Archive for category US Politics
If anyone epitomizes the toxic partisan atmosphere of the US Congress these days, it’s Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Whether it’s allegations about Benghazi, the IRS, or most recently the Hatch Act, Issa has searched for anything he could use to manufacture a scandal in order to tarnish the Obama Administration. He has issued 99 subpoenas, most of them unilateral and political.
Recently, trying to argue that the White House was violating the Hatch Act prohibiting senior officials from engaging in political activity while doing their duties, Issa subpoenaed David Simas, a top White House advisor. The White House balked, saying there is no reason to him to testify and as a top advisor he was immune from such a subpoena. Issa had called two other witnesses, but after seeing that their testimony would contradict his claims of clear violations of the Hatch Act, he quickly ended the session without giving them a chance to testify.
The subpoena abuse and abrupt cutting off of testimony that would weaken his claim angered ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, who said Issa was using the committee as “center stage for political theater.” Indeed, Issa’s activities go far beyond the norm for that committee. His subpoenas are mostly “unilateral,” meaning they don’t have the approval of the ranking Democrat nor has the committee voted. In essence he’s casting his net wide hoping he’ll find something.
This is unprecedented – in the past (except for a brief time when the GOP pursued Clinton) the committee has been very careful with subpoenas – almost always they had bipartisan support. That in a microcosm is what’s wrong with Washington. Rather than trying to figure out how to run the country better and solve problems, the goal is to find some way to politically embarrass the other side.
But there is also reason not to trust Issa. Issa has been accused of car theft, insurance fraud (he settled out of court for $20,000 with an insurance company rather than collecting hundreds of thousands he was insured for because the fire was so suspicious) and there is no evidence of how he was able to purchase his business anyway. In short, the guy is at best shady. (Read more: here)
The desire on the far right for some kind of scandal to use to impeach Obama has failed, yet they have created a fantasy land where they think Obama’s been acting like a tyrant. They claim he’s trying to run the country with executive orders when the number he’s made is small by historical standards, and minuscule compared to his predecessor. Of course, when Dick Cheney, architect of an Iraq war that has damaged US foreign policy more than any other policy in history, says Obama’s the worst President – well, it’s clear he can’t handle reality.
The GOP has to watch it. While inbred blogs and talk radio can get them to bolster their own fantasies and think it’s clear that Obama is an idiot and the scandals are real, that’s not reality. It’s a political fantasy shared with an almost cult-like set of memes and false beliefs.
They correctly see how the culture of the US and our role in the world is shifting due to globalization, changing demographics, and economic reality. They don’t like the way the country is changing, and a black President Barack Hussein Obama personifies the new emerging America. Rather than dealing with reality, they hope they can make it go away by finding some sexy scandal that could destroy Obama and thus the America he represents.
That prevents them from playing a constructive role in dealing with the real issues (rather than improve Obamacare they try in vain to eliminate it). Ultimately, reality bites. The world is changing, and there is no super scandal that will turn back time. We need a constructive conservative voice, not a delusional one.
On Thad Cochran’s fourth birthday Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, sending the US into World War II. Like most Mississippians of that era, Cochran grew up a Democrat. In those days the south produced very conservative Democrats who eschewed the Republican party because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. Cochran was a success at almost everything he undertook: he was an Eagle Scout, majored in Psychology (minored in Poli-Sci), served a stint in the Navy and ultimately graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School.
In the sixties the country was changing and Cochran recognized that the Republican party was increasingly reflecting the view of southern conservatives. He became one of the early converts to the GOP, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972 in a close race.
After three terms in Congress Cochran successfully ran for the Senate, replacing retiring Democrat James Eastland. That made Cochran one of the first of the new breed of southern Republicans to get elected. Given the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern to run in 1972, the next decade would see a massive shift to the Republican party in the south.
Southern Democrats were in something of a civil war then. The establishment Democratic candidate opposing Cochran was Maurice Dantin. He was supported by Eastland and part of the good old boy southern Democratic tradition. Yet the Democrats were also now the party of the civil rights movement, and Charles Evers, a black liberal, ran as an independent. This split the Democratic vote and allowed Cochran to win with a plurality.
Time once labeled Cochran one of the most effective Senators. Always a behind the scenes “persuader,” he brought pork to Mississippi (he was a master of the earmark) and earned a strong 88% rating from the American Conservative Union. He developed considerable influence in both Mississippi and the Senate, and was generally well liked. In 1990 he ran unopposed, and after his narrow first win his margins were: 61-39, 100-0, 71-27, 85-13, and 61-39. He was never given a serious challenge in a state Republican primary.
