Background: The term “the loyal opposition” (henceforth LO) has been around ever since there were competing entities, with one usually having an upper hand. You can go back beyond the 1700’s in England and find that it was the Whigs and the Tories who were then butting heads. Over the ensuring hundreds of years, the term has come to be defined thusly:
noun…A minority party, especially in a legislative body whose opposition to the party in power is constructive, responsible and bounded by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles. (1)
Of course, this definition begs a critical question; i.e. “loyalty” to what “fundamental interests and principles”? In answer, the first loyalty is to country and its founding principles. Loyalty to party and its principles are not to be abandoned, but rather, advanced in “constructive” and “responsible” ways. At the same time, the majority party understands that it cannot have its way in every instance on all matters. We can look to our recent past and see how well that has played out.
The Recent Past: Both the Reagan and Clinton presidencies can provide us with admirable examples of the LO in action.
Reagan had to deal with a Senate controlled by the Democrats over a potentially contentious issue; i.e. the reform of the Social Security System.(2) The president empaneled a bipartisan committee to find mutually acceptable ways to buck up the System’s solvency which, at the time, was being threatened. Both sides negotiated from positions that were consistent with their respective principles. But both gave here and there until a “win-win” reform package was formulated. Reagan signed it into law in 1983.
About 10 years later, Bill Clinton found himself dealing with a House controlled by Republicans. Yet, he and House Speaker Newt Gingrich consistently found ways to work together. They became the masters of “triangulation” which is a fancy word for what is commonly known as “splitting the difference”. By this means, legislation and the country were moved forward in small, incremental steps and the federal budget was balanced. Not coincidentally, we enjoyed the longest period of sustained economic growth in US history.
The Present: Reference is made here to the period starting with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the ascension of the Democrats to majority status in both houses of Congress, moving forward to today. In effect, by giving so much power to the Democrats, most people in the country said quite clearly, “Theirs is the direction we want the country to take”.
Based on multiple historical precedents, not to mention what it is understood to mean to be the LO, Congressional Republicans should have said “Very well; the majority rules. So, we will work with our Democrat colleagues and negotiate in constructive and responsible ways, from positions based on our conservative principles, to seek compromise and get things done”.
Sad to say, the foregoing scenario never materialized, a fact that is epitomized by an incident well documented in Robert Draper’s book Do Not Ask What Good We Do” (3). It occurred late in the evening on the day of Obama’s first inauguration. A group of about two dozen top Republicans met at a toney Washington DC restaurant to plot strategy as the LO. The decision was made to consistently oppose whatever the new president sought to achieve by filibustering everything in the Senate, winning back the majority in the House in the 2010 mid-term election, and then using that advantage in the lower chamber to engage in further obstruction. There was no talk of honoring the country’s majority vote and/or constructive, responsible negotiating!
By mid-2010, news sources were reporting that Senate Republicans were on a record pace in their use of the filibuster (4). In the House, GOP members steadfastly refused to engage in constructive, substantive dialogue when it came to dealing with key legislation like Obamacare (5). By the end of the same year, they had won back their majority and voted against all Obama initiatives. Later, they even went so far as to refuse to raise the nation’s debt ceiling which led to a 26-day federal government shutdown at a cost estimated at billions of dollars.
Now there is no question that in times past, Congressional Democrats have engaged in some similar forms of obstruction. But the key in the present is Republicans’ use of these sorts of tactics with a frequency never seen before (6). Simply put, Congressional Republicans have, for all intents and purposes, lurched far away from what is commonly understood and defined as the role of the LO.
The Future: It is a foregone conclusion that this November, the GOP will retain control of the House. What hangs in the balance is control of the Senate where the chances are very good that Republicans will pick up as many as six seats and the upper chamber’s majority. If that happens, the question that will arise is this: “How will the Senate Democrats react to their new minority status?” Will they engage in “payback” for having to endure years of their opponents’ obstruction? Or, will they exhibit genuine statesmanship and embrace the best aspects of their role as the LO? If the latter is the case, then we might actually see some things getting done. If not, then we are in for another two years of government gridlock.
1. Merriam Webster; Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.
2. The relationship between Reagan and Tip O’Neill was one of bonhomie and good will that was chronicled by Chris Matthews in his book Tip and the Gipper; Simon & Schuster; 2013
3. Robert Draper; Do Not Ask What Good We Do”; Free Press; 2012.
4. “Analysis: Republicans setting filibuster record”. NBC News; 3-20-2010.
5. House Republicans and their supporters in the media have disingenuously claimed that they were “closed out” of deliberations over Obamacare. This assertion is belied by the fact that they authored over 150 amendments to the bill; most of a small, technical variety. In contrast, they offered nothing substantively which is odd considering that Obamacare was modeled after a plan hatched at the conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation. That history was recounted in a blog posted many months ago at this site.
6. Our major media do a very bad job of reporting on Congressional obstruction and dysfunction. Their line is that “Both parties are guilty”. While that is true, it has been well documented that the dysfunction is asymmetrical with most of the blame falling square on the Republicans. That topic too, was covered in a previous blog posted at this site.