The Wages of GOP Obstructionism

Unfortunately for President Obama, and the country by extension, the President’s triumphant showing at “question time” with congressional Republicans last week does not exhaust the recent similarities between our government’s functioning, and that of a parliamentary democracy. Per James Fallows:

The GOP now maintains party discipline by the equivalent of a parliamentary party’s tools:  The GOP can effectively deny a candidate the party label (by running a more conservative GOP candidate against him or her), and the GOP can also provide the needed funds to the candidate of the party’s choice.  And every GOP member of Congress knows it.

The result is, necessarily, an utter lack of bipartisanship, because Republicans have more to lose by defecting than they do by cooperating. In a true parliamentary system, that’s no matter. The minority is unnecessary to the work of governing: because the majority party selects the prime minister, the PM’s agenda is a fortiori assured passage at the outset, and on a rolling basis due to the ever-present threat of pulling an MP from the party slate.

Of course, President Obama lacks these tools. Because we are not a parliamentary democracy, he has no legislative mandate, even if he retains a popular mandate, and he cannot otherwise enforce discipline. When this happens in a parliamentary system, the government is said to have “fallen,” and new coalitions are made, or new elections called. Even these answers are foreclosed: GOP victories in 2010 will deepen, not ease gridlock. It’s a nightmare scenario, but unfortunately also the logical conclusion of Fallows’ tragically apt metaphor.

The only way out is to alter the underlying assumptions. On that note, we may be the victims of our own success. The appearance of a sixty-vote “supermajority” convinced the public that, as in a parliamentary democracy, the majority could be credited with, or blamed for, all government action, this despite the fact that the supermajority was always illusory. Before we campaign against the Republicans, we must accordingly campaign against the notion that the Republicans are, like a parliamentary minority, unnecessary to the work of governing. Obama’s State of the Union was a step in the right direction (“The responsibility to govern is now yours as well”). So is Harry Reid’s newfound willingness to challenge Republican “holds” on important positions for what they are — naked attempts to mortgage long-term security for short-term political gain. A concerted effort to remove from our party the veneer of Total Victory that we never actually had will, by returning responsibility to their ranks, bring Republicans back to the table. For the next month at least, every setback is therefore an opportunity. God willing, as Republican incentives to filibuster dissipate, so will their newfound fondness for the device.


  1. Couldn’t a lot of the current problems with the supermajority or lack thereof be solved simply by removing the procedural filibuster? If I understand the rules correctly, the Majority Leader can simply do this on a case-by-case basis.

    I imagine the GOP would be slightly less filibuster-happy if someone actually had to step up and do a Strom Thurmond reenactment every time they wanted to block something.

  2. You seem to be liking the parliamentary democracy recently. When you have an elected upper house it does change the dynamics away from what you see in the UK with the Lords. In Australia the senate can still block legislation, but it requires a simple majority of senators. We face the problem that because the vote threshold is so low to get in, set 12.5% of the preferred state votes (as we elect 6 senators at a time), the house is full of independents minor parties and single issue members (that is someone who got into senate because of their stance on a single issue). Rarely does the governing party receive the simple majority in the upper house it needs to pass its full legislative agenda.

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