As elements of the Republican party continue to fight to derail Obamacare by defunding it, I find myself being struck by the degree to which those pursuing this approach seem to feel that it is a legitimate political tactic to in effect repeal a law that was passed by both Houses of congress by attaching a defunding measure to an unrelated piece of essential legislation. The impression given by the proponents of this effort is that it is a legitimate exercise of congressional discretion to withold passage of a critical budget resolution (or debt cap resolution in a couple of weeks) unless it defunds Obamacare — which is the “law of the land” after having been passed by both houses of Congress. It’s clear that this is something that the proponents of defunding Obamacare can do. But should they? Is there a precedent? If this becomes the precedent, where does it lead?
I want to emphasize at the outset that for the purposes of this analysis I’m not interested in debating the merits of Obamacare in this post. This could be any piece of legislation, duly passed by both houses and signed into law. My interest here is whether this is “messy democracy as usual” — or something else.
If this is democracy as usual, presumably there should be a precedent.
Specifically, in the long history of the United States, has there been a situation where the minority political party blocks the implementation of a “law of the land” by holding some other essential piece of legislation hostage unless their ideological agenda is met? Have the Republicans done this before? The democrats?
I started googling the question.
The first thing I found was a post on The Daily Caller by Matt K. Lewis that attempts to cite favorable precedence. Good, I thought to myself. The Daily Caller is an extreme right-wing publication — if anyone can cite precedence, they ought to be able to.
So, what does Lewis cite as precedence?
He starts by citing Terence P. Jeffrey, editor-in-chief of CNSNews and a former campaign manager for Pat Buchanan, who says that in its last Continuing Resolution the Congress “told the president he could spend no money buying foreign-made ball bearings. The one before that, they had language in there that said the EPA could not enforce a regulation that would be imposed on basically stockyards that have large amounts of manure emitting methane in the atmosphere.”
Okay. But those are just special interest pinpricks — you can’t seriously be trying to say that this compares in any way with defunding one of the signature pieces of legislation of the last several decades — a piece of legislation that was the subject of intense public and congressional debate, was passed by both houses and signed by the President who was then re-elected…yada yada.
Realizing these aren’t compelling examples, Lewis goes on to cite the Boland Amendment — an amendment in the late 80’s that went on one of the omnibus bills and said that President Reagan could not give funds to the Nicaraguan Contras.
And that’s it.
I mean — is that all you’ve got?
Telling Reagan he could not fund a secret war for which he had no mandate, which had not been the subject of any approved legislation? How is that in any way comparable to what the Republicans are trying to do now.
Back to googling . . . .
Next stop on my google journey — an MSNBC article under the headline: There’s a precedent for holding the government hostage.
I’m thinking — good, this looks promising. But it turns out the headline is just mocking the fact that in a give and take with Chris Mathews, “Republican Rep. Scott Perry insists there’s a precedent for holding the government hostage–he just can’t remember it.”
Okay, so that one was a bust.
I kept trying — using different search terms, going deeper into the results. And after investing a substantial part of my Saturday morning in this quest, I am now convinced of this: What the Republicans are trying to do is unprecedented.
It’s never been done before.
Not with a major piece of legislation that has been approved by both parties and confirmed by a election results.
So — what does that say about this tactic?
What precedent would it establish if Obama negotiates — if, for example, he accepts a one year delay of Obamacare in order to avoid a government shutdown, or a default on the debt ceiling issue two weeks later?
Doesn’t it establish a precedent that getting legislation passed doesn’t, in fact, make it the law of the land? Doesn’t it mean that whenever one party loses on a piece of legislation — no worries, just hold the government hostage on some other, unrelated piece of legislation until you get your way.
What really worries me about this, beyond the issue of the moment, is what this says about our democracy and where it is headed. Could it be that we are heading over a cliff?
Is it possible that what has held our democracy together and allowed it to function all these years is a set of shared values that are no longer shared? In the past, the partisan warfare only went so far before it bowed to the larger needs of the system to simply get things done. Is that whole concept lost now?
Why is it that those trying to defund Obamacare feel completely unconstrained to accept the results of the passage of the bill? If, as they believe, it is a bad bill and will lead to bad results — isn’t there a built-in mechanism to deal with that? And by that, of course, I mean — elections. If Obamacare is such a bad thing, then when it is implemented its deficiencies will be revealed, and then elections will be held in which repealing Obamacare is a major issue, and then the people will speak, the election results will come in , and the next Congress will, if mandated to do so by the election, take action to repeal the or amend the law in question.
Isn’t that how our democracy works?
But what’s happening now is fundamentally something else.
This is like a football game where the losing team locks the gates of the stadium holds the fans hostage, and insists on being allowed to continue playing until they “win”.
If anyone out there can cite a true precedent, please do so.
And if there is no true precedent, what does this mean?