Canada may have eked out a thrilling 3-2 overtime win over the United States in the Olympic hockey final on Sunday, but when it comes to political obstructionism, it's no contest. The AP is just the latest to document the Republicans' runaway gold medal in the filibuster. On track to easily shatter their previous record, the GOP has made obstructionism the new normal in Washington.
As the chart above cited in January by The Atlantic's James Fallows shows, the number of cloture motions requiring a Senate supermajority of 60 votes is simply unprecedented in American history. And with 290 bills stalled in the Senate, Republicans have made sure that the route to passing legislation is more blocked than Dick Cheney's arteries. As the AP put it:
The frequency of filibusters -- plus threats to use them -- are measured by the number of times the upper chamber votes on cloture. Such votes test the majority's ability to hold together 60 members to break a filibuster.
Last year, the first of the 111th Congress, there were a record 112 cloture votes. In the first two months of 2010, the number already exceeds 40.
That means, with 10 months left to run in the 111th Congress, Republicans have turned to the filibuster or threatened its use at a pace that will more than triple the old record.
The numbers don't lie. For over a generation, while Democrats have acquiesced in the GOP's budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, Republicans instead presented a unified rejectionist front on the economic and health care programs of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Worse still, the Republicans' record-breaking use of the filibuster since being relegated to the minority in 2006 has made the 60 vote threshold a permanent fixture of the Senate.
For Republicans, No Means No
The table below tells the tale. (Note that figures are not in real dollars adjusted for inflation.) While some turncoat Democrats helped Reagan and Bush sell their supply-side snake oil, Republicans were determined to torpedo new Democratic presidents:
Consider this year's stimulus bill. 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 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 statement that the Obama stimulus proposal "could well have broad Republican appeal."
Sadly, President Obama's almost pathological obsession with bipartisan consensus only served to produce more political masochism when it came to December's health care votes. In the House, exactly one Republican voted for a health care reform bill which 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.
If Barack Obama's experience with Republican obstructionism has been painful, Bill Clinton's was unprecedented. 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.
Inheriting massive budget deficits and unemployment topping 7% from Bush the Elder, Clinton's $496 billion program was nonetheless opposed by every single member of the GOP, as well as defectors from his own party. As the Times recounted, it took a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Al Gore to earn victory:
An identical version of the $496 billion deficit-cutting measure was approved Thursday night by the House, 218 to 216. The Senate was divided 50 to 50 before Mr. Gore voted. Since tie votes in the House mean defeat, the bill would have failed if even one representative or one senator who voted with the President had switched sides.
But while Bill Clinton met with total opposition from Republicans, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was similarly subjected to scorched-earth politics from Democrats.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept to power promising to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget. And in 1981, he delivered on the first part of that promise. With substantial support from Democrats in the House and Senate, Reagan easily won the battle to enact the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, lauded by the hagiographers of the right as the largest tax cut in American history:
The House then completed the formality of giving final passage to the Administration bill by a vote of 323 to 107. Shortly before the House voted, the Reagan forces rolled to an 89-to-11 victory in the Senate. There, 37 Democrats voted with 52 Republicans for the bill.
Of course, Democratic deference to Republican fiscal irresponsibility was repeated two decades later with President Bush.
George W. Bush arrived at the White House with a federal budget surplus, joblessness at 4.2%, a 50-50 Senate - and no mandate. And yet that spring, some Democrats supported it just the same. With only minor changes (the tax cuts were not permanent, the estate tax was lowered and not eliminated, the total size reduced from $1.6 trillion to $1.35 trillion), the 2001 Bush tax cuts passed both houses of Congress with substantial numbers of Democrats voting in favor:
The bill passed the House by a vote of 240 to 154, with 28 Democrats and an independent joining all Republicans in voting yes. The Senate then passed it by a vote of 58 to 33. Twelve Democrats joined 46 Republicans in support of the bill in the Senate.
(Ultimately, of course, history was not kind to the Republican obstructionists who put politics before public policy. Reagan's massive 1981 tax cuts led to even more massive budget deficits, forcing the Gipper to later raise taxes twice. George W. Bush, too, saw the federal government hemorrhage red ink and presided over the worst eight-year economic record of any modern American president. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Clinton's tenure in the 1990's witnessed rapid economic growth, low unemployment, balanced budgets and projected surpluses.)
For Republicans, the Filibuster is the New Normal
In November, Orrin Hatch promised a "holy war" by Republicans to block health care reform while Arizona's John Kyl was threatening "nuclear war" if Democrats tried to use the reconciliation process to pass the legislation with a simple majority. And yesterday, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander declared the same econciliation maneuver routinely used in the past by Republicans would "end the Senate" if exercised by Democrats. Why? Because the GOP's short-lived "up or down vote" talking point, like bipartisanship itself, is dead.
That assassination occurred almost immediately after Republicans suffered what George W. Bush termed "a good thumpin'" in the 2006 midterm elections. As Robert Borosage documented in June 2007, Republicans in the Senate have stymied overwhelmingly popular bills at every turn:
"Bills with majority support -- raising the minimum wage, ethics reform, a date to remove troops from Iraq, revoking oil subsidies and putting the money into renewable energy, fulfilling the 9/11 commission recommendations on homeland security--get blocked because they can't garner 60 votes to overcome a filibuster."
Former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) was one of the essential architects of the filibuster fever in the Grand Obstruction Party. While decrying that "the Senate is spiraling into the ground to a degree that I have never seen before" and "all modicum of courtesy is going out the window," Lott was also brutally frank about his 2007 strategy to prevent any Democratic wins come hell or high water:
"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."
The Republicans didn't merely shatter the record 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.
In January, 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:
And so it goes. As the Massachusetts Senate election approached on January 19, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart described the Republicans' total victory in redefining 59 Democratic-seats in the Senate as a minority:
"Let's see if I have this straight...The reason it [health care reform] will die, is because if Coakley loses Democrats will only then have an 18 seat majority in the Senate, which is more than George W. Bush ever had in the Senate when he did whatever the f**k he wanted to do."
That sums up the Republican Party's gold medal performance in staging and selling obstructionism. Sadly, the losers are the American people.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)