US votes for presidential vetoes, filibusters and partisan fractures

Barack Obama has signed into law all but two of the bills to come before him, but is likely to use his power of presidential veto more often in the final two years of his term. White House/Pete Souza

Perhaps no sentiment better defines the American political psyche than distrust of government. It prompted the constitutional framers 226 years ago to create a system of national government that separates the executive and legislative branches and pits them against each other. Without consensual agreement from these adversaries nothing can proceed.

Two centuries later, the US system continues to stymie concerted governmental action. This is especially the case when different political parties control the Congress and the White House. In the unrelenting trench warfare of divided government, politicians often have more to gain by derailing the initiatives of the other party than by seeking co-operative, bipartisan outcomes.

Voters, despite being distrustful of unchecked power in Washington, want a government that can set aside differences and constructively tackle the nation’s problems. But who to blame and who to reward? Having suffered years of directionless politicking amid slow economic growth, foreign affairs crises, increasing threats of terrorism and the ongoing issue of porous borders, voters have felt neither Congress nor the president has a clear plan for governing.

Presidents are always the tallest poppy in voters’ minds, so Barack Obama’s ratings have plummeted. In last week’s midterm elections, voters signalled disapproval with the status quo – a majority punishing the incumbents from Obama’s Democratic Party. The result strengthened the Republicans’ majority in the House and, more importantly, gave them control of the Senate.

Now, voters’ actions seem to presume, the US can expect stronger, more unified legislative initiatives from the Republican-dominated Congress, and a humbled, more compliant president to support that agenda and “get things done”. In all likelihood, however, voters have only sharpened the knives of the combatants in Washington’s governmental streetfight.

Presidential veto comes into play

By giving control of the Senate to the Republicans, voters have virtually assured that contentious legislation will regularly make it to Obama’s desk to be approved or rejected. Obama will repeatedly be forced to make politically charged, make-or-break decisions.

For the last two years, the Democratic Senate majority provided a circuit-breaker for House Speaker John Boehner’s conservative initiatives. Many of these were consciously designed to stymie Obama’s agenda, rescind his key policies and paint him with the brush of inaction. Because all legislation must be passed in identical language by both congressional chambers and then require presidential approval, Republican-authored House bills since 2010 which, for example, would have destroyed Obama’s health care reforms, have merely been rejected by the Senate.

Now, with a unified Republican Congress, the same bills will be passed by the Senate and presented to the president. Obama must either relent or rely on his veto power to knock-back Republican legislation. The minority ranks of Senate Democrats, having lost their power to checkmate the House, will be tempted to dust off the filibuster as a way to stall Republican initiatives.

In a climate of public disdain for government inertia, both tactics may well fuel voter cynicism. But with few strategic options on their plates, the Democrats face an undesirable duality: attempt to negotiate piecemeal amendments that might soften key Republican policies, or embrace the politics of logjam.

Fired up by their midterm gains, Republicans will be in no mood to play bipartisan footsie with Democrats in committees to accommodate their concerns. And Obama has already drawn a line in the sand: he will only sign bills that make reasonable adjustments to his policies, but will veto anything more invasive.

When numbers are against you, filibuster

If presidential vetoes force Congress to slow down and assemble larger majority support for legislation, the Senate filibuster is obstructionism, pure and simple.

As the Senate was designed in part to be a check on the House of Representatives, senators were unelected members (until the 17th Amendment in 1913) who were given the right to unlimited debate on the Senate floor. The elected rabble in the House, for more than 150 years, has had to live with strict guidelines for debating each bill on the floor of that chamber.

Veteran South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond holds the record for a filibustering speech, clocking in at 24 hours and 18 minutes. Library of Congress

Without approval of three-fifths of the Senate membership (60 votes) to invoke “cloture” and force a cessation of debate and bring the bill to a vote, those holding the floor can theoretically, as Americans put it, talk ‘til the cows come home. Perhaps most famously, southern senators attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a 75-hour filibuster, including a 14-hour address by one senator.

Because most bills are considered within tight time limits, given congressional recesses and the press of other legislation, filibusters can block vital votes and stymie the Senate leadership’s agenda. However, as with presidential vetoes, filibusters look to voters like the last refuge of those fighting a losing battle. Democratic senators will need to choose their obstructionist moments wisely, lest they incur the wrath of voters who want action from the Congress.

Yet, with the US split along partisan lines, Democrats have strong incentives to resist the will of Republican leaders and risk further deepening voters’ cynicism about inertia in Washington.

Confrontation carries risks for both parties

All told, the next two years promise even sharper divisions in the stridently partisan politics on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. The presidential veto and Senate filibuster look certain to be routinely employed. What are the political costs and benefits of these options?

US presidents have little formal role in passing legislation. Though their leadership and political sway is vital in the passing of many bills – “Obamacare”, for instance – only once the House and Senate have passed bills can presidents can sign or veto them. Congress can either amend vetoed legislation to meet a president’s objections or pass it into law over a president’s veto by securing two-thirds votes in both chambers.

Because the Senate will have only a narrow Republican majority, the required 67 votes to override are a near-insurmountable hurdle. As a consequence, Republicans must be careful in proposing legislation on which Obama’s veto will prevail. He will be able to taunt GOP leaders for failing to build strong majority support for their bill.

Republicans, for their part, may be content to bombard the White House with unviable bills they contend are vital for the nation and blame Obama for inaction. This is a dangerous tactic though. Surveys showed that this sort of brinkmanship backfired during the budget shutdown of 2013 – a strong majority of voters saw the Republicans as responsible for the obstruction of government duties.

Some of this gambit is inevitable, though, as Republicans attempt to portray Oval Office naysaying as evidence of the need to elect a Republican president in 2016. Obama, for his part, seems certain to use his veto power more than the two times he has to date.

With the ability to use the mass media to make a case for knocking back a bill, presidents are well armed to resist the will of Congress. Historically, Congress has overridden only 10% of vetoed bills.

But presidents, especially those in their final term, seek to forge a legacy of positive contributions to the nation’s fortunes. Though Obama will clearly use the veto to protect his health care and other key policies, he will not want his last years in the Oval Office to be dominated by rear-guard actions to defend his legacy.

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, frustrated American voters will need to decide if they want to elect a Republican president to promote at least a semblance of unity in the federal government. The alternative is to chastise the Republican leadership for its legislative fisticuffs and return the Senate to Democratic control and retain the Democrats’ hold on the White House.

With deep divisions in Republican ranks between Tea Party conservatives and fiscal pragmatists, a Republican-controlled government might prove no less fractious than Bill Clinton’s precarious Democratic façade between 1992 and 1994.

For now though, with a common presidential “enemy” to unite Republicans, who are unlikely to lose their House majority in 2016, the one certainty for the twilight years of the Obama administration, and likely after the next election, is that the politics of partisan divide will continue. The slippery slope of voters’ declining trust in Washington will remain a defining sentiment in US politics.