Unprecedented Congressional Obstructionism Is Actually Quite Precedented

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I haven't blogged about Harry Reid's "mini-nuclear option" or whatever it's now being called, in which he altered Senate procedure on the fly in order to prevent Republicans from forcing a vote on Obama's original jobs plan.  That's because I haven't formulated much of an opinion.  On the one hand, I'm generally in favor of allowing the minority room to slow stuff down.  On the other, I would like the minority to confine itself to things that actually matter, not stupid campaign stunts that might persuade five voters somewhere deep in the heart of Indiana to vote (R) instead of (D).


However, this has renewed many of the complaints about "unprecedented obstructionism" from the GOP congress.  And I do have an opinion on that.

As it happens, the other day I had an opportunity to interview David Kennedy, the author of the absolutely splendid Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, which I commend to all of you as both a valuable history of the Great Depression, and a beautiful read.  Kennedy and I had a long discussion about the parallels between the current situation and various historical precedents, which I'm hoping to get written up later in the week, since I could only use a small fraction for my piece.

One of the things we talked about was the obstruction that Obama has faced.  And it turns out there was a very good parallel: the Democratic Congress that Hoover had to contend with.  By the last year of his term, Hoover had a Democratic majority in control of congress.  And according to Kennedy, they used their power to the hilt.

"Hoover also faced a very obstructionist Democratic Congress--they understood, as these guys do today, that if they just go in the middle of the road and refused to move, that would benefit them at the next election.  And it paid off."

The myth of Hoover's inaction in the face of the Great Depression was thus partially a product of the opposition party that greatly benefited from its propagation.

Hoover was, as Kennedy put it, "a wonk"--one of the generation of progressive Republicans who thought that a little government, like a dollop of Daisy, could make everything better.  But that didn't help him much in the face of an opposition that wasn't interested in listening to his master plans.

"Time after time he thinks he has a good idea, and he's often right!  But he doesn't seem to be able to dream up any new tool to get them to move.  The obvious new tool was radio, and he didn't see how to use it, while Roosevelt seemed to get it instinctively."  Ironic, since Kennedy notes that as Commerce Secretary, Hoover "got the implication of radio right away".

So there is a precedent: the obstructionist Congress that helped usher in the New Deal. 

Of course, you could argue that Hoover would have been out anyway.  And you'd probably be right.  But it's hard to justify making things worse in the short term.

The more charitable take is that they may have genuinely believed that all of Hoover's ideas were bad.  Plus, as Kennedy notes, it's possible they didn't really think that what they were doing was so bad.  Remember that for a while in the early thirties people thought things were getting better; it was the second wave of bank failures in 1931-2 that really made the Great Depression "Great", and it wasn't necessarily easy to see what was happening in the instant.  "You can argue that they didn't understand the gravity of the situation," he says, "and they were willing to bear [a little pain for a greater gain]."  

In fact, I'm sure that there are a lot of progressives who would defend the obstructionism--if the alternative were the slightest risk that there would be no New Deal.  Politics is tough on the pure-minded.

At any rate, the point is that no, the current situation is not unprecedented (there's also the infamous "Do-nothing Congress" that Harry Truman campaigned against in 1948).  When there's a lot of upheaval, a lot of disagreement about what to do, and a lot of political advantage to be gained, the opposition party opposes.  And sometimes they gain by it.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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