Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tyranny of the Majority?

In their last ditch effort to scuttle health insurance reform, Republicans now charge that using reconciliation to pass amendments to the bill, presumably after the House passes its version of the Senate bill, would somehow represent a threat to the United States Senate.  Senator Alexander went so far as to claim that using reconciliation to pass a bill "of this size and magnitude and complexity" would "be the end of the Senate as a protector of minority rights."  Senator Alexander seems to forget that this ship has already sailed.  The large and complex health insurance bill has already passed the Senate in December, after one of the longest debates in history, and extensive public hearings by three different committees.  And it passed by a margin of 60 to 40.  It might have passed by an even larger margin if the Republicans had not made a strategic decision to stand united in opposition for political reasons.  (Recall that Senator Snowe supported the bill in committee then refused to vote for the final bill after being pressured by her Republican colleagues.)

So where exactly is the threat to democracy or minority rights represented by passage of health care legislation?  The reconciliation threat the Republicans are talking up now is only being talked about for some relatively minor changes to a mammoth bill that has already passed by a margin that nobody has a right to complain about.  It is just wrong to say that reconciliation is being proposed for a bill of unusual size and magnitude and complexity.  The bill already passed after a cloture vote, by a super-majority.  Not to mention, as the cited ThinkProgress article points out, that reconciliation has been used numerous times in the past by Republicans when they held the Senate majority, for much larger measures than the health care law changes the Democrats may intend to make. 

And let's not rewrite history by citing the supposedly glorious history of the Senate as a protector of minority rights.  In fact, the history of the Senate's use of the filibuster has mainly been a shameful history that resulted in the denial of civil rights to millions of Americans for many decades, not to mention many other reforms that have died in the Senate.  The Senate has never protected any minority rights other than the rights of a minority of its members to attempt to thwart the will of the voters. 

(Lamar Alexander photo from Tennessee Guy; photo of Strom Thurmond from Senate history website describing his record-setting speech in opposition to Civil Rights legislation in 1957)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bi-Partisanship in the Senate

Here is an example of why it might be a good thing that the Democrats no longer control 60 seats in the Senate.  When Democrats held a supposedly "filibuster-proof" majority, the Republicans could and did filibuster practically everything, requiring the Democrats to take full responsibility (and blame) for every bill passed or not passed by Congress, and allowing the Republicans the luxury of being able to sit back and reap the benefits of any perception among their constituents that the Obama agenda has not created an instant utopia.  But now, with the election of Scott Brown and the Democrats down to 59 votes in the Senate, the Republicans now must take responsibility (and blame) for any Democratic-backed bill that they do not allow to a vote.

So when a popular bill like a jobs bill comes down the pike, Republicans are not going to gain too many political points by filibustering it.  Today five--count 'em, five--Republican Senators voted for cloture to allow the jobs bill to come to the floor for a vote:  Scott Brown, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Kit Bond, and George Voinovich.    Harry Reid was elated of course, saying:  "I hope this is the beginning of a new day here in the Senate."  So welcome to bi-partisanship in Congress.

Not to brag too much, but I did predict a long time ago that there could be some benefits for the Democrats in controlling less than a 60 vote majority, and some dangers in having 60 votes.  We have now seen what happens when you try to rule Congress with a supposedly unbreakable majority that still required you to please people like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman.  You end up with health care legislation that the House is not too crazy about, and with both liberals and conservatives mad at you.  The alternative of having to attract only a few votes from a larger group of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans may actually give the Democrats more and better options, and may produce more defensible outcomes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Global Warming Disproved!

There is no need to study climate science for years to be an expert on global warming and get quoted in the papers. No need to waste your time doing research or conducting experiments. You just have to know what you're talking about, like Donald Trump, for example. Trump demonstrated at a recent speech at a golf club in Westchester that this winter's severe snowstorms have disproved the theory of global warming! The Nobel Committee should take back Al Gore's prize, says Trump. So how does Trump know that the whole theory of global warming is bogus? He just knows it, ok? Hey, look out the window. It's snowing, get it? So how can there be global warming if it's snowing out? Answer that one, Al Gore.

