Pushed Too Far

Remember the old comic book ad in which a bully kicks sand in the face of a skinny guy, and the skinny kid takes a Charles Atlas course, muscles up, and comes back to flatten his tormenter?

I think Harry Reid took that course!

Yesterday, Reid invoked the “nuclear option,” changing the Senate’s rules in order to permit most Presidential nominees to be approved by a simple majority.

If you are old enough, you may remember when such majority rule was the rule. The filibuster–a procedural mechanism devised by the Senate itself and found nowhere in the Constitution–was until recently employed only rarely, and usually by a Senator who actually filibustered, a Senator who talked until he could no longer hold out. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats used it more frequently, but it was only with the election of Barack Obama that things got seriously out of hand.

As media reports have confirmed, early in the Obama Administration, Congressional Republicans decided to block any and all measures coming from the White House. The merits of the proposals, the bona fides of nominees, the desires of the electorate–none of those things would matter. And they would no longer bother to actually filibuster–they’d just say “we’re filibustering, so you need sixty votes” to pass this bill or confirm this nominee.

There’s a Yiddish word for that: chutzpah. 

The GOP’s goal was simple: deny this President any victory, no matter how small, no matter how good for the country, no matter if the proposal had originally been their own.

Case in point: Lawyers and judges have pleaded with lawmakers to fill the mounting  and unprecedented vacancies that have slowed justice to a crawl and brought business to a halt in many of the nation’s federal courts. Legal organizations and the ABA have sounded the alarm. No matter. Senate Republicans have kept focused on their primary mission: say No to this President.

They finally pushed the Democrats too far.

Reid’s reluctance to “go nuclear” has been clear for some time. But it  finally became obvious even to him that the alternative was another three years of stalemate, another three years of national drift, of getting virtually nothing done.

The Constitution requires a simple majority vote to pass bills and confirm most nominees. Except in a few specific instances, it does not require a super-majority. And yet, for the past five years, the GOP’s constant abuse of the filibuster has effectively required a super-majority for even the most mundane and previously uncontroversial actions.

The Party of No has used the filibuster to throw sand in the gears of the Senate–as a way to refuse to do the people’s business so long as Obama occupies the White House. Senate Republican leadership made a calculation: they would stand united to ensure the failure of the hated (black/Kenyan/Muslim) Obama, and the Democrats wouldn’t have the balls to go nuclear.

It was a reasonable bet, but it turned out to be wrong.

The skinny weakling grew a pair.



Balance of Power

The Newtown parents have recently reminded us that ordinary citizens with a compelling story can move policy, even in Washington. They were able to do what even the President could not: prevent a filibuster by Republican Representatives intent upon blocking action. The filibuster threat wilted in the face of bereaved mothers and fathers–a different kind of lobbyist from the pin-striped suits with whom they are familiar.

There are many lessons we might draw from this episode, but something Dana Milbank wrote in a column about the parents struck me. He noted that “Hockley [one of the mothers] and her peers succeeded precisely because they weren’t the usual actors following the usual script. ‘At the start of the week I didn’t even know what a filibuster was,’ Hockley told me Thursday beneath the cherry blossoms outside the Hart Senate Office Building.”

And therein lies a lesson for us all.

I don’t know how many citizens have no idea what a filibuster is, or how it has been used and abused. We know that only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government; if I had to guess, I’d wager fewer than 10% could explain the filibuster. Could a population that knew the basic structure of our government, a citizenry that actually followed events in the nation’s capital, change the nation’s trajectory? Could they marry righteous wrath to informed participation, and end the petty game-playing and toxic power struggles that increasingly characterize our government?

The Newtown parents had to understand the filibuster in order to prevent one from blocking the action they supported.

Knowledge really is power. No matter how uneven the contest between ordinary citizens and moneyed interests, people armed with information and determination can make a huge difference.

When the only people who understand the system are those who use it to their own advantage, however, it’s no contest.


This Has Gone Too Far….

The news that Senate Republicans plan to filibuster the President’s nomination of (Republican) Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary ought to be the final straw.

Harry Reid clearly allowed himself to be punked, settling for a toothless agreement with Mitch McConnell rather than the genuine reform of the much-abused filibuster that he promised. And we are all paying a high price for his fecklessness.

I understand the legitimate use of that legislative weapon to prevent a majority from running roughshod over the minority. But in its current form, the filibuster is being used by a minority–by partisans whose positions were emphatically rejected by the electorate–to defeat virtually every effort undertaken by a popularly-elected majority. As a result, government has been brought to a standstill. Nothing can be done unless a super-majority vote can be rounded up–and finding sixty votes in a Senate occupied by too many small-minded, mean-spirited partisan hacks is no easy task.

At the very least, those who want to bring government to a halt should have to stand on the Senate floor and actually talk. It should not be enough for the minority members to raise their little pinkies and announce that they are “virtually” filibustering, so please go f#*#k yourself.

The intransigence of these GOP Senators has cost this country dearly during the recent economic meltdown. For every bad idea they’ve blocked, we’ve lost many more opportunities to improve the lives of middle-class Americans, to strengthen our crumbling infrastructure, to create jobs and take measures to protect the environment.

