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Republican Obstructionism: What Would JFK Do About It?

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The United States of America is in very serious trouble. Not just because 14.8 million citizens who want a job are unemployed, the nation is $12.4 trillion in debt, and is mired in a war in Iraq it should never have fought and a war in Afghanistan that the President and Congress lack the political courage to end.

The reason the United States of America is in very serious trouble is because as a consequence of Republican obstructionism and Democratic pusillanimity the nation has become ungovernable.

A comparison of Republican and Democratic behavior during President John Kennedy's first month in office and President Barack Obama's first year in office is instructive.

First Republican obstructionism.

With the help of Lyndon Johnson in Texas and Richard Daley (and Sam Giancana, the boss of the Chicago Outfit) in Illinois, John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the November 1960 presidential election by 112,803 votes out of 68.3 million cast.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Illinois Republican Senator Evert Dirksen, the Senate Minority Leader, both believed (probably correctly) that Johnson and Daley (and Giancana) had stolen the election by rigging the vote counts in Texas and Illinois. Nevertheless, how did President Eisenhower and Senator Dirksen respond when John Kennedy assumed office?

Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961. As a courtesy, that morning before the new President took the oath of office President Eisenhower transmitted to the Senate the nominations of the men Kennedy had appointed to his cabinet. The next day, January 21, 1961, the Senate confirmed all eleven nominations by unanimous consent. And by February 1, 1961 the Senate had confirmed the nominations of most of the new President's nominations for the most important sub-cabinet positions.

Had they wanted to Minority Leader Dirksen and other Republican Senators could have placed "holds" on nominations and used the Senate's arcane procedural rules to deny the new President the management team he needed to begin making policy changes inside the executive branch and developing a legislative program to which most Republican Senators objected.

Why didn't they?

When the first Kennedy cabinet appointment, Dean Rusk who had been nominated to serve as Secretary of State, was called on the Senate calendar, New Hampshire Republican Senator Styles Bridges, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, explained to his Democratic colleagues:

The President's choices should not be limited beyond the following bounds: One, is the nominee a loyal American? Two, is he a man of good character? Three, is he free from conflicts of interest? Four, in the judgment of a Senator and based on a Senator's own conscience and individual decision, does the nominee hold views that are, or are not, compatible with the interests of this country?

Mr. President, it may be that even at this late hour many members of my party have not fully made up their minds to vote for or against some of these nominations. But if we vote to confirm some of them, or all of them, it does not mean that the party of which I am a member necessarily approves of the nominees from the standpoint of their experience, capabilities, their views, and their probable performance. It merely means that, as a matter of principle, we are upholding the theory of the advise and consent clause of the Constitution as we understand it.

Can anyone imagine Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the current Minority Leader, making that speech and then the day after President Obama's inauguration joining with all other Republican Senators to vote to confirm all of the members of the new President's cabinet and to within a month confirm most sub-cabinet nominees?

Not only would Senator McConnell not have done so, for the past year he and every other Republican member of the Senate has been steadfast in their efforts to prevent President Obama, who - because he won fair and square an election that their candidate lost - most loathe, from putting his management team in place.

That is not a speculative accusation. Last week Republican Senator Christopher Bond finally lifted a "hold" he had placed eight months ago on President Obama's nomination of Martha Johnson to serve as the head of the General Services Administration, after which Ms. Johnson was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 0. Even more egregious, Republican Senator Richard Shelby placed a "hold" on almost 70 more nominations. And on Tuesday of this week Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, railed on the Senate floor that Republican obstructionism was continuing to prevent the Senate, for no legitimate reason, from confirming two important sub-cabinet officials: Caryn Wagner as Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security and Laura Kennedy as the United States Representative to the Conference on Disarmament.

Majority Leader Reid's explanation of why he has advised President Obama to begin making recess appointments merits the length of the quote. Senator Reid told the Senate:

I have told the President enough is enough. He has the right, as President of the United States, to do recess appointments. It should be done. What is being done to this President is unfair. It has ever been done before. We have had to file cloture on many Presidential nominations that President Bush never had to do... The Republicans are holding up these people for reasons that have nothing to do with the background, morality, and competence of these people. They are just holding them up because they want to hold them up. We have had them held up for a number of weeks because they do not like a decision that has been made as to where a building is to be built. The Republicans have backed up the [Senator] who has been doing this because he wanted the building built in his State.

