political convention

political convention

Monday, May 30, 2011

The U.S. Senate: A Story of Zombies and Filibusterers

Unlike the Roman senate, which became meek and then laughable as it cowered before Caesar, the U.S. Senate has settled into a self-induced stupor.

Memorial Day weekend was typical. The senate adjourned for the holiday, but technically remained in session in order to prevent the President from making a temporary recess appointment for director of a new consumer protection agency. Presidents sometimes take this step to circumvent the senate when it dithers over confirmation of an appointee.

Staying in session, even though they weren’t actually present, allowed members of the Republican minority to block a presidential action by doing nothing. Democrats, on the other hand, could have prevented this farce if their leader as the head of the majority had simply called the Republican bluff and ruled the Senate adjourned. He did not because the Democrats have used the same tactic themselves.

The senate rules that enabled this scenario are so ridiculous and improvised it’s hard to understand how they could be used to organize an important arm of the government. But the recess rule in fact is one of the senate’s more benign parliamentary inventions. Vastly more absurd are rules that allow a single senator on a whim to place a secret hold on legislation. And then there's the so-called filibuster rule where one party can stall or block a bill if its members refuse to yield the floor during a debate. Breaking the impasse requires a three-fifths majority.

The senate has become so accustomed to the idea of this tactic, that the mere threat of a filibuster now invokes the three-fifths rule. As a consequence, nearly all disputed legislation, like the recent health care bill, requires 60 votes out of 100 to pass. A threat of filibuster in one of the senate’s many committees can also delay or kill legislation or sidetrack presidential appointments.

The three-fifths rule, or super majority, has turned the senate into a cemetery where everyone and everything is at eternal rest. How could this happen?

The Constitution grants the senate the power to establish “the rules of its proceedings (Article I, Sec. 5). But it is silent on filibusters, senatorial holds, and super majorities. All of these gimmicks have arisen over the years because senators have chosen to regard them merely as procedural options, rather than the extra-legal power tactics that they are. Now minority Republicans have discovered that “procedure” can be a nuclear weapon. And they have used it scores of times recently to kill opposition initiatives.

The latest example of the filibuster at work came May 19th when Republican senators rejected President Obama’s nomination of Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is widely regarded among lawyers and scholars as a brilliant legal mind. Republicans didn’t actually monopolize the floor of the Senate to prevent a vote on Liu. They merely threatened to do so, which then activated the three-fifths rule. Liu won a large majority but not enough to gain appointment. Liu withdrew his name.

Republicans are launching similar tactics to prevent Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren from taking the job as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren, also a brilliant legal scholar, is an expert on finance and consumer protection law.

Liu was rejected because he's too liberal for ultra conservative Republican senators. The Republicans not only consider Warren too liberal, but they’re horrified that under her leadership the consumer agency might actually investigate financial institutions whose risky schemes and malfeasance helped create the current economic crisis.

Can the Senate rules be changed? Almost certainly not. Senators have regular opportunities to make the rules fairer and more democratic. But they don’t do so because both sides can use the rules to advantage when they become the minority. Anyway, procedure is procedure, at least in the U.S. Senate.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ideology, Medicare and the Ryan Plan

Medicare and Social Security are by far the most popular government programs.  To conservatives, however, they continue to be a throbbing irritant to their ideology, which views the private marketplace, not government, as the solution to society’s most pressing social problems.

An ideology is a pattern of thinking that turns philosophies and suppositions into conventional wisdom accepted without question.  That means that on a subject like the future of Medicare, alternative viewpoints are about as useless to a conservative as skepticism is to a believer in ghosts.

Recently, the most notable example of the conventional wisdom is Republican congressman Paul Ryan’s deficit-cutting budget proposal.  His idea for Medicare is to turn it into a voucher program where beneficiaries receive a fixed allocation of money from the government, which they can then use to pay for medical services through a private insurance company.  Though this plan would significantly cut costs for the government, it would put at risk many of the elderly whose vouchers were not enough to cover all their medical expenses. Recipients would have to negotiate with an insurance company for the lowest price. But full coverage could entail extra premiums to be paid out of pocket.

