Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Time for Filibuster Reform?

Now that Republicans have a solid House majority, the House in the next Congress won't be sending very many bills to the Senate that Republicans don't like.  Republicans also have visions dancing in their heads of capturing the Senate in two years, at which time they would no doubt deem it highly unfair of Democrats to employ the same obstructionist tactics they have employed the last few years.  As for the other side of the aisle, there is now unanimous support from Democratic Senators for filibuster reform.   The stars may therefore finally be aligned this January to consider reforming Senate rules to limit use of the filibuster.  The chart below (from Think Progress) illustrates the size of the problem:

What is so unfair about the filibuster, aside from its obvious violation of the democratic principle of majority rule, is that the public tends to blame the majority for not being able to get legislation passed, even when a minority are obstructing it.  A lot of the administration's supposed supporters, who should know better, have blamed the president or the Senate leadership for being unable to pass, or for being forced to compromise, on key legislative battles, all caused by the opposition's unprecedented abuse of the filibuster.  People also may not realize how much delay is caused by current rules, when requests for cloture votes have become routine.  Now, even one Senator can hold up legislation for days before a cloture vote can be held, even where the minority may not have the necessary 40 votes to prevent a vote on the actual bill.  Most of the proposals floating around would at least streamline the process to reduce those delays, and some would go further.

It may not be important to learn all the different ideas that have been suggested for reforming the process, because only Harry Reid's idea, which will be some version of one of the following, is probably going to matter.  Here are some anyway.  Senator Bayh suggested reducing the number of votes required for cloture from 60 to 55.  It should be remembered however, that the cloture vote requirement used to be two-thirds.  When it was reduced to 60, which was intended to speed debate, the use of the filibuster paradoxically started to increase, to the point where it now seems to take a 60 vote super-majority to get anything done in the Senate.  So reducing the number to 55 might just force all significant Senate business to get a still-obnoxious 55 votes.  (Remember that the Senate starts out being somewhat anti-democratic, because the voting power of Senators from states with small populations is equal to that of Senators from states with much larger populations.  Therefore any super-majority requirement has the potential for increasing the power of Senators who don't represent large numbers of actual people, even further.  I realize of course that this arrangement seems more unfair to me as someone living in California, than it might if I lived in Wyoming or Vermont.  That unfairness is in the Constitution, however, while the filibuster is not.)  More interesting were Bayh's proposals to increase the number of Senators required to petition to continue debate, which might reduce the number of filibusters.  Senator Harkin has been talking for years about a plan to drop the number of votes required for closure day by day, allowing the minority to delay a vote but only for a set number of days before majority rule prevailed.  Senator Udall favors simply eliminating the 60 vote requirement for procedural votes, but there may be too many Senators still attached to some form of the filibuster to allow that idea to pass.

Senator Merkley has outlined a plan that would make filibustering more similar to what the public imagines a filibuster to require.  It would also force the minority to muster a certain number of Senators in support of continued debate, and force them to hold the floor.  That way people would at least know who is responsible for obstructing the business of the Senate.  (See Ezra Klein's interview with Senator Merkley about this plan, which also explains that filibustering has never required Senators to hold the floor, despite popular images of Mr. Smith and Mr. Thurmond.  That is only the mythology of the filibuster.)  Senator Merkley's idea has a lot of appeal, but perhaps would not end the filibuster so much as it would restore some of its romanticism.   If those kinds of rules made the filibuster less frequent, however, they would still serve their purpose.

The most important goal should be to reduce the frequency of cloture votes, whatever number of votes is going to be required to end debate.  Everyone understands that the Senate is supposed to be a more deliberative body than the House, and that Senate minorities should have power to slow down debate, and possibly even to block some bills from being voted upon.  But the minority should not have the power to delay every single appointment and every single bill, and there is no reason to require a separate procedural and a substantive vote for every important bill.  Yet that is the point we have nearly reached, and that kind of minority power is destructive of democracy.

For more information on curbing the filibuster, go to Fixthesenatenow.org.

UPDATE (12/30/10):  A report on TPM suggests that reform of the filibuster could be more modest than many Democrats would probably prefer.  Harry Reid is apparently in negotiations with the Republican leadership on this issue.  Republicans will resist changes to procedures that currently allow even one Senator to delay a vote to proceed with a bill.  My sense is that Reid himself is frustrated enough with the delays caused by these procedures that he would prefer significant reform.  But Reid's bargaining power to achieve that depends on how strongly the bare Democratic majority favors going to the mat on that issue.  Even though there was unanimous support among the Democrats for some kind of reform (except for Chris Dodd, who is leaving), what is not clear is how strong that support is, and for what kind of reform. If very weak reforms are instituted in January, that should be seen as a sign that some Democrats in the Senate don't want to change the rules all that much.  My guess is that there are enough Democrats who want only a tiny bit of change, such that we will only see modest reforms of the filibuster.  Then we will probably see the usual suspects on the left complaining about how weak Harry Reid is, forgetting once again that he only has as much power as is given to him by the cats in the Senate that he must herd.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bad News for Obstructionists

A new CNN poll taken during the just-concluded lame duck session of Congress, finds that 59% of respondents think President Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans.  At the same time, a whopping 68% think that Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to cooperate with the President.  I'm sure some of my friends on the left who believe that the Obama administration has sold out to the right could find some vindication in these results.  I would read them in a somewhat different way.  I think people actually like to see cooperation and bi-partisanship.  People were angry at Congress, and mainly took out their anger on House Democrats in the last election, because it has seemed so partisan.  By contrast, the public overwhelmingly supported the bi-partisan tax compromise, in which both sides sold out their principles to the other side.  And people seem impressed at what else was accomplished during the lame duck session, with some Republican support.

All that spells bad news for GOP strategists who think that the way forward in the next Congress is to become even more obstructionist.  There is talk on the Republican side of taking funding away from health care reform, of undoing other regulations passed in this Congress, of a government shutdown if the opposition does not get its way on other potential spending cuts.  Cooler heads should try to prevail on the newly-elected Congressional Republicans to tone down these demands.  Newt Gingrich should be able to remind Congressional Republicans that a similar strategy did not pay off very well for them in the 1990's.  And the polls suggest that unless the Republicans display the kind of bi-partisan cooperation that they started to display in the lame duck session, the public is not going to be very happy with their attitude.

Democrats got major parts of their agenda passed in the last Congress.  They can afford to take a breather, and concentrate on preserving and consolidating their gains.  Republicans might have some success in chipping away at them.  But their overriding goal should be to at least create the appearance that government is working for the people.  Otherwise the people will understand who is causing the problems in Washington, and who is part of the solution.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Accomplishments of the 111th Congress

For those who like lists, I lifted this one from outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's website, showing what this Congress has managed to get done in the past two years.  It's ironic that Congress has completed perhaps its most productive session since LBJ was president, while both parties in Congress remain highly unpopular with the American people.  Maybe people need to sit back and think about this record of achievement.

