Archive for October, 2013
It is dangerous to play with tradition. The Senate and House function on a set of time honored traditions and unwritten rules of the game. The filibuster is one of those traditions. However, the poisonous partisanship in Washington, unprecedented obstruction by Republicans in the Senate, and the danger of creating eternal gridlock means its time for a change.
Senate rules adopted in 1806 created the potential for a filibuster by eliminating the ability to move the previous question. The idea was that Senators should have as long to speak as needed before a vote. The idea this would be used for obstruction was not considered. In 1837 the first filibuster was used, but it remained rare until into the 20th Century.
After 12 Senators used their capacity to stop the Senate from voting on a bill by continuing debate (in 1917, to allow President Wilson to arm merchant ships), the Senate created a cloture rule, allowing 2/3 of those voting to end debate. This still meant that a group could stop consideration of a bill, but it would have to have a broader base of support.
More importantly, a filibuster meant that a Senator or group of Senators had to keep talking; debate literally had to continue. Once Senators stopped speaking on the floor, debate was over and a vote could be taken. Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Usually filibusters ended on their own without invoking cloture. When Senators filibustered the 1964 Voting Rights Act a cloture vote was held for only the second time since 1927. Simply, the tradition of the filibuster is that it was rare and required Senators be present and continue talking.
By 1979 the rules had changed to allow 60 Senators to invoke cloture, but not requiring speakers to remain continuously on the Senate floor. Unfortunately, both parties found this an easier to way to try to obstruct votes they didn’t like and the use of filibuster increased dramatically. Mitch McConnell once infamously said it is the “rule of the Senate” that you need 60 votes to make a law.
Both parties abused the filibuster. In a battle over judicial nominees Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatened the “nuclear option” of simply making cloture a majority vote and ending the filibuster. Vice President Cheney was ready to sit in as President of the Senate (a role the VP officially has) and rule that the filibuster cannot be used for judicial nominees. Senators wary of changing rules and traditions avoided that via compromise.
In that case, the Democrats were abusing the filibuster and turning it into a tool to obstruct. But the use of obstruction has grown to unprecedented proportions with McConnell (R-KY) as Senate minority leader. It no longer is a rare and dramatic way to try to prevent a vote on something very emotional or controversial (a method that in the past usually failed) but has become a defacto rule that says without 60 votes nothing at all controversial can pass.
More importantly, it is being used to block the President from undertaking his constitutional authority to make appointments, including again to the judiciary.
Patricia Miller is one of three appointments to the DC Court of Appeals to fill vacancies. Right now there are 8 Judges on the Court, four chosen by each party. The Republicans fear that if President Obama names all three, the Court might rule in a more liberal fashion. But that’s life – the President gets to choose the nominees and the Senate approves. It’s directly from the Constitution.
Looking for a rationale for their clearly political motive to obstruct, they claim the Court does not have enough work for 11, or even 9 Justices. But the court was just as “under worked” when they argued passionately to put President Bush’s nominees on the court. Simply, the filibuster and current cloture rules have to go.
If the Republicans are allowed to abuse the filibuster in this way, to make it require 60 votes for anything to pass, and to use it to block Presidential appointments, the Democrats will do likewise. They have in the past. The current rule is a cause of dysfunction.
The only solution: end the filibuster by making cloture a majority vote in the Senate. That way everything gets voted on and a minority can’t cause gridlock to appease their base or stop the majority from passing controversial bills. That way a President can execute his authority to make appointments without having well qualified choices denied due to politics. Patricia Millett is very well qualified with strong bipartisan credentials.
The country right now needs to have a functional Washington. The abuse of the filibuster in recent years by both parties has morphed it into something that is new and dangerous, not part of the Senate traditions. So either go back to forcing Senators to keep talking until they run out of energy or desire, or adopt a new cloture rule requiring a simply majority vote.
Apparently the Saudis are upset with the US. We aren’t doing enough to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and we’re thawing the strained relationship with Iran. The Saudis prefer Iran remain an international outcast and that we dispose of Iran’s Syrian ally.
The Saudis have feared Iran since the revolution in 1979, and see Assad’s Syria as a disruptive force, supporting terrorism and aiding Iran. Understandable. What the Saudis don’t get is that the whole international system is in a state of fundamental transformation and they are not going to be able to survive it due to a fundamental problem with their regime: it is rooted in a deep conservative ethos.