This plan is motivated ostensibly by the desire to reduce the cost of Medicare in the future as the program accommodates an increasing number of old people.  Without such drastic steps, Ryan says, the United States will amass an insurmountable fiscal deficit in just a few years.  One conservative commentator put the problem succinctly: “If we don’t reform the program, the country will go broke.”  

Here the conventional wisdom speaks, but does it have the answers?  And, for that matter, is it asking the right questions?  Of course not. The conservative ideology forces the issue of Medicare into a marketplace model that is concerned more with retailing insurance policies than serving the medical needs of the elderly.  It also undermines a highly successful single-payer national healthcare plan on the pretense of fiscal responsibility.

Here are the questions the ideology doesn’t ask: Why can’t the American people provide the best and most effective medical care for all of our elderly citizens?  And, how can we accomplish this goal and fund it in a fiscally responsible way? 

The conventional wisdom responds by saying that health care is an individual responsibility and must be worked out as far as possible in the marketplace.  In addition, Medicare in its present form is a government entitlement and like all big government programs it’s inefficient and disempowers individuals. The fiscally responsible thing to do is to severely cut the program to avoid large government deficits.

In short, the conventional wisdom tells us the Ryan plan will work because, as everyone knows, 80 year olds are tough customers when it comes to negotiating with big business for fair prices. It also tells us that caring for the elderly is less important than holding the line on taxes for the wealthy and  continuing huge government subsidies for big oil and big agriculture.  Unfortunately, fair taxes and reduced subsidies, which would actually cut the deficit and save Medicare, have been taken off the table. To conservatives, blinded by their ideology, these options are simply invisible.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The End of the Reverend Harold Camping

A lot of Christians will be in church this Sunday wiping the sweat from their brows. The world didn’t end on Saturday, as predicted in a well-publicized prophecy, and they weren’t carried off by God or left behind to die in a terrible cataclysm back on earth.  
The prophesy came from a radio preacher named Harold Camping, who declared that Saturday was the day Jesus would be back for his Second Coming and that The End of the World was near. Sinners and infidels rejected by God would die in a mass extermination as earthquakes and floods wracked the earth. After five days of agony, the world would blow up like an overinflated basketball. 
The reverend Camping learned about all this through a close reading of the Bible.  He once was an engineer and liked dealing with numbers.  He calculated that the exact date of Noah’s flood was sometime in the 49th century BC. And with the help of certain clues contained in the Books of Peter, he was able to extrapolate that the world would end on 5-21-2011 AD at about 1800 hours PDT.  The cataclysm was needed so God could sort out the people of the earth and send all the good ones to a safe eternity in heaven.
This scenario pops up every few years when an inspired zealot comes up with a revised version that he believes will captivate a new group of gullible simpletons. This is not usually a difficult task.  A study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life found in a 2006 study that 20 percent of Americans believe that in their lifetimes the Second Coming of Christ will take place, heralding the end of the world. 
A big problem for believers is what happens when doomsday doesn’t arrive on schedule. You would expect there to follow some sincere soul searching.  But it turns out The End is a flexible concept, one that can be pushed forward in time by a day, a month, or even years. New calculations usually discover errors or incorrect interpretations.  For example, a year in biblical time can be recalculated to equal 1,000 actual years.  This kind of thing could really screw up your effort to pin down biblical dates, especially if you weren’t sure whether to use the Roman or the Gregorian calendar.
On Sunday the earth will still be in its accustomed place, but it would be a good idea for everyone to read the Sunday papers or to view the Sunday morning interview programs to see what the reverend Camping has to say about where he and the End of the World are going next.  He might also show up on Meet the Press so he can explain to Republican budget cutters, who invariably appear on such programs, that you don’t always get what you expect when predicting chaos and disaster.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Trump and Huckabee 2012

Now that Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee have withdrawn from the presidential race, Republicans have reason for regret, whether they know it or not.  It would be hard to come up with a better presidential ticket to go against Barrack Obama and Joe Biden than Trump-Huckabee.  The two Republicans would be like rum and sweet tea against the Democrats’ mineral water and ice. 

