutdown might actually be good for Obamacare — not only would a lot of the law's funding be unaffected, but many of the inevitable glitches and mistakes that come with introducing a complicated new law would be blamed on the GOP's failure to achieve a compromise that would prevent shutdown.

Let's just hope it doesn't come to that.