"Congressional historians said Mr. Boehner's move was unprecedented." While the New York Times was referring to Speaker John Boehner's refusal to grant the President's request for a September 7 address to joint session of Congress, "unprecedented" is apt description for the stone wall of Republican obstructionism facing Barack Obama from the moment he took the oath of office. From the GOP's record-setting use of the filibuster and its united front against Obama's legislative agenda to blocking judicial nominees and its threats to trigger a U.S. default, the Republican Party has broken new ground in its perpetual quest to ensure that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.
Even before Barack Obama took the oath office, Republicans leaders, conservative think-tanks and right-wing pundits were calling for total obstruction of the new president's agenda. Bill Kristol, who helped block Bill Clinton's health care reform attempt in 1993, called for history to repeat on the Obama stimulus - and everything else. Pointing with pride to the Clinton economic program which received exactly zero GOP votes in either House, Kristol in January 2009 advised:
"That it made, that it made it so much easier to then defeat his health care initiative. So, it's very important for Republicans who think they're going to have to fight later on health care, fight later on maybe on some of the bank bailout legislation, fight later on on all kinds of issues."
And so, as the chart above reveals, it came to pass.
Time after time, President Obama could count the votes he received from Congressional Republicans on the fingers (usually the middle one) of one hand. The expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) to four million more American kids earned the backing of a whopping eight GOP Senators. (One of them, Arlen Specter, later became a Democrat.) Badly needed Wall Street reform eventually overcame GOP filibusters to pass with the support of just three Republicans in the House and Senate, respectively. Last summer, it took 50 days for President Obama to get past Republican filibusters of extended unemployment benefits and the Small Business Jobs Act. As for the DISCLOSE Act, legislation designed to limit the torrent of secret campaign cash unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, in September Republican Senators prevented it from ever coming to a vote.
The one-way street that is bipartisanship in Washington was most clearly on display during each party's attempts to pass tax cuts and economic stimulus. While some turncoat Democrats (like debt super committee member Max Baucus) helped Reagan and Bush sell their supply-side snake oil, Republicans were determined to torpedo new Democratic presidents:
Consider the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act now credited with saving up to three millions jobs and preventing what McCain economic adviser Mark Zandi called "Depression 2.0." Obama's margins in the passage of the final $787 billion conference bill were almost unchanged from the earlier versions produced by the House and Senate. Despite then Minority Whip Eric Cantor's earlier claim that Obama's bipartisan outreach was a "very efficient process," the President was shut out again by Republicans in the House. In the Senate, the stimulus actually lost ground, as Ted Kennedy's absence and the no-vote of aborted Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg made the final tally 60-38. So much for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's January 2009 statement that the Obama stimulus proposal "could well have broad Republican appeal."
(If that all-out Republican obstructionism sounds familiar, it should. When Clinton's 1993 economic program scraped by without capturing the support of even one GOP lawmaker, the New York Times remarked, "Historians believe that no other important legislation, at least since World War II, has been enacted without at least one vote in either house from each major party.")
Sadly, President Obama's obsession with bipartisan consensus only served to produce more political masochism when it came to his health care initiative. In the House, exactly one Republican voted for a health care reform bill which first passed by a 220-215 margin. Contrary to John McCain's mythology that in the Senate, there had been "no effort that I know of -- of serious across the table negotiations," Obama repeatedly reached out to GOP Senators like Olympia Snowe and left the writing of the Senate health bill to the bipartisan "Gang of Six." For that, President Obama only got what Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) called a "holy war" - and zero Republican votes.
But if Barack Obama's legislative agenda ran into endless Republican obstacles in Congress, his judicial nominees hit a brick wall. The same Republicans who decried the judicial filibuster and demanded an "up or down vote" for President Bush's selections to the federal bench have stymied Obama's choices at a record rate.
[T]he Senate confirmed fewer of [Obama's] district and circuit nominees than every president back to Jimmy Carter, and the lowest percentage of nominees - 58% - than any president in American history at this point in a President's first term. By comparison, Presidents George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan and Carter had 77%, 90%, 96%, 98%, and 97% of their nominees confirmed after two years, respectively.
Senate Republicans' mass obstruction of Obama's judges stands in stark contrast to the treatment afforded to past presidents. Indeed, the Senate confirmed fewer judges during Obama's first two years in office than it did during the same period in the Carter Administration, even though the judiciary was 40 percent smaller while Carter was in office.
As dismal as that record is, it's actually an improvement from a year earlier, when only 43& of President Obama's judicial appointments had been confirmed:
Not content that federal judges are now retiring at twice the rate that replacements are being confirmed, Congressional Republicans headed off to their five-week August recess without taking action on 20 Obama judicial nominees (16 of them approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee). As ThinkProgress also noted, the rapidly growing caseload for the under-sized federal judiciary means that "even if all judicial vacancies were filled, we'd still need more judges." It's no wonder Chief Justice John Roberts - certainly no friend of Barack Obama and the Democracy Party - urged action to address "the persistent problem of judicial vacancies."