Note I’m using “conservative” in its real meaning here, not the political meaning in the US. The Saudis are desperately afraid of change because it could cause the Kingdom to unravel. The conservatism is seen in their flag, which simply reads “there is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger, underlined by a sword:
The Kingdom has nearly 30 million citizens, half of them under 21. The population has been growing at breakneck speed even as oil wealth prevents the kind of poverty and anger that drove the Egyptian Arab Spring. Yet they can’t employ their youth because their economy is still based almost completely on oil. Even if they get a government created jobs or money to pay rent and live, the lack of a purpose or future creates a psychological dependency. These youth are the prime target of extremists who promise glory, a clear mission, and some kind of meaning for an otherwise drab existence.
Saudi history shows the problem. King Abdul Aziz captured Riyadh in 1910 as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. Fighting with the British against the Turks in WWI, Aziz managed to expand his reach and by 1933 controlled what is now the Saudi Kingdom. To insure stability the royal family made a deal with the Wahhabi clerics – they would allow the clerics to define religious teachings in exchange for their political support. Wahhabi theology is severely conservative. It is not extremist in a Bin Laden sense — there is no desire to fight the West or for political upheaval — but it envisions society in a cultural deep freeze. For them, “progress” is a dirty word.
The anti-progressive nature of the clerics is why women in Saudi Arabia still have to shop at female only shopping malls, cannot drive cars, and walk five paces behind their husband. The Wahhabis oppose music, pictures of humans and any religious innovation. Many educated in the West would like to open things up, but that risks enraging the clerics. They note that Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and a desired destination of every Muslim for a pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
On November 20, 1979 an extremist group attacked the Kabbah in Mecca – the holiest relic in all Islam, and a place where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. The Saudis quietly had to ask for French assistance, meaning that non-Muslims came armed to clear out the rebels. From then on the Saudis have focused on building a rigid, ruthless and ubiquitous secret police. They rank second behind North Korea in terms of repression.
Osama Bin Laden and most of the hijackers on 9-11 came from Saudi Arabia. The growing resentments and the demographic trends mean the anachronistic and hyper-conservative regime cannot last. Sooner or later something has to give. Moreover their entire economy depends on oil, and many think that oil production in Saudi Arabia may decline. Already the US, thanks to new finds, has replaced Saudi Arabia as the number one producer of oil and gas for the first time since the early 70s.
So the conservative regime hangs on. They maintain repression at home because they don’t know what else to do. They see foreign policy in similar terms. They prefer an extremist theocracy in Iran that is held at bay than a successful progressive democracy. Democracy there could spread, or Iran could challenge the Saudis on other fronts. They’re not sure, but they don’t want to try anything new.
In Syria they simply want Assad gone so that they can help shape the post-Assad regime. They would prefer the US arm rebels the Saudis can influence, and support Saudi efforts to remake Syria. Given how addicted we are to their oil, they can’t understand why we don’t join them in something they see of utmost importance.
The US should not buckle to Saudi pressure. It’s in our interest to get a nuclear agreement with Iran, and to help the country get back on track to slowly building a functioning democracy. Iran’s population is far more modern than its government, and unlike the Saudis the Iranian government has allowed considerable social and political progress. There is no reason to define them as a permanent enemy.
The US also is doing the right thing on Syria – backing a peace conference, working with other countries to develop the capacity to end the fighting that has killed over 100,000 people so far. It’s not in the US interest to intervene (look what that got is in Iraq) or take sides with particular members of the opposition. It is in our interest to have a stable transfer of power in a process that is clear than to have Assad fall and whoever has the most guns grab power.
So the Saudis should be politely told that we do not share their opinion, and we make our foreign policy decisions based on American interests, not Saudi ones. Oil is a global commodity, there is no need to fear the Saudis will retaliate by cutting oil supplies. We also need to let them know that we don’t see the Royal Family holding an iron tight grip on the Kingdom forever. We need to condemn Saudi repression and pressure them to think about making fundamental changes to their society and country. They’re afraid if they do everything will fall apart. But if they don’t, ten years from now we may be watching the Saudi secret police and military crack down on rebels with the same kind of ruthlessness as the Assad regime is now showing.
Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem to be in separate worlds. Reality is never objectively perceived “as it is.” It is always interpreted through ones’ perspective, a prism of beliefs and past experiences. Yet most people are convinced reality is as they perceive it, they believe they are being objective and clear, meaning that those who think differently are somehow flawed. They may be stupid, dishonest, disingenuous, or have some kind of nefarious belief system. The US political system depends on a smaller class of people, those who can understand diverse perspectives, and navigate to a position of common ground – even if it’s a option all can barely life with.
I’m not writing to praise Senator Collins’ political views or positions. I agree with her on some things, disagree on others. But I do praise the fact that she is one of those able to try to work with people of different views to craft solutions to problems – to have the intellectual capacity for multidimensional thinking, rather than the true believer mentality of the ideologues.
