President Obama just won two major victories this week; unfortunately for him nobody’s talking about them.
Well it’s only Thursday, but President Obama and the Democrats have already racked up two major victories over the Republicans. In the Senate Democrats were able to successfully end Republican filibustering on a number of appointees to important executive jobs. While in New York the implementation of Obamacare is set to lower insurance rates for individuals purchasing health insurance on their own by up to 50 percent. Both of these events represent major victories for Obama’s second term agenda and while unfortunately not many in the media are paying attention, they should be, because these sorts of event are what will define Obama’s second term.
The first victory happened in the Senate where Republican senators agreed to stop blocking a number of President Obama’s nominations to high level positions in the executive branch. First some background, the Senate’s rules and procedures are not strictly defined by the Constitution and as a result they’ve evolved over time to give every individual senator a great deal of personal influence by operating under a system called unanimous consent. Historically this meant that minorities in the Senate, including even a minority of one, could try and block things by doing things like filibustering as famously depicted in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Historically these rights, like filibustering, were used only in extreme cases where the minority felt very strongly against something, like civil rights legislation, and have been eroded over time by majorities in order to get things done. So over the course of the 20th Century the number of votes needed to end debate, or get cloture, has gone from 100 to 67 to 60. But more recently another trend has emerged where the minority party began filibustering, or demanding 60 votes to do something, more and more. In 1993 then Senate minority leader Bob Dole began filibustering all major legislation during the Clinton Administration. Then Senate Democrats starting doing this to some federal judges nominated by the Bush Administration and in 2009 minority leader Mitch McConnell began filibustering almost every single thing Democrats put before the Senate. A new development political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has called “the 60 vote Senate.”
Republicans have taken this form of filibustering everything to new heights recently by filibustering nominees for positions in the executive branch. Historically the President has been granted broad latitude to pick whoever they want to fill out important positions inside the government with the Senate only rarely refusing to confirm a nominee. While some high level nominees have been defeated in the past, Republicans have recently begun filibustering qualified nominees for important positions like the National Labor Relations Board or Consumer Financial Protection Agency simply because they don’t agree with the policies those agencies are charged to carry out under the law. In short, they want disrupt them by not allowing anyone to be in charge. Congressional scholar Thomas Mann has called this tactic “the new nullification.”
This brings us to the so called “nuclear option” you may have heard about earlier this week. Essentially Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid threatened to use a complicated parliamentary procedure to end the Republicans ability to filibuster nominees for important jobs in the executive branch. This would allow slots on the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to be filled with a simple majority of 51 votes. Afraid of having their power limited, the Republicans in the Senate agreed to drop their filibusters in exchange for a promise that Reid won’t rewrite the rules. In short, the GOP backed down and Obama gets to fill government positions with the folks he wants and doesn’t have to give up anything in exchange. A clear cut win for the White House.
The second positive development for the White House was news out of New York that health insurance costs for individuals buying insurance on their own could fall as much as 50 percent starting next year due to the new health insurance exchange being set up by Obamacare. This will make health insurance more affordable to the 2.6 million New Yorkers who don’t currently have it as well as those who currently buy it as individuals instead of getting it through their workplace. In addition to making life better in the Empire State, this development is excellent evidence that Obamacare’s core provisions of mandating that the uninsured buy health insurance and new rules requiring insurers to not just accept healthy people can in practice work quite well.
A lot of media coverage since Obama’s second inaugural has focused on the idea that he is a weak or bumbling president unable to get things done. In the narrowest sense this is true, Obama was unable to pass a modest gun control bill in Congress. But this is only because Presidents aren’t some kind of elected King who can order Congress around, especially when the government is divided between two political parties. Indeed, the presidents often held up as models of how a president should get their agenda through Congress, LBJ and FDR come to mind, were only able to do that because their parties enjoyed uniform control of the government with huge majorities in both bodies in Congress. This is simply not the case for President Obama. But Obama can build on the impressive legislative achievements of his first two years in office by making sure his policies are carried out in the executive branch and do in fact work in the real world. This might not be as riveting as passing a bunch of laws, but it’s what conditions allow right now. And the by the looks of it he’s doing this quite well.
AP Photo by Carolyn Kaster