Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Declaration of Congressional Opposition

In 2008, Congressional Republicans lead by Mitch McConnell committed to do everything in their power to obstruct the Obama agenda, not for any reasons inherent in the policies themselves, but so that Obama could never claim bipartisanship on any legislation he might have been able to pass. It was a cynical tactic that essentially dug up Madison's grave to spit on his corpse. And it worked. The tactical opposition of Congressional Republicans wasn't able to prevent a second term for Obama, but it did contribute greatly to the historic Congressional and state level swing to Republicans and particularly conservative Republicans in 2010 and, by preventing legislation like a second stimulus package or a major infrastructure investment, ensured the economic recovery from the Bush recession would be more sluggish and less well distributed than it could have been and contributed to Trump's victory. In the history of the American 21st century, should there be anyone around to write it, Mitch McConnell will be one of our great villains, and a big part of his villainy comes from this tactic and all damage and death it lead to.

Congressional Democrats should learn from McConnell's technique, but, rather than hide behind lies about negotiation and compromise, come right out and sign their own Declaration of Congressional Opposition. Here's what that Declaration could look like.

Whereas the extent of Russian influence and interference in our presidential election, potentially in the hopes of securing a president in line with there own interests, is still to be officially determined, but thought by most intelligence agencies to extensive and intentional;

Whereas the extent of the relationship between Mr. Trump, Russia, and the Vladimir Putin regime is still unknown and that Mr. Trump himself has publicly downplayed the significance of Russian interference in our election and currently and historically praised Vladimir Putin, often comparing Putin favorably to the democratically elected and re-elected Barack Obama;

Whereas Congressional Republicans are at present unwilling to allow an independent investigation into the Russian interference in our election;

Whereas, in the absence of his full tax returns the extent of the conflicts of interest inherent in his business holdings, both foreign and domestic are unknown and;

Whereas Mr. Trump has been grossly negligent in dealing with the conflicts of interest currently known to the public by claiming to transfer executive power over his business affairs to his children who also have public roles within his transition team, rather than to a true blind trust, remaining an executive producer of The Apprentice, and maintaining ownership of his new hotel in Washington, D.C.;

We believe it cannot be known whether policies offered and/or supported by Mr. Trump and the Republican party which he now heads, are policies offered in good faith for the betterment of the United States of America and its citizens, are in service to a foreign agenda from a nation that wields power over Mr. Trump, or are for the personal enrichment of Mr. Trump, his family, and/or members of his administration;

And with the fact that Trump's opponent, Hilary Clinton, received 2.8 million more votes than he did;

We the undersigned resolve to oppose each and every policy or person offered by the Trump administration and the Republican party, including cabinet level positions and Supreme Court Justice seats, with every legislative, congressional, and parliamentary tool at our disposable, until such time that the extent of Russian influence over our election and over Mr. Trump and his administration is known and dealt with and all potential conflicts of interest are accounted for and dealt with.

One of things I've heard a lot of is this idea that Democrats in Congress will have to “pick their battles,” that they will not be able to fight everything and so must focus on the worst of Trump's potential policies. So who do we not fight? Do we give Rick Perry a pass to focus on Ben Carson? Tillerson to focus on Sessions? Or vice versa? Let the less powerful agencies slide so we can focus on the bigger departments? Which one of Trump's public nominees to date doesn't represent an existential threat to either the department which they are ostensibly supposed to lead, a dramatic departure from previous and longstanding U.S. domestic and foreign policy, and/or present legitimate risks to civilization as we know it? Who do you give a pass to?

Even the most reasonable nominee, by far, is tainted. Elaine Chao actually makes a fair amount of sense as Secretary for the Department of Transportation, however, she is Mitch McConnell's wife. McConnell was the primary force that prevented making the intelligence around Russian meddling in our election to increase the chances of a Trump victory public prior to the election and, McConnell has said he will not recuse himself from her nomination process. Chao may be qualified, but that to me, looks like textbook corruption. As much as possible, we cannot allow corruption to gain any kind of foothold in our government.

