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Barnett: The real scandal: Political gridlock

ned.barnett@newsobserver.comMay 18, 2013 

During President Obama’s first term, Republican leaders in Congress said their highest priority was to make Obama a one-term president.

Apparently, it still is.

Yes, there was an election, and, despite high unemployment, a majority of voters sent a clear message that they supported Obama’s priorities and his agenda. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from trying to nullify the vote by blocking the president’s nominees and freezing his agenda through gridlock.

The obstructionism has been relentless. Senate Republicans have used the threat of filibuster to hold up nominees for federal judgeships and key administration posts. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that 85 federal judgeships are vacant. That’s 10 percent of the judiciary not functioning at a time when caseloads show the need for adding even more judicial posts. Some nominees have been waiting nearly 700 days. Another gave up after waiting two and a half years.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are holding up Obama’s nominees for labor secretary and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. They’re also blocking his pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they think the new agency has too much authority.

Last week brought a flurry of controversies Republicans were eager to declare scandals: the seizing of Associated Press phone records in a leak investigation, more roaring about the Benghazi talking points and the disclosure that IRS employees in Cincinnati flagged applications for tax-exempt status from groups with conservative-sounding names.

For good measure, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican and tea party champion, took up the gavel in the House on Thursday and presided over a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the 37th time. It passed 229-195 but is going nowhere in the Senate.

Some Republicans have grown so giddy with their success at thwarting the president – and the electorate – that they’re thinking of putting him out of office altogether. GOP leaders are cautioning against "overreach," but some of their party’s firebrands are not shying from talking about impeachment.

Really.

At a news conference last week outside the Capitol, Bachmann, who is under investigation for ethics violations related to her 2012 presidential campaign, said her constituents want the president put on trial.

“I will tell you, as I have been home in my district, in the 6th District of Minnesota, there isn’t a weekend that hasn’t gone by that someone says to me, ‘Michele, what in the world are you all waiting for in Congress? Why aren’t you impeaching the president? He’s been making unconstitutional actions since he came into office,’ ” Bachmann said.

What’s lost in all the dust Republicans are kicking up about scandals is that the Obama era has been remarkably without scandal. With all the billions of dollars spent on the stimulus and bailouts, there hasbeen hardly a whiff of wrongdoing.

The inanity and destructiveness of tea party Republicans and those who are cowed by them are obvious. But Democrats are not without blame. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been particularly weak in his use of the Democratic edge to break the impasses over nominees. Now, frustrated by the blocking of the EPA and labor nominees, he says he may finally agree to changing Senate rules to end the constant use of filibuster to block bills and nominees supported by a majority of senators.

Obama, too, has been obtuse about how to deal with Republican obstruction. He approaches negotiations with them the way Charlie Brown trots forward to kick a Lucy-held football. He hits nothing but air. He has been painfully slow to learn that what prevails in Washington, especially this Washington, isn’t logic but power, especially when it’s applied to a twist of the arm.

But for all the obstacles he has encountered and his misplaced faith in his ability to strike deals, Obama can claim three major accomplishments. The Affordable Care Act is the obvious one. The two others are things that didn’t happen. He kept the nation from falling into an economic depression, and he has kept us out of wars – so far – in the Middle East.

Any progress – or avoidance of trouble – is a special accomplishment in an environment where partisanship comes before the national interest and so many who could improve things through cooperation instead cheer for their nation’s leader to fail. Nonetheless, it’s demoralizing to think that this is the state of the nation, a time in which progress must come despite politics and not because of it.

The foundation of the nation, the idea that it is run by the consent of the people, is being undermined as surely as the president is being obstructed. Now the direction is set or rejected by people who couldn’t win the vote but can hijack the process. And we are left as we are now a sequestered nation, divided before the world, suspect of one another and small in our ambitions.

That’s not who we are. That’s not what the majority of Americans voted for. But it is where we are and where we’re stuck. And that’s a scandal only voters can clean up.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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