The task the Republican Congress set itself was not just to oppose the president but to restore the American way of life before it was too late. One can find historical precedent for a Congress seizing control of policy from the president—post–Civil War Republicans running roughshod over a reluctant President Johnson to enact Reconstruction, or the GOP Congress overriding Harry Truman to force through Taft-Hartley anti-union laws. But since 2010, Republicans in the House have lacked anything close to the numbers to override Obama’s veto, and those in the Senate have lacked even a majority. And so, not possessing the conventional tools of governance, Republicans in Congress set out to create new powers for themselves.
In the Senate, the Republican minority retooled the use of the filibuster, leveraging its ability to block presidential appointments into the power to block existing laws. Republicans paralyzed the National Labor Relations Board by refusing to confirm any appointees and blocked the appointment of the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for three years, telling Obama that unless he agreed to handcuff the new agency, “we will continue to oppose the consideration of any nominee, regardless of party affiliation.” This is the tactic that Senate Democrats finally defused last week, when their threat to ban such filibusters altogether persuaded some more moderate Republicans to break rank.
It is the House, of course, where the real locus of the Republican guerrilla war has been located. The first clue that the Republican House would not settle for mere obstruction came when Republican leaders threatened in 2011 not to lift the debt ceiling unless Obama met unspecified demands to shrink the government. The debt ceiling is a formal authorization by Congress to pay existing debts, and voting for it has no effect other than preventing the global economic meltdown that would ensue if Congress somehow decided to let those debts default. Such votes had often been an occasion for the minority party to scold the president for his lack of fiscal responsibility, followed by a preordained vote. Nobody had ever used it before to obtain concessions. Obama naïvely thought he could turn the hostage demand into an ordinary budget negotiation—he would agree to cut spending, as Republicans demanded, if they accepted higher taxes. But as the deadline for the debt limit approached, House Republicans only jacked him up, extracting over a trillion dollars in spending cuts.
Here was an unprecedented model of legislating. When, say, Democrats won back Congress in the 2006 elections, they halted George W. Bush’s domestic agenda. They did not threaten to instigate a global crisis to force Bush to scale back his tax cuts or end the Iraq War.
In retrospect, the most ominous thing about the episode was not that Boehner was carrying out an audacious power grab. It was that the speaker tried to strike a deal with Obama but could not deliver his own caucus. Though in some way a success for the Republicans, the hostage gambit was also the chaotic outgrowth of the party’s own internal dysfunction, simultaneously a strategy and the opposite of a strategy.
The full-scale nature of Republican opposition has harnessed a rage that, while potent, has proved impossible to modulate. Justifying the stance of total resistance has required Republicans to paint Obama not as simply a liberal but a dangerous socialist bent on eradicating the best traditions of America. The caricature justified the hostility, and the hostility, in turn, has authenticated the caricature.
Obama mused last year that his reelection would “break this fever,” but in the months since November, the Republican House has only spun further out of control. After November, the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts created another moment for a potential deal, which Boehner very nearly struck, only for it to emerge yet again that his party didn’t support the terms he was offering.
The most conservative members didn’t merely drive a hard bargain; they refused to acknowledge any limits on their power at all. A few months before the tax cuts expired, I privately asked an influential conservative aide how he expected his party to deal with Obama, and he told me in apparent earnestness that he expected Republicans to demand the tax cuts’ full continuation, not a penny less, and for Obama to acquiesce. Boehner tried to strengthen the House’s hand by extending almost all the Bush tax cuts except those on incomes of a million dollars a year and above. Obama would never have accepted that deal, but it might have lured moderate Democrats in the Senate, many of whom are rich themselves and were hearing from affluent donors. Arch-conservative Republicans refused to vote for it, leaving a helpless Boehner to pitifully recite the Serenity Prayer in a closed-door meeting.
The House leadership managed to stumble through the tax fiasco by letting Senate Republicans negotiate a bipartisan compromise, then standing aside to let Democrats pass it through the House. This has since become a model. With the House Republicans effectively on strike, other important bills have passed with Democratic support (the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy relief). In each case, House Republicans have walked away from opportunities to tailor the final versions of legislation more to their liking. In other words, they have chosen not to use their power to pursue their policy interests. They seem to prefer abstaining from the legislative process altogether.