Maybe all these scientists who continue to say that global warming is happening don't have windows. Maybe they are so busy cooped up in their laboratories that they don't even realize it is cold outside this winter. Maybe they should spend less time doing experiments and measuring glaciers, and just stick their noses outside and they would realize that winter still exists. Maybe they should just listen to the Donald Trumps and Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks, and the people like that who really understand climate science.

So what if some stubborn meteorologists are still trying to trot out their ridiculous theories that even though it is snowing the earth is still getting warmer. Some of them even suggest that the heavy snowstorms in the Eastern United States this year were caused by global warming! Doesn't that prove that these scientists are just completely lacking in common sense? I mean, if the earth is getting warmer, how could it be snowing? You don't exactly need a weatherman to know that it is snowing, do you?

So I guess we can all stop worrying about global warming now. What a relief. Of course if we have a heat wave this summer, maybe Fox News will say that those high temperatures are caused by increasing concentrations of CO2.  No, I'm sure they will have another explanation for the heat. After all, they must be experts. Nobody would let a bunch of idiots go on TV and just make up stuff, would they?

(National Geographic photo)

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Health Insurance Show

The president announced over the weekend plans to hold a bipartisan session to discuss moving health care legislation forward. Minority Whip Eric Cantor is reported to have responded that "unless the President and Speaker Pelosi are willing to scrap their government take over and hit the reset button, there’s not much to talk about." Further, "Republicans have offered the only plan, that will lower health care costs, which is what the President said was the goal at the start of this debate." The Republican leadership followed up these comments with a letter seeming to demand that the Democrats admit that their whole effort to reform the health care system was a mistake and agree to start over, otherwise Republicans may not participate.

To enter a negotiation saying that the Democrats' plan (versions of which have already passed BOTH the House and the Senate, and need only to be reconciled to become law) is unacceptable, and the minority plan is the "only" acceptable plan, does not sound like a promising way to kick off a genuine bi-partisan debate. Either the Republicans are merely posturing, and some may eventually support a revised bill, or they are still just trying to kill reform.

On the Democrats' side, one has to guess that their plan is either to push or cajole some Republicans into supporting the eventual bill, or more likely, to expose the Republican opposition as unable to meet the administration's announced criteria for reform. Either way, the Democrats hope to increase public support for the health insurance overhaul, which will provide Congressional Democrats with enough cover that they will be able to vote for the final bill without undue fear of losing their seats. Thus for both sides, actually making a deal with the opposition may be a secondary goal to influencing public opinion. That means we should not expect the upcoming meetings to be conducted like a real negotiation, but should instead view them as an educational exercise for the public. What other kind of debate would we expect to see in an election year?  We might as well sit back and enjoy the show.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How that Hopey Changey Thing is Working Out for Me

Sarah Palin's keynote speech at the tea party convention asked Obama supporters exactly how that hopey changey thing is workin' out for us.  Given the title of this blog, I feel an obligation to respond.  From a purely selfish point of view, I could look at the 27% return my retirement account achieved last year, making up a substantial part of the losses I sustained in the market collapse of 2008.  Looking at the economy more broadly, we see a growth rate of about 6% in the last quarter as opposed to a decline of about the same amount around the time President Obama took office.  The economy is still losing jobs, but at a much, much slower rate than a year ago.  General Motors and Chrysler are still in business, as are the major banks, when a year ago many thought these institutions would collapse and send the nation into a second Great Depression.  Instead we seem to be in the early phases of a recovery.  The housing market is still weak, but prices have finally stabilized and appear to be heading back up.  States are facing substantial budgetary problems, but those would have been a lot worse without the relief to the states that the stimulus bill provided.

I am pleased that the president appointed a progressive, well-qualified judge to the Supreme Court, in addition to his many well-qualified Cabinet and other appointments.  I am thrilled that we have a constitutional law professor in the White House, and tea party supporters should be also, given that they claim to have so much respect for the Constitution.

