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Chris Weigant

Chris Weigant

Posted: October 11, 2010 07:39 PM

Nobel Prize Obstructionism

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The Nobel Prize committee does not hand out a prize for obstructionism in government. But if they did, Republican Senator Richard Shelby would certainly be the odds-on favorite to win it this year. Shelby is currently continuing to block Peter Diamond, President Obama's nominee to the Federal Reserve, from getting that "up or down vote" Republicans held so sacred not so long ago. According to Shelby, Diamond is not sufficiently qualified to serve on the Fed's board. Today, it was announced that Diamond had won this year's Nobel Prize for economics.

That's right -- according to Republicans, the winner of the Nobel in economics is somehow not qualified to hold a government job helping to run the economy. Maybe it's all tied to their hatred of "elitism," but at this point it's hard to tell what Republicans are thinking, I have to admit.

The White House didn't miss this point, and immediately began using it to shine a spotlight on Republican obstructionism in the Senate on many of their nominees. As Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it:

Despite being heralded by the Nobel Committee for his groundbreaking work with applications in a wide range of areas like unemployment and housing, Peter's nomination to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors continues to be held up by a partisan minority in the Senate. Obstructing a nominee as well-qualified as Peter in a time of economic crisis is a harmful attempt to score political points that hurts our middle class and our broader economic recovery.

This is a good start. Because the White House is never going to get a better "poster child" (no disrespect intended) on the issue of Republican obstructionism than this. With over 100 of their nominees to various positions stalled by Senate Republicans, it's an issue that Democrats should be making political hay over. Normally, it's hard to get the public very excited over the issue, since many of these nominations are to obscure government bureaucratic jobs that not many folks have ever heard of. Even federal judgeships aren't all that interesting to the public at large, for the most part.

But the irony over Peter Diamond is deliciously thick and easy to understand. Senator Richard Shelby states, in reference to Diamond: "I do not believe he's ready to be a member of the Federal Reserve Board." Diamond then wins Nobel Prize for economics. In other words, Shelby's stance is a purely partisan one, without a shred of credibility. That's simple enough for pretty much everyone to "get."

Shelby's real reason for putting a "hold" on Diamond's nomination could be an obscure battle over which "school" of economics is currently in vogue. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post points out what could be Shelby's underlying motivation:

Shelby's argument against Diamond is cover for his actual objections against Diamond. One of those objections is simple partisan politics. But another, I've heard, is odder: Shelby hates behavioral economics.

This White House, as has been endlessly pointed out, is big on behavioral economics. See Peter Orszag, Jeff Liebman and Cass Sunstein for more on that. But the administration's embrace of the discipline has provoked a response that the White House never anticipated. Republicans have grown suspicious of behavioral economics. And Diamond, it turns out, has done a fair amount of work in the field.

But this sort of argument is going to be lost on most of the public and the media. It's so much easier to focus on the hypocrisy of saying a Nobel Prize Laureate somehow isn't qualified for a job. Which, to Obama's credit, he appears to be doing.

Of course, there are complications to the story, since it involves Democrats. In the first place, later in Gibbs' statement was a reference to a nominee that is being held up by a Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, for petty (and unrelated) reasons of her own. Secondly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has precluded President Obama from making any recess appointments until after the election, in an agreement foisted upon him by Republicans. Meaning that Obama can't make a dramatic gesture before the election, by bypassing the Senate confirmation process and immediately naming Diamond to the job -- which would certainly make a splash if it happened this week, right after the Nobel Prize was announced. Thanks a lot, Harry.

But the White House certainly can make an issue out of Diamond being blocked in the Senate. As I pointed out, the storyline is ironically amusing and easy to grasp -- meaning the media could have a lot of fun with it.

Over the past two years, Democrats have not made Republican obstructionism the political issue it should rightly be by now. They should have been screaming loudly about the abuse of the cloture (or "filibuster") by the current Senate -- abuse which is simply unprecedented in our history. Few know this, because Democrats have essentially given Republicans a free pass on the issue. The media has even begun to regularly say things like "you need 60 votes in the Senate to pass a law" which is not only false, but also reinforces the notion that what Republicans have been doing for the past two years is somehow normal, instead of unprecedented in all of American history.

But all that water has already flowed under the bridge, so to speak. Choose your own metaphor if you don't like that one: "that train has already left the station," or maybe "hindsight is 20/20." In other words, it's not going to help Democrats out on the campaign trail much at this point, because it would be seen as too little, too late.

To get away from cheap metaphors, though, one thing about the upcoming midterm elections is certain at this point: President Obama is not going to be voted out of the Oval Office. He's got two more years to go, where he will be dealing with the next Senate. And the obstructionism's likely going to get worse in the next two years. So Obama's really got nothing to lose by pointing it out.

And he'll never get a better chance to do so than Peter Diamond. Because it is downright ludicrous to say that a Nobel Prize-winning economist is somehow not qualified to get a job running economic policy for the government. And until Shelby realizes this, Obama and the White House should point out (at every opportunity they get) how this is truly Nobel Prize-worthy obstructionism.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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