Since at least the beginning of the Clinton administration, the defining feature of our political system has been an intense Republican partisanship.
No Republicans were willing to sign on to Clinton's major policy initiatives. His tax bill passed only when Al Gore cast the deciding vote; every Republican opposed it. And his health care bill was defeated when Democrats joined every Republican in opposing it.
When the Republicans took over in 1994, they began changing rules and procedures in an effort to shut Democrats out of the legislating process. They initiated the K-Street Project, which was an effort to systematically purge all Democratic lobbyists from Washington. They implemented a majority-of-the-majority policy so as to ensure that only bills that a majority of Republicans supported would even be considered. They shut down the government in a budgetary squabble. They investigated everything and subpoenaed everyone imaginable, including the Socks the Cat. And they made a mockery of our constitutional system and paralyzed our country for over a year by insisting on impeaching and trying a popular Democratic president over matters related to a sexual indiscretion.
When President Bush took over, the Republican-controlled Congress grew even more aggressively partisan. Under Karl Rove's direction, Republicans in Congress actually pursued a policy of attempting to minimize bipartisan support for legislation (and thereby keep Democrats from taking any credit). They would tinker with bills that had bipartisan support by adding provocative amendments and provisions until no self-respecting Democrat could support the final product. In the Senate, Republicans went as far as attempting to eliminate the filibuster.
They solidified their majority in the Fall of 2002 by shamelessly politicizing the issue of terrorism just a year after the 9/11 attacks. The goal was to turn terrorism into a Republican (as opposed to bipartisan) issue. And, of course, unlike the previous six years, in the first six years of President Bush's term, the Republican-controlled Congress conducted no oversight at all and issued no subpoenas.
And now that the Republicans are a minority again, they have resorted to partisan obstructionism of an unprecedented scale. Republicans in the Senate are now using procedural tactics to block just about everything, including bills that have already been passed by overwhelming margins:
Remember the Congressional Ethics Reform package, for instance? It passed both houses of Congress by substantial majorities: 96-2 in the Senate, and 396-22 in the House. And yet, strange to say, the Republicans are refusing to let it go to conference, where both houses agree on a uniform final version of the bill to enact.
And the filibuster has gone from being a tool of last resort to a daily occurrence:
Normally, filibusters are used only when one side feels that some bill is exceptionally important. They have always been for special circumstances, not for everyday use. But the Senate Republicans have, essentially, decided that they are going to require not a majority vote, but 60 votes, for everything more important than naming post offices. And that is unprecedented.
Unprecedented but, sadly, not unexpected.
If you're still not convinced, consider all the major pieces of legislation that have been enacted in the last two decades. What do they all have in common? Virtually all of them were Republican initiatives that important Democrats agreed to support: welfare reform, the Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug bill, the Iraq War authorization, the Military Commissions Act, etc. The only real exception was the Clinton tax bill, but that's the exception that proves the rule; that bill passed without a single Republican vote (at least in the Senate).
In other words, for a long time now, bipartisanship has been a one-way street. It only happens when Democrats are willing to go along with an idea that most Republicans support. It almost never happens in reverse. In the Senate right now, Republicans are even blocking the bills that many Republicans themselves support. The goal is to make Congress look as ineffectual as possible. And to accomplish that goal, Republican leaders are blocking everything, for no other reason than to stop anything constructive from occurring.
I think it is key right now for people to realize that Republicans are using obstructionism as a political tool and not a legislative tool. They are not obstructing bills because they think they are bad or harmful. They are obstructing bills because they want to make Democrats look bad by making it so that they can’t accomplish anything. And then President Bush can go out, like he did the other day, and lambaste the Democrats in Congress for not getting things done.
It is incredibly cynical what Republicans are doing today and the only reason they can get away with it is because most people don’t care enough to pay attention and because the media is more interested in celebrity gossip and scandal than they are about matters of state.
I’m afraid the only way to fight this kind of partisanship is to be equally partisan in the voting booth. Sometimes I want to support certain Republicans, and in the past I have, because I think they are good, well-meaning politicians whose positions are not so radically different from my own. But when these same Republicans form a block in the House or Senate that prevents anything from being done for purely partisan reasons, they have gone too far and the only recourse is to throw them out and put in a filibuster-proof Democratic majority.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that is possible considering the state of our democracy today.
A better option, of course, would be for a core of moderate, mainstream conservatives to break away from the radical group leading our nation over the cliff and help the rest of us to steer the country back onto course.