The Re­pub­li­can tac­tic that can block Trump

For­mer staffer Adam Jentle­son says Democrats in the Se­nate must learn to be ob­struc­tion­ists

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twitter: @ajentle­son Adam Jentle­son, for­merly deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid, is the se­nior strate­gic ad­viser at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress Ac­tion Fund.

As a Demo­cratic Se­nate aide for the past seven years, I had a front-row seat to an im­pres­sive show of ob­struc­tion. Repub­li­cans, un­der then-Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, de­cided they would op­pose Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid at ev­ery turn to limit their power. And it worked: They ex­torted con­ces­sions from Democrats with threats of shut­downs, fis­cal cliffs and fi­nan­cial chaos. I know first­hand that Democrats’ pas­sion for re­spon­si­ble gov­er­nance can be ex­ploited by Repub­li­cans who are willing to blow past all norms and stan­dards.

Now we have a pres­i­dent who ex­em­pli­fies that will­ing­ness in the ex­treme. Partly, this ex­plains why he faces more ques­tions about his le­git­i­macy than any pres­i­dent in re­cent his­tory and why he drew three times as many pro­test­ers as in­au­gu­ra­tion at­ten­dees last week­end. But in some­thing of a mis­match, Repub­li­cans’ uni­fied con­trol of govern­ment means that the most ef­fec­tive tool for pop­u­lar re­sis­tance lies in the Se­nate — the elite, byzan­tine in­sti­tu­tion en­vi­sioned by the founders as the saucer that cools the teacup of pop­u­lar opin­ion.

Se­nate Democrats have a pow­er­ful tool at their dis­posal, if they choose to use it, for re­sist­ing a pres­i­dent who has no man­date and can­not claim to em­body the pop­u­lar will. That tool lies in the sim­ple but fit­ting act of with­hold­ing con­sent. An or­ga­nized ef­fort to do so on the Se­nate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or se­verely slow down the agenda of a pres­i­dent who does not rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans.

The pro­ce­dure for with­hold­ing con­sent is straight­for­ward, but de­ploy­ing it is tricky. For the Se­nate to move in a timely fash­ion on any order of busi­ness, it must ob­tain unan­i­mous sup­port from its mem­bers. But if a sin­gle sen­a­tor ob­jects to a con­sent agree­ment, McCon­nell, now ma­jor­ity leader, will be forced to re­sort to time-con­sum­ing pro­ce­dural steps through the clo­ture process, which takes four days to con­firm nom­i­nees and seven days to ad­vance any piece of leg­is­la­tion — and that’s with­out amend­ment votes, each of which can be sub­jected to a sev­eral-day clo­ture process as well.

McCon­nell can ask for con­sent at any time, and if no ob­jec­tion is heard, the Se­nate as­sumes that con­sent is granted. So the 48 sen­a­tors in the Demo­cratic cau­cus must work to­gether — along with any Repub­li­cans who aren’t afraid of be­ing tar­geted by an an­gry tweet — to en­sure that there is al­ways a sen­a­tor on the floor to with­hold con­sent.

Be­cause ev­ery Se­nate ac­tion re­quires the unan­i­mous con­sent of mem­bers from all par­ties, ev­ery­thing it does is a lever­age point for Democrats. For in­stance, each of the 1,000-plus nom­i­nees re­quir­ing Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion — in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s Cab­i­net choices — can be de­layed for four days each.

While the tac­tic works well, as we’ve seen for the past eight years, there re­mains the ques­tion of strat­egy. Should Democrats be prag­matic and let Trump have his nom­i­nees on a rea­son­able timetable, so as not to ap­pear ob­struc­tion­ist? So far, this has been their ap­proach to some of Trump’s Cab­i­net picks.

But it’s also fair to say that, by nom­i­nat­ing a poorly qual­i­fied and eth­i­cally chal­lenged Cab­i­net, Trump for­feited his right to a speedy con­fir­ma­tion process, and Democrats should there­fore slow it down to fa­cil­i­tate the ad­e­quate vet­ting that Trump and Se­nate Repub­li­cans are de­ter­mined to avoid by rush­ing the process be­fore all the ques­tion­naires and fil­ings are sub­mit­ted. Four days of scru­tiny on the Se­nate floor per nom­i­nee, even af­ter the com­mit­tee hear­ings, is a rea­son­able stan­dard for ful­fill­ing the Se­nate’s con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity of ad­vice and con­sent.

Democrats can also with­hold their con­sent from ev­ery piece of ob­jec­tion­able leg­is­la­tion McCon­nell tries to ad­vance. With 48 sen­a­tors in their cau­cus, they have the votes to block most bills. But even when Democrats don’t have the votes, they can force McCon­nell to spend time jump­ing through pro­ce­dural hoops. This is the in­sight McCon­nell de­ployed against Reid to man­u­fac­ture the ap­pear­ance of grid­lock, forc­ing him to use the clo­ture process more than 600 times.

Fi­nally, Democrats can with­hold their con­sent from Trump un­til they feel con­fi­dent that for­eign gov­ern­ments are not in­ter­fer­ing in our elec­tions. Credible re­ports hold that U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Trump’s cam­paign co­op­er­ated with the Rus­sian govern­ment on Vladimir Putin’s per­son­ally di­rected med­dling. With­hold­ing con­sent from Trump’s agenda un­til an in­de­pen­dent, bi­par­ti­san probe pro­vides an­swers is not just rea­son­able; it’s re­spon­si­ble. If Democrats with­hold con­sent from ev­ery­thing the Se­nate does un­til such a process is es­tab­lished, they can stall Trump’s agenda and con­fir­ma­tion of his nom­i­nees in­def­i­nitely. Sen. Richard Durbin has been a leader in de­mand­ing an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But un­less Democrats back their calls with the threat of ac­tion, McCon­nell will steam­roll them and never look back.

Of course, it would be un­wise to de­ploy this strat­egy blindly. The kind of univer­sal ob­struc­tion pi­o­neered by McCon­nell dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency is not in Democrats’ na­ture: They be­lieve in the smooth func­tion­ing of govern­ment.

But Democrats’ con­cern with de­liv­er­ing re­sults for their con­stituents is also part of who we are and some­thing we should em­brace. Even for in­nately cau­tious Democrats, some is­sues de­mand dra­matic ac­tion. If Trump wants to put their con­cerns about his le­git­i­macy to rest, he can reach out with con­sen­sus nom­i­nees and poli­cies, and come clean about his ties to Rus­sia and his tax re­turns (which may show whether he has com­pro­mis­ing fi­nan­cial debts to Rus­sian in­ter­ests). Un­til then, Democrats can stand up for Amer­ica by with­hold­ing their con­sent.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.