RUDGLEY: Republican obstructionism

The lack of progress in Congress should be blamed primarily on the Republican Party

We hear the phrase “partisan gridlock,” and we naturally assume that it is a product of both Democrats and Republicans’ failures to find common ground and enter the negotiation table. The reasonable and balanced thing to do, we assume, is to distribute blame equally between the two parties. This view, however, is both misguided and misinformed and, upon further scrutiny of recent legislative impasses, we must realize that that Republicans should bear most of the responsibility for gridlock.

However, sometimes the common explanation of legislative logjam on Capitol Hill rings true; indeed, the narrative that there are fewer moderates open to compromise in both parties is a political reality — in a powerful move, moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) announced her retirement in 2012 for this precise reason. Sometimes it’s even the case that President Obama and congressional Democrats have pushed through legislation without real, substantive negotiation with Republicans. A particularly poignant example of this came when the President’s signature health law, the Affordable Care Act, passed upon strictly partisan lines (not a single Republican in either chamber voted for the bill).

It must be understood, however, that many Americans’ assignment of responsibility to both parties in roughly equal measure for the crisis of partisan gridlock ignores the potential for one-party obstructionism in America’s unique system of checks and balances. It also betrays a failure to engage with many of the biggest legislative news stories in recent years in a critical way.

The long pernicious history of Republican obstructionism began with the historic election of America’s first African-American president. The Republican leadership of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has echoed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) when he said in an interview with the National Journal: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Republicans’ principal goal since 2009 then has not been to pursue, or help along, a bipartisan legislative agenda that can help boost the economy and help the American people. The GOP leadership have thus prioritized partisan opposition to President Obama ahead of improving the nation they have been elected to serve.

Republican hyper-partisanship and obstructionism has extended beyond disturbing rhetoric. Senate Republicans have used filibusters to such a gross extent that they have broken records in obstructionism: GOP filibustering has helped the 112th Congress become one of the least productive in history, passing a mere 561 bills (the lowest number since these records started even being kept in 1947) and contributing to its deserved label of a do-nothing, dysfunctional Congress. Admittedly, conservatism is predicated on passing fewer laws and slowing change, but this kind of legislative impotence is unacceptable in an era of manifold public policy challenges (among these are a still rebounding economy, energy dependence, an ever-degrading environment and a broken immigration system). From 2009-2010, Senate Republicans blocked some 375 House bills from ever even reaching a vote. In shocking displays of partisanship, Republicans actually blocked votes on bills that would fund states’ efforts to help low-income children attain access to critical eye examinations (the Vision Care for Kids Act) or help treat elder victims of psychological or physical abuse (the Elder Abuse Victims Act). The GOP’s historic abuse of the filibuster culminated in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) having to use the historic nuclear option to end cloture votes on presidential nominees.

Furthermore, instead of using their time to pass bipartisan bills to serve the American people, the House has initiated almost 50 utterly futile, purely symbolic attempts to repeal Obamacare. Not only are Republicans wasting oceans of ink and forests of paper on these meaningless and always hopelessly unsuccessful repeal efforts, they are also wasting time that could otherwise be spent trying to legislate on behalf of the constituents they represent. GOP lawmakers do this all as part of a hollow attempt to dismantle and reverse the effects of a law rooted in the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, in the late 1980s, for an individual mandate in health care that would later be a hallmark of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s health care law for his state.

Following the Senate’s bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, GOP aversion to positive, substantive action reared its ugly head. With immigration, Speaker Boehner (R-OH), in a plainly partisan manner, didn’t even let comprehensive immigration reform have a vote in the House. Scarily, Republicans’ position on the wrong side of public opinion in critical issues like immigration (74 percent of polled Americans believe that America either needs to completely rebuild its immigration system or make major changes to it) is working for them, in an electoral sense, so long as they maintain their virulent obstructionism. This way, those who don’t delve beyond news headlines will be seduced by the idea that congressional Democrats are just as much to blame for the devastating legislative gridlock and that President Obama is a lame-duck, ineffective, partisan chief executive.

So let’s abandon the narrative that lazily assigns equal blame to both parties for a dysfunctional Congress and swallow the hard truth that one party puts its partisan, electoral objectives ahead of bipartisan, popular reform that the American people want and need from their elected representatives.

Ben Rudgley is a Viewpoint Writer.

Published March 7, 2014 in Opinion

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