I was proud that the president was able to get the UN Security Council to agree unanimously to reduce nuclear weapons, reached out to the Muslim world and helped start a counter-revolution in Iran, and that he won the Nobel Peace Prize.  I am satisfied that we are on a more sensible course in Iraq and Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that we have regained the support of our NATO allies.  I see progress in respect of human rights both at home and abroad. I am also proud that the United States is once again ranked as the most admired country in the world.

I am worried, however, about whether Congress will follow through with health care reform legislation after the tremendous achievement of passing significant reform through both the House and Senate, something no previous president has achieved.  Premiums for the health insurance I provide for my office employee have been skyrocketing and threaten to escalate further under our current system. I am disappointed that the opposition party has taken such a negative attitude toward everything, instead of trying to work constructively toward solving pressing problems, but I am encouraged by the president's recent efforts in his State of the Union message and his talk with Congressional Republicans, to engage in a positive dialogue. I am still afraid of the hate and fear and lies being spread by the right, and of a lot of the negativity on the left. I am concerned about whether we are doing enough to deal with worsening environmental problems.  But for the most part the hopey changey thing seems to be heading in the right direction, and thank you very much for your concern, Sarah.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Republicans vs. the Military

Steve Benen commented yesterday in the Washington Monthly on how remarkable it is that Republican political leaders increasingly seem to find themselves at odds with the judgment of top military commanders.  General Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates say that terrorists should be tried in federal court, not before military commissions.  Senator McConnell disagrees.  These same military leaders support closing Guantanamo; most Republican politicians oppose it.  The military opposes the use of torture; many politicians continue to advocate torture.  Then there was Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, testifying forcefully yesterday in support of repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.  Most conservative politicians continue to oppose changing this policy.  Perhaps these criticisms just represent the Republicans' shift from being the defenders of the past administration, to the opponents of the current administration, but this change in role sometimes veers into blatant hypocrisy, such as when Republican leaders like Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani, attacked the Obama Justice Department for reading the underwear bomber his rights, and preparing for trial in civilian court, when the Bush administration treated the shoe bomber the same way. 

When Republican politicians start criticizing the Pentagon brass, however, something stranger is going on.  As Benen states:
Keep in mind, it wasn't too terribly long ago that Democratic politicians simply weren't supposed to say that Petraeus, Gates, and intelligence leaders were wrong about national security matters. Indeed, for Dems to say that they knew better than Petraeus, Gates, and intelligence leaders -- that their judgment was superior to military leaders' -- was grounds for mockery, if not condemnation.

And yet, Obama has spent a year following the guidance of military leaders, and Republicans have spent a year breaking with the judgment of the military establishment.

It's a fascinating dynamic. On everything from civilian trials to Gitmo to torture, we have two distinct groups -- GOP leaders, the Cheneys, Limbaugh, and conservative activists on one side; President Obama, Gen. Petraeus, Secretary Gates, Colin Powell, Adm. Mullen, Adm. Blair, and Gen. Jones on the other.

Remember when Move-On had the audacity to take out ads criticizing General Petraeus before he testified before Congress on the surge policy in Iraq? Congress fell all over itself, not to have an honest debate about the validity of the criticisms, but to condemn this organization for daring to criticize a distinguished general.

Of course I'm not saying that anyone should question the patriotism or the judgment of a politician, just because he finds himself in disagreement with military experts. The whole point of civilian control of the military is to make sure the judgment of military commanders is subservient to the democratic process. I'm just saying that it is . . . interesting, that many of those who did question the patriotism of past dissenters during the Iraq war, and who did argue that we must follow the views of the generals on the ground, now feel free to criticize some of those same generals, and feel no need to explain why their past deference has changed.

(New York Times photo)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Elder Bush Pays a Visit.


Here we see a nice illustration of the difference between old school casual (blazer, grey slacks and tie) and new school casual (suit with no tie).

(White House photos on Flickr)