I would hope the American people understand what is going on here with this party of no. I have been a person who has gotten along very well in my career, Mr. President, being a very moderate person, trying to be someone who gets along with Democrats and Republicans, but I am obligated to speak out as to what is going on here, and I have only picked two of the numerous people being held up. There are scores of them being held up for reasons that have nothing to do with anything dealing with these people or how they will function once in office.

If he were alive to watch Senators Bond and Shelby impose their "holds" and then listen to Senator Reid's denunciation of how Republican Senators are violating the traditions of the Senate, I think Senator Bridges, who according to the journalist John Gunther, in his day was one of the most "aggressive reactionaries" in the Senate, but who also wanted his country to succeed even if that meant that a Democratic president of whom he disapproved politically would succeed, would be appalled. And if the American people fully appreciated the extent to which Minority Leader McConnell and other Republican Senators have been willing to allow America to fail if that is only way they can try to ensure that President Obama will fail, they would be outraged.

But as long as the American people remain inattentive and "holds" and the filibuster remain Senate traditions that any member may abuse without the risk of sanction, Congress's ability to address, much less remedy, the nation's major problems will remain frozen. Which brings me to Democratic pusillanimity.

In January 1961 when he assumed the presidency President Kennedy faced an economic challenge that, adjusted for time and circumstance, was not dissimilar from the economic challenge that President Obama faces - a jobless recovery from a recession that had started on the previous President's watch.

To help both working and out-of-work Americans cope with the economic slow-down, measures that Candidate Kennedy promised on the campaign trail that President Kennedy would send to Congress included increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment compensation benefits, a medicare-like program for the needy elderly, and increased federal spending for education and housing.

In the Senate the Democrats had a 64-member majority. Although in the House, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 263 to 174, on major economic issues conservative Democrats who represented districts in states in the Deep South - the equivalent of today's Blue Dogs - routinely joined with Republicans to vote against bills of which they disapproved.
But in the House the real risk to the success of the new President's economic program was the Rules Committee, which decides whether a bill will be brought to the floor, and, if it is, what amendments can be offered and what the terms of the debate will be. Because during the previous Congress the Rules Committee had prevented major bills of which the Blue Dog-Republican coalition disapproved from reaching the floor by refusing to give the bills a "rule."

The way that had happened was that, while eight of the twelve members of the Rules Committee were Democrats, the Committee's chairman, Representative Howard "Judge" Smith, a conservative Virginian whose political views were as reactionary as Senator Bridges's, and the second most senior Democrat, Representative William Colmer of Mississippi, were Blue Dogs who routinely voted with the four Republican members. And on a 6 to 6 tie vote, the Committee could not report a rule.

Based on how he dealt with Minority Leader McConnell and Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley, the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, during the Senate's consideration of health care reform legislation, it is not unreasonable to assume that if President Obama had faced the procedural roadblock to the success of his legislative program that President Kennedy faced in the Rules Committee, his response would have been to invite Representatives Smith and Colmer to the White House for a soft-spoken appeal to reason.

President-elect Kennedy, who understood who he was dealing with, was not so pusillanimous.

The week after he was elected, President-elect Kennedy flew from Palm Beach, where he was vacationing, to his running-mate's ranch in Texas where he spent the next day discussing the situation he would face when inaugurated with Vice-President-elect Lyndon Johnson. Before returning to Palm Beach, President-elect Kennedy also met privately in a conference room at Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who had been prevented by bad weather from flying into the Johnson ranch.

What was said during those private conversations is not known. What is known is that in December when he returned to the Capitol prior to the beginning of the new Congress, Speaker Rayburn picked what he later described as "the worst fight of my life" by calling Representative Smith into the Speaker's Office. According to his biographers, the Speaker told the chairman of the Rules Committee that "the Kennedy program had a right to be considered by the House and he intended to see that the members got that opportunity." And the way he intended to ensure that the House would get to vote was to increase the membership of the Rules Committee from twelve members to fifteen. The addition of two Democrats and one Republican would create a reliable Democratic eight-member majority.