Nobody is going to like every single item on the list, but everyone must admit it's a long list.  Since it's Nancy Pelosi's list, it includes some things that the House got done which died in the Senate, but some cracks have appeared this week in Republican Senate opposition to some of the Democrats' priorities, and there is growing movement for filibuster reform.  So maybe there is still hope for some of these bills.  Who am I kidding?  More likely, the Democrats are going to be playing defense for the next two years, and will be fighting to preserve the gains represented by the list below:

AMERICAN RECOVERY & REINVESTMENT ACT, enacted in the first month of President Obama’s term, to jumpstart our economy, create and save 3.5 million jobs, give a tax cut to small business and 95% of American workers, begin to rebuild America’s road, rail, and water infrastructure, and make a historic commitment to education, clean energy, and science and technology, with unprecedented accountability.  (Signed into Law)

TAX RELIEF & UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE ACT, a controversial Obama-GOP agreement that includes the following Democratic priorities to create jobs and promote recovery:  cutting taxes for the middle class and small businesses for the next 2 years; providing a $120 billion payroll tax reduction for workers; extending unemployment insurance for 13 months; extending the Obama college tuition tax credit, Child Tax Credit, and Earned Income Tax Credit for two years; and providing incentives to create clean energy jobs.  (Signed into Law)

SMALL BUSINESS JOBS ACT, landmark legislation providing $12 billion in tax relief for small businesses by enacting 8 more small business tax cuts on top of the 8 already enacted by this Congress; creating up to 500,000 jobs, by leveraging up to $300 billion in private sector lending for small businesses through a $30 billion lending fund for community banks; fully paid for – doesn’t add a dime to the deficit.  (Signed into Law)

TEACHER JOBS/STATE AID/CLOSING TAX LOOPHOLES, creating and saving nearly 320,000 jobs; providing $10 billion to save 161,000 teacher jobs and $16 billion in Medicaid aid, with the effect of creating/saving 158,000 jobs, including police officers, firefighters, nurses & private sector workers; fully paid for by closing loopholes that encourage companies to ship American jobs overseas; cutting deficit by $1.4 billion.  (Signed into Law)

STUDENT AID & FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT, making the largest investment in college aid in history – increasing Pell Grants, making college loans more affordable, and strengthening community colleges – while reducing the federal deficit by ending wasteful student loan subsidies to banks. (Signed into Law)

HIRE ACT, creating up to 300,000 jobs, by providing a payroll tax holiday for businesses that hire unemployed workers and a tax credit for businesses that retain these workers.  (Signed into Law)

CASH FOR CLUNKERS, jump-starting the U.S. auto industry, providing consumers with up to $4,500 to trade in an old vehicle for one with higher fuel efficiency—spurring the sale of 700,000 vehicles.  (Signed into Law)

WORKER, HOMEOWNERSHIP & BUSINESS ASSISTANCE ACT, boosting the economy and creating jobs with more unemployment benefits for Americans hit by the recession, an expanded 1st-time homebuyer tax credit, and enhanced small business tax relief—expanded to all struggling U.S. businesses.  (Signed into Law)

AMERICA COMPETES REAUTHORIZATION, keeping America number one by investing in modernizing manufacturing, spurring American innovation through basic R&D and high risk/high reward clean energy research, and strengthening math and science education.  (On Way to President’s Desk)

U.S. MANUFACTURING ENHANCEMENT ACT,  to help U.S. manufacturers compete at home and abroad by temporarily suspending or reducing duties on intermediate products or materials these companies use that are not made domestically.  (Signed into Law)

KEEPING UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE IN PLACE, extending unemployment insurance for millions of American families through November 30, 2010 (Signed into Law), and through December 31, 2011 (Signed into Law).  Every dollar of unemployment benefits creates about $2.00 in economic activity. 

DREAM ACT, boosting our economy and military readiness with limited, targeted legislation – giving the best and brightest of immigrant children who came to the U.S. undocumented and grew up here a chance to contribute to our country by pursuing higher education or serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, with the ability to earn legal status after a rigorous and lengthy process of at least 10 years.   (Passed by House)  

CURRENCY REFORM/FAIR TRADE, to promote U.S. manufacturing jobs, by giving our government effective tools to address the unfair trade practice of currency manipulation by foreign countries, including China; their undervalued currency makes Chinese exports cheaper and America’s exports to China more expensive, putting U.S. manufacturers at an unfair disadvantage; bill is WTO-compliant.  (Passed by House)  

AMERICAN JOBS AND CLOSING TAX LOOPHOLES ACT, to promote American jobs by restoring credit to small businesses, extending tax incentives for American R&D and tax relief for middle class American families, rebuilding American infrastructure, and expanding jobs for young people; and to close tax loopholes to make Wall Street billionaires pay their fair share of taxes.  (Passed by House)

HOME STAR JOBS, to create 168,000 American jobs making energy efficiency products, by providing incentives for consumers to make their homes energy-efficient -- cutting energy bills for 3 million families and reducing our dangerous dependence on foreign oil and dirty fuels.  (Passed by House)

RURAL STAR/HOME STAR LOANS, to create tens of thousands more U.S. jobs, by creating Rural Star loans for people in rural America to make their homes and farms more energy-efficient; and a Home Star Loan Program for no-interest loans for energy efficiency home upgrades in other areas.  (Passed by House)

SMALL BUSINESS & INFRASTRUCTURE JOBS ACT, to extend Build America Bonds to help finance the rebuilding of schools, hospitals, roads and bridges; and target tax incentives to spur investment in small businesses and help entrepreneurs looking to start a new business. (Passed by House)

EDWARD M. KENNEDY SERVE AMERICA ACT, tripling volunteerism opportunities to 250,000 for national service for students to retirees; increased college financial awards. (Signed into Law)

WALL STREET REFORM, historic reforms to end taxpayer-funded bailouts and the idea of ‘too big to fail’, and protect and empower consumers to make the best decisions on mortgages, credit cards, and their own financial future.  Lack of accountability for Wall Street and big banks cost 8 million jobs.  (Signed into Law)

CREDIT CARDHOLDERS’ BILL OF RIGHTS, providing tough new protections already saving consumers money—like banning unfair rate hikes, abusive fees, and penalties—and strengthening enforcement. (Signed into Law) 

FOOD SAFETY, a sweeping, landmark overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in the wake of tainted food scandals; giving FDA new authorities and putting a new focus on prevention.  (On Way to President’s Desk)

FRAUD ENFORCEMENT & RECOVERY ACT, providing tools to prosecute mortgage scams and corporate fraud that contributed to financial crisis; creating an outside commission to examine its causes.  (Signed into Law)

LILLY LEDBETTER FAIR PAY ACT, restoring the rights of women and other workers to challenge unfair pay—to help close the wage gap where women earn 78 cents for every $1 a man earns in America.  (Signed into Law)

AIRLINE PASSENGER SAFETY, to improve airline passenger safety, by several steps including strengthening commercial pilot training requirements, requiring a minimum of 1,500 flight hours required for an airline pilot certificate. (Signed into Law)

HELPING FAMILIES SAVE THEIR HOMES ACT, building on the President’s initiative to stem the foreclosure crisis, with significant incentives to lenders, servicers, and homeowners to modify loans. (Signed into Law)

