One fact has become sharply clear this past seven days: it is no ordinary administration that occupies Washington just now.
In the face of a fiscal crisis of unprecedented magnitude, yesterday the president submitted a budget of fake spending cuts (“a mirage” the Wall Street Journal called them this morning) and gigantic tax increases guaranteed, if passed, to crush investment and job creation. Even if enacted (a political impossibility), by the administration’s own arithmetic the package would barely break the trend line of the climbing debt to GDP. It is a budget “worthy of Greece,” charged columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News Channel last night, adding, “for the president… to offer it, knowing our dire situation, is truly scandalous.”
The White House unveiled this uncompromising budget even as it announced a compromise with Catholic bishops over mandatory inclusion of contraception in all Obamacare health coverage. But the word “compromise” usually indicates that two parties have talked and come to a deal. In this case, it wasn’t clear that the White House had talked with anyone but itself. Presidential aides just repackaged their proposal and slapped on the “compromise” label. When a number of bishops failed to find any but cosmetic changes, their objections were brushed aside with a curt indication that discussion was over, as if it had ever begun.
Perhaps next we’ll hear about the “do-nothing” bishops. For it is hard to see how the White House treatment of the Catholic hierarchy is any different than its treatment of Congressional Republicans. Some have said that, when the administration talks of a “do-nothing Congress” – in other words, of GOP obstruction – Republicans should reply, what you really mean is a “do-nothing Senate.” After all, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has a majority, but he can’t get anything out of committee and to the floor.
Drawing attention away from that inconvenient truth is why Senate filibusters are central to the administration’s story of Washington paralysis – which is surely why its OMB director trotted it out to explain the Senate’s thousand-day failure to pass a budget. Somehow he forgot to mention that the Senate considers budgets under special rules that do not allow filibusters.
So the White House cries about “do-nothing” Republicans at every opportunity. Nominations for offices requiring Senate confirmation have become a favorite object of this lament and judicial nominations a particular target. How can you have order in the courts if Republicans won’t allow order in the confirmation process? Then it turns out that the facts about Republican “obstruction” and the inaction tell a very different story.
Despite the president ignoring constitutional recess appointment procedures in a manner that would have guaranteed a standoff between the branches in prior years, the process continues. Sixty-two percent of the president’s circuit judge nominees have been confirmed, about the same rate as George W. Bush enjoyed at this point in his presidency.
Yet the average waiting time for an Obama nominee has been 140 days, compared with 350 days for a Bush candidate. In other words, current candidates are getting through in 40 percent the time as Bush’s. The vacancy rate on the federal bench today is comparable to the eight percent when George W. Bush was sworn in – and for half the empty seats, the president has not submitted nominees.
Then, too, a number of the candidates he has put forward appear intended to provoke Republican opposition. One has bragged that, as a judicial clerk, he wrote the lower court opinion on which Roe v. Wade was based. Another has championed the extreme proposition that it is “unconstitutional” for Christian organizations to use public school property outside of school hours, even for non-school events. Like so much else coming from the White House, these nominations appear intended not to further the smooth operation of the government but as political theater to advance the president’s reelection narrative.
So here is what emerges more and more clearly as out of the ordinary about this administration – the absolute lack of appetite for any but faux compromise. This is not just election year posing. We saw it in the battle over the stimulus package and healthcare legislation early in the term. Now in recent weeks in rapid succession have come displays of it on contraceptive coverage, the budget and nominations.
It seems intemperate to call this rigidity a new authoritarianism. But whatever term you use, it feels unprecedented in the American experience — and unsettling.