As the Speaker expected, Representative Smith vociferously objected to being stripped of control of his Committee. So three weeks later, on January 24, 1961 at the Speaker's direction Representative James Trimble, one of the Democratic members of the Rules Committee on whom the Speaker could rely, introduced House Resolution 127, whose passage would add the three new members. According to his biographers "Rayburn and his lieutenants then went to work, talking, pleading, cajoling members." "[President] Kennedy ordered Vice-President Johnson and his Cabinet to bring as much behind-the-scenes pressure for the enlargement as they could" and "Lyndon Johnson cruised the Capitol corridors like a one-man enforcer." According to presidential assistant Theodore Sorensen, the Kennedy White House also "used all the influence a new administration could muster - patronage, sentiment, campaign commitments and federal actions of all kinds."

But it still was not enough. Again according to his biographers:

Rayburn knew he would have to throw in his whole stack. Through many years, House Democrats had incurred IOUs to him. He had helped dozens of them enact their pet bills. Scores had gotten choice committee assignments because he helped them. Others had received his invaluable political help when they faced re-election troubles. He had raised campaign funds and made speeches for them in their districts, throwing his enormous prestige behind their candidacies. Now he needed their help.

After a rancorous debate on the House floor that took place below galleries crammed with an over-flow standing room-only crowd, on January 31, 1961 the House passed House Resolution 127 by a five-vote margin, 217 to 212. In winning, the Speaker lost 64 Democrats, 62 of whom represented districts located in the Deep South. He won only because 22 Republicans broke ranks with their party and voted yes in order to allow the legislative program of a President who many Republicans who voted for House Resolution 127 believed had won the White House by fraudulent means to reach the House floor. (Can anyone today imagine 22 Republican members defying Representative John Boehner, the Republican Minority Leader, by voting to advance President Obama's legislative agenda for no reason other than that doing so was the procedurally fair thing to do?)

In a literal sense the victory was the Speaker's. But after the vote The New York Times correctly explained the reality of what had happened as follows:

It cannot be said that Mr. Rayburn fought this fight as a matter of principle, for the Rules Committee has long been dominated by Mr. Smith and his coalition without a murmur from the Speaker. What was different this time was that there was a new Democratic President, with a clear Democratic majority in the House and with a strong Democratic program to which the Rules Committee had already shown itself effectively hostile. If the Kennedy Administration was to have a legislative record, the power of the Committee had to be broken.


What does this important, if largely forgotten, event in the history of the Congress teach regarding the situation in Congress today?

What it teaches is that, to paraphrase The New York Times, if the Obama Administration is to have a legislative record, the power of the obstructionist Republican Minority in the Senate has to be broken.

If they have not only the courage but the ruthlessness to take the political risk that President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Speaker Rayburn took and then won by five votes when they faced a similar challenge to their ability to govern, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Majority Leader Reid can stop Republican members of the Senate from continuing to hold the Obama Administration and it's legislative program hostage.

First, Majority Leader Reid can announce that Senators Bond and Shelby making a mockery of the tradition of senatorial courtesy was the final straw, and henceforth the majority of the members of the Senate for whom Majority Leader Reid speaks no longer will recognize "holds," an atavistic procedural artifact that is as far past its time as the brass spittoons that once were commonplace on the Senate floor.

Second, Vice-President Joe Biden, the President of the Senate, can assume the chair and announce that the filibuster is an unconstitutional violation of Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution. Majority Leader Reid has the votes to sustain that ruling.

In politics, what goes around always comes around. So if those procedural changes in how the Senate conducts the business of the American people are made the benefits eventually will enure to Republican majorities just as they will enure now to the Democratic majority that controls the Senate during what remains of the 111th Congress.

But so what?

If President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Speaker Rayburn were here to advise them, based on how they stepped up when their own right to govern was challenged by bad faith misuse of procedural opportunity, I am absolutely confident that they would counsel President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Majority Leader Reid that, since they have the Democratic votes in the Senate they need to do so, they should have those votes cast to end the self-inflicted gridlock that is preventing the Senate from legislating.

The sanctimonious howls of protest from Mitch McConnell, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and their like on the Senate floor, on Fox News, and on Talk Radio will be loud, shrill, incessant, and vitriolic.

But again. So what? Because ending the tradition that allows any Senator to for any reason impose "holds" and ending the filibuster are the right thing to do for the nation.

Having the courage of that conviction may win Barack Obama the second term he has not yet earned and Harry Reid the fifth term he at present is in danger of losing. Whether with the Obama health care reform initiative in tatters, the Republican filibuster reinstated by the unexpected (by Democrats and Republicans alike) arrival in the Senate of Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, and Democrats on the defensive in the run-up to the 2010 election, either man has that courage will be a test of history on which the future of the nation will depend.