FHA REFORM, to shore up federal mortgage insurance in order to expand homeownership opportunities by  making essential reforms to strengthen the financial footing of the Federal Housing Administration, saving taxpayers $2.5 billion over 5 years.  (Passed by House)

FLOOD INSURANCE REAUTHORIZATION & REFORM, reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program, upon which millions of American families and businesses rely, for five years and making key reforms to put the program on a stronger financial footing.  (Passed by House)

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT, landmark legislation prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against Americans with pre-existing conditions and dropping coverage when you get sick and need it most; lowering costs for privately-insured middle class families and small businesses; strengthening Medicare and lowering seniors’ prescription drug costs; creating up to 4 million jobs; and reducing the deficit by the largest amount in almost two decades, while ensuring affordable coverage for 32 million more Americans.  (Signed into Law)

CHILD NUTRITION, landmark legislation to fight both childhood obesity and childhood hunger; improving the nutritional quality of school lunches, expanding access for needy children to nutrition programs, and providing schools with first boost in reimbursement rate for school lunches in more than 30 years.  (Signed into Law)

HEALTH CARE FOR 11 MILLION CHILDREN, to finally provide cost-effective health coverage for 4 million more children and preserve coverage for 7 million children already enrolled.  (Signed into Law)

, granting the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate advertising, marketing, and manufacturing of tobacco products, the #1 cause of preventable U.S. deaths, and to stop tobacco companies from targeting our children. (Signed into Law)

ENSURING SENIORS’ ACCESS TO THEIR DOCTORS, by blocking a scheduled 25% cut in Medicare physician payments and extending current Medicare payment rates through December 31, 2011.  (Signed into Law)

9/11 HEALTH AND COMPENSATION ACT, providing health care and compensation for first responders and others exposed to the toxins of Ground Zero.  (On Way to President’s Desk)

RYAN WHITE HIV/AIDS TREATMENT EXTENSION ACT, guaranteeing access to lifesaving medical services, primary care, and medications for low-income patients with AIDS and HIV. (Signed into Law)

AMERICAN CLEAN ENERGY AND SECURITY ACT, historic legislation to create 1.7 million jobs (with the Recovery Act); help free us from funding terrorism with our dependence on foreign oil; reduce the carbon pollution causing climate change; keep costs low for Americans; will not increase the deficit. (Passed by House) 

INCENTIVES FOR CLEAN ENERGY JOBS, to extend for one year the Section 1603 renewable energy grant program, which provides grants in lieu of existing tax credits, that could create up to 100,000 jobs in the solar and wind industries.  (Signed into Law)  

RESPONSE TO BP OIL SPILL, a bill providing a comprehensive response to BP oil spill – eliminating the $75 million cap on the liability of oil companies, restoring the Gulf Coast and protecting local residents, imposing new safety requirements and strengthening oversight of offshore drilling, and protecting whistleblowers in offshore drilling industry who report safety violations.  (Passed by House)

SPILL ACT, to reform maritime liability laws to ensure that the families of those killed or injured in the BP Oil Spill and other such tragedies are justly compensated for their losses.  (Passed by House)

STATUTORY PAY-AS-YOU-GO, to restore 1990s law that turned record deficits into surpluses, by forcing tough choices; Congress must offset new policies that reduce revenues or expand entitlements. (Signed into Law) 

BUDGET BLUEPRINT, creating jobs with investments in health care, clean energy and education; cutting taxes for most Americans by $1.5 trillion; cutting Bush deficit by more than half by 2013. (Action Completed)

BUDGET ENFORCEMENT RESOLUTION, setting a limit on discretionary spending for FY 2011 that requires spending cuts of $7 billion below the President’s budget and $3 billion below Senate.  (Action Completed)

JUSTICE FOR BLACK FARMERS AND NATIVE AMERICANS, funding lawsuit settlements regarding discrimination against black farmers and Native American trust account holders by the government.  (Signed into Law)

WEAPON SYSTEMS ACQUISITION REFORM, cracking down on DOD waste and cost overruns in the acquisition of weapon systems, increasing oversight and competition.  (Signed into Law) 

IMPROVE ACQUISITION ACT, overhauling DOD acquisition for the 80 percent of spending that is for services and other non-weapons items, saving taxpayers an estimated $135 billion.  (On Way to President’s Desk)

DISCLOSE ACT, to fight a corporate takeover of our elections, requires them to disclose they are behind political ads; bans foreign-controlled corporations from putting money in U.S. elections.  (Passed by House)


FY 2010 DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION, authorizing 3.4% troop pay raise, strengthening military readiness and military families support, focusing our strategy in Afghanistan and redeployment from Iraq.  (Signed into Law) 

FY 2011 DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION, strengthening support for service members, military readiness, and counterterrorism efforts, including troop pay raise.  (On Way to President’s Desk)

REPEAL OF DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL, to provide for the repeal of this outdated policy, contingent on the certification that military review completed and repeal will not impact readiness.  (Signed into Law)

VETERANS HEALTH CARE BUDGET REFORM ACT, authorizing Congress to approve VA appropriations one year in advance to ensure reliable and timely funding of VA health care funding.  (Signed into Law)

FY 2010 MILITARY CONSTRUCTION-VA APPROPRIATIONS, strengthening quality health care for 5 million veterans by investing 11% more for medical care and benefits.  (Signed into Law)

FY 2009 SUPPLEMENTAL, making retroactive stop loss payments to 185,000+ service members, and expanding New GI Bill benefits for college to all children of fallen U.S. service members.   (Signed into Law)

CAREGIVERS AND VETERANS OMNIBUS HEALTH SERVICES, landmark legislation providing help to caregivers of disabled, ill or injured veterans, and improving VA health services for women veterans.  (Signed into Law)

AGENT ORANGE BENEFITS, providing long overdue disability benefits to more than 150,000 Vietnam veterans and survivors for exposure to Agent Orange.  (Signed into Law)

STRENGTHENING NEW GI BILL, making these veterans’ education benefits for college easier to use; covering vocational, technical and on-the-job training, as well as more National Guardsmen.  (Signed into Law)


FY 2010 HOMELAND SECURITY APPROPRIATIONS, strengthening security at our ports and borders and on commercial airlines, giving first responders tools to respond to terrorism. (Signed into Law)

HATE CRIMES PREVENTION ACT, giving law enforcement resources to prevent and prosecute hate crimes against Americans based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.  (Signed into Law)

BORDER SECURITY EMERGENCY APPROPRIATIONS, providing $600 million to enhance security at the Southwest Border, including funding 1,200 additional Border Patrol agents, 500 additional CBP officers, and additional FBI, DEA, and ATF agents for the border region; paid for by visa fees.  (Signed into Law)

COPS ON THE BEAT, putting an additional 50,000 cops on the street over the next 5 years.  (Passed by House)

CHEMICAL & WATER SECURITY ACT, to increase security and safety of the nation’s chemical plants and water facilities vulnerable to terrorist attacks and the millions of Americans that live nearby.  (Passed by House)

Whose wall is it anyway?

I feel the need to take a break from all the good political news this week, and find something to get outraged about.  How about last week's decision by the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles (where I work)  to whitewash a mural the museum had commissioned from the artist known as Blu, on the ground that it might be offensive to veterans?  Walls may be temporary, but the internet is forever, so in the interests of artistic freedom, I am going to post the offending piece of art here for posterity.  If you don't like it, click away.

