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Archive for the ‘Stupid Senate’ Category

Maybe Lindsey is Right

Monday, April 26th, 2010

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Yesterday, in the context of criticizing a dumb Thomas Friedman column, I more or less took for granted that Lindsey Graham’s threat to abandon working with Democrats on climate change if they took up immigration reform next was evidence of bad faith, especially since Graham has been supportive of the immigration reform effort. Jon Chait doesn’t see it that way:

Hypocrisy? Well, sure. But it seems unfair to accuse him of having “negotiated in bad faith.” Graham has been painstakingly attempting to assemble a political and business coalition for legislation to mitigate climate change. He has also been working on immigration reform, but the Democrats’ weak signals of interest before last week have helped contribute to an atmosphere where nobody expected a bill to advance this year, and thus little headway has been made. There has been no House immigration bill, whereas the House has passed a climate bill already. Graham was set to unveil his bill on Monday when Harry Reid pulled the carpet out from under him by announcing that immigration would come first and climate — which gets harder to do as the elections gets closer — probably never.

Yglesias, Ezra, and Drum all  more or less agree.

For my part, for the sake of not getting stuck on a somewhat minor point, I’ll assume Graham is, indeed, working with Democrats in good faith here, and really does want to see some sort of action on climate this year, and he’s angry because he feels Reid has decided not to go that route, essentially hanging him out to dry. It’s understandable, in a way, but at the same time, that just makes Graham’s tantrum more bizarre. After all, if Graham really wants to achieve something on climate but thinks Democratic leadership has decided against it, the last thing it would make sense for Graham to do is bail on the effort. That doesn’t make action on climate more likely, and gives Democrats an angle to blame Republicans for the lack of action on climate. In every way, it makes it less likely that climate legislation will be taken up this year, if you assume that Graham means it at least.

The key point here is the last paragraph in Ezra’s post. We sort of take it for granted that Congress can only handle one issue at a time, but there’s no reason that has to be true. Graham is ostensibly supportive of both climate legislation and immigration reform, and if he remains committed to getting something done on either or both fronts this year, he can let Harry Reid know that he’d like for work to be done on both. Reid is backing off somewhat today in the face of the amount of work that’s already been done on climate, as well as Graham’s threat, I’d imagine, but if there’s a Republican or two committed to working with the Democrats on one, or both, issues, there’s no reason something can’t be done on climate and immigration this year.

Why Is The Mustache Getting Paid?

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

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Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times today is just gob-smackingly stupid. That’s fairly normal for Friedman, of course, but today’s is a real doozy even by his standards. Here’s how he opens:

I’ve been trying to understand the Tea Party Movement. Sounds like a lot of angry people who want to get the government out of their lives and cut both taxes and the deficit. Nothing wrong with that — although one does wonder where they were in the Bush years. Never mind. I’m sure like all such protest movements the Tea Partiers will get their 10 to 20 percent of the vote. But should the Tea Partiers actually aspire to break out of that range, attract lots of young people and become something more than just entertainment for Fox News, I have a suggestion:

Become the Green Tea Party.
Oh no, it gets even dumber:

The manifesto is easy, too: “We, the Green Tea Party, believe that the most effective way to advance America’s national security and economic vitality would be to impose a $10 “Patriot Fee” on every barrel of imported oil, with all proceeds going to pay down our national debt.”

This is just beyond stupid. For one, there’s the name. Do you really see the right-wing calling themselves the “green tea” anything? The people who use arugala and dijon mustard as short-hand for effete elitism now? Yeah, didn’t think so. But more than that, this just kind of ignores the fact that, you know, the teabaggers are the right-wing. They don’t care about the climate. They don’t believe in global warming. They’re the assholes who tell you how they’re going to leave all their lights on or drive around as much as they can in their SUV on Earth Day for the sheer joy of being assholes. And, oh yeah, they’re not big fans of taxes either. I suppose Friedman would probably argue that his “Patriot Fee” isn’t a tax, but good luck getting them to buy it. But what’s extra confounding is that Friedman concedes that he knows this is all stupid nonsense:

Yes, I know, dream on. The Tea Party is heading to the hard libertarian right and would never support an energy bill that puts a fee on carbon.

Ok, so you just wasted 300 words. Awesome. What’s the point then?

So if there is going to be a Green Tea Party, it will have to emerge from a different place — the radical center, a center committed to a radical departure from business as usual. Acting on that impulse, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman had forged a bipartisan climate/energy/jobs bill that deserves an energetic centrist Green Tea Party to support it.