Trump announced his withdrawal from the race on Monday.  His explanations sounded evasive.  He wants to focus on his business interests and on the television program.  But Trump is a strategic thinker of the first order.  Obama’s big victory in the Bin Laden operation, suggested to him that the smart move would be to wait until 2016. By then he would be a Reaganesque 70 years old and a lot of ancient history might be forgotten.

Huckabee announced his withdrawal Saturday, saying that after consultation he realized he didn’t have God’s blessing.  In 2008 Huckabee, who is an ordained Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, did well in Republican primary states heavy with fundamentalist Christians.  He didn’t get a lot of momentum this time around. When he quit, most of the talk in political circles was about which other potential candidates might benefit: Sarah Palin? Rick Santorum? Mitt Romney? Pat Buchanan? The pundits began asking who would God endorse? 

But stepping aside now with the hope of a future vice-presidential nomination in mind sounds like a great move by Huckabee.  He has a “sidekick” quality that would endear him to voters, especially if matched with a “good-at-heart” tough guy like Trump. Huckabee would also be easy to fire should someone like Palin become available in 2020. 

Trump, of course, is all the things Huckabee is not, and vice versa.  Trump has been married three times, has a reputation for sharp business practices and for coming up with flashy ideas like invading middle eastern countries to capture their oil for the benefit of U.S. drivers.  Huckabee, sometimes known as “the Huckster,” quietly writes books like his recent series for school children on the history of the United States.  The first volume uses cartoons to tell the story of Ronald Reagan, America’s greatest president.  Huckabee also delivers understated commentaries on Fox where he recently chastised Natalie Portman for having a child out of wedlock.  

Though Trump and Huckabee have good reasons for not making a run for president and vice president this time around, the Republicans may still come calling in 2012.  Obama-Biden may slip up between now and then.  Obama could also make a knuckleheaded move like replacing Biden on the ticket with an even more irritating politician like Chuck Schumer or Harry Reid.  And, really, what better ticket do the Republicans have?  Huntsman-Romney, Daniels-Gingrich, Bachmann-Bolton, Pawlenty-Paul? 

Trump-Huckabee, Trump-Huckabee!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Oily Joe Barton

Corsicana, Texas is a nice town of 25,000 people about 50 miles southeast of Dallas and 180 miles north of Houston.  It was named after the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which was the family home of one of the city’s founders.  Probably none of this is of much interest to people who’ve never been to Corsicana. But a major event in the town’s history may be. In 1894 Corsicana was the site of the first major oil discovery in Texas. Though the oil industry is no longer important to the local economy, Corsicana is perhaps the closest thing to hallowed ground in the Texas religion of oil.

Corsicana is right in the middle of the 6th Congressional District, which is represented by Republican Joe Barton. He has been in Congress since 1985 and in last November’s election he beat his Democratic opponent by a margin of 35 percent. Barton is the most devoted acolyte of the oil industry in the House of Representatives.  And now he is the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a position that makes him a key player in making national policy on energy, the environment, and conservation.

 Barton is known for his combative and sometimes clownish actions on behalf of the oil industry.  Last June, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, was called before the energy committee to answer questions about the causes and consequences of the devastating Gulf oil spill.  In his opening remarks, Barton astonished just about everyone by apologizing to Hayward. President Obama had chewed out the CEO the day before in a meeting at the White House and won a commitment of $20 billion from BP for environmental cleanup and compensation to spill victims. Barton called the president’s action a “shakedown,” one that no corporation or citizen should have to endure. So he apologized.

One of Barton’s main targets in Congress has been efforts to regulate or curtail carbon dioxide emissions.  CO2 spews into the atmosphere when automobiles burn gasoline. Nearly every reputable atmospheric scientist agrees that it is the most important human contribution to global climate change.  But oil corporations and other industries that profit from burning petroleum and coal think the government is going too far in trying to restrict it.  

