Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Senate Republicans Are Not ‘Obstructionist’

Mitch McConnell (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Or else Senate Democrats are, too

At the June 26 Democratic presidential debate, candidates spent a full round of questions addressing how their presidency would circumvent obstructionist Senate Republicans. Moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow focused on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who “doesn’t operate [in a bipartisan manner] — he operates differently,” and who would surely block all Democratic legislation and Supreme Court nominees (and not just in election years, either).

In response, the candidates treated McConnell and Senate Republicans as a unique threat to democracy who, in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren, have “just completely dismissed what people care about across this country.”

Had the senators running for president instead stayed in Washington to vote, they would have noted that, just hours earlier, the McConnell-led Senate had brushed aside the Democratic House’s legislative chaos and passed its own emergency bill to stem the humanitarian crisis at the border, on a bipartisan vote of 84 to eight. Some dysfunction, eh?

While partisanship is nothing new, an emerging cottage industry of liberal candidates and pundits asserts that modern congressional Republicans have, over the past decade, become “hostage-takers” through practicing unprecedented and undemocratic levels of partisanship and obstructionism. Scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have spent the past decade writing overwrought screeds attacking Republicans for “obstructing” Democratic plans to expand government. Former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich recently called McConnell the “most dangerous politician of my lifetime” — more dangerous to liberals than even President Trump. Former vice president Joe Biden endured widespread mockery for claiming he can work constructively with congressional Republicans. Instead, other leading Democrats have embraced radical solutions, such as eliminating the legislative filibuster and even “abolishing the Senate,” under the assumption that Republicans cannot be worked with and instead must be institutionally destroyed.

This narrative has become conventional wisdom because both parties find it convenient. Democrats get a villain and scapegoat to blame for their legislative failures. Congressional Republicans use it to counter the conservative complaint that GOP leaders are weak pushovers who refuse to stand on principle. Leading conservatives on Twitter regularly portray “Cocaine Mitch” as a legislative Chuck Norris, consistently overpowering hapless Democrats.

But the evidence does not support the claim that Republicans have shattered congressional norms and brought forth an unprecedented era of partisanship. In fact, Republicans have long worked with Democrats to enact a large number of centrist, bipartisan bills, and their partisan acts have been matched by similar Democratic behavior.

Republican lawmakers have never been the partisan anti-government zealots that many Democrats claim. Yes, President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans cut taxes and increased defense spending. They also teamed up with Ted Kennedy to aggressively expand Washington’s role in education under No Child Left Behind, created a Medicare drug entitlement, built the Department of Homeland Security, and spent heavily on farm subsidies, global AIDS and poverty relief, and domestic programs. 

Nor did the 2011–16 Republican Houses (and later the Republican Senate, which had filibuster power beginning in 2011) refuse to work with President Obama. Indeed, they teamed up to provide $631 billion in “round two” stimulus provisions, extend emergency unemployment benefits three times, cut interest rates on student loans, significantly expand veterans’ benefits, and avert the bankruptcy of the Social Security Disability Insurance system. They reauthorized farm subsidies, nutrition programs, and the federal highway program (while approving additional highway trust-fund bailouts). On health care, the parties came together to expand CHIP benefits, provide a permanent “doc fix” to prevent Medicare cuts, create new programs to fight opioid abuse, and streamline the approval of new drugs and medical devices. On discretionary spending, Republicans worked with Democrats to loosen spending caps, rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and enact $7 trillion in total appropriations over six years.

Those compromises are not the activities of a radical GOP Congress hell-bent on blocking bipartisan legislation and denying a Democratic president any victories.

The most high-profile bipartisan compromise during this era was the 2011 Bipartisan Budget Control Act, which aimed to reduce the deficit by $2.1 trillion over the decade while raising the debt limit. Both sides had promised to tackle the deficit, yet neither party got its first choice of deficit-reduction mechanisms (higher taxes for Democrats, structural entitlement reforms for Republicans), in part because President Obama walked away from a deal that would have traded $800 billion in new revenues for modest entitlement tweaks. Instead, the parties split the difference on their second priorities, by matching large (Democratic) defense-spending cuts with equal (Republican) domestic discretionary reductions.

