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American Democracy: Death by Obstructionism

December 1, 2015

Since taking office in late October, the 54th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, has promised to decentralize the power of Congress and rediscover the rules of congressional procedure. “I come at this job as a two-time committee chair [Budget, Ways and Means],” Ryan said, “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. When we rush to pass bills, a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”  He promised to take the House back to “regular order.”

“Regular order,” how ideas become law, is usually a lengthy process of vetting by experts, debate, amendments to the original bill, sub-committee reviews, full committee reviews, open debate and finally a floor vote.

Just three weeks into his new position, Speaker Ryan brought the American SAFE act to the floor for a vote.  The SAFE act will rewrite the law for how we vet immigrants, how we decide if they are worthy to stay in America.  No vetting for the SAFE act, no experts reviewing the bill for possible unintended consequences or legality, no committees, no open debate, no “regular order,” just a floor vote — because Paul Ryan and the Republicans said so.

December 11, 2015, is the last day Congress can pass a bill to fund the continued operation of America.  President Obama has already signed a budget deal that sets spending limits, but the Republicans in congress want to attach a rider to the budget that defunds Planned Parenthood. President Obama has indicated he would veto any legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. Since it has been resolved in Congress that it is undignified to threaten to hold one’s breath or throw oneself to the ground screaming, “I want it, I want it,” Republicans, with just that same level of maturity, are threatening to shut down the American government again if Planned Parenthood gets as much as one dollar.  Republicans in congress are, in effect, threatening a hunger strike for all of us if they don’t get their way.

It appears winning has become the real business of Congress.  Too often the powerful must be appeased and the dust-ups must be settled before the business of America will be attended to.  Republicans appear to be fighting for themselves before they will fight for America.  We can see this in their voting patterns and their obstructionism.

Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, America has been working on a health care package for our citizens.  While nearly 50 other countries understand the rewards that can be gained by a healthy population, American political parties cannot bring themselves to even intelligently discuss the matter.

There have been 54 votes in Congress related to health care for American citizens in the last four years. Republicans, every Republican, every time, voted against every measure in support of that care. In case you recognize the mathematical improbability against 301 (247 Republicans in the House and 54 in the Senate) fair minded people coming to exactly the same opinion about anything, consider the following excerpt from Time Magazine in which the “plot to obstruct President Obama [began] before he even took office, including secret meetings led by House GOP whip Eric Cantor (in December 2008) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (in early January 2009) in which they laid out their daring (though cynical and political) no-honeymoon strategy of all-out resistance to a popular President-elect during an economic emergency. ‘If he was for it,’ former Ohio [Republican] Senator George Voinovich explained, ‘we had to be against it.’ ”

That, my knowledgeable readers, is obstructionism. That is illegal under federal law, although Congress has never been charged, and it is almost impossible to prove. (See:  2010 US Code Title 18 … Sec. 371 – Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States)

There’s more from the same investigation:

Vice President Biden told me that during the transition, he was warned not to expect any bipartisan cooperation on major votes. “I spoke to seven different Republican Senators who said, ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything,’ ” he recalled. His informants said McConnell had demanded unified resistance. “The way it was characterized to me was, ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back,’ ” Biden said. The Vice President said he hasn’t even told Obama who his sources were, but Bob Bennett of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both confirmed they had conversations with Biden along those lines.This lawlessness, some may say treason, is not isolated to Republicans, but they are elevating this obstructionism to common practice by their reliance on filibuster.

What some call obstructionism others call filibuster.  The filibuster, a word derived from older words meaning “pirate”, “privateer”, “robber”, is an apt description.  One of the first examples of its use comes to us from ancient Rome.  The Roman Senator, Cato the Younger, was familiar with the Senate rule that all business must be concluded by sunset.  When a motion not to his liking was about to be voted on, Cato would speak until dusk and the motion would die.

The filibuster was adopted by the Senate in 1806 as a way to ensure minority opinions were given the chance to be heard and understood.  There is no record of a filibuster in the Senate until 30 years after the rule was introduced.  By 1917 it became, predictably, necessary for the Senate to adopt a rule to stop a filibuster.  Taking from French law the idea of cloture (closure) they added a new rule in the Senate; a rule whereby a filibuster can be stopped if, in America’s form of cloture, a 3/5 majority of the body vote to stop the filibuster.

Between 1840 and 1900 there were 16 filibusters. Between 2009 and 2010 there were more than 130.   From 1992 to 2012, Democrats filibustered 352 times; Republicans filibustered 591 times.  That’s 943 total attempts at obstructing the business of America in a 10 year period.