To support them Barton has recently introduced legislation to stop carbon dioxide from being designated as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, a law enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.  He told Congress in a floor speech that cutting back on carbon dioxide threatens life rather than helping to preserve it.  

“First of all, greenhouse gases, by definition are necessary for life,” his official website quotes him as saying. “As I stand here Madam Speaker and I speak - I am creating, as I breathe in and out, through the respiratory process CO2. Under the dictates of today’s EPA, I am a mobile source polluter simply because I am breathing. CO2 or carbon dioxide is necessary for life. Greenhouse gases are necessary to protect the environment. They have the ability to prevent heat from escaping into outer space and that is what creates the temperature zone that allows life to exist.”  Barton went on to say that the acceptable levels of carbon dioxide proposed by “radical environmentalist” are too low.  In the past, levels have been thousands of parts per billion higher, he said.

This week the subject of climate change came up again in Congress with the release of a report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s perspective on the effects of CO2 was just the opposite of Barton’s.  The report was written at the behest of Congress by a group of eminent scientists, business people, and politicians—hardly radical environmentalists.  They noted that rising sea levels caused by global warming are already affecting coastal cities and that the average temperature in the United States has gone up by two degrees in the last 50 years. The report concluded that scientific studies verify that climate change is real and that there will be profound consequences in the future if urgent action isn’t taken now. 

Barton quickly dismissed the report’s findings, saying it added nothing useful that would lead to an informed decision about climate change and how to deal with it. His seemingly off-handed comments suggested that he had completed only a perfunctory review of the report. 

But no one was surprised. Once again Rep. Barton had fulfilled his role as the energy industry's leading partisan, a position for which he is well paid.  According to the website http://dirtyenergymoney.com, which tracks energy industry contributions to politicians, Barton received more than $1.8 million from oil and coal companies in the last two years. It was the most of anybody in the House of Representatives and just behind Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who raised $1.9 million to lead the Senate.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rick Scott: America's Worst Governor

If there were a poll to pick America’s worst governor, the winner would be Florida’s Rick Scott and the margin of error would be plus or minus 0 percent.  

 Since taking office just five months ago, Scott has amassed a record of misdeeds that is unmatched for skullduggery. 

• He has tried to pack the state supreme court with conservative justices by dividing the court in two—one part to hear criminal cases and the other civil cases.  This arrangement would give Scott a whole new slate of justices to appoint.

• He has backed a law requiring women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound procedure and to hear a scripted lecture from their doctor on the risks of abortion.  Women may request a waiver of the ultrasound but they will have to pay for the procedure anyway. 

• He has killed plans for high speed rail line between major Florida cities.  He sealed the deal by rejecting $2.4 billion in federal support for the project, saying he wanted to leave the money in the federal treasury to help reduce the deficit. Instead, the money was redirected to other states, which were delighted to receive it. 

• He won passage of a law requiring drug testing for anyone applying for welfare or similar state assistance. The applicant would have to pay for the test if the result was positive and would be reimbursed if the result was negative. 

• Scott supports a bill that will reduce the time allowed for early voting from two weeks to one.  The bill also prevents voters from changing their address at the polling place and then casting their ballot.  Democrats believe the law will reduce the number of poor and minority voters, who usually vote for Democratic candidates.

Scott will sign a bill cutting the time people in Florida can receive unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 23 weeks.  Florida has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and provides some of the lowest benefits. Nevertheless, Scott and his Republican colleagues in the legislature believe reducing benefits will motivate people to find work. 

• Scott has proposed $1 billion in tax cuts for corporations, which will be acted on by the legislature next year.

• Scott will sign a bill that decriminalizes accidentally showing a concealed weapon in public. 

• Scott will sign a law that enacts criminal penalties for students who go to school wearing droopy pants that reveal their underwear.  