The parties also compromised on the 2013 fiscal-cliff deal. Neither party wanted to raise taxes on the non-wealthy. So President Obama proposed allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the highest-earning 2 percent of taxpayers, while Republicans proposed no expirations at all. The parties compromised by drawing the tax-increase line at the top 0.8 percent of earners, while also including the Democratic priority of $30 billion in extended unemployment benefits. This equal compromise was negotiated by McConnell and the same Vice President Biden who is now mocked for claiming he can work with Republicans.

Both congressional parties have been guilty of shutting down the government to force action on a non-appropriations issue: Senate Republicans in 2014 over Obamacare, and Senate Democrats in 2018 over immigration.

So where is this evidence of unprecedented GOP obstructionism? Democrats regularly concentrate on five examples over the past decade: economic stimulus, Obamacare, judges, guns, and the Republican Senate’s ongoing refusal to take up bills passed by the Democratic House. 

However, each example of “Republican hyper-partisanship” can be matched by examples of Democrats’ behaving nearly identically in equivalent situations. This is not empty “whataboutism,” but rather evidence that both parties have played a baseline amount of political hardball. Republicans have posed no unprecedented threat to democracy.

The Democrats’ first example of alleged Republican obstruction is the GOP’s opposition to the 2009 stimulus. The Republican parallel is the 2017 tax cuts. In both instances, a new president with full control of Congress quickly embarked on a trillion-dollar initiative to help the economy. In each instance, the underlying economic theory was rejected by the minority party, and the minority party was almost completely excluded from influencing the legislation (even though some of the provisions by themselves had bipartisan support). Just three Republicans voted for the 2009 stimulus — and zero Democrats voted for the 2017 tax cuts.

Yes, the economic collapse made economic stimulus more urgent. Nevertheless, Republicans did not see the purpose of following an outdated economic theory down the road to a pork-stuffed government expansion in which most spending would not even occur until after the recession ended.

Democrats typically respond that having allocated one-third of the stimulus bill to tax cuts should have guaranteed GOP support. Setting aside that that still leaves $500 billion in new spending, these “tax cuts” consisted mostly of (1) routine annual extensions of current tax policies rather than new tax cuts; (2) refundable tax credits that function more like spending and are not universal; and (3) special-interest tax giveaways to favored Democratic industries and companies. The broad-based tax-rate relief long preferred by Republicans was minimized.

In other words, the stimulus bill “balanced” Democratic spending priorities with a series of Democratic-targeted tax breaks. This is the equivalent of Republicans’ cutting tax rates and then trying to woo Democratic support with large new spending initiatives — for defense. 

Democrats were never going to vote for the 2017 tax cuts merely because those cuts also expanded the child credit and curtailed a few business deductions. And Republicans were not going to approve a trillion-dollar stimulus bill merely because it included a few business-expensing provisions and temporary tax credits.

In his 2012 book The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward explains that House minority whip Eric Cantor offered a private list of conservative stimulus proposals for inclusion in the bill. Democrats rejected every one of them, with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously declaring, “We have the votes, f*** ’em.” No party interested in bipartisanship would write a hyper-partisan bill, dismiss every proposal from the other party, and then taunt them for even trying to influence the bill. Woodward called it a partisan “bulldozing.”

The second purported example of congressional-Republican obstructionism is opposition to enacting Obamacare. As with the stimulus, the idea that Republican opposition to a $1 trillion expansion of government could be explained only by partisan obstructionism denies the possibility of any genuine philosophical disagreements between the two parties. 

The parallel for Obamacare is the Republican proposal for Medicare premium support, which would allow seniors to shop around for equally generous private health plans while reducing costs to them and the government. While these health proposals were not direct competitors — they affected different populations — the 2009–12 debate on these health policies had much in common.

Even though they expressed outrage at Republican opposition to Obamacare, Democrats and liberal organizations ran campaigns expressing their furious, no-compromise opposition to Medicare premium support.

