Yo Ho Yo Ho A Filibustero Life For Me

In response to my “Fortune Cookie” blog, Loyal Reader Larry asks the following series of very good questions:

Mr. Luna- I have some questions for you that I really don’t understand. I was a Political Science Major, but that was a long, long time ago. I’d like to understand why this 60 seat thing is so crucial, yet the Republicans never had this 60 seat thing for their 6 years, and yet they were able to pass and enact bill after Bill, and there was nothing the Democrats could do about it for 6 years, and no compromises were necessary. What am I not getting here? How come with more than 41 Senators, The Democrats were not able to prevent the Republican/Bush agenda.
Did I also dream that when Republicans were in the Majority(recently) they threatened to abolish the Filibuster and now the Democrats are afraid of this group of 41, but were the Republicans ever afraid of the Democrats 40+ Senators.
I continue to be baffled and bewildered. Are there 2 sets of rules? I don’t get it. Thanks

The simple, knee-jerk and emotionally-satisfying answer to all of your questions is: The Democrats are a bunch of Woosies!  (NOT my first chose of epitaph but decorum dictates restraint.)   The Democrats have not been able to advance a meaningful, game-altering agenda ever since LBJ lost the hearts and minds of the American people over Vietnam.  If the Democrats jumped off the Empire State Building (legislatively speaking) they’d miss the ground.  If the Democrats tried to take candy from a baby, the baby’d beat them up.  If the Democrats fell into an empty swimming pool they’d drown. 

That being said, as in all things (except, perhaps, responding to the presence of a very large and very hungry carnivore by screaming like a little girl and running like hell)  the situation is more complicated than a simple, knee-jerk and emotionally driven response.

The United States Senate was, by design, created  to be a collegial institution.  The principle of majority rules never has applied to this august body. Senatorial rules of debate and procedure adopted since the dawn of the Republic allow for a minority—even of one—to slow down or even block action.   To get anything done on anything controversial a supermajority is historically called for.   The Senate was designed this way to prevent a majority of the states from simply forcing their will on a minority of states.  The House is all about majority rules.  The Senate is all about consensus.  The filibuster—the ability of a minority of senators to take the Senate floor and essentially hold it hostage until some matter they object to is removed from consideration—is one of those devices.

Now, today’s filibuster is not your daddy’s filibuster. Once upon a time, for a filibuster to work, a senator or group of senators had to physically stand in the hall of the Senate, on their feet, talking without stop.  As long as they held the floor no other senator could speak or make a motion to move a bill forward: there could be no vote.  The filibuster senator(s) would demand that a quorum of senators (fifty percent) be present to witness their endeavor, guaranteeing that, as long as they held the floor, no-one could get pretty much anything done in the Senate. These are the filibusters of  the days of Mister Smith Goes To Washington.  As we’ll see below, those simple days are long gone.

Now there are physical limits to how long one senator can stand up and talk.  The record for a filibuster belongs to Strom  “Don’t Want to Give Equal Rights to Blacks But Don’t Mind Fathering a Child With One Out Of Wedlock” Thurmond, who ran on for over twenty-four hours to block the Voting Rights Act.  But you get two or more senators going at it in a tag team and a filibuster can last for ever.  To keep the Senate  from being forever hijacked  (the term filibuster comes from an amalgamated Franco-Dutch-Spanish phrase that, essentially, means “pirate”—filibustering is, therefore, in a sense, an act of legislative terrorism) by a handful of malcontents, the body adopted the rule of “Cloture.”  Cloture is a vote of senators to end debate—and therefore a filibuster—by invoking the Thirty Hour Rule. If passed, a move for Cloture means that, after just an additional THIRTY HOURS of debate, the matter on the floor must be brought to a vote.  The number of senators required to pass cloture originally was two-thirds; that threshold was dropped to sixty percent (sixty votes) in the 1970s, and remains so today.

The number of filibusters in the Senate have sky-rocketed since the early 1990s.  You can thank Bob “Easy, Boy” Dole for that one.  Back in 1993 the Democrats were giddy with power, controlling majorities in both the House and Senate and with their man Bill in the White House.  Having been elected to deal with the 1991-1992 recession on the mantra “It’s The Economy, Stupid”, Clinton sent a stimulus bill to Congress in early 1993.  Republicans in the House condemned it as more Democratic tax and spend politics.  With a large majority in the House, however, the Democrats were able to ride roughshod over the GOP,  passing the bill without allowing the Republicans much in the way of debate or amendment.  Dole, the Republican Senate minority leader, decided to teach the Democrats a lesson in congeniality. Dole dug  out a Senate Rule that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 19th  century. (Say what you will about Dole the Presidential Candidate—he was a Whiz bang Senatorially leader, the likes of which neither party has seen since he left his real home for the Quixotic ’96 campaign.)  The rule essentially allows you to “phone-in” a filibuster.  If your side in the Senate has a secure 41 votes to block a motion of cloture, your side can simply announce it will filibuster a bill if it is brought to the floor.  The other side, knowing they cannot bring the bill to a vote and facing the possibility of a real, stay up all night in the Senate filibuster, is now helpless. The bill dies without sixty votes.

