Washington, DC -- It's increasingly clear that the moment the Congress convenes, the Republican minority in the Senate will be under heavy pressure -- and in fact are already inclined -- to jump right in with the same scorched-earth, filibuster-everything tactics that were used so successfully by Bob Dole to block progress of Bill Clinton's agenda in 1993.
The tip-off has been the response to the auto bailout. Officially, the negotiations on a compromise broke down because the Democrats wouldn't agree to further wage cuts for autoworkers in 2009. Opponents of the bailout said they wanted these cuts so that Chrysler and GM could regain competitiveness. But it's been widely reported that the real reason was a desire to weaken the union movement overall. "This is the Democrats' first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election," read an e-mail sent around to Senate Republicans. "This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it." And an analysis done before the votes by CBS News showed that the actual wage differential between the unionized Big Three auto workers and their non-union Japanese and European competitors was only 22 cents an hour.
Even with benefits factored in, the labor differential is only a few dollars -- and the United Auto Workers members live in more-expensive cities. The only meaningful difference in the labor costs facing the Big Three and their competitors is that the Big Three, because they have been around so long and because they used to be much larger, are facing huge pension and healthcare costs for retired workers. They should have set aside this money while those workers were on their payrolls, but the U.S. government allowed them to underfund pensions. And if the auto companies go under, the federal government's pension-guarantee fund and Medicare will have to bear the costs.
So even though the wages of Big Three workers are at the same level as those of their competition, there's no way that the labor costs of American companies can be made equal to their competitors -- unless the federal government steps in to assume the legacy costs. So why did the Republicans in the Senate shoot down the auto bailout down over this bogus issue?
Quite simply because it was their first test of their new strategy for scoring cheap political points: First, find essential steps toward economic recovery that, if taken in isolation, might not poll well. (The auto bailout doesn't.) Use minority rule (aka the filibuster) to obstruct these measures. Leave the Obama (or in this case Bush) administration to find another way to keep the country running.
It's not looking pretty, unless the American people finally realize that this is obstructionist politics instead of the kind of healthy checks and balances that will lead to good outcomes.