Now as the GOP is engulfed in its own civil war, Cochran faced a surprisingly serious challenge from Tea Party backed State Senator Chris McDaniel. In the state primary, a candidate must win a majority to gain the nomination. In the first round, McDaniel won a plurality, defeating Cochran 49.57 – 48.88. That is enticingly close to a majority, but 50% + 1 vote is needed for a majority. In the second round, Cochran prevailed 50.9% to 49.1%.
This result was not expected. Most polls showed McDaniel comfortably ahead by 5 or 6%, with national groups questioning giving continued support to Cochran. McDaniel went into the day the favorite, and came out defeated. He is supposedly considering legal action against Cochran because Cochran’s team reached out to black voters and Democrats. In their mind a true conservative Republican was defeated because an old establishment Republican got support from black voters. It appears they are right – the numbers indicate that black voters probably did give Cochran his margin of victory. They may not have been Republican, but they didn’t like McDaniel’s views.
So what does Cochran’s victory mean? Well, coming so soon after Eric Cantor’s loss, it shows that the establishment is not dead, and the tea party has less influence on the Republican party than any time since its 2009 inception. There is a sense of desperation within the movement that their ideals are under threat from their own party leadership.
Cochran’s victory means that the GOP “civil war” is about to enter it’s final stage. The tea party/far right sees politics as good vs. evil. They do not want compromise and pragmatic governance, they are driven by ideology and many of them want a kind of political holy war – defeat the liberals completely and bring America back to their image of what should be/once was. That image is more nostalgic fantasy than reality, but they are convinced they are the only ones with the proper conception of what America should be.
When they thought they could dominate their party and defeat the Democrats, their disdain for RINOs (Republicans in name only) meant primary challenges and, more often than not, electoral defeat at the hands of the Democrats. This led the establishment to fight back – they can tolerate the extremists, but they can’t tolerate continual electoral defeat – and now the tea party realizes that they are a minority in their own party, and Eric Cantor notwithstanding, losing clout.
The last act of this civil war will be the tea party going all out to fight against the GOP leadership. It will either lead to a bitter primary season in 2016 as the Tea Party goes for the big prize – the Presidential nomination. Or if truly cut out, more radical elements will likely try a third party, convinced they are the future of the conservative movement – that the Grand Old Party is obsolete. Either way, the Tea Party will lose, and the Republican establishment will reassert control.
Ironically, this would be a Republican version of what helped bring Thad Cochran to Congress in 1972. The Democrats had been engaged in their own civil war thanks to the anti-war and civil rights movements. The 1968 Chicago convention started a fight that ended after a tortured 1972 Democratic Convention rejected party moderates and nominated the fiercely anti-war liberal George McGovern. This created widespread dissent within the party and the Democrats had one of their worst Presidential elections in history.
The good news for the Republicans is that if history is a guide, the election isn’t a direct threat to their holdings in the House and Senate. The House Democrats did lose 13 seats in 1972, but kept their majority. Senate Democrats actually gained two seats. People did not automatically take dissent with the Presidential candidate as a reason to distrust their own representative.
Thad Cochran’s career will thus bookend the two biggest internal civil wars the major US parties had in the post-war era: The Democrats in the late sixties and early seventies, followed by the Republicans since 2010. And he represents the side that wins those civil wars – the party establishment.
This my first post on “campaign 2014,’ analyzing the races and following the election cycle. One thing is certain from the start – 2014 is a lot different than 2010.
Some things are similar. Right now things are looking good for Republicans to make gains in the House and perhaps win the Senate. It is a midterm election, which usually brings a more conservative demographic to the polls, something also good for the GOP. President Obama’s job approval rating is below 50%, which usually means that his party is in trouble in any midterm. But there the similarities end. The differences are important and offer some optimism about what has been a dysfunctional political system.
1. The tea party is a spent force. In 2010 the tea party was surging! Anger over the passage of Obamacare was palpable, and rallies were being held across the country for a new movement to “take back America.” Entertainer Glenn Beck was at the height of his popularity, calling for a movement to fundamentally transform the US to more conservative/traditional values. Now Beck says he’s sick of politics and wants to produce movies.
