Unlike most parliamentary systems, our constitutional structure and Senate Rules often allow a minority party to get Something from Nothing. (More)

Something or Nothing, Part II: Something from Nothing

This week Morning Feature examines the institutional roadblocks faced by progressive legislation. Yesterday we considered our constitutional structure and how the Framers created gridlock by design. Today we see why and how Republicans have manufactured crises by threatening to do Nothing in order to force Democrats to do Something. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with options to lessen the gridlock and restore a functioning Congress.

“The answer to that question is no.”

The media paid inordinate attention to this week’s talking filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Some of that attention owed to the topic – the use of drone strikes – although we should note that Sen. Paul was “quite happy” with Attorney General Eric Holder’s brief response:

It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” The answer to that question is no.

Far from a “heroic filibuster against President Obama’s drone war,” as Salon‘s David Sirota called the thirteen-hour talkathon, Sen. Paul focused on a hypothetical so absurd – repeatedly speculating that President Obama might order drone-launched missiles to destroy Americans at cafés – that even fellow Republican Sens. John McCain (AZ) and Lindsay Graham (SC) mocked him. Senator Paul then voted for cloture on his own filibuster, and President Obama’s nominee John Brennan was promptly confirmed to lead the CIA.

“[No] Business as usual”

Yet as the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent noted, the media focus on Sen. Paul’s filibuster distracted attention from another one this week:

Even as Paul’s filibuster consumed all of our attention because of its uniqueness – no one mounts “talking filibusters” anymore – another filibuster that took place yesterday was treated by the political world as routine, as business as usual, as an entirely normal episode in the day-to-day running of the government. I’m talking about the GOP filibuster of Caitlin Halligan, Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Similarly, the media largely ignored last week’s Republican filibuster of the Senate Democrats’ bill to avert the sequester. Majority Leader Harry Reid had 51 votes for that bill, and offered to allow floor votes on two GOP alternative bills if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would allow all three to be decided by simple majority votes. Senator McConnell refused and pulled one Republican bill, insisting on a 60-vote margin.

House Speaker John Boehner then went on Meet the Press to claim “There’s no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester.” When Politifact asked about the GOP’s filibuster, Speaker Boehner replied “A plan must demonstrate it has the ability to pass a chamber of Congress to be worth anything.”

Threatening to do Nothing

The issue, of course, is that Republicans want to repeal the New Deal, especially Social Security and Medicaid, which they believe should be private, for-profit investment and insurance programs. Of course, Republicans controlled both the Senate and House when President George W. Bush proposed that in 2005, and they rejected his proposal in the face of popular backlash. Thus, as we saw yesterday, Republicans want Democrats to take the blame for those cuts.

And holding only the House, Republicans know they can’t pass a bill unless Senate Democrats and President Obama agree. That is, Republicans can’t do Something … but they can threaten to do Nothing and hope the consequences of doing Nothing will President Obama and Democrats to do Something for them.

Thus, in the spring and summer of 2011, House Republicans threatened to refuse to pass a continuing budget resolution – do Nothing and shut down the government – unless President Obama and Senate Democrats agreed to do Something and pass the draconian House Republican budget. After President Obama and Democrats made a deal to escape that standoff, they found themselves facing another crisis as the federal government neared the debt ceiling.

Once again, House Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling – threatening to do Nothing and let the U.S. government default on its debt – unless President Obama and Democrats did Something by accepting a Republican plan to cut the social safety net. Negotiations for a ‘grand bargain’ on deficit reduction dragged on through the summer, and in the end President Obama signed the 2011 Budget Control Act. That law established the sequester – automatic, arbitrary cuts to both defense and social spending – if the parties could not agree on another plan to cut the 10-year budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.

“The president got his tax hikes on January the first.”

In January, doing Nothing on the fiscal cliff would have meant the end of the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, which would expire automatically on January 1st. Senate Democrats had already passed a bill ending those tax cuts for the richest Americans, and polls showed the blame of doing Nothing would fall squarely on Republicans. That forced Speaker Boehner to give in and do Something, and he allowed the House to vote on the Senate bill and it passed with mostly Democratic support.

The Speaker has not forgotten that, as he emphasized Sunday on Meet the Press:

I’m going to say it one more time. The president got his tax hikes on January the first. The issue here is spending. Spending is out of control.

Speaker Boehner doesn’t mean current spending. He admitted in that same interview that he is concerned the sequester may hurt the economy. He means future spending, specifically, the long-term obligations of Social Security and Medicare. But, again, he can’t demand cuts in those programs without risking the political backlash. So House Republicans did Nothing – and let the sequester cuts begin – because Speaker Boehner wants President Obama to “have the courage to lead when it comes to our long-term spending problem” … and do Something that Republicans want.

As we saw yesterday, our constitutional structure makes it difficult for Congress to do Something, and easy for Congress to do Nothing. Republicans have repeatedly leveraged that structural inertia to their advantage – threatening to do Nothing in order to force President Obama and Democrats to do Something – dominating the political agenda despite controlling only one chamber of Congress.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss whether and how President Obama and Democrats can end such threats.

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Happy International Women’s Day!