How the Game is Played

Jonathan Bernstein writes today about the Republican Party’s big discovery of the past couple of decades:

The GOP practice, for the last twenty years or so, has been to play the “game” of politics in part by looking through the rule book for strategies that go beyond the norms of politics but are allowed under the literal reading of the rules. Examples include mid-decade redistricting, the recall of a California governor for no particular reason, and impeaching Bill Clinton. And, most notably, filibusters in the Senate as a routine measure. The idea is that in a normal, healthy, political system there’s always going to be some gap between the written Constitutional and statutory rules on the one hand, and norms and practices on the other. A clever political party can gain occasional short-term advantages through exploiting that difference.

Sometimes this stuff can be clever: it was Newt Gingrich and his fellow rabble-rousers, for example, who discovered the power of late-night C-SPAN harangues in front of an empty chamber. There had never been any kind of rule against giving speeches when no one was around, it’s just that no one ever did it. Gingrich figured out that C-SPAN made it a useful tool, and he was off to the races.

Other changes are more subtle than the items that Jonathan mentions. For example, the “blue slip” process for approving judicial nominees had been a pretty stable gentleman’s agreement for a long time before Orrin Hatch decided that it could be changed unilaterally depending on which party held the White House. Likewise, Senate leaders had always tacitly agreed not to directly campaign against each other until Bill Frist decided to fly to South Dakota and take on Tom Daschle in 2004. Frist didn’t break any rules, he just decided to break a longstanding norm. Ditto for something that everyone thought was a rule, but turned out to be a norm after all: the 15-minute time limit for votes in the House. Democrats broke this rule once under unusual circumstances in the 80s, and a decade later Republicans were breaking it routinely. That actually was a rule, but Tom DeLay and others figured out that a rule with no one to enforce it (and who can enforce this particular rule, after all?) could be broken with no ill consequences.

More recently, both judicial and executive appointments have been routinely held up just because they can be. Hell, Senate Republicans have now promised to block any nominee to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau just because they don’t like the law and want it changed. And then there’s the latest example: the debt ceiling fight. In the past, this was pretty well established kabuki: the minority party gives a few speeches about the recklessness of the majority, the president weighs in to say the U.S. has to honor its debts, and then the debt ceiling is raised. But once again, Republicans have figured out that old traditions are just that: traditions. There’s no law that says you can’t change them.

So where does this go from here? What’s the next Capitol Hill norm that some bright young up-and-comer will figure out is just a norm — one that only naive schoolboys need to pay attention to? Beats me. But whatever it is, Republicans will find it. And our political system will grind ever closer to a complete halt.

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