Tea party approval is down at around 20%. More importantly, the anger, rage, and rallies have been replaced by typical political banter. In 2010 and 2012 the tea party actually hurt the GOP by producing candidates that could not win. Sharon Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck all lost races a moderate Republican would likely have won. That would have put the Senate at 50-50 today!
The good news for the Republicans is that tea party influence is waning, and it looks like strong establishment candidates have been recruited. The bad news is that they’ll lose some of the passion the stronger tea party brought to 2010; it isn’t likely to be any kind of massive wave election. But they now have a real shot at the Senate.
2. The trend lines are different
In April 2010 President Obama’s job approval was at about 50%. By election time it was down to 44%. In general, continued anger at an economy that had not started a real recovery, tea party passion, and a general sense that things were getting worse rather than better caused a backlash against Obama and the Democrats. Now the economy is poised to increase the rate of job growth in the summer, and President Obama’s approval is recovering from its lows with the rollout problems of Obamacare enrollment. Obama’s approval went as low as 40%, but has slowly recovered. As the story line becomes more positive about Obamacare, the Republican hope that the issue will drive the election is fading. The trend can’t be called good for the Democrats, but unlike 2010 it doesn’t suggest any sort of wave. It will be a normal election cycle.
3. Nothing is set in stone
In retrospect, 2010’s wave for the GOP was inevitable. A poor economy, a President with low approval ratings, anger and passion among the opposition in a midterm election which always sees a higher proportion of Republicans vote was a recipe for a certain GOP win. This year, events can still drive the election. Strong summer economic growth and more good Obamacare news might boost Democratic chances. A White House scandal could harm Democrats, as could new bad news about Obamacare. So as of April, what we don’t know about the 2014 election cycle far outweighs what we do know.
Will the Senate Go GOP?
Now that conspiracy theories about skewed polls have been demolished, even conservatives recognize the power behind Nate Silver’s prediction methods. Click the link and read his analysis – it’s the best you’ll find at this point, and he admits that it is very close, and a variety of things could skew the elections either way. At this point he predicts 50.8 Republicans and 49.2 Democrats. However, if you don’t want to read his in depth analysis, here is my perspective:
The Democrats hold a 55-45 majority. That means the Republicans have to pick up six seats. That is a tall order. 21 Democratic and 15 Republican seats are up for election (that’s more than 33 due to some special elections), which means that the Republicans have real opportunities. In Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia open seats (or in the case of Montana, recently filled by someone appointed by the Governor) are seen as almost certain to shift to the Republicans as these are strong red states. Two other open seats, Iowa and Georgia, will probably stay Democratic and Republican respectively.
That would put the Republicans at 48 states, three short of a majority. So far, only one Republican incumbent looks to be in real danger, that is ironically Mitch McConnell. Five Democratic Senators are in trouble, and one Democratic open seat (Michigan) has no clear favorite. So among those seven races, Republicans have to win four seats to gain a majority. That’s do-able, but not easy, especially in a normal election cycle.
First proviso: In 2012 North Dakota was considered certain Republican for most of the year until Democrat Heidi Heitkamp ran a surprisingly strong campaign and squeaked out a victory. So nothing is certain.
Second proviso: There may be surprises. Here in Maine Susan Collins is considered by most to be a very safe Republican hold. However, she’s receiving strong opposition from Democrat Sheena Bellows, who has shown surprising fundraising prowess and organizing skills. In Maine there is a lot of emotion against the incumbent Governor, meaning there is likely to be strong Democratic turnout. It’s not likely (Collins had 61% in 2008), but is possible, that Bellows could be a real threat to Collins. These are the kinds of “what ifs” that could benefit either party.
The polling now shows Democrats Kay Hagan (NC), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Mark Pryor (AR) in the most trouble – but all are very close. Mitch McConnell looks to be in trouble in Kentucky. Democrats Begich (AK) and Udall (CO) have close races, but look better positioned.
Here’s the problem for the Republicans: Incumbents do have a tendency to pull out close elections. Mary Landrieu was endangered back in 2008 but ended up with a comfortable 7 point victory. To be sure, that was a Presidential election year and she benefited from the higher turnout, but it’s always dangerous to underestimate an incumbent.
