It’s Up to Us to Save Ourselves

If you’re waiting for Republican lawmakers to break ranks and do the right thing, don’t hold your breath.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are becoming increasingly concerned about Trump’s agenda, his lack of knowledge of international relations, or any of a number of other things, or maybe even hoping for impeachment, I’m here to tell you that help isn’t coming. This time, it’s up to you: You are going to have to think carefully in 2018. Because as long as Republicans control the House and the Senate, nothing is going to stand in the way of President Donald J. Trump.

The confirmations last week of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary is proof that the Republicans in Congress will affirm any nominee of Trump’s no matter how many people object. In his speech on the Senate floor during the Democrats’ 24-hour protest against DeVos, Senator Al Franken posed the following rhetorical question to his Republican colleagues (rhetorical, because there were no Republicans present when he asked):

“If Mrs. DeVos’s performance didn’t convince you that she lacks the qualifications for this job, what would have had to happen in that hearing in order to convince you? If you cannot bring yourself to vote against this nominee, is there anyone President Trump could nominate for any position who you could vote against? And if we cannot set party loyalty aside long enough to perform the essential duty of vetting the President’s nominees, what are we even doing here?”

The question left hanging in the air is this: “Is there any policy or order that Trump could issue that you would oppose?” And in my opinion, the answer is a resounding “No.”

And that’s scary. This President’s unpredictable, uninformed and volatile behavior and his policies (which are most certainly coming directly from his “adviser” Steve Bannon and which may or may not be directly influenced by Vladamir Putin) make this the very situation where we need Congress to act as counterweight for the Executive Branch, and the absence of an independent Congress throws a bright light on the empty space where oversight should be. It could not be more clear that we do not have individual lawmakers making independent decisions in the best interest of their constituents or the country, but rather party members obligingly following party orders.

The three branches of government are designed to keep in check potential abuses by the other branches. When both houses of Congress and the presidency are held by the same party, that can be a problem. Members will not oppose a president who is from their party. In fact, in all of Trump’s nominations so far, only three no votes have been cast by Republicans (Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins on the DeVos nomination and Rand Paul on the Mike Pompeo nomination). That’s 3 out of 468 votes cast on key nominations. Obviously, there can be no checks or balance if one branch simply acts as a rubber stamp for another.

This needs to serve as a wake-up call to those “undecided” voters who don’t take party into consideration when they vote. Those who say “I don’t vote for the party, I vote for the person” fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our two-party system.

Because in modern American politics, party is everything.

The party with the majority has the power

A enormous amount of power is vested in the party that holds the most seats in Congress. (Republicans currently control the House of Representatives 239 seats to the Democrats’ 193. In the Senate, the Republicans control 52 to 48.)  It’s a kind of nerdy, obscure procedural power. But it is very real.

The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader are chosen from among the majority party, and they have the power, among other things, to determine what bills come the floor for debate and vote, whether and when to schedule hearings, and so forth. Consider, as just one example, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ability to keep the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia vacant for an entire year.

In congressional committees, where most of the work is done, committee chairs are selected from the majority party. The chair schedules hearings, appoints subcommittees, enforces standing rules, and manages bills when they are brought before the whole chamber. The effects of these rules were very obvious to those of us who watched any of the recent committee hearings on the cabinet nominations. Many minority members were extremely exasperated by the committee chairs’ use of their procedural power.

All of these procedural maneuvers result in tremendous ability to influence the country’s political and legislative agenda.

Parties keep their members in line

Now add to the power of the majority the fact that in our money-driven political environment, the two parties’ National Committees also wield a great deal of power over lawmakers to keep them in line and therefore to influence politics. That may come as a surprise. After all, the leaders of those seemingly obscure committees don’t run for office; we don’t see them tout their accomplishment or get skewered in campaign ads; their names don’t appear on yard signs at election times. Most people have no idea who they are or even that they exist. But they are busy working hard behind the scenes.

The parties control the money that flows to any given candidate, including incumbents running for reelection, which means that as an “inducement” to legislators to vote the way they are told, the party can threaten to withhold campaign funds at election time and even to throw support behind an opposition candidate during primary season. Because of that, elected officials are more beholden to the party than they are to the voters who elected them. It is one of the reasons that our current government is defined by such extreme partisanship these days.

Most incumbent lawmakers are reelected

Those two factors—National Committee power and procedural power—may seem esoteric, but together they turn politics into a team sport. And the win goes to the team that has the most seats.

This is why the election of 2018 will be so important. The midterm (that is, non-presidential year) election of 2018 will be an opportunity to return control of one—or perhaps both—houses of Congress to the Democrats. If that happens, Congress will once again be in a position to exercise some control on executive power.

Polls show that while as a group Congress’ approval rating is typically very low, people seem to like their own representative and gladly vote for him/her at election time. I question whether this is because people actually approve of the job their lawmakers are doing, or whether there is something else at work, but either way, it’s a real effort to kick a sitting lawmaker out of office.

But this time it’s going to be important. Voters will have to consider party more than personality. They can’t simply say “I will vote for the person I like best.”

It is time to recognize that the power vested in the majority party is enormous, and a government ruled by a single party is unfettered, unchecked power.

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