 With these actions, and similar ones too numerous to mention, Scott has compiled an enemies list that includes a wide spectrum of citizens:  Young women, school children, ordinary taxpayers, old people, low income people, voters, unemployed people, public transportation users, judges and lawyers.   It’s small wonder that after scarcely five months in office, Scott is viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of Florida voters, according to independent polling.  Some 55 percent say they would now vote for his opponent if the election were held again. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Politics of 'Straw Men' and 'Red Herrings'

A straw man is a distorted and difficult-to-refute argument your opponent attributes to you. A red herring is a dead fish that smells so badly you can’t help noticing it. In politics it’s an issue created to divert attention from what you’re really up to.

Conservatives invented a straw man when they said President Obama’s health care plan would be a single payer system leading to socialized medicine.  In fact, Obama’s plan from the start supported continuing private health insurance, but the socialized medicine fiction has yet to die. 

The Republican ballyhoo about slashing debt and reducing the government deficit is a red herring because it diverts attention from their ultimate goal, which is to kill or greatly reduce all social welfare and safety net programs.

Some ideas are simultaneously a straw man and a red herring. One is the argument, popular among conservatives, that the U.S. government  was founded as a republic and not a democracy. 

The conservatives say that in a democracy public demands on government have few restraints and in our system today those urges have gone too far. But if the country moved back toward a republic, the conservatives insist, political passions would be kept in check by powerful elite institutions like the U.S. Senate. This is why some on the right want to abandon popular election of senators and return to the original system where state legislatures appointed them.    

These ideas are a red herring in today’s political context because they divert attention from the conservative goal of silencing ordinary citizens in order to bestow power on useful friends like big business. The conservative argument is also a straw man because it raises an exaggerated specter of mob rule, which it attributes to "pure" democracy.

Opponents of democracy often take a philosophical tone in discussing these questions (a red herring in itself), but their real aim is to rationalize conservative objectives by painting liberals as being on the wrong side of history and averse to America’s true form of government. 

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently: “Over the years, the democratic values have swamped the republican ones. . . . Because we take it as a matter of faith that the people are good, we are no longer alert to arrangements that may corrode the character of the nation. For example, many generations had a moral aversion to debt. They believed that to go into debt was to indulge your basest urges and to surrender your future independence. That aversion has clearly been overcome [by those who believe in democracy rather than a republican form of government].”

The subtext here is about government indebtedness, which Brooks alleges will undermine the country’s future independence. It is also about morality and national character, which, according to Brooks, are already compromised by an impatient and self-indulgent populace.

Brooks has created a nearly irrefutable straw man here that targets popular support for such programs as Medicare and Social Security. Because of our massive government indebtedness, he is saying, it is un-American and morally wrong to continue these programs at their present cost.
The red herring is a little harder to spot. It shows up in his lofty sentiments about the goodness of people and their moral aversion to debt.  Concealed in the background is the shameful notion that fixing the deficit—really a fiscal monster that can be significantly reduced by withdrawing tax breaks for the rich—is more important to the country than health care for old people or support for the needy and disabled. 

While David Brooks writes in moderated tones on the topic of republic vs. democracy, other conservatives have gone off the map.  A speaker at a right wing conference in Salt Lake City several years ago described Sen. John McCain as a supporter of “mobocracy” because he concurred with some demonstrators that immigration reform should be carried out in a moderate and humane way.  Another speaker raged that the country is on its way to Mussolini-style fascism because certain politicians were listening to disenfranchised groups. 

Of course, most reputable historians and political scientists agree that the United States is a hybrid system with some elements of both direct democracy and a republic. There have been some gains for democracy with direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, and the abolition of impediments to voting such as the poll tax.  On the other hand, the wanton use of the filibuster by senate Republicans is a step in the other direction, as is the massive corporate influence on the political system. 
Keep watching  for straw men and red herrings. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Abraham Lincoln and the 'Tea Party'

Politicians often brag that this country is a nation of immigrants.  The statement is true, but that doesn’t mean we like it very much.