And what exactly have Republicans talked about as their policy goals that are not worth a filibuster? The repeal and delay Obamacare is policy nonsense that at absolute best will result in a whole bunch of meaningless legislative slight of hand that will allow Republicans to claim responsibility for their own version of exactly the same policies as the ACA and at worst will sow chaos in our nation's health care system and lead to many premature deaths. And they're talking about ending medicare and privatizing social security. Aren't those worth a filibuster? The very first action House Republicans took, was to hold a closed door meeting, on a holiday, to greatly weaken ethical oversight (you know, to help bring back jobs to the working class), and though massive public outcry saved the Office of Congressional Ethics, they still pushed through rules designed specifically to squelch dissent from Democrats. Where is the opportunity to compromise? For the last eight years Republicans have fought everything from major policy to relatively low-level judiciary appointments, while almost universally negotiating in bad faith. Democrats should be willing to die on every single hill Republicans wish to climb.

You might also point out that since I think McConnell's obstruction is undemocratic and a gross perversion of his responsibility as a legislator, as a citizen, and even as a human being, that it represents the worst kind of partisan politics where victory on election day is elevated above improving the lives of Americans through policy and legislation, it is hypocritical of me to ask Democrats to do the same thing I am condemning Republicans for.

In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9% of the vote, almost 10 million more votes than John McCain, and secured 365 electoral college votes. In the Senate, Democrats gained eight seats and earned 51.9% of the vote totals. In the House, Democrats gained 21 seats and secured 53.2% of the total vote. As I've said elsewhere, I don't think there really is such a thing as a “public mandate,” but by any empirical assessment, the 2008 Democratic platform was one of the most popular political statements in our nation's history. McConnell and the Republicans that followed him, essentially spit in the eye of the American people.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and his electoral college victory hinged on about 70,000 voters in three states. Furthermore, his number of electoral college votes was far fewer than Obama's and ranks only 46th in electoral victories historically. (It's even fewer electoral college votes than Obama received in 2012 when Republicans were all but certain they had him beat.) Furthermore, Democrats gained eight seats in the House (in our heavily gerrymandered House of Representatives) and two seats in the Senate. By any empirical assessment, the American public preferred the Democratic platform over the Republican one in 2016 and it is only through an obsolete quirk in our process that Trump won. Organized Democratic opposition could actually be understood as doing the will of the American people, rather than directly opposing it.

And, unlike Barack Obama in 2008, we still do not know the full extent of Russian influence in favor of Trump in our election. Honestly, even if it the fake news stories and social media bots are the extent of it, that is enough to question the legitimacy of a Trump presidency, especially since he has downplayed the significance of Russian interference and praised Putin and it looks as though Republicans, even with pressure from well-respected Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, aren't willing to hold an independent investigation.

We also have to wonder about James Comey and the FBI. Elections are complicated animals, and their results can rarely be attributed to any one event, idea, or person, but I think it is safe to believe that Hilary Clinton is president if Comey does not break with decades of precedent and with the wishes of the other security and intelligence agencies to release the letter about Anthony Weiner's totally irrelevant computer.

Finally, over the course of the campaign and in the months that followed the election, Donald Trump has shown a shocking lack the temperament, curiosity, and attention to information, policy, and detail to be President of the United States. The question might be better framed not was "What are the best things for the Democrats to say 'no' to?" but "What could they possibly say 'yes' to?"

As we have seen with the use of budget reconciliation in the Senate to begin the dismantling of Obamacare, there are many ways the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans will be able to enforce their policies that the Democrats will be unable to stop. Furthermore, there will be techniques of Congressional opposition that Republicans were willing to use that I'm not sure are worth risking. Will there be policies so bad that Democrats are willing to shut down the government to prevent it? What happens if there is another debt ceiling fight? Are Democrats willing to let our already hobbled judiciary system continue to erode? What happens if Trump offers a potentially palatable nominee for the Supreme Court?

There will be acts of judgment Congressional Democrats will have to make, but ultimately, they can give Republicans and Trump legitimate claims to bipartisan success or they can deny them that claim. You can start from a position of unified opposition justified by legitimate concerns and the will of the majority of Americans or not. You can continue the same efforts at traditional legislative negotiation and compromise and most likely continue to get insulted by Republicans or you can try something else. You can either have your name in the public record next to some of the things a Trump administration will do or not. You can either give fascists permission or make them take it from you.

I'm not sure if a declaration like this is, ultimately the best strategy for protecting the American public, but, in moments of doubt, when there is debate, when you might not be sure what you should do, when it is hard to extrapolate all of the potential consequences of an action, “If a fascist wants this to happen, I'm going to fight like hell to stop it,” is a pretty solid fallback position.

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