So, given that this is a ‘normal election cycle’ I suspect that the Republicans will fall short of gaining a majority – though they are likely to gain seats. A 50-50 Senate is a real possibility. Joe Biden, as President of the Senate (an official role of the Vice President) would have the deciding vote, but if the Democrats held on to that slim of a majority they’d be susceptible to losing it should a member die or resign. At this point, though, the battle for the Senate looks to be the biggest 2014 election story.
The new semester is underway and I’m teaching an honors course: “Consumerism, Politics and Values.” We start with the book The Big Short by Michael Lewis, describing the housing bubble and derivative market mania that caused the collapse of the economy in 2008.
The housing bubble and subsequent crisis was created by the big banks who were able to pull off the equivalent of a high stakes ponzi scheme and get away with it. Alan Greenspan, onetime devotee of Ayn Rand, even admitted that events had proven his “markets get it right” philosophy wrong.
Markets don’t always get it right; unregulated, markets can create calamities. We shouldn’t forget what happened.
Back in 2000 we entered a recession thanks to the puncturing of the dot.com bubble. It had been a classic bubble and when the bubble burst the economy went into a needed recession to balance out the excesses of the late 90s. Then on 9-11-01 al qaeda attacked the US with a devastating blow to the American economy. The blow wasn’t a direct result of the terrorist attack, but an indirect one – the federal reserve decided to offer extremely cheap credit to help pull us out of the recession. That turned out to be poison. That is the one area where the government shares the blame – bad monetary policy. But that alone could not have created this crisis.
The housing bubble was also not a sub-prime lending problem, nor one related to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They had their faults, some extreme, but nothing they did could have caused the economic collapse. What happened can best be viewed by considering risk and incentives.
Risk: Between 2002 and 2005 virtually all risk was removed from the mortgage market – or so it seemed. Banks and mortgage brokers knew they’d sell their mortgages to one of the big Wall Street banks. That meant they had no risk – so every home loan was a win for them, regardless of whether the lender could pay it back. The banks then took the mortgages and turned them into mortgage backed derivative bonds which they sold, pushing the risk to the investors. These bonds received a AAA rating from the rating agencies, meaning they were viewed as the safest form of investments. 98% of mortgages get repaid. Investors gobbled them up, thinking they were essentially risk free. There was, it seemed, no risk!
Incentives: Mortgage brokers thus had incentive to cheat – to make loans they knew couldn’t be repaid. This started the housing market booming. As prices went up, banks, brokers and buyers had incentive to create risky mortgage instruments. Since value was going up so fast, it appeared that if you could buy a house at $100,000, it would be worth as much as $150,000 in two years. So if you couldn’t afford a standard mortgage, you could buy one with artificially low payments for two years. At that time the house would be worth more, you could refinance at a standard rate and take out a home equity loan for easy money. Everyone wins! Meanwhile, the banks gobble up more and more mortgages as they are making massive amounts of money – hundreds of trillions of dollars in mortgage backed derivatives!
As with any bubble, everyone thinks all is great until it pops. Housing prices started to drop in early 2007. The first pain was in the worst loans, the subprime market. No one panicked – that market wasn’t big enough to cause a crisis. Little did people realize that the entire derivative bond market, even bonds with the best loans, were toxic.
Soon prices started to drop. Thanks to the people at CNBC and the other business “reporting” networks, people had the belief that real estate prices might level off, but wouldn’t go down. While some like Peter Schiff had been warning people, most of the media were predicting real estate price growth as late as 2007. People simply didn’t believe the party was ending.
Many people were directly affected. People who had adjustable mortgages planning to refi with a higher value ended up bankrupt. People who bought the AAA ranked derivative bonds ended up losing their entire investments. This included groups like fire departments and school systems which thought a AAA bond was no-risk. People who had been doing real estate speculation thanks to the rising prices went from being nouveau riche to old fashioned poor. Those who simply bought houses at record high prices ended up under water – they often owe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their homes are worth.
Of course, this all lead to massive loses on Wall Street and an economic downturn that is still with us today. People totally outside the housing market lost their jobs or their investments when the economy tanked. The ones who suffered the most were the poor. The wealthy can take a hit on their portfolio and still enjoy nice homes and an easy life style, after all.
Yet the ones who did this – the ones who created the derivative bonds and then worked to disguise or avoid risk, taking massive short term profits even knowing that in the long run everything could collapse – they’re doing well. No one had to repay their bonuses or their income from the bubble years. Most simply found new work. Sure, Bear Stearns, Lehmann Brothers, and a number of other banks went under. Yet the people working there found other work. Some probably ended up with a dramatic downsize in lifestyle, but prison time or actual penalties? Nah, they were just doing business.