This critical piece of energy legislation was supposed to be unveiled by the three senators on Monday, but it was suddenly postponed late Saturday because of Senator Graham’s fury that the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the White House were planning to take up a highly controversial immigration measure before the energy bill.

If this is what the Obama administration is doing — to score a few cheap political points with Hispanics — it is a travesty. The bipartisan energy bill is ready to go. It is far from perfect. Indeed, it is a shame the fossil fuel industries still have such a stranglehold on Congress. But it’s the best we’re going to get, and we have got to get started. However, without a centrist Green Tea Party movement — one that brings the same passion to cutting emissions that the Tea Party brings to cutting deficits — even this effort will never pass.

A couple of things here. First of all, what the hell would a “radical center” even look like? The center, by definition, is defined by other points. So a “radical” center, I suppose, would dogmatically insist on plopping itself right in the middle of the left and the right and refusing to move? Or refusing to acknowledge that maybe being precisely in the middle isn’t the right place to be? I mean, where does one find the middle of something like the debate over whether or not to invade Iraq? Declare that they won’t support invading Iraq, but that they could get behind invading the Ivory Coast? It’s all very confusing to me, as these poorly thought out pieces of pretension from writers like Friedman usually are. But I digress.

The other problem here is that this is just drastically ignorant of the underlying politics. Lindsay Graham has, in the past, been a supporter of immigration reform efforts. He’s touted his support for comprehensive immigration reform, in fact. There’s no obvious reason why moving forward with legislation on that issue should cause him to drop support for another worthwhile bill he’s supported. It’s a naked political ploy by Graham to turn his back on the bill, and gum up two Democratic initiatives at the same time ahead of the election. If Democrats acquiesce and shelve immigration reform, Graham will just find another reason to oppose the bill, the same way he used the passage of healthcare reform to pivot to a position of being unable to support immigration reform anymore. But then, even if Democrats do go ahead with immigration reform and climate legislation, it doesn’t really make much sense to blame them for Graham’s temper tantrum. Lindsay Graham is a big boy. He’s a United States Senator fergawdsake. And, at best, he’s using his potential support for a bill he ostensibly supports, regarding an issue he ostensibly recognizes as being vitally important, to ransom the very large Senate majority into dropping another item on their agenda. That’s despicable behavior, particularly if you actually believe Graham appreciates how serious climate issues are. And yet, Friedman is chastising the majority over it, rather than calling out the United States Senator acting like a psychopathic adolescent.

I don’t really expect major newspaper columnists to write intelligent things anymore, but it still puzzles me why publications that seem to regard themselves seriously, like the Times, pays people who seem to know nothing about American politics to write about the subject on such valuable space. Especially if they’re having financial problems.

McCain the Maverick as a Character Issue

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

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Responding to Jill Lawrence’s observation that, despite John McCain’s claims in the 2008 Presidential campaing, it’s Barack Obama who is making decisions that are angering his party’s base, while a primary challenge from the right has McCain abandoning his previous “Mavericky” positions and toeing the GOP line, Chait writes:

Lawrence ticks off numerous examples. Now, to be sure, the difference is mostly in the positions the two men find themselves in: Obama needs to deal with a Senate where conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans hold swing votes, and McCain is fending off a right-wing primary challenge. Still, acknowledging that fact itself undermines McCain’s contention that his breaks with his party, most of them occurring from 2000-2003, were a mark of character. If they were a mark of character, then his current behavior suggests that McCain lacks character. But I think the evidence suggests that reading characterological traits into “maverick” votes is, at best, a wildly overstated exercise.

That’s true enough, if you assume the mavericky votes were honest expressions of McCain’s idiosyncracy. If, instead, you view them as votes primarily cast in opposition to George W. Bush in a fit of pique by the man Bush beat in a nasty GOP primary, then they make a lot of sense as a manifestation of characterological traits; they paint the picture of a man who is unusually petty and prone to pique, a view that makes even more sense when you consider that McCain was already abandoning his independent persona before J.D. Hayworth announced his challenge when it presented a chance to oppose the administration. And considering that McCain was a pretty down-the-line conservative Senator prior to 2001, I maintain this is the best way to understand John McCain’s professional evolution.

In other news, McCain is also claiming that even if Republicans can’t repeal the ACA because they can’t get past a Presiential veto, that’s okay, they’ll just refuse to fund it. The problem is that most of the spending is mandatory spending, not discretionary spending, which means the funding is automatically ppropriated year to year, and changing that would require passing a new law. Which serves as a nice reminder that on top of being a uniquely petty, crotchety old man, McCain also knows nothing about governanve, budgeting, or Congressional procedure, despite having spent nearly 3 decades in Congress.