As I write this a wild circus is playing out in Washington DC. As Senators Reid and McConnell, both who like Collins see past ideological cages, near a compromise, an angry house demands to pass a bill with no chance of support from the Senate or White House. But as they plan for an evening vote, apparently they can’t come up with anything. Confusion reigns! Now it sounds like no vote will occur.
Reading the quotes of the Republican tea party Congressmen is like reading quotes from die hard communists during the Cold War. They have their ideological world view, and anything not falling within it is, well, a ‘threat to freedom,’ ‘demolishes the Constitution’, or some such silliness.
Speaker Boehner, who is also able to bridge diverse perspectives, at this point has to find a way to balance an out of control House, the need to solve the problem, and the views from the Senate and White House. He doesn’t appear up to the task – perhaps no one is. It appears that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!
Consider David Vitter, (R-La)’s defense of the shutdown: “Approximately 15,000 EPA employees are furloughed, making it less likely fake CIA agents at EPA will be ripping off the taxpayer.” Sure – while people in the Pentagon are holding food drives for furloughed employees, Vitter sees the government as some pack of demons.
Consider Collins: “I would encourage people, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House, to take a look at the proposal that we’ve been working on. I also think that the Senate needs to act first, and that there’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate and we need to lead.” You can just hear the tea party folk hissing at her “betrayal of principle.”
But Collins is right about what it takes. The Democrats made their point earlier in the week when they resurrected demands to roll back the sequester. If the Republicans want to “negotiate” before opening the government or raising the debt limit, the negotiation can’t be from “the status quo” to closer to where they are – that’s hostage taking. The negotiation has to be from the Democratic starting point, which is precisely what Reid demonstrated!
From there Susan Collins got involved and crafted a bipartisan plan. It didn’t pass muster, but Reid and McConnell took over from there, and it appeared we were on track to get an agreement. It would give the GOP a face saving out, but the House Republicans would have fought a quixotic cause, turning the country against them and making the tea party look like a different kind of crazy.
Simply, blinded by ideology they felt justified making outrageous demands, believing they were RIGHT and fighting on PRINCIPLE! They scoff at those who compromise as somehow “compromising principles,” not recognizing that it is a kind of psychological malady to think one needs the world to adhere to his or her principles in order to be true to them. Then as defeat became inevitable and the scope of the damage they’ve done to their party, themselves, their movement and perhaps the country became clear, they veered off in numerous directions.
So tonight meetings continue. Susan Collins is working behind the scenes, still a major force. McConnell and Reid are talking – all recognize the scope of the problem. Still, the real issue is not the debt ceiling or shutdown, but how could we let such a dysfunctional group of Congresspeople veer the country so close to catastrophe? How could it be that people like Louie Gohmert, who said that President Obama should be impeached if the country defaults (even if his party is the cause of the default) – he’s the same guy who said terrorists were having babies in the US so the babies could commit terrorist acts in 18 years and that John McCain supports al qaeda – can be as influential as Collins?
Republican Pete King (R-NY) put it best: “This party is going nuts…Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done? After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it? That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”
I predict they’ll find a way out and pass an agreement that the House will have to swallow. More important for our future is to elect people with the insight to recognize that our system welcomes political conflict as long as the participants are able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse opinions. Because if the tea party mentality takes root – and a similar way of extremist thinking grows on the left – our Republic will be on a downward spiral.
In 1995 and into 1996 the government shut down after President Clinton vetoed budgets sent to him from the Republican House and Senate. The first shut down was from November 14-19, 1995, followed by a second from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996. The Republicans suffered politically from that shutdown, and their case was better then than it is now.
So in 1995 both houses of Congress were united in sending the President a budget to fund the government. The President vetoed the budget. The President does have veto power, but the Republicans then could make a strong case that they represented the will of the people in both houses. Moreover, the reason the shutdown didn’t start until November 14th was because a continuing resolution was passed to extend spending from October 1 to November 13th to give them time to settle differences before the shut down.
At that time it was appropriate for Clinton to negotiate. Congress was united on a budget and his veto prevented it from becoming law. In that since his veto was as much to blame for the shutdown as the GOP budget — It was a real conflict over the scope of spending, and the inability of the two sides to agree led to an impasse that shut down the government. Today’s shutdown is nothing like that, it is a small group of House Republicans trying to use it to force the President to delay Obamacare. Already it’s clear that cooler heads in the GOP have recognized that such a demand was over the top – but it’s hard to stand down from a battle once its started.