Many people are still livid about the lack of accountability, but that’s the its always been. The wealthy have power and clout, and can usually avoid accountability, especially if they’re in the financial sector. In this case both Democrats and Republicans accepted the free market mantra and refused even modest regulation. Yet tighter regulation might have avoided the collapse and we’d be at 5% unemployment now.
It’s also proof – absolute proof – that the ideology that the market is always best is dead wrong. It is just as wrong as the Communist belief that a state run economy is more fair. Ideologies delude more than enlighten. Reality is messy, ambiguous and paradoxical. People enslaved by simplistic ideological beliefs tend to interpret reality in a way that suits their beliefs and avoid cognitive dissonance at all costs. We need accountability, rule of law, and transparency — especially in the market.
So now six years from the collapse we’re still reeling, trying to correct imbalances that could have been avoided. The people who created the mess and made huge profits off the bubble got away with it.
On a libertarian-leaning blog, a usually rational and interesting poster made this comment:
It’s all so pointless. We will never convince the majority of people to embrace liberty, instead of looking to government to be Mommy. At least not until government fails so badly that its incompetence is made clearly manifest. And even if that happens, I suspect that the majority of the electorate will look for a man on a white horse, rather than freedom, and the responsibility for their own lives. There’ll always be a cohort that thinks government could do everything for everyone if only the right people were running it. And, it seems, quite a lot of people will listen to them.
Arguing with progressives is pointless, too. It’s like arguing with people in a movie theater who won’t stop texting. It’s a waste of time to say anything to them, because if they had a shred of civility or decency, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you’re a Progressive, I just assume at this point that you’re too abysmally stupid to waste time with on reason or debate.
There are some breathtaking assertions there. Progressives are abysmally stupid, don’t use reason, have no shred of civility or decency…all because they have a progressive political perspective. That means, according to this blogger, that progressives refuse to embrace liberty, want government to be mommy, and don’t want to take responsibility for their own lives.
Wow. If people on the right or libertarian side of the isle really believe that about progressives, no wonder they hate us so! Any one who knows me or reads my blog knows that I am a firm believer of people taking responsibility for their lives and choices – students hear that mantra from me all the time – your future is up to you, you can’t blame anyone else. I’m also for liberty – human liberation from all forms of oppression so we can live as freely as possible – as my primary value.
My biggest critique of government programs is that they can create a psychology of dependency which harms those receiving that aid. I don’t think the answer is to cut people off – often when children are involved that would be cruel. But rather right and left should create more effective social welfare programs which are built around community action. Community organizers should be the hub, and those who can should contribute to building community in order to get aid.
I daresay I’m not abysmally stupid either. Yet I’d describe myself as a progressive.
Why are we at a point in this country where the political sides can believe such caricatured images of the other side? I have no doubt that the poster, while perhaps recognizing that he is being a bit over the top and venting, truly believes that progressives oppose freedom and want the government to do everything.
And its not just progressives who get caricatured, the right is often portrayed as heartless, emotion driven nationalists who don’t care about the destruction caused by war, who would love to see the poor suffer, don’t care about pollution in our rivers, or the potential damage caused by global warming. They just want what they can get, selfishly consuming with no regard for others. I know lots of conservatives, and that caricature doesn’t fit any of them.
But how to get past this kind of rhetoric? One way is to think of the concept of freedom. I submit that both right and left generally have freedom as a primary value. Neither has it as the only value, otherwise they’d oppose all laws. For each having a stable and effective community is also important. So perhaps part of the difference is how they draw that line. Both might agree that a police force is necessary to maintain order, but they might disagree on health care.
From the left: not having health care denies the poor (nearly 50 million) true freedom because they are more likely to avoid seeking health care and may die or suffer, they are vulnerable to health cost bankruptcies, and their children are less likely to receive quality care, and thus do not have equal opportunity. Universal health care enhances freedom.
From the right: having guaranteed health care denies the wealthier true freedom by taking their tax dollars, and mandatory insurance does not allow them to opt out. Universal health care harms freedom.
OK, you know what – there are ways to understand where both sides are coming from. Yet the two sides usually shout at each other (I think the right shouts and ridicules the left far more than the reverse, but I understand that could be a biased perception) and don’t stop to think that their disagreement is not about core values, but how the system functions.
