Obama’s Great Week

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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

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About John K. Anderson

John Anderson is a former student of political science and political professional who worked on a variety of campaigns in the Midwest and on the East Coast. He currently lives in Minneapolis where everyone is friendly and there are lots of lakes. He blogs at longwalkdownlyndale

Comments

  1. wellokaythen says:

    In terms of politics I tend to be a “pox on both your houses” kind of guy. How people talk about filibustering depends almost entirely on whether they like the motives of the filibusterers.

    When it’s my own people stalling legislation for an agenda I approve of, then the filibuster is the heroic action of a minority against the tyrannical majority. It’s a necessary use of something that our predecessors wisely created for this very reason.

    When it’s other people stalling legislation for an agenda I don’t like, then the filibuster is part of a conspiracy to subvert the original policy for their own narrow-minded political interests. It’s a subversion of the original intent of the filibuster and an abuse of power.

    Theoretically, the filibuster is a fair use of parliamentary procedure whether the filibuster is used, for example, to allow more abortions or fewer abortions. That’s not what I see happening. It’s always the other side that’s abusing the system and my side that’s using the system correctly.

    • John K. Anderson says:

      “When it’s my own people stalling legislation for an agenda I approve of, then the filibuster is the heroic action of a minority against the tyrannical majority.” Yes, I’d say that’s how a lot of people look at it. But I do think filibustering qualified nominees to fill important jobs in agencies in the executive branch because you disagree with the policies those agencies are suppose to carry out under the law is worse that filibustering bills you feel strongly against. That’s something entirely new in American politics. It can also cause major problems, the worst example would be the ATF has had only temporary acting directors for seven years now.

      • Will Best says:

        One of those qualified nominees that just got through used his position to make improvements to facilities day-laborers used to help facilitate off the books pay by illegal aliens and is under investigation for quid pro quo deal whereby he agreed to drop a case the DoJ didn’t want going to the Supreme Court in exchange for the DoJ dropping a $180 million dollar lawsuit against the city of St. Paul, and oh yeah committed perjury… but yeah other than that he is qualified.

  2. John Weeast says:

    I don’t see the filibuster deal as really changing anything. They allow a few appointments through, and the rules stay the same. A lot of the nominations end up getting through on recess appointments which is the real bypassing of the rules and both sides have used it. I think many don’t understand what political capital is. By pushing through legislation because you don’t need the other side, it makes things messy.

    As for the NY rates… again the NYT has exaggerated numbers and used fuzzy math to make it look better than it really is. It’s still a decrease, but not nearly as much as they’re claiming.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2013/07/18/the-new-york-times-tries-and-fails-to-save-obamacare-from-health-insurance-rate-shock/

    The majority of states are still going to see an increase. If NY’s rates weren’t so inflated to begin with, they’d be on the rise like everyone else. I also wonder how much delaying the employer mandate is going to increase rates next year. That’s factored in, and we know the insurance companies aren’t going to just eat the costs in exchange of profits for an entire year.

    • John K. Anderson says:

      Well the Senate voted 54 to 46 to confirm Tom Perez as Secretary of Labor earlier today, that’s certainly something. While the deal doesn’t necessarily change how the Senate deals with legislation, in a way that doesn’t really matter as anything opposed by a majority of Senate Republicans is almost certainly going to get shot down by the GOP controlled House.

  3. Thanks for the article John. I agree. Obama is doing just fine. Given that we are all living in America.

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