Obstructing government, from Huey Long to Ted Cruz

Editor’s Note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of “Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.”

Story highlights

Nicolaus Mills: Ted Cruz has acted to enhance his reputation, heedless of consequences

He says FDR's critics, including Huey Long, specialized in such obstruction

Mills: If Cruz wants to repeal Obamacare, he should seek to do it in normal vote

He says FDR's firm stance in defense of Social Security was vindicated

CNN  — 

American history is replete with examples of people who try to build a reputation by standing in the way of presidential initiatives. We see that today with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is acting as if he believes that, aided by a small group of tea party-supported members of Congress, he can force the president to do his bidding by shutting down the government.

In this respect, Cruz is like Huey Long, the Louisiana senator and Depression-era demagogue. Long believed that he could gain a national following by being a thorn in the side of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Cruz – who, like Long, revels in the use of the filibuster – appears to think that he can do the same by being a thorn in the side of President Barack Obama, whose Affordable Care Act he is seeking to derail. Cruz routinely says that he does not want a government shutdown, but he continues to encourage House members to refuse a continuing resolution vote that would let the government get back to business as usual.

Nicolaus Mills

In a Sunday interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Candy Crowley, Cruz rejected the idea that an alternative to shutting down the government would be for him and his fellow tea party supporters to persuade Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act in a straight up-or-down vote.

The situation, Cruz told Crowley, was too dire to rely on the normal legislative process to settle matters. If Obamacare is enacted, “it’s going to destroy the private health insurance system,” Cruz predicted. The only alternative, he contended, was for the House Republicans to force a government shutdown until the president and the Senate made more concessions on the Affordable Care Act.

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As for his actions hurting what Crowley called “the Republican Party brand,” Cruz had a confident, two-word answer: “Not remotely.”

For Huey Long, annoying the president was great fun. He helped get the Senate to reject the treaty that would have brought the United States into the World Court, and he launched an unsuccessful effort to make employees of the National Recovery Administration subject to Senate confirmation.

The problem was that Long often went beyond being annoying with his obstructionism.

The classic case of Huey Long not caring about the consequences of his actions occurred in August 1935 as Congress was getting ready to adjourn. Long conducted a filibuster against an otherwise routine deficiency-appropriation bill, because he believed the bill did not help wheat and cotton farmers enough.

When Senate colleagues told Long, who earlier in the summer had filibustered for over 15 hours, that his actions would also deprive the government of funds for railroad pensions and New Deal welfare projects, he ignored them.

As a result, the deficiency-appropriation bill was killed, and among those hurt by its failure to pass the Senate were many of those most vulnerable to the Depression.

Long, a Democrat, was assassinated in September 1935 when he returned to Louisiana for a special session of the state legislature, but his rear-guard action against Roosevelt and the New Deal did not go unnoticed by FDR’s foes on the right. After Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935, Republicans and their supporters did everything they could to prevent it from being implemented in January 1937, much as the House is trying to do now with Obamacare

In the 1936 elections, Alf Landon, the Republican presidential nominee, called Social Security a “cruel hoax” and announced “the Republican party will have nothing to do with any plan that involves prying into the personal records of 26 million people.”

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As far as FDR was concerned, the eleventh-hour political attacks against Social Security were different from the partisan campaigns both parties had previously waged. FDR refused to give his opponents credit for acting in good faith and he refused to waver in his defense of Social Security.

Roosevelt’s resolution paid off. He won the 1936 election in a landslide, carrying all but two states, Maine and Vermont. He even increased his majority in Congress.

Obama is not the campaigner that Franklin Roosevelt was, but he does not have to be when it comes to refusing to let his Affordable Care Act be made a hostage to the threat of a long government shutdown. The most recent Quinnipiac University Poll shows that nearly three-quarters of all voters, 72%, oppose a government shutdown designed to stop or weaken the Affordable Care Act.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.