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Obama-GOP battle turns ruthless

U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress are in a battle that uses extreme tactics, says David Frum.

Story highlights

  • President used recess appointment to name head of Consumer Protection Bureau
  • David Frum says the move was latest in a series of extreme steps by both parties
  • Democrats and Republicans using every tactic they can to win battles
  • Frum: The upshot of the fighting is that Congress and the presidency are harmed

Watch the Republican primaries, and you can feel: the American political system is working. The GOP is discarding the unqualified and irresponsible candidates and rapidly converging on the person in the race who could actually do the job of president.

But the week's second biggest political story shows a very different reality: a political system careening toward crisis. This is the story of the battle over President Barack Obama's nomination of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Senate Republicans prevented that nomination from coming to a vote. In retaliation, Obama bent the law to force the nomination through. Republicans now accuse the president of defying the Constitution -- and some are muttering darkly about impeachable offenses.

Many citizens may shrug off these machinations as "politics as usual." But what is happening in the Cordray story is anything but usual.

David Frum

The whole saga is a succession of extreme acts.

Republicans furious over recess appointments

Abuse of executive power?

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The first extreme act was the creation of the CFPB itself. Normally, federal regulatory bodies have multiple commissioners, some reserved for the minority party. CFPB has only one commissioner who controls vast and hazy powers over all American finance.

The second extreme act was the Republican attempt to force changes in the CFPB by refusing to schedule a confirmation vote for the president's nominee to head the agency. Under the arcane procedures of the Senate, any one senator can indefinitely delay a vote on a nominee. This power is not found in any law. It's not found in the written rules of the Senate. It's a custom that has grown and grown and been applied ever more promiscuously by senators of both parties to advance narrow agendas.

The third extreme act was Obama's decision to install Cordray by recess appointment: a temporary appointment bypassing the Senate's confirmation process.

While presidents often use recess appointments, they did not usually do so for very high-profile jobs at very powerful agencies. The increasing prevalence of recess appointments to very important jobs in the George W. Bush and now Obama administrations reveals a widening divide between administrations and Congress--and declining respect for each others' prerogatives.

As the CFPB's first head, Cordray would create precedents, define procedures -- and would do so without ever answering a question from Congress.

The fourth extreme act was the Senate's maneuver to forestall the Cordray recess appointment. Senate Republicans resorted to a series of parliamentary maneuvers to keep the Senate supposedly "in session" -- even as almost all senators left town for the Christmas/New Year holiday -- to prevent any "recess" during which a recess appointment could be made.

The fifth extreme act was Obama's decision to disregard the Senate's maneuvers and push through a Cordray recess appointment all the same -- basically telling the Senate: if you don't like, sue me.

That's where the story stands now, but it's not very likely where the story ends. House and Senate Republicans can now try to zero out the CFPB's budget or paralyze its operations through endless subpoenas.

Legal experts can find precedents for this or that element of the saga. Even the attempt to pretend the Senate remains in session when it obviously is not in session has been tried before.

Together, however, these elements do add up to a new ruthlessness of party competition. It's like a bar fight, where the fighters keep grabbing up things that used to be furniture -- chairs, tables, plate-glass mirrors -- to use as weapons instead. Not only are they bleeding each other. They are trashing the joint.