Extortion politics: a new form of governing

Josh Marshall made an interesting point in passing yesterday, asking whether conservative Republicans could achieve massive spending cuts through “old-fashioned majority votes.” Josh answered his own question: “Of course not.” The cuts on the table were only made possible by Republicans “threatening the health” of the United States.

I think this is arguably one of the more important realizations to take away from the current political landscape. Republicans aren’t just radicalized, aren’t just pursuing an extreme agenda, and aren’t just allergic to compromise. The congressional GOP is also changing the very nature of governing in ways with no modern precedent.

Welcome to the normalization of extortion politics.

Consider, for example, the Republican decision to reject any and all nominees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, regardless of merit, unless and until Democrats accepted changes to the agency’s structure. Traditionally, if the GOP wanted to alter the powers of the CFPB, it would write legislation, send it to committee, bring it to the floor, send it to the other chamber, etc. But that takes time and effort, and in a divided government, this “old fashioned” approach to policymaking probably wouldn’t produce the desired result.

Instead, we see the latest in a series of extortion strategies: Republicans will force Democrats to accept changes to the agency, or Republicans won’t allow the agency to function. Jonathan Cohn wrote a good piece on this a couple of weeks ago, noting the frequency with which this strategy is utilized.

Republican threats to block nominees to the consumer board are of a piece with their opposition to Don Berwick, Obama’s first choice to run the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services; to Peter Diamond, whom Obama tapped to sit on the Federal Reserve Board; and most recently to John Bryson, Obama’s nominee to take over the Commerce Department. It’s nothing short of a power grab by the Republican Party — an effort to achieve, through the confirmation process, what they could not achieve through legislation. And it seems unprecedented, at least in modern times.

Republicans effectively tell the administration, over and over again, that the normal system of American governance can continue … just as soon as Democrats agree to policy changes the GOP can’t otherwise pass.

The traditional American model would tell Republicans to win an election. If that doesn’t work, Republicans should work with rivals to pass legislation that moves them closer to their goal. In 2011, the GOP has decided these old-school norms are of no value. Why bother with them when Republicans can force through policy changes by way of a series of hostage strategies? Why should the legislative branch use its powers through legislative action when extortion is more effective?

It’s offensive when it comes to nominees like CFPB nominee Richard Cordray, but using the full faith and credit of the United States to force through desired policy changes takes this dynamic to a very different level. And since it’s working, this will be repeated and establishes a new precedent.

Indeed, it’s a reminder that of all the qualities Republicans lack — wisdom, humility, shame, integrity — it’s their nonexistent appreciation for limits that’s arguably the scariest.