Less than 72 hours after Tuesday’s shocking election result, Donald Trump’s transition team is hard at work transforming American government. A rogue’s gallery of extremist right-wing has-beens and never-should-bes is being lined up for Trump cabinet slots. With the success of Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented blockade of Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a list of 21 conservative darlings has been prepared to erase women’s reproductive rights and resurrect the long-ago discarded notion of businesses’ “right to contract.” Over the next six months, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan vow Obamacare will be a thing of the past, while a budget-busting, $6 trillion tax cut windfall for the wealthy is the future. To abort any opposition in advance, Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are already calling for the “nuclear option” to eliminate the Senate filibuster for President-elect Trump’s legislation and nominees.
So what should Democrats do to stop Donald Trump’s agenda? In a word, everything. More specifically, Democrats are free to do everything and anything Republicans did over the past 8 years in their never-before-seen obstruction of Barack Obama. After all, if the media are going to continue to charge that “both sides do it,” liberals might as well finally make the claim true.
1. Deliver Zero Votes for All Major Trump Legislation
On Inauguration Day in 2009, Republican leaders met over dinner to plot their total opposition to the entire Obama program. "If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told the assembled conservative brain trust, “We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” But the public opposition started weeks before. Just as their unprecedented zero votes for President Clinton’s tax plan in 1993 “made it so much easier to then defeat his health care initiative,” Bill Kristol urged Republicans to stay united against Obama’s economic recovery plan even as unemployment was skyrocketing.
When President Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan go to repeal Obamacare, privatize Medicare, deliver a tax cut bonanza for the super wealthy and almost everything else, the Democratic response must be “no votes for you.”
2. Require 60 Votes for All Nominees
Did you know the Constitution requires 60 votes in the Senate to confirm executive branch nominees? Neither did I. But in 2013, Texas Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, explained that “There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination.” The Republicans were faithful their word, if not the Constitution, when they filibustered 27 nominees in President Obama’s first term and an estimated 45 in the second. (George W. Bush only had seven blocked over 8 years in office.) As far as Democrats should be concerned, President Trump’s picks can literally die while waiting for confirmation. After all, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has no problem with it.
3. Hold the Debt Ceiling Hostage Repeatedly
Until Republicans took over the House of Representatives in January 2011, both parties routinely raised the debt ceiling for Democratic and Republican presidents alike. While tripling the national debt, Ronald Reagan, for example, signed 17 hikes on Uncle Sam’s authority to borrow more money to pay for commitments already incurred. Dubya inked 7 more as he was nearly doubling America’s debts. Failure to raise the debt limit, former House Speaker John Boehner explained almost six years ago, would mean the United States would default on its obligations and so trigger “financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy.” It’s no wonder his successor Paul Ryan warned, “You can’t not raise the debt ceiling.”
Nevertheless, Mitch McConnell boasted after the GOP’s debt ceiling extortion almost cratered the American economic recovery in the summer of 2011, “it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”
Well, now it’s Republican President Trump who is going to have to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly in order to borrow as much as $15 trillion to cover the new deficits the CBO already projects and the red ink his tax cuts and defense build-up will unleash. So, now the shoe is on the other foot. When Republicans want to turn Medicaid into block grants, give millionaires a 15 percent tax cut or turn Medicare into a voucher system, they’ve already given Democrats’ permission to say, “Nice economy you have there. Shame if anything happened to it.”
4. Shut Down the Government for any Reason at All
Former Bush Treasury Paul O’Neill compared his party’s default deniers to Al Qaeda terrorists. But the JV team did damage, too, when they shut down the government. In 2011, now Vice President-elect Mike Pence (R-IN) demanded $100 billion in federal spending cuts and proclaimed, “I say, 'Shut it down,’” if the Obama government didn’t comply. In the fall of 2013, Ted Cruz (R-TX) insisted on a government shutdown if Obamacare wasn’t repealed. Now, Democrats can threaten to “shut it down” if it is.
5. Block Half of Trump’s Judicial Nominees in His First Year, All in His Last Year
When Republican George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, congressional Republicans like Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) demanded an “up-or-down vote” for all of his selections to the federal bench. GOP leaders even threatened to “go nuclear” and eliminate the judicial filibuster. But within days of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, Kyl promised the conservative Federalist Society he would filibuster judicial nominees he found too liberal. He kept true to his word, as Republicans only confirmed 43 percent of Obama’s picks to the judiciary during his first 14 months in office, compared to 86 percent for George W. Bush. In June 2015, Senate Majority Leader McConnell told right-wing host Hugh Hewitt that “the only judges we’ve confirmed have been federal district judges that have been signed off on by Republican senators,” a blockade which he pledged would continue for the rest of the session.
So, Democrats, your marching orders are clear. Republican precedent dictates that you block half of President Trump’s judicial nominees during his first year, and all of them during his last.
6. Block Any and All of Trump’s Supreme Court Nominees
After Justice Antonin Scalia shuffled off this mortal coil, the GOP Senate majority took the unprecedented step of blocking his would-be successor for almost a year. Of course, there was no “Thurmond Rule” or “Biden Rule”: Republicans simply prevented Judge Merrick Garland from getting a confirmation hearing altogether. (This, despite having been both unanimously confirmed to the DC Circuit Court and receiving a glowing recommendation from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.) With Hillary Clinton’s victory seeming certain as Election Day approached, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John McCain announced they would block any Democratic replacement for Scalia, while the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society and other right-wing groups demanded SCOTUS be limited to 8 justices for the entire Clinton tenure.