Republican obstructionism hasn't merely destroyed the nominations of judicial standouts like Goodwin Liu, who this week assumed his new position on the Supreme Court of California. High profile Obama administration nominees like Dawn Johnson and Peter Diamond, the latter a Nobel Prize-winning economist, never saw the light of day in the Senate. And having already dissuaded President Obama from choosing Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by Congress last year, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP would block any and all comers put forward by the White House:
"It's not sexist. It's not Elizabeth Warren-specific," McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart said. "It's any nominee."
Just to be on the safe side, Republicans maneuvered to ensure that President Obama could make no recess appointments during the current Congressional recess.
As Ian Millhiser reported in April, Republicans blocked scores of Obama nominees over matters large and small. Often, very small:
Following in the footsteps of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who placed a hold on over 70 of President Obama's nominees last year in order to extort tens of billions of dollars worth of pork for his state, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) threw a similar tantrum yesterday over a mere $50,000. Graham (R-SC) promised to shut down all executive branch and judicial confirmations in the Senate until he gets $50,000 to conduct a study on deepening the Port of Charleston.
Since House Republicans assumed their new House majority in January 2011, President Obama's agenda has been effectively shut down. But even before their successful hostage-taking of the federal budget and U.S. debt ceiling, Senate Republicans for years had been shattering filibuster records to stop Democratic legislation dead in its tracks.
As it turns out, the Roadblock Republicans started their work when Democrats recaptured the Senate in 2007, only to redouble their efforts when Barack Obama walked into the Oval Office in 2009.
Back in 2007, former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott explained the successful Republican strategy for derailing the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate:
"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."
And the Republicans of the 110th Congress were just getting warmed up. The Senate GOP hadn't merely shattered the previous records for filibusters. As McClatchy reported in February 2010, the Republicans of the 111th Congress vowed to block virtually everything, counting on voters to blame Democrats for the GOP's own roadblocks:
As even Robert Samuelson (no friend of Democrats) acknowledged, "From 2003 to 2006, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they filed cloture 130 times to break Democratic filibusters. Since 2007, when Democrats took charge, they've filed 257 cloture motions." The Senate's own records reveal obstructionism is the new normal for Republicans:
The Republicans didn't merely eviscerate the old mark for cloture motions and filibusters after their descent into the minority in 2007. As Paul Krugman detailed, the GOP's obstructionism has fundamentally altered how the Senate does - or more accurately, doesn't do - business:
The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, "extended-debate-related problems" -- threatened or actual filibusters -- affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.
Earlier this year, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow put those numbers of threatened or actual filibusters into an easy-to-read chart so simple that even John McCain could understand it:
By the time Congressional Republicans brought the United States to the brink of default over the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling last month, GOP obstructionism had become the new normal. But even that gambit was unprecedented. While members of both parties (including then-Senator Obama in 2006) have historically cast symbolic votes against a debt ceiling increase to protest the majority's agenda, never in recent times has the majority itself had the power to block a boost in the America's borrowing authority. If anyone had any lingering doubts that the Republican Party and its Tea Party hardliners were responsible for the recent downgrading of the U.S. credit rating, S&P itself left no doubt on the matter:
A Standard & Poor's director said for the first time Thursday that one reason the United States lost its triple-A credit rating was that several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the serious consequences of a credit default -- a position put forth by some Republicans. Without specifically mentioning Republicans, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said the stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that "people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default," Mukherji said. "That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable," he added. "This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns."
Especially among ones who are responsible for most of the debt now facing the country.
Leave aside for the moment that small government icon Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt and signed 17 debt ceiling increases into law. (That might explain why the Gipper repeatedly demanded Congress boost his borrowing authority and called the oceans of red ink he bequeathed to America his greatest regret.) As it turns out, Republican majorities voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling under President Bush and the current GOP leadership team voted a combined 19 times to bump the debt limit $4 trillion during his tenure. (That vote tally included a "clean" debt ceiling increase in 2004, backed by 98 current House Republicans and 31 sitting GOP Senators.)
Of course, they had to. After all, the two unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget-busting Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (the first war-time tax cut in modern U.S. history) and the Medicare prescription drug program drained the U.S. Treasury. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor voted for all of it.
That's why Eric Cantor's July statement is so laughable:
"I don't think the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote for a debt ceiling increase."
Just not when a Republican is in the White House. As Vice Cheney famously put it in 2002, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." But now that a Democrat is sitting in the Oval Office, Republicans have had a change of heart -and tactics. Now, GOP obstructionism and brinksmanship is not only routine. It's unprecedented.