The Politics of Obstruction

Alan Zendell, March 17, 2023,

“The minority wins when Congress accomplishes less.” Long time Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) attributed that statement to former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). In a nutshell, it summarizes the philosophy of obstructionism that has dominated Congressional politics whenever Republicans have been in the minority since Gingrich gained control of his House caucus in the 1980s.

Political differences have always been fierce in Congress; one led to the Civil War. But obstructionism as a political weapon has only been a major force since the ’90s. Strong opposition is normal and healthy in public debate. The alternative is one-party domination, a slippery slope to Fascism and autocracy. But obstruction is opposition on steroids, to the point at which the line between partisanship and responsible governing is blurred to insignificance.

Both parties practice obstructionism, but it has become a mantra for Republicans. It was Gingrich who introduced the idea of using the annual increase in the federal debt ceiling as a cudgel, taking an outdated procedural rule and weaponizing it. He engineered two shutdowns of the federal government during the Clinton administration in failed attempts to blackmail the White House into accepting serious cuts in welfare and Medicaid spending.

We use the same strategy in war, in athletic competition, and in the games we play. I did it myself as a fourteen-year-old when I was shamed into playing chess against the youth champion in the state where I spent the summer. I knew I had no chance to win, but I was just barely a good enough player to frustrate the hell out of my adolescent opponent. Instead of trying to win, I spent the entire game obstructing him, upsetting him enough to force a draw.

In chess, that was fair game, because there was nothing at stake but our youthful pride. When two football teams do it, we sit on the edges of our seats as they fight out a low-scoring match that goes down to the wire – but here, too, there’s nothing at stake except which team wins. With politicians, it’s a very different matter. If a game ends in a zero-zero tie, we put it in the record books and move on to the next one. But if every vote in Congress maintains the status quo, the country is in grave trouble.

That mentality has metastasized in recent years. Donald Trump’s Big Lie and his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election were based on similar tactics. January 6th was an attempt to re-interpret a symbolic vote to ratify the votes of the states’ electors to unconstitutionally imbue it with the power to change the outcome. We might have lost both our Constitution and our Republic that day, because some of our leaders cared more about power than living up to their oath to defend them.

Threatening to shut down the government or actually doing it has never been a successful strategy because the consequences are severe enough that only the most radical and irresponsible Members held out till the end. Mitch McConnell, one of the worst practitioners of obstructionism in our history, distanced himself from the latest round of threats, because he knows that shutting down the government can do irreparable harm to the country. But the radicals of the MAGA movement, enabled by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s lust for power: Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, et al, are either too ignorant to understand or craven enough not to care how much damage they do.

Failing to raise the debt ceiling and sending the nation into default could be the feather that causes our markets to crash, a crippling blow to our waning influence in the world with the threat of nuclear war looming in Europe. If we manage to avoid the worst, obstructionism can lead to a slower, more agonizing death. The immediate effect of stifling the legislative process is governing through executive action, a process that can only be effective over the short term. Every executive action can be erased the next time the majority changes. Thus, no one, not individuals, not business owners, not local governments, and most seriously, not our allies can count on the longevity of American policy.

This outs the real Big Lie of MAGAism. Far from assuring America’s greatness, this kind of irresponsible politics is the surest way to destroy it. The best thing it can result in is chaos. Once people lose confidence in the government, life savings and investments could disappear overnight, millions of jobs could be lost, major industries could be devastated.

In Joe Biden we have a President whose hand is steady on the wheel of government, who never lowers himself to that kind of politics. I’m confident that there are enough people in Congress who share his commitment to governing that the crazies won’t win – this time.

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