Is this a case of balancing the rights of veterans not to have to view the possibly offending work vs. the free speech rights of artists?   The answer is none of the above.  Legally speaking, the artist has no rights in this case, because the work was commissioned by the museum, and presumably the contract gave the museum the right to do whatever they want with it, including painting it over, and presumably the artist was aware of that.  OK, so then the rights of any offended veterans should win.  I say no to that also, because veterans don't have any such rights.  If they are offended by a work of art, I would tell them that that is a legitimate reaction to any work of art.  In this case, the artist probably anticipated that some people might be offended, or at least provoked, by the work of art.  That is the whole point, isn't it?  I also wonder how many veterans would be easily offended by a controversial work of art.  I'm guessing that most veterans have seen lots of things more offensive than pictures of coffins draped with dollar bills.

But here is what I really want to say.  I'm frequently offended by a lot of the stuff I have to look at.  Bus ads, for example, are all pretty offensive to me.  In fact, I find advertising of almost any kind offensive.  And what about those television sets in every airport and every hospital waiting room?  Not to mention that they are now cropping up over gas pumps!  I have no desire to watch, but I cannot escape.   People who drive too slowly, or too fast, are also offensive to me.  As are people who take too long to pick out their food in the buffet line, or to count their change from their purses in the supermarket checkout line.  And people who stand on escalator steps without moving to the right to let those of us who do not like to break stride pass; that's another pet peeve of mine.  Glenn Beck, I find offensive, as with most of the crew on Fox News.  And to be fair, I have to say that Keith Olbermann can be annoying at times also.  John McCain has gotten quite offensive lately.  And Haley Barbour's comments on the Civil Rights era: Highly offensive! (I knew I'd find a way to tie this post in with the political themes of this blog.)

It seems to me that the people who are causing all of this offense to me have as much right to continue their offensive behavior as the artist who created the supposedly offending mural.  What I want to know is, why doesn't anyone who owns the public or private spaces in which these offending behaviors are tolerated feel compelled to make it stop, in the way that the MOCA director felt compelled to whitewash the wall before the paint on the mural was even dry?  Why don't these owners care about offending the sensibilities of people like me?  Is it because I am not a veteran?  Granted, we owe a special debt of gratitude to veterans, but do we owe them the right not to have to look at things that might offend some of them?  If we owe them that, then maybe we should do more to make VA hospital facilities more attractive, because I'm sure veterans find substandard facilities highly offensive.  At the same time, do we owe no consideration to ordinary citizens such as myself, who might be offended by lots of stuff that is allowed to go on in front of my face every day?  Just saying.

Monday, December 20, 2010

End the Year with START.

Somebody help me understand Republican Senators' excuses for opposing ratification of  new START.  They sound like kids' excuses for not doing their homework.  Senator Graham, for example, whined yesterday that the Senate has been kept so busy voting on other matters that Republicans haven't been given enough time to offer amendments, or to study the treaty, even though it has been sitting in the Capitol since April.  Senator Kyl complains that there is language in the preamble that could be construed as limiting missile defense, even though everyone who has studied the treaty agrees that it contains no legal prohibition on any efforts the United States might be planning in that regard.  John Kyl should really know better, because he is a distinguished attorney.  Attorneys understand that preambles to agreements are legally meaningless.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell practically admits that he is opposing the treaty just so that he will not hand another legislative victory to President Obama.  Here is the quote: "No senator should be forced to make decisions like this so we can tick off another item on someone's political checklist before the end of the year." Really, is that a good enough reason not to take action that would enhance national security?  A number of senators are upset that the treaty is being rushed through the closing days of the lame duck session.  Well, whose fault is that?  Maybe if the Republicans had not filibustered every single major piece of legislation during this Congress, and a lot of minor ones as well, this important treaty could have been dealt with sooner.

As far as substance, however, we haven't heard a single respectable critique of the treaty, and practically every expert on the subject, Republican or Democrat, has emphasized its critical importance.  Brent Scowcroft, for example, certainly no softie when it comes to dealing with the Russians, said that Republican opposition to this treaty is "baffling."
“It doesn’t tie our hands on missile defense,as the president has already demonstrated; we’re moving ahead on missile defense on Europe. There are things in the treaty people don’t like, but right now we have no oversight over what Russians are doing inside with their own nuclear systems . . . . This would restore that, so we can carry forward all the accounting, the rules, the assurances, the inspections -- all the things giving us the confidence to go ahead. Without those it seems to me we’re absolutely nowhere.”
Finally, for those who still think the Democratic Majority Leader shies away from bold or controversial statements, here is what Harry Reid  said about new START yesterday: "Soon this will come down to a simple choice: you either want to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, or you don’t."   It's time for enough Republican Senators to stop playing politics with this issue, and get it done.

(poster from Son of the South)

UPDATE (12/22/10):  Common sense prevails over politics as usual, and new START is ratified with four votes to spare, 71-26!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Republicans for Change

Republican Senators who voted to allow DADT repeal to come up for a vote in the Senate, thus assuring passage of this reform:

Scott Brown
Mark Kirk
George Voinovich
Lisa Murkowski
Susan Collins
Olympia Snowe

(UPDATE: Richard Burr and John Ensign subsequently switched their votes after the initial vote, making a total of eight Republicans in favor of moving the issue forward.)

Republican Senators who voted to allow the  DREAM Act to come up for a vote in the Senate:

Richard Lugar
Bob Bennett
Lisa Murkowski

Not enough in the second case to allow the bill to pass, unfortunately.  The real hero of the three is Lugar, who supported the bill even though he is probably going to face a primary challenge in 2012.  As pointed out on TPM, the fact that Murkowski and Bennett  both lost the backing of the Republican party probably explains their new-found independence.  Murkowski should be interesting to watch in the next Congress.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Social Security

Last night I'm having dinner in a restaurant listening to this young guy at a table across the way loudly going on and on about how the tax cut deal, passed yesterday by Congress, constitutes a plot to destroy Social Security. "What were they thinking?" he kept asking, as he explained to his table companion how the 2% temporary reduction in payroll taxes was going to tear a big hole in the Social Security trust fund, and how once that reduction was in place, they would never be able to raise it back up to a sustainable level. Therefore the most worrisome feature of this tax deal is that it is going to destroy Social Security.

First I'm thinking, does he actually think the Democratic leadership has joined in a nefarious plot with the Republicans to destroy the Social Security program? That doesn't seem very likely, if you think about it for even a minute, since Democrats understand that Social Security is one of their crowning achievements, and a linchpin of their support. They would never purposefully destroy one of the foundations of their own party. So maybe this guy just thinks that the Democrats are stupid. Well, maybe some of them are stupid, but that cannot be said of the Democratic leadership, or of the President, a man even John Boehner has admitted is "brilliant."