It is true that Obamacare — while a liberal government expansion — contained some market mechanisms and shared a few similarities with Governor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts reforms and an early-1990s Heritage Foundation alternative to Clintoncare. Yet Medicare premium support — while a conservative market approach — contained full federal funding of benefits as generous as the current Medicare system’s. The concept had been championed in the past by the Brookings Institution, former Democratic congressional leaders Dick Gephardt and John Breaux, current Democratic senator Ron Wyden, and former top Democratic economist Alice Rivlin.

In other words, both reforms had somewhat bipartisan origins. However, each eventually gravitated to one party’s approach to health care and the role of government. Democrats have grown more skeptical of the market approaches to health care that are embedded in premium support, and Republicans have hardened in their opposition to large new federal programs and significant new health-care taxes. 

Republicans exaggerated about Obamacare “death panels” while Democrats falsely claimed that Medicare premium support would literally kill seniors. At the height of the health-care debate, polls showed neither proposal to be popular, and the two parties treated each other’s priorities similarly. The only difference is that Democrats had the control of government necessary to enact their prized health proposal.

Judges are the third example. Senate Republicans famously denied Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing or vote in 2016 because it was a presidential-election year. Hearings aside, there was zero chance a Republican Senate would confirm a Democratic justice in a presidential-election year. 

This was the first time in 27 years that a Senate majority was presented with a SCOTUS nominee offered by the other party. Had the partisan roles been reversed, a Democratic Senate would not have confirmed a Republican SCOTUS nominee in a presidential-election year either. Don’t take my word for it. The last two times a Republican was in the final year of his presidency — 1992 and 2008 — key Senate Democratic leaders announced that the same “no confirm” policy would be applied to any new Supreme Court vacancies (though none occurred). This costs Democrats much of the moral high ground in criticizing Republicans for later adopting the same policy.

More broadly, Democratic senators have behaved at least as partisanly as Republicans during Supreme Court fights. Since 1987, Senate Democrats have defeated one Supreme Court nomination (Bork) and attempted to filibuster two more (Alito and Gorsuch), and individual senators voted a cumulative 35 percent of the time in favor of Republican SCOTUS nominees. 

Senate Republicans have also blocked one Supreme Court nomination (Garland), yet they have attempted no additional SCOTUS filibusters and individually voted 53 percent of the time for Democratic nominees (or 40 percent if one adds 54 Senate Republican “nay” votes for Merrick Garland). 

Democrats cannot reasonably play the victim in the partisan judicial wars. The Senate Democratic majority denied even a Judiciary Committee hearing to 32 Bush nominees between June 2001 and December 2002. Then, after losing their majority in 2003, Democrats staged the first-ever successful filibuster of a Court nominee with majority support. They admitted that it was because they feared Miguel Estrada would be too popular to defeat if he was later nominated to the Supreme Court. Democrats continued this unprecedent string of judicial filibusters under President George W. Bush, and then — when Senate Republicans returned the favor under President Obama — they invoked the nuclear option to ban most judicial filibusters. Democrats then tried to filibuster Judge Gorsuch for purely political reasons, all but inviting Republicans to extend the nuclear option to Supreme Court nominees.

In short, the main escalations of the judicial wars over the past 40 years were all initiated by Senate Democrats. And even the 2016 Republican refusal to confirm a justice of the opposing party in a presidential-election year, while certainly partisan, was rooted in a previous policy pronouncement by Senate Democratic leaders under the previous two Republican presidents.

To be sure, Republicans are also guilty of playing partisan games with judicial nominees over this period, particularly under President Obama. Yet the idea that they have been more obstructionist on judges than the Democrats is a self-serving partisan fantasy. 

The fourth example is what Democrats have dubbed “McConnell’s legislative graveyard” — the Senate’s refusal to take up 354 bills that were passed by the Democratic House in 2019. Many of these partisan critics were quiet in 2014, when Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats refused to take up 388 bills that had been passed by the Republican House during the 113th Congress.

Similarly, Senator McConnell has been attacked for allowing 320 votes related to confirming judicial and executive-branch nominees in 2019 while allowing only 15 on legislative amendments. He resembles Senator Reid, who in 2014 scheduled 254 votes related to confirmations and 15 amendment votes.