New Terms Needed For Unprecedented Circumstances

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

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To be succinct, I agree with everything Scott Lemieux says about the Op-Ed in The New York Times by Barry Friedman and Andrew Martin. I would add though that what seems to be the biggest problem with the column is that the writers really don’t seem to have any idea how a filibuster works. And the same can be said for anyone whose idea for breaking filibusters is to actually make the minority talk endlessly.

The confusion, I think, stems from the use of the word filibuster itself. Basically people think of the filibuster as one person talking endlessly to try to run out the clock on a motion. But that’s not what Senate minorities are doing now by voting against cloture motions and denying unanimous consent. Basically, the issue is that the Senate has only two ways to end debate and proceed with business; unanimous consent and cloture. If they fail to get either one, they can’t close debate on a question to proceed to a vote. What Republicans are doing is denying consent to move on with business, and since you need a supermajority to do that, the motion fails. It makes no difference whether anyone is talking or not. This is a distinction a lot of people miss, and even have a hard time grasping after you explain it to them, and I think it’s because they can’t get past the term “filibuster” itself. But what’s going on isn’t a filibuster, it’s an unprecedented willingness by the minority to prevent the Senate from conducting business. I think a new term to denote this new practice would help create better public understanding of what’s going on.

Evan Bayh Wants Me To Like Him, Can’t Quite Seal the Deal

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

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I guess I’ll add my voice to the chorus of writers with an interest in Congressional reform offering praise to Evan Bayh’s guest Op-Ed in yesterday New York Times. Not only does Bayh identify issues like the filibuster and campaign finance demands as major obstacles to functioning governance, he actually brings proposals to reform them. He doesn’t go as far as I’d like, which is to say I think his ideas are still sub-optimal, but they’re a step in the right direction, which is better than nothing.

However, Bayh being, well, Evan Bayh, he just can’t resist indulging in the elitist/centrist wankery of yearning for the comity of yore. You see a lot of this in the commentary from the Broderian circle of Beltway pundits, and the implicit premise is that partisan identification is basically arbitrary, and of no more significance than, say, which football team you root for. It’s as though they really do imagine there’s some singular, obvious, solution to the problem, and the only thing preventing it from being enacted is partisan squabbling, with the solution being that everyone should “put politics aside” and agree on things. Completely foreign to this worldview, of course, is the idea that partisan identification actually says things abouta persons beliefs, values, and ideological convictions. It doesn’t recognize that people actually disagree about issues, or that that these differences are sometimes irreconcialable. It is, in other words, the way someone without a single deeply held conviction, or a sense of purpose about issues, would look at politics. And for as much as I might want to credit the guy for calling attention to the problems in the Senate, I just can’t get over that such emptiness really is the essence of Evan Bayh’s being.

The Point of No Return

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

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I guess you could classify this as a lack of civility:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lacks the votes to begin debating his targeted jobs bill, according to sources monitoring the legislation.

Reid needs 60 votes to open debate on the $15 billion jobs bill. The vote is scheduled for Monday, when lawmakers return from the Presidents Day recess.

“I understand Reid does not have the votes for cloture on Monday on his jobs bill,” one source said.
A Reid spokesman said the vote is in the hands of Republicans. Democrats have 59 senators in their conference.

What this underscores is the simple fact that whether you attribute the rise of the filibuster to a breakdown in comity amongst Senators or a rational response to systemic incentives, we’re to the point where there just isn’t any way to reasonably expect a return to the old social norms of the Senate. The minority has gotten to the point where they’re potentially willing to prevent the majority from even considering bills the majority party would like to pass, and they’re also in a position to benefit from that obstruction electorally. There may have been a time when the prevailing norm of Senate cuture was to eschew the potential rewards of blocking everything on the majority’s agenda, but those days are clearly gone. The minority recognizes that they have both the incentive and the means to keep the minority from doing anything, and they’ve decided they’re willing to excercise that ability. It’s just incredibly naive to imagine that things can go back to the way they were so long as the filibuster rule exists.