But since the kind of thinking I heard last night--the kind of thinking which starts from rightful concern about protecting vital programs like Social Security, but sometimes verges into paranoia--seems quite prevalent on the left, let me point out a few facts, in addition to the facts that there is no evidence that the Democratic leadership is either stupid or actively conspiring to destroy the party's support. It should first of all be remembered that Social Security is in no immediate danger. The trust fund can easily afford to reduce its payroll tax intake for a year without endangering its solvency. Second of all, the payroll tax reduction is fully paid for from the general fund of the federal government. What that means is that the federal government is borrowing the billions to pay the Social Security trust fund the expected shortfall from the payroll tax reduction.

OK, but what about next year? Won't it be hard to increase payroll taxes back up to the level needed to assure Social Security's future? I don't think so, for several reasons. I don't think Republicans, for one thing, care about reducing payroll taxes as much as they care about reducing high bracket income taxes or capital gains taxes or estate taxes. Those are the taxes their prime constituents care about the most. Payroll taxes are a cost of doing business, true, but everyone recognizes their necessity, and paying them doesn't create any competitive disadvantages for businesses. Therefore, many Republicans will support any necessary payroll tax increase. (The increase is automatic, anyway, unless they vote to continue the tax holiday.)   Not only that, but continuing this temporary deal on a payroll tax holiday would require that the federal government keep borrowing the money needed to pay back the Social Security trust fund, which makes it obvious that the deal just adds to the deficit.  That makes continuation of this deal different from continuing the 35% upper bracket tax rate, which for some reason Republicans refuse to believe adds to the deficit.  Democrats will also go along with allowing payroll tax rates to go back up because their constituents heartily support Social Security, and also recognize the necessity of paying for it. And everyone hopes that the economy will be better next year, so that we will not mind seeing payroll taxes eat up a bit more of our take home pay.

But the biggest factor that will assure Social Security's future into the long term, it seems to me, is a demographic one. Baby Boomers are just starting to retire. We Baby Boomers are the largest demographic cohort in America. And we vote. As we age, we will vote in increasing numbers. And as we retire, we will vociferously support increased payroll taxes, which retirees do not have to pay, but which are necessary to fund our own retirement. Any politician, Democrat or Republican, who threatens the foundation of the Baby Boomers' retirement payments will not find it very easy to get elected.

So I am not terribly worried about the future of Social Security. It will require some tinkering in a few years to keep it solvent, but the very fact that it can absorb a substantial reduction in funding for the next year proves its strength. Its long term future will be assured by the voting power of an increasingly aging population.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Meaning of Christmas

Here is Harry Reid on the floor of the Senate reminding his Republican colleagues that a lot of Americans have to work over the holidays, and that in any case it is within the Republicans' power to allow votes to occur on the remaining business before the Senate, if they want to adjourn before the end of the year. If Senator Kyl or Senator DeMint prefer to spend time reading the entirety of the START treaty into the record, then they have no business accusing Democrats of disrespecting Christmas.

The Jews, who by the way never seem to whine about having to work through Hanukkah, have a word for the opposition's behavior: it is called chutzpah.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is health care reform unconstitutional?

I have a few questions for Judge Henry E. Hudson, of Virginia, who issued an opinion yesterday holding that the individual mandate in the health care reform act is unconstitutional.  First, Judge Hudson, since a couple of other district courts have already come out the other way on this issue, and it will ultimately have to be determined at the appellate level, I guess you realize you don't have the final word on this topic.  So you must know that if your opinion is going to hold up, it has to be really powerful and compelling.  Why, then, would you produce the kind of opinion that mostly consists of a summary of the parties' respective arguments, the kind of stuff that a law clerk can churn out?  (I know, since I was once a law clerk for a federal district judge.)  Then when you get to the part where you need strong analysis, and you need to have an answer to all of the compelling arguments against your position, your opinion is almost empty of analysis.

By the time we get to your conclusion, at around page 24 of your opinion, that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, all we find is the bare statement that compelling individuals to purchase a product in the private market is unprecedented and therefore violates the Commerce Clause.  I have to question how unprecedented that kind of compulsion really is.  It seems to me that every day some federal government regulation is causing individuals to pay for products they might not want.  For example, even if I don't want to pay for the seatbelts in my car, the federal government still says I have to buy them.  Even if I don't want my meat inspected or drugs tested, the federal government says I have to absorb the cost of those inspections and tests.  I suppose I could opt out of all those required costs by becoming a vegetarian who never drives or takes pills, but I would still probably find something, as I walk to the vegetable stand, that costs more because of federal regulation.  So why can't the federal government say that if I choose not to buy health insurance, I will have to pay a bit more in taxes to subsidize the cost of medical care for others, and for myself when I get sick? 

In your footnote (no. 7) to your conclusion that well, they just can't, you seem to recognize that there is a very big issue lurking under the surface, but you never really come to grips with that issue.  The text of that footnote reads in its entirety: "The collective effect of an aggregate of such activity still falls short of the constitutional mark."  I would really like to know why, but you don't explain.  If Congress has the authority to tell insurers, for example, that they can't turn a person down just because they have a pre-existing condition, an authority you don't seem to question, doesn't Congress have a responsibility to deal with the foreseeable consequences of that kind of regulation?   And those consequences, as has been shown repeatedly from experience, include the collapse of the insurance market when people in the aggregate find out that they don't need to buy health insurance until they get sick.  Imagine what would happen, for example, if you could wait until your house burned down before purchasing fire insurance.   Nobody would buy it, but then nobody would be able to afford it when they needed it.   Unless you allow insurers to turn down sick people, the way we allow fire insurers to turn down applicants whose houses have already burned down, you need either a tax or a mandate, so that enough healthy people are paying into the system to provide affordable care for anyone who gets sick, which is most all of us, eventually.  The health insurance reform act actually contains a combination of the two devices, meaning that it does not really require anyone to buy a product in the private market (contrary to your characterization), but it does penalize you (or tax you) if you fail to buy such a product.  The question you have failed to answer is why the Commerce Clause prevents the federal government from solving an obvious problem, in  any of the only possible ways that that problem could be solved--a problem that clearly arises from an aggregation of economic activity caused by the government's permissible power to tell insurance companies that they may not refuse coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  

If your opinion should hold up, Judge Hudson, then what?  It might be like the Roosevelt Supreme Court striking down New Deal legislation based on outmoded interpretations of the Commerce Clause similar to the one you are applying.  We would have to wait until enough conservative justices die or retire before we could enact a solution to this pressing problem.  Or you might just force Congress to say, fine, if we can't provide affordable health insurance to all by enacting an individual mandate or tax, then we'll just have to fund the whole system out of payroll taxes the way we fund Medicare and Medicaid, and then we might finally get to the kind of universal health care system that every other advanced nation has, except for the United States, by an even more direct route.

(AP photo from Washington Post)

Common Ground, Not Compromise

(reprinted from my mediation blog)

Here is a portion of a 60 Minutes interview with incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, who explains why he thinks "compromise" is a dirty word:

J. BOEHNER: We have to govern. That's what we were elected to do.

STAHL (on camera): But governing means compromising.

J. BOEHNER: It means working together. It means find...

STAHL: It also means compromising.

J. BOEHNER: It means finding common ground.

STAHL: OK, is that compromising?

