OBSTRUCTIONISM AND EXTREMISM BLOCK PROGRESS IN THE US HOUSE

ABSTRACT: While the use of the filibuster in the US Senate gets more attention, the obstructionism and extremism in the US House is more insidious. And it is no less harmful. One of the tactics in the House is the so-called “Hastert rule.” It stipulates that no piece of legislation will be voted on unless over half the members of the Republican majority support it. Therefore, 27% of the members of the House – barely over one quarter – can stop progress. The bipartisan immigration reform bill that the Senate passed is a current example of legislation that this conservative minority has blocked from consideration. It has meant that bipartisan compromises negotiated by the current Republican House Speaker John Boehner are rejected. Legislation that does pass the House is generally so conservative that it has no chance of becoming law. This is a major contributor to the current gridlock in our federal government.

In addition to extreme policy positions, House Republicans are also engaging in procedural extremism, including efforts that amount to hostage taking and sabotage, by a group of House members that seems to have few, if any, qualms about stopping government from functioning at all. The most dramatic example has been the use of the need to raise the federal government’s authorized level of debt (known as the debt ceiling). This brinkmanship threatened to cause the US government to default on its debt obligations, which many feel would have had serious impacts on global financial markets and the global economy – not to mention the ability of the government to function.

The fallout of this no-holds barred extremism and obstructionism has been a new breed of partisanship. Any compromise or trade-off is depicted as unacceptable and as a betrayal of values and ideals. For example, even though the economy is recovering (albeit slowly) and the government’s deficit is falling (quite rapidly actually), the heated rhetoric on the deficit and on the notion that government debt undermines the economy continues totally unabated.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to envision how this dynamic can change. I just hope that one way or another we can return to functioning government before real harm has been done to people, our institutions, and our international standing.

FULL POST: While the use of the filibuster in the US Senate gets more attention, the obstructionism and extremism in the US House is more insidious. And it is no less harmful to efforts to make progress on issues our country needs to address or to efforts to make government work effectively. The filibuster is a well-known, long standing, clearly defined tactic for stopping progress in the Senate. In the House, the tactics for blocking progress are more varied and more obscure.

One of the tactics in the House is the so-called “Hastert rule.” Named for Dennis Hastert, who was the Republican House Speaker from 1999 – 2007, it stipulates that no piece of legislation will be voted on unless over half the members of the Republican majority support it. Currently, this means that 117 out of the 234 Republicans in the House can block a piece of legislation from coming to a vote. Therefore, 27% of the members of the House – barely over one quarter – can stop progress. In other words, a piece of legislation supported by 73% of the members of the House (that’s 318 members) can be blocked by the other 117. In the Senate, a filibuster requires the support of 41% of the Senators to stop progress, while only 27% of the Representatives can block progress in the House. [1]

This unwritten Hastert rule is being used by the most conservative members of the House, including the Tea Party members, to block progress. The bipartisan immigration reform bill that the Senate passed is a current example of legislation that this conservative minority has blocked from consideration. And on numerous occasions, it has meant that bipartisan compromises negotiated by the current House Speaker John Boehner are rejected by these conservative members of his own party. To cover up this embarrassing situation, House Republicans look for ways to blame the Democrats, exacerbating the partisanship in Washington.

Another result of the Hastert rule is that legislation that does pass the House, because it has to satisfy the most conservative 117 members of the Republican Party, is generally so conservative that it has no chance of becoming law by passing the Senate and being signed by the President. Therefore, it is rare that viable legislation passes in the House. This is a major contributor to the current gridlock in our federal government.

In addition to extreme policy positions, House Republicans are also engaging in procedural extremism. In Obama’s first two years as President (2009-2010), Republican leaders pressured members to oppose any Obama initiative, even ones Republicans had previously supported. Then, emboldened by their gains in the 2010 elections, even the routine business of keeping government functioning became the subject of virulent obstructionism, including efforts that amount to hostage taking and sabotage, by an extreme group of House members that seems to have few, if any, qualms about stopping government from functioning at all. [2]

The most dramatic example has been the use of the need to raise the federal government’s authorized level of debt (known as the debt ceiling), which simply allows the federal government to make good on its outstanding debts and to fund current authorized expenditures of approved budgets. (Without this, the government has to shut down because it has no cash to pay employees or make payments on contracts for goods or services. In addition, it would default on its debts and stop paying interest on outstanding government bonds.)

In the past, increasing the debt ceiling was a routine and stand-alone matter dealt with regularly by Congress, with perhaps a little posturing. The tactic of these extreme Republicans has been to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to their demands for other policy changes, primarily draconian budget cuts. This brinkmanship threatened to cause the US government to default on its debt obligations, which many feel would have had serious impacts on global financial markets and the global economy – not to mention the ability of the government to function.

The fallout of this no-holds barred extremism and obstructionism has been a new breed of partisanship. To justify total resistance to Obama, the extremists have painted him not just as a liberal (which he hardly is) but as a dangerous and extreme socialist working to destroy everything that makes the US great. Any compromise or trade-off is depicted as unacceptable and as a betrayal of values and ideals. So when Obama makes efforts to reach out, compromise, and be bipartisan, the extremists tend to move even further away, sometimes even repudiating positions they previously held, particularly if Obama comes anywhere close to meeting them.

For example, even though the economy is recovering (albeit slowly) and the government’s deficit is falling (quite rapidly actually), the heated rhetoric on the deficit and on the notion that government debt undermines the economy continues totally unabated.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to envision how this dynamic can change. Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship and compromise have not only not been reciprocated, but at times seem to have led to even more extreme demands. Unless Republican leaders, in the party and specifically in the House, are willing to stand up to the extremist in their party, changes made by voters at the ballot box may be the only way to achieve change. But given state level politics, the way House districts are drawn (and gerrymandered), and the dynamics of campaigns (both in terms of money and messaging), change from the grassroots in elections doesn’t seem to be a likely scenario either.

I just hope that one way or another we can return to functioning government before real harm has been done to people, our institutions, and our international standing.


[1]       Editorial, 7/17/13, “More insidious than filibuster, ‘Hastert rule’ locks up the House,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Chait, J., 7/21/13, “Anarchists of the House,” New York Magazine

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5 comments

  1. Jane Hazzard · · Reply

    Until the gerrymandering of southern and mid-west congressional districts is outlawed (fat chance of that!) the country will suffer.

    1. Jane,

      You’re right. The other ways change will happen in those states is if Democrats have at least partial control of state government when the next redistricting is done after the 2020 Census or the populations of some of the states and districts change with increasing numbers of Latinos in particularly or non-White older men more generally. These demographic changes are happening in Texas and elsewhere in the south and southwest. It will be interesting to see when and how it has an impact.

      John

    1. Adam,

      Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to following your posts. I hope you find some of my other posts interesting as well.

      John

      1. Thanks John.

        I’m just getting started on WordPress. Let’s hope I can keep it up and actually write some original stuff soon.

        Let me know if there are any other blogs I ought to be following here.

        Thanks again.

        –Adam

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