A deal over the "filibuster" was tentatively reached in the Senate Tuesday, but forget all the insider talk about “nuclear options” and “recess appointments." This isn’t a story about process. It’s a story about ideology – specifically, the radical-right extremism of today’s Republican Party.
It’s also a story about paralysis, the corrupting power of money in politics, and the real reasons why Washington is increasingly failing to serve the people.
The wasn't a filibuster fight. It was a fight over fundamental principles of democracy and the role of government in society.
And it's not over.
A Method to Their Meanness
Today’s Republicans are more politically extreme than any political party in modern history. Polls show that, on issue after issue, the public soundly rejects the party’s adamant opposition to the institutions of government – institutions like Social Security, Medicare, education, environmental protection, and a whole lot of rights, like employee rights, voter rights, civil rights, and consumer rights.
Republicans weren’t just blocking appointees on a whim. There’s a distinct pattern in the nominations they obstructed:
- The head of a bureau created to protect the public from rampant abuses and straight-out fraud from America’s banks. The banks’ civil and criminal fraud toward borrowers, depositors, and investors has been extensively documented.
- The Secretary of Labor and appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, at a time when employee rights are under assault on issues that range from collective bargaining to off-the-job privacy rights. (That’s right; we said off-the-job rights.)
- The leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, an institution that is more urgently needed than ever in this age of BP oil spills and other forms of air and water contamination.
- The head of the Export-Import Bank, which extends credit to help small- and medium-sized American businesses export their products to foreign markets.
The real targets here weren’t the nominees, but the people the nominees were being appointed to serve. They include:
Bank customers. This was another tactic for gutting the CFPB. Republicans weakened it when it was created, and were demanding that it be further weakened before they would approve anyone – even Ayn Rand herself – to run it).
People who work for a living. By targeting the Labor Department and NLRB, Republicans were targeting working people’s rights and trying to make sure nobody’s in charge of looking out for their interests.
People who breathe – or drink water, or eat food, or do anything else ordinary people do when they can’t afford to live, breathe, drink, and eat in the most protected parts of our country. That’s who the EPA represents.
In other words, the targets were you and me.
Even the obstruction of the Export-Import Bank makes a certain sense. The GOP is the party of mega-corporations. Phony rhetoric aside, Republicans don’t care about the small- and medium-sized businesses that are the engines of job creation. Those businesses don’t have deep enough pockets to satiate the GOP. (Obama's Ex-Im Bank nominee was also a major contributor to his campaigns, but that’s a problem for another day.)
Their obstructions have served the Republicans’ ideology of eliminating any function of government which doesn’t enrich large corporations. Unless it serves their patrons, Republicans don’t want government at all.
The triumphalism has begun. Democrats, and press outlets friendly to the party, are proclaiming that Senate Republicans “caved.” But Republicans still hold veto power. They’re like kidnappers in a great hall who have released a few hostages, but who are still holding their weapons and still control the entire building.
Common Cause was closer to the mark when it said that “Senators should be congratulated today – but only a little …” And union leader Larry Cohen of the Communication Workers of America was understandably angry when Democrats agreed to withdraw two NLRB appointees. In a symbolic gesture, Republicans had asked that they be replaced with two new appointees, which President Obama promptly did.
Haven’t they learned? If you encourage hostage takers, they take more hostages.
Who really “caved”? They say the way it happened might've made Mitch McConnell look bad, but who cares about that? Senate Republicans maintain the power of the veto, which is a triumph of an unrepresentative minority in a body that is itself unrepresentative. They’ve abused the process in unprecedented ways, as Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas document in exhaustive detail. One highlight: “Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson faced one filibuster. Majority Leader Harry Reid has faced more than 400.”
Klein and Soltas also note that “there is hypocrisy on both sides,” since Reid and McConnell each took very different positions when Democrats were in power. They're right, although in this case the extremism and hypocrisy is far more pronounced on the GOP side.
But in the end this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a matter of fundamental principle: Can a minority which lost at the ballot box hijack democracy or not?
How unrepresentative is the U.S. Senate? Democratic candidates got a staggering 12,744,844 more votes than Republicans did in the 2012 election, trouncing the GOP 57.44 percent to 41.51 percent. And yet the Republicans only lost two of the 33 seats being contested.
Democrats have enjoyed similar massive popular-vote wins in other recent elections, but Republican strength in low-population states like Wyoming has given them the ability to filibuster nominees – and, by extension, government itself.
Democrats could have pushed for serious filibuster reform, but a number of them expressed fear that it would be used against them if, as polling now suggests is possible, they lose their Senate majority in the next election.
Which, with this kind of timidity, it's a pretty good bet they will.
Besides, when has courtesy toward Republicans ever been reciprocated once the Democrats lose power? Whatever they do now, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (should such a thing come to pass) will impose his will on that body by sterner means than Democrats can even imagine.
What if Democrats tried firmness and resolve for a change?
Six Steps Forward
How do we move back toward something that more closely resembles democracy? First, the Democratic majority needs to publicize the horrors of GOP filibuster abuse. Second, they need to disarm the hostage-takers with meaningful procedural reform. (That kind of backbone will help prevent that 2014 loss they’ve been dreading, too.)
Third, somebody needs to start telling the American people just how extreme, corrupt, and destructive toward government itself the Republican Party has become. President Obama used to say that Republicans “drove the car into a ditch.” Now they want to slash its tires and put sand in its gas tank. The public needs to know that.
Fourth, Republicans need to be stopped, not just from blocking administrative appointments, but also from their unprecedented embargo against approving Presidentially nominated judges. They’ve hijacked the Federal court system from top to bottom, stacking it with corporation-compromised judicial extremists. Vacancies are at unprecedented highs. This theft of an entire governmental branch must be publicized – and stopped.
Fifth, we need some more senators like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jeff Merkley – and far fewer Democrats in the Conrad/Baucus/Nelson mold. We don’t need senators who pal up to Republicans and corporations. We need senators who stand up to them.
Lastly, we need a national discussion – about the brokenness of the U.S. Senate, and about meaningful election reform.
This week’s battle should be a learning moment for the American people. Who’ll have the courage and honesty to tell them the truth? Who will lead the battle to restore American democracy?