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When GOP obstructionism becomes self-defeating

When Republicans block Democratic priorities, the GOP thinks it's winning. But what if Republicans are actually undermining their own goals with their tactics?
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The point of congressional Republicans' obstructionism, which has reached unprecedented levels in the Obama era, is obviously to block Democratic priorities. GOP lawmakers could, in theory, negotiate with Democrats and work on bipartisan compromises, but in recent years, Republicans deliberately chose an unyielding strategy: no concessions, no cooperation, no tolerance for progressive goals.
On several key issues, most notably economic growth and job creation, the GOP tactic has proven to be quite effective. But what if the plan has quietly backfired? What if, by simply blocking attempts at governing, Republicans have undermined their own priorities?
On combatting the climate crisis, for example, GOP officials are obviously outraged by the Obama administration's decision to use the Clean Air Act to impose new rules to reduce carbon pollution. But Jamelle Bouie raises an underappreciated point: "If Republicans are outraged by the announcement, they only have themselves to blame."

In 2009, President Obama threw his support behind climate legislation in the House, and the following year, a group of Senate Democrats -- including Kerry -- began work with Republicans to craft a bipartisan climate bill. The process fell apart.... It's not that EPA action wasn't possible, but that the administration wanted legislation and would make key concessions to get it. In the absence of a law, however, the White House was prepared to act alone. [...] With a little cooperation, Republicans could have won a better outcome for their priorities. They could have exempted coal from more stringent spectrum of regulations, enriched their constituencies with new subsidies and benefits, and diluted a key Democratic priority. Instead, they'll now pay a steep substantive price for their obstruction, in the form of rules that are tougher -- and more liberal -- than anything that could have passed Congress.

Congressional Republicans, through filibusters and obstinacy, can stop much of the governing process, but not all of it. When a policy runs into a choke point, its proponents begin looking for an alternative route to implementation.
In the case of climate policy, GOP lawmakers assumed they'd win by simply folding their arms and refusing to do anything. In practice, this often-mindless obstructionism simply forced the administration to begin to work on its own -- without any regard for whether Republicans on Capitol Hill would like it or not, since the White House didn't need their approval.
In other words, Republican tactics were self-defeating -- GOP officials would have produced a more favorable policy, from their own perspective, if they'd only agreed to work a little with Democrats.
This keeps happening.
On judicial nominees, for example, Senate Democrats were reluctant to pull the trigger on the so-called "nuclear option." Instead of leveraging that reluctance, Republicans did the opposite, vowing to block a series of nominees they found unobjectionable in order to force the issue.
Had the GOP minority been a little less ridiculous, Dems wouldn't have pursued the nuclear option and Republicans would probably still be blocking a variety of judicial nominees right now.
The Affordable Care Act offers an even more striking example. President Obama and his team were desperate to strike a bipartisan deal on health care -- they started with a Republican-friendly reform blueprint; they were prepared to bargain away progressive priorities, and they even signaled a willingness to incorporate conservative goals like "tort reform" into the legislation.
GOP lawmakers, under strict orders from party leaders, balked anyway, refusing any and all offers. No matter what the White House offered, Republicans said, the GOP would reject any attempts at reform.
But again, the obstructionism worked against Republicans -- they didn't stop the legislation; they simply blocked their own opportunity to easily move the legislation to the right.
We may yet see a similar dynamic unfold on immigration policy. House Republicans refuse to consider a bipartisan solution with broad support, pushing the president to consider unilateral action. If GOP lawmakers worked with the White House, they'd get a package that reflected their priorities, but by refusing to govern, they're likely to end up with a presidential directive that gives Republicans nothing.
Bouie concluded, "[A]fter five years of relentless obstruction in the name of small government, Republicans may have helped set the stage for a world where government is much bigger -- and expansive -- than it is now. And if it happens, we should remember to thank Republicans for helping to make it possible."