The federal legislative system is designed to work on the principle of majority rule.  A majority of those who have been elected to represent the voters is supposed to determine what laws will be enacted. That doesn’t mean that Senators who oppose legislation cannot express that opposition forcefully in their floor speeches and their votes. It does mean that when the minority party consistently refuses to allow an up-and-down majority vote, that party isn’t just blocking particular measures: it is undermining American government–and it is becoming increasingly clear that destroying the capacity to govern is not an incidental or unintended consequence of these tactics; it is the real reason for them. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Presidential nominees have never been filibustered.  Even John McCain–who has made his contempt for the man who defeated him quite plain– has argued against such an unprecedented move. If the Republicans want to vote against Hagel’s confirmation, fine. That is clearly their prerogative–although, as Dick Lugar has maintained, there should be a rebuttable presumption that the executive is entitled to his choice of those he wants populating his administration. Preventing an up-and-down vote simply because they can–motivated by spite, anti-government fervor and a level of partisanship that dwarfs anything previously seen–is beyond reprehensible. It is beyond irresponsible.

It’s despicable and profoundly unAmerican. And it needs to stop.


Checks, Balances and Legislative Absences

Yesterday, my sister asked me when I was going to blog about the Democratic “departure” from Indiana’s legislative session. She was the fourth person to ask me that.

I haven’t addressed our legislative impasse, largely because I am conflicted about it.

The walkout as a tactic has much in common with the U.S. Senate filibuster; both are intended to provide a check on the power of majorities to ride roughshod over the interests of a legislative minority. Both are legitimate IF–and it’s a big if–they are properly and judiciously employed. In the case of the filibuster, I support the “old-time” version (the Jimmy Stewart version, if you will), where Senators actually stood up on the chamber’s floor and talked–and talked. Filibustered. I do not support the current version, where the minority party simply says “If you do that, we’ll filibuster,” and the majority caves if it can’t count on sixty votes to override.

This iteration, it seems to me, is worse than lazy–it gives positive encouragement to those whose sole purpose is to deny the majority an opportunity to accomplish anything.

In the state legislature, my calculus is much the same. If negotiation fails, if the majority is being dictatorial and unreasonable, if it is attempting to take actions that the minority is convinced would cause significant damage, the minority may legitimately withdraw in order to bring the chamber to a halt and focus public attention on the arguments involved. The use of such a “nuclear option” should be rare, however, and judiciously employed.

A couple of additional observations: these “rules” should apply no matter who is in the majority or minority. And as Doug Masson observed in his blog post yesterday, legislative absence does not necessarily equate to “not working.” Most of the work of legislative bodies occurs outside the chamber even when everyone is present, for one thing, and keeping bad laws from being enacted is also “doing legislative work.”

There are certainly arguments to be made about the propriety of any particular use of drastic tactics, but the tactics themselves serve a purpose when appropriately used. When I look at the current assault on working people, teachers and women, and the potential consequences of the measures the Democrats are trying to block, I think this is an appropriate response.

If the use of such tactics at the state level becomes a routine part of our toxic and gridlocked political environment, as the abuse and misuse of the filibuster has, I might change my mind.


Happily Ever After

The last time I babysat my younger grandchildren, we watched one of those age-appropriate Hollywood fairy tales where the good guy defeats the bad guy and then the story ends because—it is understood by all, even five-year olds—that everyone will now live happily ever after.

 Many Americans apply that simple fantasy to politics: once we elect the “good guy,” the story’s over. If we’ve elected the “bad guy,” the story’s still over, but with an unhappy ending.  This childlike belief explains much irrationality on both the right and left a scant year after Obama’s election.  

 Tea party “patriots” and the right-wing fringe are screaming that health-care reform is a Nazi plot and Obama will single-handedly destroy America. Their left-wing counterparts charge Obama with “selling out” to the power structure because he has yet to fulfill all his campaign promises or solve all of America’s problems.

 This may come as something of a shock to both groups, but real life doesn’t work that way. Changing the course of institutions—particular large, entrenched ones—is extremely difficult. Systems matter, and they can favor or smother efforts to change direction for good or ill.

Constitutional constraints on government power are important in a nation that values the rule of law. As the old saying goes, one person’s accountability is another’s red tape. Achieving a workable balance is an ongoing challenge. But political systems also create roadblocks that are neither constitutionally required nor democratically sound.

Let me offer a very few examples.

Gerrymandering frustrates efforts to create a more competitive political playing field, and protects incumbents from constituents who want to retire them. In the Senate, filibusters—as we have seen—allow legislative minorities to frustrate the efforts of majorities, even when those majorities represent overwhelming percentages of the population. Our system gives every state, no matter how thinly or densely populated, two Senators. You can argue the pros and cons of such a system, but love it or hate it, it’s the system we have. As a result, a couple hundred voters from Montana have the power to frustrate a million from California or Texas. One Joe Lieberman can frustrate an entire nation.

The Senate also observes quaint and arguably indefensible “traditions” like the one that allows any Senator to put a hold on any Presidential nomination for any reason. Recently, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl decided to show his displeasure with a delay in the enforcement of internet gambling prohibitions. So he put a hold on six of the Administration’s pending nominations to fill positions in the Treasury Department. No one has a problem with the people who’ve been nominated, mind you. But because Jon Kyl wants action on internet gambling, the Treasury Department is operating without needed management personnel during a global economic meltdown.

The moral of this story? Systems matter, and many of ours are broken.

As a result, even when a “good guy” wins, “happily ever after” is likely to fall far short of our fantasies.