Political polarization has been tearing apart Washington for years, but Republicans have found a way to make it even worse. Unlike just a few years ago, Congress now suffers all of the costs of partisan polarization without many of the very real benefits.
Here’s an example. USA Today’s Brad Heath notes something fascinating about the Republican attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. In short, they’re just lashing out at random pieces of the criminal justice system because those things are at the moment inconvenient for them. There’s no sustained argument that they’re actually wrong in any way: “A lot of the objections people have raised to the investigation of Russian interference — bare-bones warrant applications, immense prosecutorial power, lousy informants — are standard parts of our legal system,” Heath tweeted March 1. “The law encourages, and sometimes requires, these things.”
This seems awfully familiar because, well, because it is. Republicans in 2009-2010 came up with a bunch of criticisms ostensibly about the way Democrats were running Congress — using reconciliation procedures, adjusting bills in leadership offices without input from opponents, rushing bills to the floor without giving the minority party time to study it, failing to personally read bills — that were actually just standard practice for years, including years when Republicans were in the majority. And they treated Barack Obama as a power-mad Caesar who ignored limits on the presidency for things such as recess appointments, executive action, and (my favorite) czars. All things that were pretty standard parts of the presidency for decades.
In other words, instead of cogent, responsible criticisms of the way the in-party is running things, Republicans have just been demonizing more-or-less random parts of how the government works.
It’s OK when minority party senators strongly support the filibuster right up to the point when they win back the majority. It’s also OK when a minority party seeks out procedural complaints that generate media attention. Those tend to be bugs that ought to be fixed, and out-party incentives get the ball rolling.
If the minority party succeeds, the majority is forced to adopt reforms. Even if the majority recognizes that few Americans vote based on issues of legislative process, for example, they still don’t want a parade of negative stories. And the minority party will, once it eventually wins, feel some pressure to implement at least some of the reforms they acted so outraged about before they won. For example, I think it’s very likely Democrats will legislate a requirement that presidential candidates release their tax returns, even if it’s far too late to punish Trump by the time Democrats get their next majorities. Similarly, President Obama instituted new ethics rules within his administration in 2009 after Democrats had criticized the practices of the George W. Bush administration. Partisan criticisms become a source of government reform.
The problem is that Republican politicians have become lazy. What’s the point of making a cogent, responsible case for process failures or corruption (or anything else) if you don’t need to? Fox News and conservative talk radio will happily echo whatever nutty claims the party’s politicians make.
That in turn means that instead of producing at least potentially useful and needed reforms, Republicans mostly just spout gibberish when they make process complaints. Even when they hit on a good one, such as the complaint that the majority leader, a Democrat, was “filling the tree” in order to prevent the Senate from considering amendments, there’s absolutely no pressure on Republicans to fix the problem once they have the votes. Republican-aligned media won’t hold them to it, and Republican politicians increasingly don’t care what the “neutral” media reports.
The last piece of this is that Republican reliance on party-aligned media also reduces pressure from Democrats over process when Republicans are in the majority. After all, people getting most of their information from Fox News aren’t going to be aware of those complaints, even if neutral outlets report on them.
There’s no organized group to look out for a healthy political process, at least in many cases. Pressure from out-parties is really all we have. And right now, that’s not working nearly as well as it should be.