Republican reliance on obstruction and rule change

By: Connor McNairn, Columnist

On Saturday Oct. 6, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh, who dismissed the accusations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick as a Democratic ploy to ruin his reputation and get revenge for the Clintons, just barely squeezed through the nomination process with a 50-48 vote.  President Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the Court in early July, and in the three months following, the country has been embroiled in yet another partisan fight rooted in deep differences of principle.

Though bitter partisan conflicts are in no short supply, the story of our current political predicament – one rooted in the continuous circumventing of political norms and procedures by a Republican Congress – stems from a decision the GOP made a decade ago.

Following the election of our nation’s first Black President, then-Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell indicated that the Republicans’ top priority was to limit President Obama to one term.  To explicitly promise congressional obstruction to a president at any cost was unprecedented. Since McConnell’s remarks, the Republican Party has relied on this type of scorched earth politics to sustain itself and its increasingly radical base.  

While McConnell failed to render Obama a one-term president, his party did do everything in its power to grossly obstruct the political processes set forth by our Constitution.  Many may recall, for example, that shortly after taking office, President Obama was set to deliver his stimulus package to the House of Representatives when, before even viewing the bill, House Republicans largely opposed it.  Such was the trend for Barack Obama’s entire presidential tenure.  

Republicans have won big in the ten years since Obama’s presidential victory, securing the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016.  But their petty political maneuverings, anchored in cynicism and disregard for congressional process, have remained at the nucleus of their strategy.

The Republican tax bill, which drastically reduced taxes on corporations and the rich, remains the only legislative achievement for the Republican Party under Trump.  Rather than passing cloture and receiving 60 votes of support, as was outlined in the Senate’s 1975 voting rule, the bill only received 51 “yeas.”  This was made possible by the GOP’s reliance on the budget reconciliation process.  

With regard to Supreme Court confirmations, which is just about the only other category of success the Republicans in Congress can tout, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were illegitimately confirmed through procedural norms.

In 2017, McConnell, now the Senate Majority Leader, changed Senate voting rules regarding cloture to confirm high court justices with simple majority support; this move was necessary for Republicans to confirm any Supreme Court nominees given their meager one-seat majority.

While it is true that Senate Democrats first changed cloture rules in 2013 in order to appoint low court judges under Obama in the face of rampant Republican obstruction, high court nominees, such as those chosen for the United States Supreme Court, still required a three-fifths (or 60-vote) majority in order to pass cloture and invoke a floor vote.

But following McConnell’s change of the rules to simple majority confirmation, even for high court nominees, President Trump has been able to ram through Justices Gorsuch (54-45) and Kavanaugh (50-48).  It is worth noting that President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees – Justices Elena Kagan (63-37) and Sonia Sotomayor (68-31) – were both confirmed through proper cloture and consequent floor vote norms.

Kavanaugh’s nomination is yet another victory for the Republican Party and, by extension, for the undermining of democratic norms.  Indeed, the party that so often invokes the virtues of originalist constitutional interpretation has succeeded only in the circumventing of the founding text’s limitations.  

The American experiment is built on a foundation of democratic participation and republican representation.  It was launched with the presumption of tripartite accountability in the form of checks and balances. Yet the GOP, as it maintains power within each of the three branches, has cyclically undermined the principles upon which the nation was founded.  

A president absent of the political knowledge to govern has drastically limited the scope of global American leadership and effectively surrendered the decorum that heretofore accompanied presidential administrations.  The Congress, tasked by the founders to operate as the president’s principal check on power, has proven itself impotent in capability and servile in action. And the Supreme Court, perhaps the only institution in American government that has for so long maintained legitimacy and national respect has been reduced to political chicanery.  

The goals of the Republican Party, currently dangerous to our democracy, are rooted in bitterness, anger and desperately cling to the comforts of a repressive history.  Demographics in America are trending toward more progressive political platforms and, as a consequence, will not require the cynical leadership styles of the current GOP.

In essence, the current Republican Party is only as strong as the number of institutional norms it is able to circumvent.  Its shelf life is ephemeral, and voters possess the opportunity to expose this reality in November.  Vote.



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