The Truth about Republican Obstructionism

August 20, 2013

Washington is in a post-policy moment. Congress passes little of substance. Few bills make it to a vote, and those that do are intended as messages, symbols or stunts, rather than policy reforms. The president makes speeches gesturing toward policy reforms, but they largely repackage old ideas. The true subtext of those speeches, meanwhile, has less to do with the policies themselves and more to do with the gridlock and obstructionism that the Obama administration sees as blocking legislative advances, says Peter Suderman, a senior editor at Reason Magazine.

The last presidential campaign was not fought over new ideas and initiatives, but over policies past. A vote for Romney was a vote to undo the big-ticket policy measures of Obama's first term. A vote for Obama was a vote to keep them, and try to make them work.

  • The stasis has not escaped notice. And a convenient conventional wisdom has developed, blaming Republican Party obstructionism for refusing to cooperate with Democrats to get the gears of legislation turning again.
  • GOP obstructionism is not imaginary, but this self-serving narrative misses the point. It is not unreasonable for Republicans to decline to cooperate on an agenda they do not support.
  • And if it seems like they rely heavily on blocking tactics, that is because, as a minority party that controls one half of Congress, they have few other tools at their disposal. Republicans can stand in the way. And so they do.

The real problem is that Republicans do not have a policy agenda of their own. They have opposition to the president, and a lingering taste for tax cuts, defense spending and domestic surveillance. And that's about it.

Democrats have ridiculed Republicans for their limited agenda, but they too are stuck in a rut. Yes, as the party of activist government, there is always something more to be done, but the president's party seems nearly as drained of policy energy as the GOP, resting on recycled ideas and expansions of existing programs.

This is what really lies underneath the recent policy stagnation -- not obstructionism, but exhausted party agendas with nowhere left to go. The truth is that both parties have largely achieved their long-term policy goals and neither has a strong sense of what to do now.

Source: Peter Suderman, "The End of Policy," Reason Magazine, August 14, 2013.

 

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