There’s No Defending Bayh

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

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I guess I should be happy enough that Evan Bayh has decided to take the occassion of his retiring in the face of Congressional dysfunction to call out the filibuster, but like apparently everyone else I can only muster one reaction; if Bayh thinks this is so serious, why isn’t he staying around to change things? Like everything else in Bayh’s political career, it’s a nice sounding quote that makes him look serious about tackling problems, but when push comes to shove he’s just not interested in tangling himself up in the nuts and bolts of doing anything legislatively. You can say similar things about this “defense” of Bayh from Jon Alter:

I’m not sure people realize just how much the failure of health care demoralized Evan Bayh. As I learned in reporting for my upcoming book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, out in May, White House aides David Axelrod and Jim Messina visited the Senate just before the August recess last year and left feeling much better after hearing from Bayh. He made them feel that the politics of getting reelected demanded passage of the bill, which at the time looked iffy. “We’re all screwed if you don’t get something real on health care,” Bayh told them. This made Axelrod and Messina think that the moderates would be on board.

That’s nice and all, but it leads to an obvious question: if Bayh thought healthcare reform was so important, why didn’t he stand up and fight for it? After all, the process would have been helped immensely by having someone with Bayh’s centrist credentials with the establishment press defending the effort and voicing full support for reform. Especially when the Senate was deliberating over the bill, a strong defense from Bayh actually could have made a big difference. Except, Bayh was basically silent on healthcare reform. So color me less impressed than Alter. And consider most of my impressions of Bayh reinforced; he’s a lazy, disinterested office holder who was only interested in being a legislator to the extent it helped him become President. He was never interested in doing anything with the office. Hell, his name wasn’t even on the vaunted budget commission he’s reportedly pissed didn’t clear a Senate vote. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg did the lifting on that.

It’s the Filibuster Stupid

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

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When you ask people what the problems with the Senate is, you get a lot of typical answers; the loss of comity, partisanship, ideological polarization, etc. And those things all may contribute to what’s going on, but at the end of the day the problem begins and ends with the filibuster. Not getting along with the other side or imagining them to be acting in bad faith doesn’t really add to the problem, if anything it may help the problem to a degree. After all, if everyone is a good faith actor who honestly believes they have good ideas for the country, then by extension they must believe that the other sides ideas,no matter how well meaning, are at least less good for the country. How can good faith actors cast votes to help pass an agenda they thin is bad for the country? So even if everyone is nice to each other, and even in th unlikely circumstance that members of the minority set aside electoral concerns entirely, you’re still basically hoping that members of the minority will help pass policy the simply don’t agree with. The presumption is absurd, of course, unless you imagine that political disagreement doesn’t really exist, except as a side-effect of “partisanship and polarization,” which seems to be a common undercurrent in Beltway-establishment commentary. But whichever way you want to look at it, the problem is the say; the minority has the procedural ability to keep the majority from passing legislation altogether. Whether they’re cravenly looking to bolster their electoral fortunes or simply honestly believe the bill in question is bad policy (and obviously those motives are not mutually exclusive) is beside the point.

Voters Don’t Really Pay Attention

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

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by Brien Jackson

I liked Krugman’s column from yesterday quite a bit, but this blurb here is a good example of a tendency in political writing that really irks me:

The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session.

Don’t hold your breath. As it is, Democrats don’t even seem able to score political points by highlighting their opponents’ obstructionism.

It should be a simple message (and it should have been the central message in Massachusetts): a vote for a Republican, no matter what you think of him as a person, is a vote for paralysis. But by now, we know how the Obama administration deals with those who would destroy it: it goes straight for the capillaries. Sure enough, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, accused Mr. Shelby of “silliness.” Yep, that will really resonate with voters.

First of all let me say that I’m very much unconvinced that Gibbs didn’t have exactly the right approach. As someone who has spent some time writing and talking about procedural issues and problems with the Senate, I can pretty confidently say that it’s very, very, difficult to get people outraged about it. Getting someone to agree that the Senate and its rules are ridiculous is one thing, but generating a legitimate, emotional, response of outrage is basically impossible. People just don’t know/care that much about it, and it’s not a visible, visceral issue.

But beyond that, a larger problem with this argument is that it assumes “voters” are paying attention to this which, of course, they aren’t. How many voters are going to see the WH press briefing at all? How many of them care about Senate procedure? Hell, most political junkies/writers/bloggers can’t accurately explain the mechanism of how a hold works, you really think the White House is going to turn it into a winning issue simply by framing it right?

And the reason this irks me is that it’s symptomatic of a larger trend in progressive commentary, which seems to be to assume that the problem is that we just can’t get the messaging right. That the White House and Congressional leadership just won’t say the right thing, and that we know exactly how they need to frame it. This is a very silly, simplified way of looking at some very difficult problems for progressive politics, and pretending that the problem is that political actors won’t read your script, and that American voters are paying far more attention to the minute turns of language at the WHPB, simply isn’t going to help us figure out a solution to those hurdles.

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