J. BOEHNER: I made clear I am not going to compromise on -- on my principles, nor am I going to compromise...

STAHL: What are you saying?

J. BOEHNER: ... the will of the American people.

STAHL: And you're saying I want common ground, but I'm not going to compromise. I don't understand that. I really don't.

J. BOEHNER: When you say the -- when you say the word "compromise"...

STAHL: Yeah?

J. BOEHNER: ... a lot of Americans look up and go, "Uh-oh, they're going to sell me out." And so finding common ground I think makes more sense.

STAHL (voice-over): I reminded him that his goal had been to get all the Bush tax cuts made permanent.

(on camera): So you did compromise?

J. BOEHNER: I've -- we found common ground.

STAHL: Why won't you say -- you're afraid of the word.

J. BOEHNER: I reject the word.
Lesley Stahl may not understand the distinction Boehner is trying to make, but I think a lot of mediators would.  As I discussed in a prior post, a lot of participants in negotiations instinctively recoil from the very idea of compromise.  To compromise means to sacrifice one's principles.  It means taking less than one is entitled to.  It means giving up on the very idea of finding justice.  To find consensus or common ground, on the other hand, means identifying the degree to which both side's interests can be satisfied.  It means finding areas where you and the other side might agree.  It means finding a solution that achieves a better result for both sides than the alternative of continued conflict.

One of the reasons that the tax cut deal hammered out by the White House and Congressional Republicans was viciously attacked from both the right and the left was that it was seen as a compromise of fundamental principles.  Those who favored the agreement, on the other hand, saw it instead as a means of satisfying each side's interests, at the expense of  having to agree to satisfy the other side's interests.

I don't know what kind of a Speaker John Boehner is going to turn out to be, but I think he is making a useful distinction that could enable him to serve the interests of his most principled constituents, while at the same time allowing him to make agreements with the opposition that have the potential of getting things done.

Monday, December 13, 2010

School lunches

The President signs into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will make more nutritious school lunches available to many more schoolchildren.  (See more from Obama Foodorama here.)  Who could be against that?  It turns out 157 Republicans in the House voted against it.  I hear that when the new Congress convenes in January, the new Republican House majority plans to make apple pie illegal.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tax Compromise Simplified

From the White House website:

I can understand anyone for whom deficit reduction is a priority being unhappy about this result.  And I can understand that almost everyone can find something not to like in it.  What I have more trouble understanding are the people saying that this represents a capitulation of one side to the other.  It looks more like both sides are getting what they want, at the expense of letting the other side get what they want.  Negotiators call this a "win-win" solution.

And for those who enjoy the white board presentation, here it is, also courtesy of the White House:

I have an even simpler explanation, which I taught my kids when they were about two years old. They were trained to answer the question, "What is the difference between Republicans and Democrats?" by saying, "Republicans take from the poor and give to the rich, and Democrats take from the rich and give to the poor." It has always seemed to me that if we appreciate that basic difference in philosophy, politics becomes a lot easier to understand. With respect to the tax cut compromise, this difference may explain why a lot of people on both sides are unhappy.  Although the agreement satisfies each side's desire to give to their favored group, it does not satisfy their desire to take from the disfavored group. But in the spirit of the season, maybe it would be best just to celebrate the giving aspect of this solution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Presidential Popularity

Gallup has a nifty little gadget that allows you to compare the popularity of various presidents at various stages of their administrations.  Here's a quiz:  How would people rank the following presidents, in order of popularity, in the first week of December after their respective midterm elections?: Reagan, Clinton and Obama 

Time's up.  I am guessing most people who pay attention to the media's relentless drumbeat of how much trouble the president is supposedly in, would put them in something like the following order: Reagan most popular followed by Clinton, then Obama.

In fact, it is the opposite.  Our current president, Barack Obama, has a 46% favorable rating this week, followed by Bill Clinton with 42% and Ronald Reagan with 41%.   So far it looks like Obama has survived his midterm "shellacking" in the best shape of these three.  And I probably don't need to remind anyone that both Clinton and Reagan were re-elected handily.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

Excerpts from a statement by Liu Xiaobo at his trial last year, read by Liv Ullman, today in Oslo, at the ceremony awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.  Unfortunately, the honoree was unable to attend, because he is in prison for exercising his right to free speech:

Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy. . . . 
I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become.a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme. . . . 
I look forward to [the day] when my country is a land with freedom of expression, where the speech of every citizen will be treated equally well; where different values, ideas, beliefs, and political views ... can both compete with each other and peacefully coexist; where both majority and minority views will be equally guaranteed, and where the political views that differ from those currently in power, in particular, will be fully respected and protected; where all political views will spread out under the sun for people to choose from, where every citizen can state political views without fear, and where no one can under any circumstances suffer political persecution for voicing divergent political views. I hope that I will be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech.
Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.
Imagine being Liu Xiaobo's guard today, watching him sitting in his cell and knowing that at the same time he is being awarded one of the world's highest honors.  Would the guard wonder which one of them is more free, and which one is more in captivity?

Imagine the dilemma of the Chinese government responding to this award.  Characteristically, they  tried to prevent Chinese citizens from watching coverage of the award ceremony, pressured other foreign governments not to attend, and cracked down even harder on dissidents.   They act as if they are intent on proving the validity of Liu Xiaobo's criticisms of the regime.

And here is a statement by our Secretary of State:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Upside of Anger

I've been a little surprised at the extent of the anger at the deal the Obama administration reached this week with Congressional Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years.  Judged on its merits--it gives continued tax breaks to the wealthy, but also extends unemployment benefits and additional stimulative tax relief to the middle class in excess of the breaks for the wealthy--it seems to make a lot of both economic and political sense.  So why so much anger, particularly from the left, but also from the right?

Some have argued against the compromise because it adds so much to the deficit.  But Republicans didn't seem particularly concerned about the effect on  the deficit of the continued tax cuts for the rich, and Democrats were supposed to be in favor of increasing the deficit in the short run to help the economy, particularly if those increases were targeted toward job creation and helping the middle class.

Some appear angry at the deal just because it is a compromise.  Despite the fall's election results, which have evened the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, many partisans on both sides still seem more inclined to show that they will not give in to the other side, even if that means that nothing can get accomplished.  A lot of Republicans are making noise about not compromising their principles, and some Democrats might prefer that all the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire rather than allowing the tax cuts on the rich to continue, just to show they cannot be pushed around either.

Some have argued against particular features of the deal.  As a matter of policy, most Democrats think the tax rates on the rich are too low. Many Republicans are philosophically opposed to extending unemployment benefits, and think the cost of this bill is too great.  Some are second-guessing the negotiators, believing that they could have gotten a deal more to their liking if different tactics or strategies had been employed.

I understand all of these objections, but none of them would seem to account for the visceral anger that is being expressed at the bill.  Even if you think tax rates on the rich are too low, why get so excited about the difference between a 35% top marginal rate and a 39% top marginal rate?  Considering that not so long ago we had top rates of 50% and before that 70%, and as recently as the early 1960's, a top rate of 90%, there doesn't seem to be all that much difference between 35% and 39%, at least not enough to threaten to blow the deal over, or start reckless talk of primary challenges to the President in 2012.  Yet a lot of those kinds of threats are going around.

