The fallout from the passage of health care reform will be many, varied and often surprising. For example, how many imagined that the Republican strategy of “just say no but say it continually” would have resulted in the resurrection of candidate Obama and the disappearance of the insider of policy wonk Obama? Another possible if unanticipated consequence of GOP parliamentary tactics may be a Churchill-like pushback by the majority Democrats.
Senator Harry Reid will not discover oratory. But he may remember that we are approaching the centenary of Winston Churchill’s triumph over another “just say no but say it continually” strategy.
In 1906 the Liberal Party won one of the largest parliamentary majorities in British history. The Conservative Party went from controlling nearly 60% of the House of Common to a bit over 20%. Yet Arthur Balfour, head of the Conservative Party, announced that his Party was the true voice of the Great Britain Nation and would use its majority in the unelected House of Lords to block Liberal legislation. For the next four years Winston Churchill (who years later would switch parties and join the Conservatives), David Lloyd George and other Liberal Party leaders tried to reach reasonable compromises. With a few exceptions, however, the Conservative Lords defiantly and continually said no. The situation continued even after the election of 1910 again returned a Liberal majority.
With gridlock undermining effective governance and frustrating the will of the majority of British voters, Churchill moved. He persuaded King George V to create hundreds of new Lords from the ranks of middle class Liberals, thus guaranteeing a Liberal majority in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as effectively destroying the character of the Lords. Churchill then issued an ultimatum: Either the Lords be stripped of its veto power over legislation or King George V would act. Balfour and the Conservative Party opted to preserve the nature rather than the power of the House of Lords.
Churchill’s actions and the Parliament Act of 1911 stripping the House of Lords of its veto power was just one example of a legislative institution seeking to maintain the appropriate balance between the fundamental principle of majority rule and respect for the minority. The ancient norms and folkways of legislative bodies, from the Roman Senate to the United States Senate, have always provided that a political minority must be given a voice; indeed, even the ability to delay, impede, even defeat the majority. But when a minority opts to continually and consistently thwart the fundamental principle of majority rule, history is clear: as an institution, a legislature will take steps to curtail an irresponsible minority.
This has been understood and acted upon by past Congressional Republicans. In 2006 the minority Democrats used the filibuster to prevent Senate confirmation of President Bush’s judicial nominees. The GOP had a majority but were five short of the 60 needed to stop a filibuster. Republicans threatened to use a parliamentary maneuver dubbed the “nuclear option” to end filibusters by a majority vote. The showdown was averted when John McCain led seven Republicans and seven Democrats to a compromise that ended judicial filibusters while preserving the right of filibustering. A century earlier one of the greatest House Speakers, Republican Thomas “Czar” Reed, also ended minority party tactics that had morphed into dysfunctional obstructionism.
Reed ended the “disappearing quorum” which had been used by the minority Democrats to reduce the House to what Reed called “helpless inanity.” When Reed ordered that Democrats refusing to answer a roll call to establish a quorum be recorded as present, chaos, fights, and four days of debate ensued. In the end, Reed and majority rule prevailed. Ironically, when the Democrats gained a majority, they repealed Reed’s reform. Reed promptly convinced the Democrats of the need to prevent abuse by consistently and continually blocking Democratic legislation. After a few months majority rule again triumphed and the Democrats readopted Reed’s reform.
Congressional Republicans have clearly decided that the sure path to regaining control of the Congress in 2012 and of the White House in 2014 is in opposing all President Obama’s initiatives. The result was initially dazzling. Health care reform was delayed months while the President and Senate Democrats convinced themselves that just a few more meetings with Senator Chuck Grassley would produce a bi-partisan bill. In the meantime, talking points were ginned up, death panels invented and millions of Americans were persuaded to oppose a proposal most of the specific elements of which they supported overwhelming. But the Republicans may well have over-played their hand and left themselves vulnerable to a new nuclear option.
They over-played their hand in three ways. First, by opposing everything and refusing to allow any Republican support, they appear to have finally convinced the White House and Senate Democrats (as well as large numbers of independent votes) that the GOP really is the party of NO and negotiating with them is both futile and a politically dangerous waste of time. Second, the lack of proportionality and any glimmer of fairness makes it easy for the Democrats to claim the high ground in the eyes of voters. For example, in the year of the nuclear option, Democrats had used the filibuster 68 times; when the Republicans were in the minority, they doubled the number of filibusters to 139.
This week Senate Republicans invoked an obscure rule to bring all Senate hearings to a halt after 2:00 p.m. Most independents will undoubtedly see this as childish, not principled, actions. Third, the GOP’s efforts to identify with and capitalize on the Tea Party activists have pushed the Republicans, and not Democrats, into a corner. If the GOP declares health reform as Armageddon and a threat to liberty, how can they ever cooperate with them? How can they join forces with those evil Democratic “totalitarians” “without the Tea Party folks turning on the Republicans? But continue to refuse any and all cooperation, and wind up like the House of Lords.
Something will break in the next few months or early in the 112th Congress. It may be changing the rules (Czar Reed) or diluting minority strength (the House of Lords) or by reasonable compromises (John McCain), but it will happen. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the GOP is now doing exactly what it denounced Democrats for doing in 2006 and Democrats are denouncing what they championed in 2006.
The pity is that today’s Congress has a surfeit of Balfours but a deficit of Reeds and Churchills.