The Republican argument against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration has generally focused on process: they shy away from the policy argument, instead insisting that the White House went about creating this policy in an offensive, and potentially unconstitutional, way.
To put it mildly, the GOP’s pitch hasn’t gone well, with the constitutional argument unraveling altogether. But what about the notion of political norms? Perhaps Obama’s actions were technically legal, but they exceeded what’s generally acceptable under American traditions?
We talked briefly last week about the Republican abandonment of political norms, including during the debt-ceiling crisis in 2011, but Brian Beutler fleshed this out in persuasive detail yesterday.
[T]he big glaring exception in all this, and the one that really underscores the argument that an abiding concern for traditions doesn’t really drive conservative opposition to Obama’s deportation relief, is the weaponization of the debt limit.There, the precedent, and the danger to the constitutional order, was actually quite clear. Republicans in 2011 (and again, to less effect, in 2013) attempted to leverage their control over half of the legislature, to impose their substantive preferences on a Democratic president and the majority party in the Senate by using the threat economic calamity as a bargaining chip. To borrow from the right today, we had a situation in which the speaker of the House tried to usurp the Senate’s agenda-setting power and the president’s plenary power to determine which laws to sign and which to veto, by laying out an unprecedented choice between a right-wing vision without popular support, and default on the national debt.
The gambit had no place in the American tradition. At least since the Civil War, the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis was the first time a major U.S. political party abandoned the policymaking process, declaring that it would crash the American economy on purpose unless its demands were met. It was effectively an example of political violence, and though Republicans broke no laws, their tactic was a striking betrayal of American norms.
At the time, few on the right raised any concerns at all about process or lawmakers’ willingness to act outside political traditions – conservatives weighed policy and electoral considerations, but little else.
And there’s no reason to stop there.
The notion of a Senate minority blocking literally all consequential legislation, requiring 60-vote supermajorities to pass just about everything, is obviously a break with American norms – but Republicans did it anyway.
Or how about the fight over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? For the first time in American history, a minority of the Senate blocked an executive-branch agency from functioning, simply because it didn’t like the agency’s legal existence. Our system’s norms would find such a tactic abhorrent, but the GOP did that anyway, too.
We can do this all day. Mid-decade re-redistricting. Blue-slip abuses. Filibustering cabinet nominees. Government shutdowns.
I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that norms should be taken seriously. There are laws and formal rules that obviously need to be honored – breaking them risks adverse consequences – but there are other, less formal standards about accepted forms of conduct. In the American tradition, those in positions of power and authority have a responsibility to respect these norms. There are, we’ve been led to believe, certain steps officials should not take, not because of a specific law, but because they fall far outside our common practices.
But as Republican politics has become radicalized in recent years, these norms have been deliberately cast aside, seen as little more than annoyances that get in the way of a conservative movement’s ambitions.
And now the right, furious about immigration governing, suddenly wants to have a debate about our cherished institutional traditions? Conservatives probably haven’t thought this one all the way through.