The left tends to view freedom in two ways: 1) negative freedom or freedom from external; and 2) positive freedom, or the possession of the resources and power to fulfill ones goals. Poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, structural barriers hindering the capacity to achieve ones goals (racism, etc.) all limit freedom. Often these limits come from the way society is structured, whereby the wealthy elite achieve more positive freedom at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged.
The right tends to view liberty as simply not being hindered by laws or external restraint. Maximum freedom is when external constraint is non-existent. Because people are not angels, you have to have some laws to prevent overt exploitation, but while the left sees structural exploitation as the problem, the right (or libertarians) tend to focus purely on actual physical violence. The religious right also sees a role for laws to protect basic traditions and customs.
Again, there are solid arguments for each. The right has an agent-based view of human relations – society is the result of individual choices that each actor is responsible for. The left has a structure-based view: society is structured in a way that empowers some and disadvantages others.
The fact is that neither extreme view can be correct. No one can deny that structure matters – it takes a lot more effort to make it out of rural poverty or a ghetto to be successful than it does from a wealthy suburban family. Even though its possible for both, one is more likely to be successful than the other. But it is possible for both – structure doesn’t determine everything, one can make choices to rise from poverty to become successful.
So reality is somewhere in the middle – and that means that disagreements on the nature of freedom are legitimate, one doesn’t have to dismiss the other side as opposing liberty. It’s too bad that as a society we’re more likely to ridicule the other side and caricature them than actually discuss these issues. Because frankly, the US is facing numerous problems and neither side has the power to simply implement their “solution.” We either sink or swim together.
If you’re on Facebook you’ve no doubt read the posts about how cold it is. When a reporter in Bangor threw a cup of hot coffee in the air it crystallized and blew away. Another in Minneapolis did the same with a pot of boiling water! It’s not just the cold. Having grown up in South Dakota and lived a long time in Minnesota, I’m no stranger to minus 35 degrees (NOT including wind chill). Rather it’s the duration and wide spread scope of this cold weather.
As NPR explains, this is because we are experiencing a polar vortex. Usually a low pressure cell with extremely cold air sits atop the north pole all winter. Minnesota will get the occasional minus 40 degree weather because at times bits of it come south. Due to the way continents and climates interact, the coasts stay mild as the middle grows intensely cold. Since moving to Maine I’d many times see my friends back in Minnesota experiencing minus 35 while here we didn’t go below 10 above.
That’s still the case. While we’ve been going below zero in the single digits in Maine the temperatures have remained frigid all over the northern plains. The cold here is more intense than usual.
The polar vortex comes from a larger piece of that low pressure cell moving south, and bringing with it more cold war than we’re used to. And as Time explains, this could be real evidence of global warming. The reason is that the warm gulf stream has helped keep cold air caged up north, allowing milder air to reign through most of the US. That’s why when I moved from Minnesota to Maine I was moving to a distinctly warmer climate. A lot of Arctic ice has been lost in past decades due to global warming, cooling down the north Atlantic.
Think of it like big ice cubes breaking off and melting in warmer water. While with ocean currents and depths it will take awhile, eventually that can cool the ocean enough to impact the jet stream. If that’s what’s happening, it may well be that we’re getting yet another real indicator not only of the reality of global warming (which only a few holdouts deny), but that its impact may be multifaceted in unexpected ways.
For us in the Northeastern US (and probably everywhere between Montana and Poland) global warming may mean colder winters. So how is that global warming? When the cold air leaves the polar regions, they warm up. This has been a warm winter in the Arctic, and usually frigid places in Alaska have had mild temperatures. Polar warming seems to defy expectations, but the impact of cooling oceans on the jet streams and climate patterns suggests a hard to predict but likely destabilizing climate change.
It could also mean warmer summers, altering the nature of local climates and forcing changes in just about every aspect of life. Few scientists doubt global warming, or that human green house gas production is a major factor causing it – the evidence is overwhelming. A few ideology-driven political types try to deny it, and hopefully karma will give them what they deserve for endangering future generations far more than would be the case if we acted to clean up our energy usage.
But the reality is that humans live in denial, and it won’t be until it’s too late to stop the disaster that people realize we were warned and did very little. Something like the polar vortex shows that the consequences of global warming may be very unexpected and vary from place to place. But it’s here – and expect the headlines to get more dramatic and worse in coming years.
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.