But while it may be clear why the GOP is being hurt by this shutdown, why were Republicans blamed in 1995? That shut down looks triggered by a Presidential veto, not a refusal to vote! The reason is that the GOP appeared too eager for confrontation, with Speaker Gingrich infamously saying “Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?” That played well to Republican stalwarts, but seemed bizarre to most people who simply wanted things to get back to normal. There was also a sense that the Republicans, and in particular speaker Gingrich, had personal motives:
While the shutdown was underway, President Clinton did not talk to Gingrich on the flight to the funeral of Yitzak Rabin. That irked Gingrich who complained that the President didn’t allow a meeting, and in fact made him exit from the back, separate from the President. This almost assuredly was not the cause of the shutdown, but it fed into the idea that it wasn’t serious – that the Republicans were just trying to get Clinton. Compare that with quotes coming from the GOP this shutdown, and if anything their reputation is worse than it was in 1996; the only good news for the GOP is that Speaker Boehner is more careful in his sound bites than Newt was.
Back in 1995 after six days of government shutdown they passed a temporary spending measure that reopened government but didn’t resolve the dispute. That led to the second shutdown, which lasted 22 days. It was settled by a balanced budget agreement that included a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (yes, the Republicans agreed to tax increases). In comparison to today’s tea party wing of the GOP, Newt Gingrich appears as a reasoned moderate.
The impact on President Clinton was clear – his approval rating dropped from 51% to 42%, even as the country blamed Republicans for the shutdown by a margin of 46% blaming the GOP to 27% blaming Clinton. During the shutdown most Americans were disgusted with both sides, especially as the shutdown occurred over Christmas.
But after the shutdown, President Clinton emerged a clear winner. He had been seen as a likely one term President in mid-1995, but after the shutdown he looked stronger and ended up gliding to an easy victory in the 1996 election. The Republican House of Representatives did not suffer much, losing only three seats.
Still, the mood of the country shifted, and Clinton emerged as a very popular President.
But think about it – that shutdown happened after both sides passed measures designed to give them more time to settle legitimate differences on the budget. It happened because the President has veto power. And the public blamed and punished the side whose message was mixed and hostile, ultimately rewarding the President. The GOP was left blaming the media.
That scenario is playing out again. The good news: Americans don’t like confrontation of a sort that disrupts our routine and is embarrassing for our political system. They’re smart enough to realize that pushing the country into shutdown mode (or default mode) is absurd. I suspect neither party will want to travel down this path again any time soon, and the extremists who pushed for this may find themselves losing political clout after all is said and done.
“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” ” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)
In a thought provoking piece in The New Republic, John Judis argues that the Republican party is causing one of the worst crises in American history. “Welcome to Weimar America,” he chides before launching into an entertaining and persuasive reflection on American history and the roots of the current crisis. While I’ve diagnosed the “tea party” as a nostalgic movement resenting the changes in American demography and culture, Judis argues its actually a continuation of earlier movements, including the Calhounist nullification movement that led to civil war.
We’re not likely to have civil war, but there is a real danger that the current crisis reflects growing political fragmentation destined to weaken both American democracy and strength.
But Weimar America? The electoral system of the United States works against the kind of extreme fragmentation of the German system before the rise of the Third Reich. The Weimar Republic was a straight proportional representation system which allowed dozens of parties to compete and get representation in the Reichstag. That required a Chancellor gain support from a large number of parties before being able to control a majority bloc of the parliament and govern. That worked OK until 1929, then after the Great Depression hit Germany became ungovernable. For years no government could form and President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree. Adolf Hitler rode the unrest, instability and confusion to power, even though he never actually was elected by a majority in a free election.
That won’t happen here. Our system of single member districts assures we’re likely to stay a two party system; it’s a structural feature of how we run elections, and it does create a kind of stability. Yet other aspects of our system of government create possibilities that make the Weimar metaphor plausible. Since we do have a government divided between the executive and legislative branches (not the norm in most democracies), and the legislative branch is divided into two separate bodies of independent power, it is possible that if the culture of compromise and tradition is broken, gridlock and division could become the norm. That would destroy the essence of systemic stability that has brought us freedom and prosperity.
“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things. We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare. I think now it’s a lot about pride.” Dennis Ross (R-Fl)
Ross, like other Republicans skeptical of the tactics being undertaken, recognize that the shut down and threats to default are being taken by people who have no clue what those things mean. They mutter things like “Oh, good, shut down that horrible government,” not recognizing the real consequences for the country. “The debt’s too high, let’s not increase the debt limit,” some bemoan, utterly clueless to what the impact would be of going into default. These people aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. They are so blinded by ideology that they don’t take the time to study the real implications of what’s happening.