The cloture rule has obviously done little to help things flow in the Senate.  Barbara Sinclair, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at U.C.L.A and the author of Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making, has studied the use of “extended-debate-related problems,” actual filibusters, and threats of filibusters, in Congress.  She found filibusters, or the threat, “affected only 8 percent of major legislation” in the 1960s.  By 1980 the number was 27 percent and by 2006, 70 percent of major legislation was either filibustered or threatened with the filibuster.

In a 2009 interview with the Washington Post, Dr. Sinclare states, “It’s gradual [the filibuster], to some extent. But in terms of its impact on legislation, it really has a big impact from the first Clinton Congress on. If one can say there’s a break point, that’s where filibusters become a regularly used partisan tool.”

Are our representatives fighting for America, or do Republicans and Democrats just fight each other?  Political parties should, as a minimum, accurately represent and support the country they profess to be working for.  If and when they obstruct the purpose of the nation that gives them their cause, we should all be concerned.  Taking steps to undermine the opposing party, often undermines the entire country, a fact that of late seems to be lost on our Republican friends.

The idea of America is being changed by forces the Founders could not have imagined.  A cloture rule was not even necessary in early America because Senators were thought to be gentlemen, and gentlemen knew when to stop talking.  Today, even with the cloture rule, we can expect more than 90 filibusters from our next Senate.

One of the several disappointing lessons to be learned from this is that there may be no gentlemen (or gentlewomen) in the Senate.  If there are gentlemen, they clearly do not know when to stop talking.  Or, a more likely conclusion: A party victory is the only important outcome for most in Congress.

We cured or at least halted the mass mortalities caused by invasive H Flu, chicken pox, malaria, measles, polio, small pox, and a long list of others. We have been in and out of wars and created some of the best music and art the world has ever enjoyed. American advances in science truly rival the intellectual wonders of the ancient Greek cosmologists.

We have put our countrymen on the face of the moon and brought them home, and some of us simply live in space for long periods. Americans have proven we can solve big problems with big solutions.

But consider this. The following quote is 123 years old. It gives us an indication of the real work for America that has been done by Congress.  Since this quote was made, America, among many other things, added Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii to this already vast nation. All the problems that come with that much land and that many diverse people were added as well. How, then, can it be possible that the same impediments to our country’s clearly expressed purpose exist today as they did then?

From the Populist Party platform, issued at its convention in Omaha in 1892, written by Minnesota lawyer, farmer, politician, novelist and patriot, Ignatius Donnelly, which read in part:

The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation: we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

If Republicans and Democrats have made any progress on the very current American concerns listed above, most are well hidden.  The last 123 years of obstructing America’s business has brought us exactly nowhere closer to their solutions.  American political parties are farther away from each others’ central tenants than ever before.  What was once a common cause with legitimate philosophical differences is now all-out war.  Obstructing America is no longer a shameful act, it is just another tool in partisan politics.


Mark Johnson is a freelance writer living in the high desert of Southern California. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from California State University, Los Angeles. 



4 Responses to American Democracy: Death by Obstructionism

  1. liberalvoice on December 30, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    Whoever referred to congress as a “congress of whores” got it right. They have become useless except for granting tax breaks to the wealthy and powerful corporation and attempting to undermine everything done for the People by Obama. The Republicans are so entirely to blame for this that’s it’s not worth mentioning the other crummy major party.

  2. Joseph Saks on December 12, 2015 at 2:45 am

    Things don’t change much do they. And yet, there has been progress. Gays don’t have to worry so much about some Christian hypocrite outing them and ruining their life or getting the shit beat out of them because jock moron like Sean Hannity thought he needed to rough them up for being gay. The Republicans have shut down our democracy in because they can’t get taxes on the wealthy lowered. Good luck all you working class fools who think Obamacare is the worst thing that’s every happened to America. Let’s go back to the old system and when your kids get sick and you can’t afford the medical care, go look in the mirror and ask who the real fool is.

  3. SteveH on December 8, 2015 at 2:43 am

    If the Democrats had used this kind of obstructionism, if they’d played the congressional game with this kind of cynical, partisan fanaticism, there would have been five committee investigations by now. Right-wing media would be screaming for the heads of leading Democrats. Sadly, the Tea Party has introduced a new kind of mentality with new rules of uncooperation and fascist stratagems. No president in history has had to deal with such anti-democratic fools.

  4. chomskygirl on December 1, 2015 at 4:58 am

    The Republican Party is on a crazy train to hell. They’re almost unique in the world as a political party for their complete lack of regard for facts. Only in a place where every heavily armed nut thinks he’s following Jesus could such a party exist.

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