Obstruction will ruin GOP

Playing politics and abusing the system can excite the extremes, but it's a recipe for long-term political disaster

Published May 18, 2013 11:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.            (AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. (AP/Jonathan Ernst/David J. Phillip)

It’s obvious that the unprecedented Senate Republican obstruction of executive branch nominations is bad for the president; it’s bad for the smooth functioning of the government; and it’s bad for voters who elected a Democratic president and a solid, 55-seat Democratic majority in the Senate. I’ve argued, too, that it’s bad for the Senate.

Less obvious? It’s bad for Republicans.

Now, in electoral terms, it can’t be bad for both parties, since electoral politics is a zero-sum game. Indeed, that’s sort of the problem for Republicans; obstruction of these nominations almost certainly has zero electoral effect. After all, most voters couldn’t tell you who the nominees for secretary of labor or to head the Environmental Protection Agency are, let alone the obscure rules Republicans are using to delay their confirmation.

So the effects of massive, across-the-board obstruction are going to be on policy, not elections. And that’s not a zero-sum game – and it will hurt Republicans and Republican-aligned groups, too.

Obstruction backfires against Republicans because it makes it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for them to collectively use the nomination process to make policy demands. Consider, for example, what they’ve done with EPA nominee Gina McCarthy. Senators traditionally ask nominees questions in order, in part, to get them to commit to policies those Senators find acceptable. McCarthy received not the normal dozens of questions, but more than 1,000. That appears to be an extreme case, but it’s not just her, either. As the New York Times reported, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had to answer 395. By contrast, George W. Bush’s last Treasury Secretary received 49 questions from Democrats and 32 from Republicans. When you answer hundreds of questions, you might as well answer none; by failing to focus on specific areas of policy they care about, Republicans are likely wasting the opportunity to actually win some policy commitments.

That’s about the GOP as a whole. On an individual level, Republican senators – all individual senators – are worse off when filibuster abuse harms the nomination process. Just as parties can use their potential filibuster power to press for, and sometimes even bargain for, their biggest priorities, individual senators can use their leverage in the process to obtain concessions for narrow interests in their states. That’s one of the ways that the U.S. system really can work well. In a very large nation, it’s likely that many narrow interests will be entirely ignored, even though we might all collectively agree that national policy should be adjusted for specific local situations. The nomination process can help that to happen, as even one senator can threaten to derail a nomination with a “hold” until the nominee cuts a deal with that senator, say about how some regulation will be enforced. However, holds are irrelevant to a strongly partisan process. If Republicans are going to oppose the nominee (and force a filibuster) anyway, for partisan reasons, then why should the nominee cut a deal?

Moreover, constant filibusters will result in majority-imposed reform, which may well strip the minority party of all its influence – just as majority-imposed reform in the House in the 1960s and 1970s destroyed the influence of the minority party. Granted, Republicans will not always be in the minority, but that majority-imposed reform could happen at any time.

The last reason that constant obstruction hurts Republicans, too, is more nebulous, but I suspect it’s real as well. For Republicans concerned about the party’s image with women and ethnic minorities, it can’t help that they are constantly obstructing Barack Obama’s unusually diverse set of nominees. Right now it’s Gina McCarthy and secretary of labor candidate Thomas Perez; on the judicial side, they’ve successfully blocked Caitlin Halligan and Goodwin Liu. Even if they don’t target women, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities, and even if the GOP-aligned media isn’t quicker to make those attacks into major conservative causes, it’s still going to look bad for them.

Are there policy advantages for Republicans in massive obstruction of executive branch nominations? I don’t think so. There are policy advantages to selective use of filibusters, even in unconventional and abusive cases such as “nullification,” in which Republicans block any possible nominee to certain posts in order to prevent lawful policy from being enacted. I think that’s awful, but in the short term it can be successful. But most of the rest of this is mildly disruptive, and nothing much more. Had Chuck Hagel been defeated, another nominee would have carried out similar policies at the Pentagon, just as some other nominee will at Labor if Perez is defeated by filibuster.

One more thing: I continue to wonder whether there’s some point at which the Republican Party’s post-policy actions – and I think mindless across-the-board obstruction fits with that – could eventually lead some of the less ideological Republican-aligned interest groups to believe they could get a better deal from Democrats. In some ways, that could be even more of a devastating loss to the party than having a lousy image; after all, there are lots of voters who will overlook that image if other circumstances favor them. But losing some of the party’s core set of attached groups? That really could relegate them to minority party status.

Bottom line? Minority parties have real incentives to obstruct…in those cases where high-priority policy is at stake. The rest of the time, they’re just hurting themselves. Along with all the rest of us.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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