Luckily, John Boehner does not fit into that category. Yet he’s dealing to what one pundit called, a Republican civil war. Both parties have their ideological extremes, but usually they are kept in check by the establishment center. The extremists hate the pragmatic centrists because they “compromise on principle” and aren’t driven by ideological fervor, but they’re the ones that assure stable governance. The extremes pressure the centrists and that’s important, but in the GOP they’ve taken over the party.
And they’re mad, certain they are right, and they don’t care about the system because they’ve decided it’s “crashing and burning” anyway, and only big government lovers would suffer if the whole thing collapsed (since presumably a more “pure” America would rise from the dust). OK, not all are that extreme, but the mix of extremism and ignorance has allowed one party to put the country and the world dangerously close to catastrophe over….pride. Being ‘disrespected.’ Trying to change a law they couldn’t change the usual way.
As noted last week, the President cannot let that tactic work. That would be damaging to the Republic in the long term; as bad as the short term consequences are, it would really become Weimar America if parties started to make these games the norm. Yes, there have been government shut downs before, but the circumstances here are unique.
So the ball’s in Boehner’s court. He has to find a way to walk the tightrope of avoiding all out insurrection from his tea party wing, but not being the man who dashed the American dream by refusing to hold a vote. He understands the consequences. While Obama can’t negotiate, perhaps he can give Boehner a face saving way out. Perhaps Harry Reid and Boehner can figure out a path that gives Boehner “peace with honor.” Because right now the Republicans are risking damaging the country immensely at a time we least need it. This has to end sooner rather than later.
House Republicans are miffed that the President refuses to negotiate with them about the government shut down. “He’s willing to talk with Iran, why not us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned. Yet the truth of the matter is that there is nothing to negotiate. For the good of the political process, for the sake of future Presidents Republican and Democratic, and for the country, the President must remain resolute.
The Republicans are trying to gut or delay the Affordable Care Act, and using a threat to shut down the government as a means of doing so. That is, a group of people do not like a law that was passed a few years ago, and are threatening the entire country’s economy and well being in order to try to stop that law. That’s not how you do it.
In a Democratic Republic, if you don’t like a law you make the case to the public. You get your people elected, and then you change or rescind the law. You do it through a constitutional process whereby the House and Senate vote, confer, and then pass a bill. The President can sign or veto it. Congress can override the veto if they have the votes.
In this case, the 2012 election had Obamacare as a main component of the campaign. Candidate Romney vowed to rescind or at least dramatically alter the act if elected, the President vowed to maintain it. The votes were counted and the President won by a large margin. The Democrats gained seats in the Senate. And though Republicans took the majority in the House, more votes for the House went to Democrats than Republicans.
If it becomes possible for a minority to get their way and undercut laws simply by threatening to shut down the government, a horrible precedent will be set. Rather than letting the democratic process operate, dangerous and destructive games of chicken will become common place. Today it may be the GOP and the Affordable Care Act, but sometime in the future the Democrats might threaten to do the same to stop changes in Social Security.
It’s even worse than that. If the Speaker of the House allowed a free vote on conscience, the government shutdown would be averted. A number of Republicans disagree with the extremist approach being taken. But they are being silenced by a large minority, which has not only stymied the legislative process, but put the world economy at risk.
Whatever one’s view on Obamacare, there should be agreement that blackmail and threats to the very fabric of our country are not the way to oppose it. A case in point: on October 1, the first day that exchanges were up to sell insurance for Obamacare, lots of glitches and problems arose. The GOP could use that in their favor to argue against Obamacare. Instead those stories were under the radar as everyone focused on the shutdown.
I’m not saying the glitches are truly a reason to oppose Obamacare, only that the GOP should be focusing on substance to make their case before the 2014 election rather than playing Russian roulette with the economy and the jobs of nearly a million federal workers.
Today is a gorgeous day in Maine, and one of the most beautiful parks in the US, Acadia National Park, is closed thanks to the fact Congress can’t do its job. When a young child wants to watch TV and a parent says no, often the child throws a tantrum. If the parent gives in, then the child learns that tantrums work, and will more frequently and more vigor go ballistic to get his way. If the parent holds firm and there are negative consequences for the tantrum, the child soon learns that tantrums don’t work and it’s better to follow the rules.
The tea party wing of the GOP is throwing a collective tantrum. To give in would assure that shutdowns, crises and other threats to our stability become more frequent – the tactic will have worked. The President cannot let that happen.