Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Wrong Hand

Robert Kuttner is, in my view, mostly correct that Republicans have been exploiting rules and violating norms to win policy battles. And he's correct that Barack Obama should fight back.

But his suggestion for how to fight is, in my view, totally wrong:
One thing Obama could do is to make more of a political issue of the Republicans’ narrow obstructionism. It would remind voters why they agree with Democrats on most questions, and it would win the president some points for leadership and toughness.
Nope. It's highly unlikely that voters really care that Republicans are blocking Commerce Secretary nominees (in addition to the CFPB and NLRB that Kuttner mentions). And for swing voters, loud complaints about GOP obstruction are just as likely to be interpreted as whining about losing as they are "leadership and toughness." I do think that Obama might consider talking a bit more about Senate obstruction if that helped convince Democratic Senators that the White House actually cares about getting its nominees confirmed, but the target here is the Senate, not the voters.

However, Kuttner mentions, but undervalues, administrative tools the administration can use to fight back against Congressional stubbornness. Moreover, Kuttner oddly neglects the most important thing that Democrats could do about appointments: they could, and in my view should, immediately threaten to change Senate rules to make a simple majority sufficient to confirm executive branch nominees. 

For the most part, the threat should be sufficient. If not, Democrats should be prepared to back it up with action. A fight waged with bureaucratic weapons, whether they involve Senate procedures or creative use of statutory authority by executive branch agencies, is relatively unlikely to thrill partisans who want to see ideological battles. But it has a much better chance of succeeding, and that's more important, both for delivering benefits to important constituencies and for just making the government run better. And that's what Democrats should be urging the president (and Senate leaders) to do -- not fiery speeches.


  1. I agree fiery speeches aren't the answer, but changing the Senate rules might be impossible.

  2. Well, how many Democrats in the Senate branded this exact move the "nuclear option" and talked about how damaging it would be to the process a mere 5-6 years ago? Best-case scenario, such a vote would just be a wash in which both parties would look like hypocrites for obstructing something they supported when they were in power.


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