Monday, May 27, 2013

All Politics, No Policy: The New Negligence of Congressional Republicans

Last month Congress held a hearing on long-term unemployment before the 19-member Joint Economic Committee. No Republicans attended. There are 82 vacant federal judge slots around the country, 61 of which don't even have a nominee, largely because some Senate Republicans have simply stopped participating in the nomination process. Meanwhile on the legislative front, taking a look at the agenda set by the House Republican leadership, Jonathan Bernstein of notes,

"Over 100 days into the current Congress, their agenda is … almost completely empty. In fact, of the (first) 10 reserved slots, there’s only one bill filed. That’s H.R.3. a bill to force the building of the Keystone XL pipeline. Even that is pretty minimal – it’s far more of a symbolic position than it is an energy policy. And even that took until March 15 to introduce. But at least it’s a real bill, and to their credit it is a substantive measure, even if it’s not an overall energy policy. Beyond that, Republicans have announced that H.R. 1 is reserved for a tax reform bill. There is, however, no bill, at least not so far."

So, did the Republicans disappear? Were they called up to heaven in the rapture, and the rest of us are, "Left Behind?" Sadly, no. Instead, they've simply stopped fulfilling their responsibilities to keep government functional. Apparently, Congressional Republicans are content to stop pretending that they're doing anything but trying to build and maintain power and to hold an endless series of "symbolic" votes condemning President Obama. In April, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC commented on this, suggesting that Republicans in Washington are now simply, "post policy."

Maddow was discussing the fact that Republicans had demanded that President Obama accept Social Security cuts, Obama had agreed to the cuts in hopes of reaching a budget compromise, and Republicans then attacked Obama for proposing the cut they demanded. This resulted in the following exchange between Maddow and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post:

MADDOW: Does that mean that [Republican policymakers are] post-policy, that the policy actually -- even some things that seem like constants don't actually a matter them, that it's pure politics, just positioning themselves vis-a-vis the president, and they're not actually invested in any particular outcome for the country?
KLEIN: I would like to have an answer where that isn't true. I really would. And I've tried -- I've been trying to find it. I'm sure part is I'm not smart enough to do so, that I've not found the right people to have spoken to them. But it is hard to come up with one.

In most jobs where you get a paycheck, Congressional Republicans would have been fired for dereliction of duty by now. But that's not how Congress works. I've been taking a look at WHY Republicans are doing what they are doing, and here's what I've come up with.

Reason #1: Hate.
On a recent appearance of Bill Maher's Real Time on HBO, filmmaker Michael Moore suggested, according to Jeff Poor of the Daily Caller, "that Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obama’s health care reform and Senate Republicans’ blocking of his judicial nominations go beyond loyal opposition and could rise to the level of treason." On the show, Moore commented, 

"What about trying to repealing [Obamacare] for the 37th time? Is that a wise use of our resources and time? I mean, at some point obstruction becomes, I don’t know, treason, you know? I mean they’ve also blocked Obama’s head of the EPA. There’s no head of the circuit court in D.C. You know, at some point it just becomes more about hating him than loving your country."

Are Michael Moore's comments over the top? Not really, when one considers that Republican leaders are admitting that what Moore is saying is true. Consider the recent failure of background check legislation for private gun purchases, a law supported by 90% of the public. Republican Senator Pat Toomey claims that the GOP minority killed the bill with a filibuster because, "There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it." And such an admission is not anything new. In 2010, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell stated that in no uncertain terms that his primary focus was not good government, but instead, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Reason #2: Laziness
Returning the Jonathan Bernstein article I linked above, "My guess is that the Republican-aligned partisan press is just so easy for Republican politicians that they’ve all become lazy. If all you have to do to be a favorite guest on Fox News or on syndicated conservative talk radio is to mutter something vague about Benghazi and make a teleprompter joke, what’s the incentive of doing the hard work of actually writing a bill?"

Bernstein is quite correct about the attitude of the right-wing press. Leading conservative publications are openly encouraging Republicans to remain "post policy." In a recent letter from the Heritage Foundation to members of Congress, that organization encouraged Republicans to focus their time and attention solely on Obama administration "scandals," saying,

"it would be imprudent to do anything that shifts the focus from the Obama administration to the ideological differences within the House Republican Conference."

"To that end, we urge you to avoid bringing any legislation to the House Floor that could expose or highlight major schisms within the conference. Legislation such as the Internet sales tax or the FARM Act which contains nearly $800 billion in food stamp spending, would give the press a reason to shift their attention away from the failures of the Obama administration to write another ‘circular firing squad’ article."

Reason #3: Republicans Can't Stand Each Other
Ah yes, about that "circular firing squad" the Heritage Foundation letter mentioned. In a recent article entitled, "A House in Chaos," Jake Sherman of noted,

"Speaker John Boehner, (Majority Leader Eric) Cantor and (Majority Whip Kevin) McCarthy are plagued by a conference split into two groups. In one camp are stiff ideologues who didn’t extract any lesson from Mitt Romney’s loss and are only looking to slash spending and defund President Barack Obama’s health care law at every turn. In the other are lawmakers who are aligned with Cantor, who is almost singularly driving an agenda which is zeroed in on family issues."

How has this divide manifested itself? Well, last month Majority Leader Eric Cantor actually made a sincere effort to create some legislation. Cantor's effort to "rebrand" the Republican party began with a speech in which he suggested the pursuit of, "an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families." This "vision" of course, translated into yet another in an endless series of votes to repeal health care reform. Unfortunately, according to an April 24th article by Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times,

"That ambitious goal ran smack into political reality Wednesday as conservative lawmakers rejected a Republican bill to help Americans with preexisting health conditions gain access to insurance coverage. Republican leaders had to abruptly yank the bill from consideration because they did not have enough votes from their rank and file to pass it. The episode was another example of the difficulty the Republican Party faces in corralling its unruly majority and finding a common message to attract voters."

In conclusion, House Republicans may be in power for some time, given that they've gerrymandered enough states to virtually guarantee majority control. Considering their recent conduct in Washington, public approval of Congress is likely to long remain where it is today: at an all-time low.