Friday, October 19, 2012

Rhetoric: "Hostage-Taking" and "Comprehensive Legislation"

Compromise is often a contentious issue in politics, and people tend to describe compromises differently.

Suppose, for instance, that you and I are haggling over legislation, and I offer to give you A -- something you want -- in return for you giving me B -- something that I want.

How should we describe this situation? Is this combining unrelated issues together? Am I holding A hostage for B? (Similarly, if you turn down my offer, are you holding B hostage for A?) Or is this somehow comprehensive legislation that addresses more than one concern?

Technically, it could be described as all these things (though the "hostage-taking" language is indulging in violent metaphors). Probably, we're going to describe the situation differently depending on whether or not we approve of the compromise. One man's "comprehensive legislation" is another man's "holding this hostage for that".

Compromise is one way democracy works. This is not to say that every compromise is one that should be supported. But we need to be careful when it comes to how compromises are described.

"This is a kind of court unpacking. And it`s not just, you know, holding the president and his nominees hostage. It`s holding the country and its highest court hostage."
-- Legal scholar Laurence Tribe, February 15, 2016, referring to Republican resistance to President Barack Obama nominating a successor to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Comment: This is "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

"Last November, President Obama announced a series of sweeping executive actions on immigration. In doing so, he completely reversed his own opinion. Remember that 22 times the president said he didn't have the authority to do what he eventually did. … I just think it's outrageous that Senate Democrats are using homeland security funding for blackmail to protect the actions of the president, where the president himself said he didn't have the authority to do this."
-- Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), February 26, 2015. Boehner's remarks were in response to Senate Democrats blocking passage of a bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security (as President Barack Obama and others want) but not the portion of the department that would enact Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Comment: "Blackmail" is essentially "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

[Regarding the Supreme Court case King v. Burwell], in the event that the court strikes down the subsidies as illegal, Congress must be prepared to offer immediate, targeted protection to those hurt by this administration’s reckless disregard for the rule of law. ObamaCare took these patients hostage. Conservatives have a duty to save them.
-- Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), February 25, 2015.

Comment: This is "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

"Now, what we did most recently was to expand that so more people would qualify for DACA, and we also said if you are the parent of a U.S. citizen or a legal resident, if you’ve been here for a while, if you're part of our community, then you should be able to come forward, get registered, go through a background check, and if you generally have been contributing to our community, you should be able to stay here legally and not be in fear of deportation. It did not provide citizenship because only Congress can do that, but it was going to help. And I think we saw the reaction in the community and, the truth is, across the country, people recognized this was the right thing and the smart thing to do. Now, unfortunately, a number of Republican governors chose to sue. They found a district court judge who has enjoined -- meaning stopped -- us going forward with this program. … And in the meantime, what we said to Republicans is, instead of trying to hold hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is so important for our national security, fund that, and let’s get on with actually passing comprehensive immigration reform."
-- President Barack Obama, February 25, 2015, during town hall on immigration.

Comment: First, this sounds like "Americans want" rhetoric: did ALL the people across the country recognize that what Obama did was right, or just some of them? Second, Obama is indulging in "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is pushing back against the suggestion that Democrats are risking a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security in order to protect illegal immigrants.

Senate Democrats have filibustered a House-passed DHS appropriations bill that would block Obama’s executive amnesty — which provides legal status and work permits for millions of illegal immigrants — three times. And the path forward in the funding fight remains unclear.

According to Pelosi, however, it is up to Republicans to bring up a “clean” DHS spending bill, or one free of riders defunding Obama’s executive orders, to the floor.

“Republicans should stop holding our homeland security hostage and bring forward a clean long-term funding bill immediately,” she said.

Pelosi rejected the idea that a short-term continuing resolution would be an “end” to the stalemate. The “end” must be a clean bill, she argued.

Instead Pelosi accused the House Republicans of endangering the American people with their efforts to defund Obama’s executive actions.

“House Republicans refuse to admit the dangerous collapse of their anti-immigrant grandstanding,” she said.
-- From a Breitbart News story, February 12, 2015.

Comment: Pelosi is demonizing House Republicans by accusing them of being anti-immigrant, when the refusal to fund the DHS is motivated by opposition to President Barack Obama's executive order regarding illegal immigrants. In addition, Pelosi is indulging in "hostage-taking" rhetoric.

At a moment of heightened concern that terrorists in the Middle East might stage or inspire attacks on U.S. soil, the GOP-controlled House and Senate are unable to agree on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. If the party's aim is to show Americans it is ready to govern, we are witnessing an epic fail. Rather than ensure the smooth operation of the agency charged with keeping the nation safe, Republicans would rather argue about a separate issue -- immigration -- and struggle over tactics for tilting at windmills. … The problem is that Republican conservatives want to use the Homeland Security funding bill to reverse President Obama's executive actions allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to stay without fear of deportation.
-- Pundit Eugene Robinson, February 6, 2015, responding to Republican proposals to defund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in order to pressure President Barack Obama to undo his recent executive order on immigration reform.

Comment: Robinson is criticizing Republicans for using one matter (i.e., the funding of DHS) to influence another "unrelated" matter (Obama's order on undocumented immigrants). But, are they really unrelated, given that it's the DHS that is implementing the order? More to the point, even if it is an unrelated issue, doesn't compromise in the democratic process routinely involve unrelated issues?

"There have been suggestions that we will not fund the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for patrolling our borders, as well as keeping our air travel safe, as well as patrolling our coasts -- there’s been talk about not funding that department because of the disagreement around immigration reform. There’s no logic to that position. Particularly for Republicans who claim that they are interested in strong border security, why would you cut off your nose to spite your face by defunding the very operations that are involved in making sure that we’ve got strong border security, particularly at a time when we’ve got real concerns about countering terrorism?"
-- President Barack Obama, February 4, 2015, responding to Republican proposals to defund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in order to pressure Obama to undo his recent executive order on immigration reform.

Comment: Obama is accusing the GOP of being hypocritical in defunding an agency that they support. But Republicans oppose some of the things DHS is doing under Obama's executive order on immigration reform. So they might see it as worth it to defund some of the good DHS does if it helps undo some of the bad they see DHS doing. Couldn't the GOP just as easily argue that there's no point funding an agency that's doing things they strongly disagree with? It might not be the calculation Obama would make, but it hardly amounts to a position that has "no logic". Obama has threatened to veto any budget that funds the government but defunds the Affordable Care Act (AKA, "Obamacare"); is that a position with "no logic" to it, that "cuts off his nose to spite his face" given that Obama values much of that government spending? This really comes down to the issue of compromise, with people having different views on whether a proposed compromise is a worthwhile bargain or not.


Examples from 2014.


Examples from 2013.


Examples from 2012.

"So what’s different this time? Why are we closer than we’ve ever been before? Because there are no cost controls in these proposals. Because this bill’s about coverage. Which is good! Why should we hold 48 million uninsured people hostage to the fact that we don’t yet know how to control costs in a politically acceptable way? Let’s get the people covered and then let’s do cost control."
-- Health care adviser Jonathan Gruber, October 2, 2009, commenting on health care reform legislation being considered for passage by Congress.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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