Now that Donald Trump is President-elect, Democrats have no option but to take the Republicans at their word. Unless and until the GOP goes nuclear, no Trump appointment to the Supreme Court will be confirmed. For the next four years, the Roberts Court will remain the Hateful Eight.
7. Require Pay-for’s for All New Legislation
When Barack Obama became President in 2009, Senator Hatch defended the deficit spending that his predecessor George W. Bush used to pay for new legislation like the unfunded $400 billion Medicare Part D prescription drug program. When a Republican sat in the White House, Hatch explained, “it was standard practice not to pay for things.”
Of course, when a Democrat was in the Oval Office, the GOP rules changed. By 2016, Republicans were demanding even hurricane relief and the emergency response to the Zika virus be funded by cuts elsewhere in the budget or through some other “pay-for” mechanism.
Well, if acts of God require a pay-for, so do those by the decidedly ungodly Donald Trump. A $1 trillion increase in defense spending or a $6 trillion, Treasury-draining tax cut are going to have be offset. With discretionary, non-defense spending (that is, everything outside of the Pentagon and mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare, interest on the national debt, etc.) at its lowest share of GDP since the 1950s, there’s not much else to cut.
8. Sue the Federal Government Early and Often
Elections have consequences, George W. Bush famously said. But when the consequences of Barack Obama’s elections including health insurance for millions of insured Americans or prioritizing enforcement of immigration laws, Republicans and their proxies took the administration to court. Red states governors, right-wing billionaires and conservative-funded plaintiffs all sought jackpot justice, usually heading to Texas and the reliably Republican Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to bless their legal insurrections.
There’s no reason Democrats can’t do the same thing. For example, if President Trump seeks to convert Medicaid into a series of block grants, Democratic governors in states like New York (where Uncle Sam pays for half of Medicaid) should sue to prevent red states like Mississippi (which gets 75 percent of its Medicaid dollars from Washington) from getting proportionally larger shares. The made-up “equal sovereignty” doctrine Chief Justice John Roberts invented to strike down the essential “pre-clearance” requirements of the Voting Rights Act may be a helpful precedent to actually doing some good for a change.
9. Shout “You Lie” During Trump Addresses to Congress
As you may recall, on September 9, 2009, President Obama spoke to Congress about what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But as a look back at the transcript shows, one unremarkable assertion he made produced a very remarkable response:
THE PRESIDENT: There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You lie! (Boos.)
THE PRESIDENT: It's not true.
Now, that State of the Union outburst by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson wasn't just unprecedented. It also happened to be a lie. Undocumented immigrants were already barred from receiving Medicaid and are not eligible to obtain the ACA's subsidies to purchase private health insurance. Nevertheless, conservatives rallied to Wilson's support, backing his slander as they did numerous others "not intended to be a factual statement" (for example, Obama is a Muslim, Obama is not an American citizen, Obamacare has "death panels" and is a "government takeover of health care," etc.) before and since.
But it's what happened afterward that is even more telling. Only six of his House GOP colleagues joined in a resolution reprimanding Wilson. And in South Carolina and across the country, Republican voters poured $2 million into his campaign coffers.
So, when President Trump lies to the American people (and he will lie, just as candidate Trump did continuously and without interruption), Democrats in Congress simply say so to his face. And unlike Joe Wilson, they’ll be telling the truth.
10. Pardon Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump, his surrogates and his supporters demanded that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for her “crimes.” But it wasn’t just his backers screaming “lock her up.” During their second debate, Donald Trump declared:
"If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we're going to have a special prosecutor."
Now that the election is over, Republicans like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have declared they would be “totally remiss” if they did not continue their investigation of Clinton emails. While disgraced New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, “people have spoken, time to move on,” potential Trump cabinet member Rudy Giuliani isn’t so sure. “I think that somebody should review that very carefully, as to how bad is that evidence.”
Of course, the FBI already concluded that Secretary Clinton committed no crimes and so brought no charges. But the Republicans’ penchant for payback, and especially Donald Trump’s thirst for vengeance, seems limitless. So, President Obama should issue a pardon for Hillary Clinton to demonstrate “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” After all, that’s what Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder said when they refused to prosecute George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of the Bush torture team. (And they proudly admitted their violations of U.S. and international law.) Which is why President Obama should pardon George W. Bush as well. It would not only protect Bush from future prosecution, but it would send a message to Donald Trump, who has already declared his intent to commit new American war crimes like waterboarding, killing the families of terror suspects and “much worse.”
Now, in normal circumstances, I would never endorse any of these ten measures. (Abominations like nullification and secession remain beyond the pale.) Their sole purpose is obstruction and political gridlock. But the Republican arsonists who shattered all political precedent and governing norms in torching the federal government must not be rewarded for reporting the fire. Having invented asymmetric polarization, the GOP doesn’t get to tell Democrats to disarm because their stooge won on Election Day. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it in summing up their 2013 book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks:
"Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem."
Nothing that happened over the past week has changed that. Only now, the Democrats get to use the GOP’s playbook any time they want.