I'm starting to realize that the only explanation that makes sense for the firestorm this tax bill has created, is that it is a manifestation of real resentment at the extent of inequality in this country.  Statistics tell us that wealth disparities have grown to the greatest levels since the 1920's.  Those trends, combined with continuing resentment of the Bush tax cuts, skewed so heavily toward the wealthy; combined with the 2008 recession, which many quite rightly saw as having been caused by reckless Wall Street speculators; and topped off by the TARP program bail-outs, which many saw as rewarding the very fat cats who have caused so much misery, have combined to create seething resentment against the wealthy.  Politicians are finally starting to talk about the gross disparities of wealth that exist in this country. 

I still think the tax deal is a good deal, mainly because no better deal seems to be politically possible.  One unexpected reason that it might be a good deal is that it is setting up nicely the issue of income disparity for the next election.  It seems to be about time we had a debate about the fairness of the class structure in this country, and whether anything should be done about it.  The Obama administration certainly hasn't tried to stir up such a debate.  But it's there anyway, bubbling just beneath the surface, reflected in Tea Party resentment at bail-outs and taxes, and in liberal resentment at excessive wealth and tax breaks for the rich.  These resentments may be ready to boil over if we don't deal with the issue soon.

(graph from The New Republic)

Monday, December 6, 2010

How Negotiation Works

Here are the president's comments on the deal worked out today on taxes: 

I am a little tired of thinking and writing about this issue, but I am even more tired of reading the media coverage which is much too preoccupied with trying to figure out which party gains politically and which party loses; who wins and who caves.

What this looks like to me, as someone who spends a lot of time negotiating settlements of legal disputes, is a "win-win" settlement.  That means neither side got exactly what they wanted, but both sides were able to satisfy important interests.  And the alternative to this deal would have meant failure for everyone, because both sides were agreed that they wanted to preserve tax breaks for the middle class, and if they couldn't resolve this issue, then all of the Bush tax breaks, including those for the middle class, would have expired at the end of the year.  To avoid that, they had to extend millionaires' tax breaks for two more years, but in return Republicans agreed to substantial additional tax breaks for working families.  In addition, the negotiators won a thirteen month extension of unemployment benefits.  (Ezra Klein's summary today of what he called an imperfect, but not bad deal, is here.) (My somewhat pessimistic predictions of a few weeks ago, expressing some doubt that the parties would be able to work this issue out like grown-ups, can be found here.)   All in all, this is an impressive stimulus plan that will help get the economy moving again, which seems more important than trying to score political points about whether rich people have been getting too big a break on taxes for the past ten years.  (They have, ok, but we will just have to deal with that problem a little later.)

What may be even more important and impressive is just the fact of being able to make a deal at all, and especially one that satisfies the most important interests of both parties.  That is a rebuke to those on both the left and right who would prefer to fight, rather than negotiate, with the other side, even if that means gridlock and failure.  To achieve that kind of result in the wake of a highly polarizing election, is something we should feel proud of.  Maybe others were expecting something different, but I supported the Obama campaign mainly because he promised to bring interest-based negotiation (that might be a technical term for what in politics we should just call representative democracy), to Washington, instead of partisan gridlock.  Today, once again, President Obama delivered on that promise.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Always a step ahead

This week the bi-partisan deficit commission issued its recommendations, adopted by an 11-8 vote, not enough to require that Congress actually vote on these proposals.  Many, especially on the left, have viewed the commission's work with alarm or suspicion, labeling it the "cat food commision," and suggesting that the president had a secret plan to cut Social Security benefits or make other drastic reductions in social spending.  You would think more of the people savvy in the ways of Washington would remember what the purpose of commissions actually is: take a political hot potato, toss it to a panel of blue ribbon "experts," praise their work, study their recommendations, and then do nothing about them.  You would think they would also remember that the man we elected president two years ago is not stupid.

In this case, the President was facing a lot of political heat mainly from the right, about the increasing federal debt.  Now he has a ready answer to anyone concerned about debts and deficits.  He can say he created a blue ribbon panel to look into the problem, they made some serious recommendations, and now it is up to Congress to do something.  Of course Congress will never pass the commission's recommendations.  Congress has no interest in making the painful choices necessary to close the deficit gap.  Republicans say they want to cut spending, but can never specify enough spending cuts to cut the gap.  Democrats might want to raise taxes, but will pay a political price for doing so.

So we're not about to do anything drastic or painful to reduce the deficit, and that is a good thing.  The truth is that now, during a shaky economic recovery, is not really a good time to make serious efforts to reduce the deficit.  In fact, we could use more deficit spending, not less, to get the economy moving.  So the commission has performed a useful service by putting on the table some interesting recommendations that we should take a few years to study so that when the time comes, we might consider a few of them.  My guess is that the president's team anticipated this result a long time ago, when they decided on the composition of the commission. 

Meanwhile, the Senate today  just refused to extend the Bush tax cuts for those making under $250,000 per year.  Even though this middle class tax cut extension passed the House, and would pass the Senate also, a minority of Senators refuses to allow these tax cuts to be extended unless tax rates for the top 2% of the population are also frozen.  As I previously posted, the administration's critics on the left have been wringing their hands for weeks, raising alarm bells about how the Democrats are going to wimp out on the Bush tax cuts.  They did not wimp out.  They would have passed the bill, but for yet another illegitimate use of the filibuster by Republicans.  And the administration of course knew all along that the Republicans would do this, and knew also that they did not have 60 votes in the Senate for passing middle class tax cuts without also extending, at least for a time, the tax cuts for the rich.  Anyone who criticizes the Democrats for not taking a strong enough stand on this issue has the burden of demonstrating how they would have obtained the necessary 60 votes to extend the tax cuts for the middle class only.  I submit that they cannot do it.  So now the way is paved for a compromise proposal that will extend the middle class tax cuts without limit, and extend the tax cuts for the rich for a couple of years.  And once again the President's team seems to be playing chess while the rest of us are playing checkers, because they knew a long time ago that this was the best result they could get on this issue in the real world.  

(AP photo from LA Times)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Staying the Course

In the wake of the Democrats' "shellacking" in the November elections, there has been no shortage of advice from the press about what the president "must" do to recover.  A quick Google news search of the term "Obama must" turned up the following sampling:

 -Obama must reclaim the progressive base.  (Howard Dean)

 -Obama must move in the direction of the new Republican House majority. (Eric Cantor)

 -Obama must scare the hell out of the American people about the deficit. (Morton Kondrake)

 -Obama must focus on seniors and blue collar workers by protecting Social Security and pushing for a new stimulus package. (Martin Frost)

-Obama must cut the federal workforce, in addition to freezing their pay (Detroit News)

 -Obama must enthusiastically work with Republicans on some issues and fight them on others (Michael Waldman)

 -Obama must not extend tax cuts for the wealthy. (Florida News-Press)

 -Obama must learn to be like Clinton and back off his agenda. (Grover Norquist)

 -Obama must chose between Wall Street and Main Street. (Kos)

 -Obama must back off his liberal, statist agenda and start listening to the American people. (Cynthia Lummis)

 -Obama must battle the Republicans. (Guam P D N)

 -Obama must compromise. (Newsmax)

My advice?  President Obama should not listen to any of these people.  They can't all be right, obviously, and most of this advice just seems to reflect the particular agenda of whoever is offering the advice.  President Obama is still the most popular elected official in the country.  His approval rating, according to Gallup, is at the moment three points HIGHER than Reagan's at the same point in his presidency.  (Do I need to remind people that Reagan was re-elected in one of the largest landslides in history?)   The administration is about to complete one of the most successful legislative sessions in history, having already passed landmark legislation to stimulate the economy, reform financial regulation, and reform the health insurance industry.  The TARP program, begun under President Bush but continued by the current administration, is going to end up costing the taxpayers practically nothing.  The economy, though still sluggish and with unemployment still too high, is showing steady and continued growth.   The United States, despite the embarrassing release of a trove of diplomatic cables, is still more respected abroad than it has been in years. 

