President Obama’s executive action to protect illegal immigrants from deportation has provoked new outrage within much of the Republican base that is demanding it be blocked by Congress, which is now back in Washington. In turn, this is forcing considerable discussion by the newly empowered GOP leadership before they have actual power. If the talk foreshadows how the Republicans will operate once they do take full control, the last two years of the Obama presidency are not going to be pretty.
Rather than pull back from their earlier political extortion tactics, Republicans are now talking about expanding them, notwithstanding efforts of the GOP leadership to play by the rules. The new ground for political extortion, if the Tea Party wing of the GOP has its way, will be the Senate confirmation process. Sadly but clearly, the GOP has found a winning strategy with their asymmetrical political extortion tactics.
The GOP Is Winning the Extortion Game
Many Republicans believe that the way to govern is to refuse to take action unless they get what they want. The founders created a government with checks and balances, but they also contemplated good will in respecting the majority. But because Republicans do not have total control, they have been using the power they do have to make select government processes fail unless they get their way. Most recently we saw this with the government shutdown for sixteen days in November 2013. When Senate Democrats and the President refused to accede to Republican demands, the government came to a halt. That was the eighteenth government shutdown since Congress updated the federal budgeting laws that became effective in 1976 and The Washington Post—unfortunately without casting blame—has provided a nice summary of each event. But cut to the core of most (albeit not all) of these shutdowns, and you find Republicans demanding more than they had power to otherwise obtain.
There was a time when Republicans paid a price for these tactics. It was the seventeenth shutdown from December 5, 1995, to January 6, 1996—President Clinton vs. Speaker Gingrich—which lasted twenty-one days and caused Republicans to have second thoughts about provoking their last shutdown in November 2013. In 1995-96 Republicans were correctly blamed by the media for the shutdown. Indeed, public disgust with that shutdown helped a weakened President Bill Clinton win reelection in 1996.
When Tea Party Republicans openly pushed for the eighteenth shutdown in November 2013, they were much shrewder about it than their 1995-96 predecessors. They had learned from prior mistakes so they proceeded slowly, while openly (and falsely) blaming Democrats, and in the process totally confused the general public, who had no idea whom to blame. Fox News blamed Democrats and MSNBC blamed Republicans, but the less partisan mainstream blamed everyone in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats. Pew and other organizations polling results show how effective Republicans were in pushing almost half of the blame on Democrats.
Nothing could be clearer from the 2014 mid-term election results than the GOP can use these extortion tactics with impunity. When Republicans play their hand carefully they can get away with gaming the system, disrupting government processes almost any way they wish to get what they want, and they will not be held accountable for the damage they cause. Obviously, today’s GOP does not care if they are destroying the government with their actions and a win-regardless-of-the-cost philosophy. Congressional Republicans are emboldened.
They will not play by the rules, rather they are now claiming that President Obama’s “illegal” actions on immigration has given them no alternative. Since the President is breaking the law, they will break the rules. (Of course, the fact that President Obama is relying on precedents for his executive actions in the similar actions by Republican presidents is ignored or distinguished by distortion.)
Republican insiders tell me immigration will replace Obamacare as the GOP’s ad nauseam issue, and in January to watch the Senate’s expanded use of the confirmation process, where first a nominee must be approved at the committee level, and then sent to the full Senate, where GOP Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell will control what the Senate does or does not vote on.
GOP Coming Confirmation Games
GOP opposition to the President’s action on immigration focuses on the process, which both bores and confuses the public. So Republicans claim they favor immigration reform (which is not true), but they object to Obama’s use of an executive order to prevent deportation and prosecution of millions of illegal aliens in the United States, arguing that such an executive order violates the law. By focusing on the President’s use of an executive order, they obscure the reasons I have been told Republicans are so upset and outraged. In truth, some Republicans do not want the Democrats to get credit for solving this difficult problem, not to mention give millions of thankful immigrants a reason to join the Democratic Party; other Republicans want to delegitimize the first African American president and do not want him to get credit for anything, which is also why they have worked tirelessly to destroy or discredit the Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare); a few misinformed Republicans believe (incorrectly) that the President’s action with immigrants will take jobs from Americans and hurt the recovering economy.
Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz, who championed the November 2013 government shutdown, disingenuously claims President Obama’s action hurts those immigrants who have been standing in line going through the prescribed procedures, so he and his Tea Party compatriots are working on two principal tracks to stop Obama: First, another government shutdown until the President withdraws his executive action protecting illegal immigrants; and secondly, a refusal to confirm Obama’s new attorney general Loretta Lynch, unless she denounces the unconstitutionality and illegality of the President’s executive action on immigration. Ted Cruz, a former law clerk to Chief Justice Bill Rehnquist, is one of the Senate’s better legal sophists, and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee where he will be looking to trap the President’s nominee for attorney general. Ms. Lynch, a savvy long-time federal prosecutor, will hopefully deal with this blowhard appropriately.
Remarkably, and inexplicably, Senate Democrats agreed with Republicans to defer action on the confirmation of Ms. Lynch until Republicans take control of the Senate in 2015. (I have never understood the Democrats’ wimpy style in dealings with Republicans.) Whatever, I believe Democrats have invited exactly the kind of trouble Senator Cruz has announced, when they could have jammed through this nomination in the lame duck session Democrats controlled. In fact, I think Senator Cruz is providing a preview of a strategy I understand they plan to employ extensively. Attack President Obama by attacking his nominations, starting with Ms. Lynch. And close down the confirmation process if the President does not give them what they want. Force Obama to do what he has refused to do: Horse-trade to get his nominees confirmed.
Senator Cruz and his Tea Party cohorts understand that very few Americans follow the confirmation process of the U.S. Senate, and that outside of Washington nobody cares when Republicans refuse to take action, or endlessly delay, on a presidential nominee. Using the confirmation process to extort the White House is much less drastic than closing down the government, for nothing negative appears to happen when there is a vacancy in a department or agency. For example, how many Americans knew that a quarter of the world has no American ambassador because rather than being summarily confirmed, as would normally be the case, these Obama nominees are being blocked by Senate Republicans? During the recent Ebola scare, how many Americans understood the fraudulent nature of the attacks on Obama for having no Surgeon General, notwithstanding the fact the GOP had blocked the President’s nominee at the request of the National Rifle Association?
Republicans understand that what happens when presidential appointments are unfilled is that an “acting” person fills the post, so business continues. But acting department or agency appointees result in very tepid leadership. The acting person is merely a placeholder, and offers no leadership as occurs with a presidential appointee in charge. So playing the extortion game with presidential appointees gives the Tea Party several potentials. They can get something from the Obama White House they might not otherwise get, or they can stall or refuse to confirm, which will dilute presidential leadership, and the record of the Obama Administration, by failing to fill open posts during the remainder of Obama’s presidency.
During the first six years of his presidency, Barack Obama has not made an issue of the failure of Republicans to fill many of his appointments, or when they have excessively slow-walked them through the U.S. Senate. The President currently has two open, and important, cabinet posts: Attorney General and Secretary of Defense. If the President, and his surrogates on Capitol Hill, do not call the Republicans—openly and frequently—on their abuses of the confirmation process, and if he tolerates their efforts to use this process for extorting political gain, he is not only wasting his bully pulpit, but he will see his presidency end with a whimper. In addition, we will undoubtedly see the Republican candidate for president in 2016 accusing the Democrats of failing to fill all their executive appointments when they were in the White House. That’s how Republicans play it.