This is not irrational. Senators are not typically motivated to take up partisan legislation that the other party rams through the House. And when a split Congress means gridlock, the Senate can maintain productivity by focusing on confirming presidential nominees and passing basic legislation such as appropriations bills.

Finally, critics have dubbed McConnell “Massacre Mitch” for not taking up gun-control proposals that enjoy 80 percent public support, may save lives, and would bring the U.S. closer to international norms. Name-calling aside, this is a fair criticism. It is equally fair to criticize Democratic majorities for their long-term refusal to take up late-term-abortion bans that also enjoy 80 percent public support, would surely save lives, and would bring the U.S. closer to international norms. The gun and abortion lobbies each have deep pockets, a constitutional claim, and a passionate following among a party’s base. The parties are responding accordingly. 

These five examples reveal that, yes, congressional Republicans block legislation they disagree with and regularly engage in partisan gamesmanship, particularly on judges. And so do the Democrats. Chastising one side as a unique threat to democracy while excusing the other side for “standing up for what’s right” is double-standard political hackery. 

When confronted with examples of equal Democratic partisan behavior, critics respond in two ways. First, they often point out McConnell’s 2010 statement that his top goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president — ignoring McConnell’s additional point that “I don’t want the president to fail, I want him to change.” Congressional leaders have been publicly prioritizing the defeat of the other party’s president for decades, going back to Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. Rhetoric aside, McConnell still worked with Obama to pass the numerous government expansions described earlier.

Second, critics defend their own partisan double standard. They explain that Keynesian stimulus, Obamacare, and liberal judges are really just commonsense centrism. In contrast, tax cuts, Medicare premium support, and conservative judges will bring the apocalypse. Government is good, “anti-government” is bad. Lawmakers have a democratic responsibility to follow broad public opinion on gun restrictions but not on late-term abortion. All the center-left bipartisan legislation that Republicans helped President Obama enact does not count because it represents the bare minimum of liberal progress rather than a full rubber-stamping of trillion-dollar left-wing proposals and a liberal takeover of the judiciary. 

So the “democratic crisis” is not really that Republicans are uniquely partisan or obstructionist. It is that they disagree with the more extreme Democratic proposals and have the temerity to keep winning enough elections to block them.

This attitude ultimately reflects a Democratic sense of entitlement, what Kevin D. Williamson has described as the presumption of a “divine right” to continue the march of progress. In this worldview, Republican opposition to extreme leftist policies represents not normal good-faith political disagreement but partisan betrayal and obstruction of progress. At the same time, uncompromising Democratic opposition to major Republican policies — and refusal to take up Republican legislation — is just “resisting” the reactionary right-wing deplorables.

After all, few critics shouted “Obstructionism!” in 2005 when congressional democrats boycotted President Bush’s call to save Social Security from bankruptcy. Democratic lawmakers refused even to meet with the president’s Social Security commission and offered brazenly dishonest public attacks on the initiative. Asked when Democrats would release their own plan to save Social Security from bankruptcy, Nancy Pelosi snapped back, “Never. Is never good enough for you?” For this, Democrats were regularly praised for playing hardball and standing up for their values. 

Similarly, the usual suspects echoed President Obama’s attacks on Republicans for not offering more than $800 billion in new taxes as part of a deficit-reduction “grand deal” — without noting that the president never budged on the major entitlement reforms sought by Republicans, such as per capita spending caps or block grants for Medicaid, Medicare premium support, changes to the Affordable Care Act, and broad Social Security reforms. Compromise for thee, not for me.

Republicans and Democrats fundamentally disagree on major issues, and politics can be bloody. Yet one party is proposing a historically radical agenda that does not command majority support — potentially $97 trillion in new spending over the decade, with up to half the workforce employed by the government — and defining the other party’s refusal to endorse that agenda as a crisis of democracy. The next time Democratic candidates and their activist base savage Republican lawmakers for “obstructing” their historic expansions of government, they should explain which equally bold Republican proposals they would accept in return. 

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