Why change course now?  The main reason the Democrats took a beating in November is that the policies they put in place--especially health care reform, the stimulus, and TARP--were highly unpopular with large segments of the American public.  Yet all these policies were necessary medicine to fix the disasters that the administration inherited.  More importantly, all these policies are working, and nobody had any viable alternatives to suggest.  If the economy continues to improve, and health care reform starts to show some benefits, people's fears about the direction we are headed will subside.

Hope and change is still the only workable agenda on the table.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Power of Negative Thinking

There is an amazing story in the New York Times business section today (reported by David Segal) about an online eyewear merchant in Brooklyn who discovered, almost by accident, a business model that defies all of the conventional rules of retailing.  He has found that if he goes out of his way to antagonize any customers who make complaints, those customers will post all kinds of negative chatter about him on the internet, which has the effect of boosting his Google search ranking.  He can afford the bad feelings he creates in customers insulted by his rude and aggressive tactics, because those disgruntled customers actually drive more traffic to his site.  It seems that people who are searching for a place to buy particular brands of eyeglass frames, don't always take the trouble to find all the bad reviews.  They just find the guy's site.

I suppose this story could be seen as yet another example of the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but that saying is not usually applied to a customer service business.  What this story really illustrates is that negativity attracts a high degree of interest on the internet.  People like to read and write bad reviews, just as people are more likely to slow down on the highway to view a car wreck than to admire pretty scenery.

A lot of the political sites I like to read, both on the left and on the right, are infected with name-calling and nastiness.  People seem to enjoy attacking one another in print, and also enjoy reading such attacks.  I'm not immune to negative feelings myself, and there is nothing I like better than a good argument.  Sometimes I'll post a provocative comment on the Huffington Post or Daily Kos just for the pleasure of reading some idiot attacking my brilliant thought.  Most of the time, however, I just find it tiresome to read the negative, hateful remarks people make on such sites.  When I created this site, I made a deliberate decision to keep the tone as positive as I could (not necessarily optimistic, just positive).   And I'm happy to say that most of the comments I receive (even those who disagree with me) seem to reflect that same spirit.   It is discouraging, though, to think that if I had created a site called Hate and Fear, instead of Hope and Change, I might have a lot more readers.  

People also respond favorably to negative political advertising, even though they claim they don't like it.  And people respond to aggressive tactics by politicians, even when they do not accomplish anything with such tactics.  A lot of Republican supporters want to see an even more uncompromising opposition party.  A lot of Obama supporters want to see the president get mad and come out swinging against his political opponents.  I don't fall into that camp, as I've discussed previously, as I think that those tactics would backfire against a president who campaigned on a different philosophy.

Anyway, according to the New York Times, the Brooklyn eyewear merchant finally seems to be experiencing a net that is slowly tightening around him, as he finds it more difficult to maintain his accounts with MasterCard and eBay, and as even Google and perhaps even the police may eventually catch on to him.  We would all like to think that maintaining good customer relations is more beneficial to a business's reputation than mistreating one's customers, just as we would like to think that hope wins out over fear, and love conquers hate.

(David G. Klein illustration from the New York Times)

UPDATE (12/1/01):  Google claims it has already fixed the problem.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Be careful out there!

Today the president took an elbow in the lip in a basketball game and received 12 stitches.  A few months ago, I tripped and dropped a platter outside my house, in the process slicing my thumb, which required . . . 12 stitches!  For more weird coincidences between my life and Barack Obama's, go to the page on this site called Barack Obama and me

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Has Sarah Palin jumped the shark?

Has Sarah Palin finally gone too far, suggesting that the government has no business trying to educate families about healthy food choices and the benefits of exercise?    This week, Palin called into the Laura Ingraham radio show attacking Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign as unwarranted government interference into people's lives.  
Take her anti-obesity thing that she's on. She is on this kick, right. What she is telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat.
And I know I'm going to be again criticized for bringing this up, but instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us according to some politician or politician's wife priorities, just leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions and then our country gets back on the right track.
Palin thus cleverly spins what is the most wholesome and traditional type of First Lady activity, one that is designed to promote public health, not at all unlike such past causes as Nancy Reagan's "just say no" anti-drug campaign, into some kind of evil government plot to interfere with families' "God-given rights" to make decisions.  In the process she attempts to tarnish the image of the president's family, despite her protestations during the 2008 campaign of any questions or perceived attacks on her own family.

If you follow the implications of what Palin is saying to their logical conclusion, she is really attacking the whole idea of public education, indeed the whole idea of government attempting to do anything to make people's lives better.  Because if it is an unwarranted interference with family decision-making to promote exercise and healthy eating, how much more of an interference is any kind of public education system?   Not to mention any other public health or safety regulations, from the Environmental Protection Agency to vehicle and traffic regulations, to meat inspection, or to the FDA's regulation of pharmaceutical products.  All of these activities interfere with families' "God-given rights" to decide how to live or raise their children.  In fact, they all interfere with our activities a lot more than Michelle Obama trying to get kids to exercise and eat more nutritional meals. 

Or maybe Sarah Palin is just standing up for the right of Americans to be fat and ignorant if they choose.  Maybe her criticisms are designed to feed into the resentment of many Americans at being told they should try to improve their health and work on their education, into our anxieties at falling behind in the global competition.   Maybe people need to be reassured that if we would only follow the advice of Sarah Palin and others attempting to attack the legitimacy of government, and take matters of educating and protecting our families completely into our own hands, we can be proud of belonging to a nation of fat, lazy, ignorant, selfish and armed-to-the-teeth free Americans.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(In addition to the Huffington Post piece linked above, check out more coverage of this incident at Obama Foodorama, a really terrific blog on all things connected with the Obamas and food.)

UPDATE (11/26/10):  On the other hand, I must rise in defense of Sarah Palin on this whole "North Korea" flap.  (saying our North Korean allies when she meant to say our South Korean allies)  I'm not defending her childish counter-attack on  Obama's slips of the tongue, but I do think it was dumb to make anything out of hers.  Sometimes a mis-statement can reveal a politician's ignorance or true thoughts.  This one did not.  We don't need to dwell on Sarah Palin's petty mis-steps.  There is plenty to talk about if we just stick to the things she means to say.