As this post goes up, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is filibustering. He wants to prevent a vote on the bill that funds the government at sequester levels and defunds Obamacare, because if there ever is a vote, the part about defunding Obamacare will be removed. It’s complicated, but bear with me.
To be clear, Cruz is launching this filibuster (and it is a real filibuster in the sense of his seizing the floor, even if it isn’t the “Mr. Smith” kind) simply to make a statement. The vote is going to happen regardless.
This is slightly painful to watch. I think I agree with about 95 percent of what Cruz has said so far — including his slightly paradoxical comments about the inanities of Senate procedure forcing all kinds of fake, symbolic, pro-wrestling type speeches and votes. He’s actually right about that.
The main point where we diverge, I think, is his implicit assumption that elections don’t matter. This is the reason he has adopted this half-cocked strategy to stop Obamacare. I’m not going to rehash the many reasons why it will fail (you can read them here and here) but the reason for all the symbolic votes and speeches — including the very speech he is giving now — is to to make the public notice and vote their true interests in the next election. That’s how we get change in our system. That’s how we got stuck with Obamacare after the 2008 election, and it’s the only way it will ever get repealed after the 2014 and 2016 elections.
But given that we have a few hours on our hands, I’d like you to imagine what might have happened if all the energy that Cruz is now dedicating to this filibuster had been instead directed toward a strategy that had a prayer of success. No, I don’t mean to say Cruz should have cooperated with House or Senate Republican leaders. I’m saying he should have done something equally offensive to the leadership and the Capitol Hill establishment, but which, in complete contrast to this doomed strategy, has broad, unambiguous and bipartisan popular support; actually comes with legislative leverage; and could result in real legislative change.
Believe it or not, many people are unaware of the controversy over Congress exempting itself from Obamacare — which just came up in a colloquy between Cruz and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., on the Senate floor. When the Senate voted on the bill around Christmas 2009, Republicans forced one of those “symbolic WWE” votes that Cruz was talking about, on an amendment to make members of Congress and their staff get their insurance through Obamacare exchanges. Whatever the technical issues it created, Democrats were too cowardly to vote against it on the Senate floor. They figured they could just dump it later behind the closed doors of a House-Senate conference committee. When they lost their Senate supermajority a month later, it meant that in order to get Obamacare, they were going to have to pass the exact same Senate bill through the House and swallow it whole. So Obamacare was so important to the Democrats that they were willing to vote to ruin their own health care and that of their staff in order to get it.
The Obama administration has recently moved to protect Congress from its own legislation, using its administrative powers to do so. But at this point, 90 percent of the voting public agrees, when polled, that Congress should be forced to live under the exact terms of the law it imposed on everyone else. And so two Senators — Vitter and Rand Paul, R-Ky. — have proposed two separate amendments that would prevent this special exemption from the law for Congress. (Paul’s goes a bit further by including all federal employees.)
House and Senate leadership of both parties are horrified at this prospect. They are practically peeing their pants over it. This hits home with every member of Congress. The leverage for anyone willing to wield this club is truly enormous, in contrast to the zero-leverage, rile-up-the-base-for-nothing-and-fail approach of the defundistas. The popular support for the Vitter or Paul amendment will be almost unanimous, in stark contrast to the “defund-shutdown” plan, which polls show receives double-digit margins of opposition.
Just imagine if Cruz were threatening to shut down the government unless Congress gave up its special treatment under the letter of Obamacare. That shutdown threat might have worked! The public might actually support such a shutdown and reward him for it. And within the Senate, to vote against him would have been so embarrassing that Cruz might have shamed his colleagues into voting correctly — as opposed to the coming votes, in which not a single senator will be shamed or persuaded. Democrats would have opposed this at their own peril. And were “equal treatment” it to become law as part of the CR, the Democrats would have been forced to come to the table, reopen Obamacare, and give concessions just to save their own healthcare — the concessions might even include the effective delay in the law’s implementation that Cruz claims to be striving for with “defund.”
For all of those reasons, that’s what this filibuster and this whole effort should have been focused on all along. Instead of a side-issue in a long speech today, conservatives should have focused like a laser on making Congress live under Obamacare.
The bull-headed insistence by so many on this other fly-by-night strategy has cost conservatives an incredible opportunity to change policy and put themselves in a better political position at the same time. If Cruz had spent 20 hours on the Senate floor bringing attention to the special treatment Congress is getting, it would have broadened the conservative base. In contrast, the best we can hope for from the current conflagration is that its failure doesn’t demoralize the conservative base too much or help more friends of Obamacare get elected to protect the law from repeal.