Anti-immigrant feelings have boiled over many times in U.S. history.  And the Tea Party is not the first political movement to take the position that new immigrants are bringing the country to ruin. 

In the 1840s and 50s a party sprang up called the Know Nothings, which looked and smelled pretty much like the Tea Party of today.  It wanted to limit immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany, and it wanted English to be the official language. Like the Tea Party, it sought to relax the separation of church and state so religious observances such as prayer and Bible readings could take place in the schools.  The Know Nothings hated government and taxes and wanted to impose their particular social and cultural views on everyone else.

Though the name may seem fitting in both the original case and for today’s Tea Party, Know Nothings got their label because they began as a secret organization whose members were instructed to feign ignorance if asked about what they were up to. 

Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Know Nothings were either in favor of slavery or lukewarm in opposition. This outlook helped make it possible for the party to win seats in Congress and to gain some important local offices.  Do the good liberal people of San Francisco know that in 1854 a Know Nothing candidate became mayor of their city and that California elected a Know Nothing governor? 

Being anti-immigrant and indifferent to slavery was a vile mix, which drew the disdain of Abraham Lincoln in 1855.  At the time, Lincoln was trying to put his career aright after losing a close fight to become U.S. senator from Illinois. His remarkable comments on the Know Nothings were quoted in “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

“…Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’  We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’  When the Know Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance.”

With the coming of the Civil War the Know Nothings faded away. But their instincts have resurfaced from time to time in the form of anti-Irish riots, anti-Chinese riots, and boisterous demonstrations in favor of federal, state, and local laws targeting immigration and immigrants.  With exception of the riots, the Tea Party is right in the historical mainstream. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

As the News Sank In

Baseball fans actually follow the news:  When the story broke Sunday night about the killing of
Bin Laden, fans at a Philadelphia vs. New York baseball game forgot baseball and began fiddling with their cell phones. The game continued on the field but the stands were as quiet as the last of the 13th on a cold night. Then, when the President confirmed Bin Laden’s death, a cheer went up and fans began chanting, USA, USA.

Networks turn in the wind:  The White House alerted the news media Sunday night that President Obama would address the nation on a breaking development at 10:30 p.m. EDT. Network programming was interrupted and anchors and reporters began reporting sketchy details about what the President was about to say.  Unfortunately, the President’s appearance was delayed for about an hour, leading to an agonizing outbreak of informational redundancy.  Anchor to reporter to expert to commentator to anchor to reporter to expert to commentator to anchor.  It made you wonder how far a well chewed piece of bubble gum could stretch.

Reporter’s return: Lara Logan, CBS chief foreign correspondent, who was raped and badly injured by a mob in Tahrir Square the night Mubarak fell, made her return to the air Sunday night on 60 Minutes.  She was interviewed by correspondent Scott Pelley about her unspeakable experience.  Moments after the recorded and edited interview, the 60 Minutes telecast was interrupted for the run up to the White House announcement.  Sharing the screen with the CBS anchor and other reporters and commentators was Lara Logan. She has reported on the hunt for Bin Laden and covered related news from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

Who would be the first?  Ever since Barack Obama became a presidential candidate, there has been danger in mentioning his name and the name of Osama Bin Laden in the same sentence.  The names are now joined in history, and it was not surprising that in the follow-up to Bin Laden’s death, the tongues of news reporters and anchors came ever so close to betraying them.  Only one network personality, however, went all the way, transposing Obama and Osama during a Monday night program.  An instantaneous recovery made the glitch barely noticeable.  And the winner is:  Her initials are RM and her last name rhymes with shadow. 

Star Spangled agony:  The national anthem is almost always butchered at sporting events by the third-rate voices of country western singers and rock stars.  But the spontaneous off-key rendition of the Star Spangled Banner sung by the crowd outside the White House Sunday night was perfect and endearing.  At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a crowd of midshipmen delivered an anthem that seemed to be pitch perfect.  You’d do your best too if your commander at drill the next morning was an ex-Navy Seal.