When Dole did this to the Democrats they responded with anger, frothing at the mouth and sputtering before the press about how undemocratic and unfair it was.  (Clinton’s stimulus plan died.)   Bob Dole responded by blowing them a raspberry.  Then Republicans took over the Senate in 1994 and, for the next six years, Democrats started to use Dr. Dole’s Pain Free Magic Filibuster Elixir, guaranteed to kill bills before they kill you.  Republicans responded with anger, frothing at the mouth and sputtering before the press about how undemocratic and unfair it was.  Democrats responded by blowing them a raspberry. Then Democrats took control of the Senate in 2001 and Republicans Doled them with filibusters.  Democrats sputtered, Republicans raspberried.  When Republicans took back the Senate in 2002, though, things turned even uglier.  Democrats began using the Dole filibuster to block several of George W. Bush’s more controversial (at least in their minds) appellate court nominations.  Republicans sputtered and frothed—and threatened to change the rules on judicial nominations to take a vote of cloture down to a simple majority, effectively killing the use of the filibuster.  Republican leaders at first called this the “nuclear option” as in going to total war with the Democrats, changing the incendiary phrase to the “Constitutional Option” (which, like many GOP handles, was both misleading and false: there is nothing in the Constitution that precludes the use of the filibuster in the Senate.)  Then John McCain stepped into the breach (that was back in the pre-2008 days when McCain was still a moderate maverick and not the cranky old reactionary conservative he morphed into).  McCain reminded his fellow party members that, while they were currently in the majority one day they might not be so lucky and, when that day came, they might really like to be able to use a filibuster or seventy-three to block the judicial nominations—and other actions—of some future liberal Democratic President.  Say, a charismatic black politicians from, or, I dunno, Chicago?   McCain led the Group of 14 senators who pushed through a compromise:  the Democrats would practice more restraint in blocking Bush judicial nominations, the filibuster would remain untouched. Reactionary-right Republicans continue to this day to condemn  cranky conservative McCain for being a mooshy RINO for betraying his party with his Gang of 14, even though that is the reason why, five years later, a minority of forty-one Republicans in the Senate can now derail healthcare—and the rest of the Obama agenda.

Of course, that is also not the whole story, either.

For a party to successfully use the Dole filibuster the party must have a firm, dependable forty-one votes.  That means, if the party is in the Senate minority, pretty much every member has to vote in lock-step.  For the Republicans that means ALL forty-one senators have to toe the party line to avoid cloture—which they DO!  The Republican party of today is also not your daddy’s party.  The Grand Old Party has become the Old Southern Party consisting lots of politicians who, in years past, would have been Democrats simply because they would never have belonged to the party of Lincoln.  But the GOP is no longer the party of Lincoln—it is the party of Reagan with all the anti-liberal, anti-Washington rhetoric, which are code words for all  anti-civil rights movement and anti affirmative action rhetoric–that implies.  Over the last twenty years the Republican Party has systematically purged moderate and liberal Republicans from their Congressional ranks such that, today, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina is being called too liberal.   The only remain Republican senatorial moderates—read Olympia Snow and  Susan Collins—understand that, unless they break to the right they’ll be busted out of politics altogether by conservative primary challengers.  So the Republican party has become one conservative beast with many mouths and limbs, moving in ideological lockstep.

Bully for them.

The Democrats, however, continue to live up to Will Rogers’ famous line, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”  The reality is, while the Democrats, by title, controlled sixty votes in the Senate until this Tuesday, the Democratic senators are ideologically divided between traditional liberals like California’s Feinstein and Boxer, Blue Dog  “moderates” (read fiscal and, mostly, social conservatives) like Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and DINOs like former Democrat Joe “Teach You All For Giving Me the VEEP Slot On A Losing Ticket” Lieberman.  This motley crew couldn’t find common ground on what condiments to put on a hotdog, let alone keep enough party discipline to deliver an assured sixty votes.  That’s why, even though Democrats had more than forty votes in the Senate throughout the Bush years, they couldn’t block much beyond the most controversial Bush judicial appointments and the Republicans could get much of their domestic—and almost all of their foreign policy—agendas adopted.

The real danger to the Republic, however, is not the filibuster or even the failure of healthcare reform.  The real danger is that, over the next several election cycles, Democrats follow in the footsteps of their Republican Brethren and begin to really work at ideologically purifying their ranks.   A number of the more conservative Democrats in purple states  may start to think about doing a full Lieberman (which Lieberman, with his trademark  jello-like resolve, hasn’t mustered the courage to finally do, yet) and bolt to the GOP.  Other moderate-conservatives might find themselves targeted by increasingly liberal opponents in their primaries.  The result: a US Senate divided between two completely antagonistic ideological blocks which tolerate no compromise and forge no consensus.  Under these circumstances the Senate simply cannot function: nothing can get done.  Which ever party is in the minority, enjoying more than forty votes, will simply obstruct the other party until they get propelled into the majority by an angry public—only to not get anything done when the minority blocks them.

The United States may well be heading into its Fourth Republic Phase.  Back in the 1950s the French government (the Fourth Republic) foundered when partisan division rendered the parliament impotent to deal with major problems like the Algerian problem.  The political paralysis and rising social crisis almost resulted in a military coup, averted only by the extra-constitutional creation of a new Fifth Republic by the godlike Charles de Gaulle.  The French had to completely redesign their government (producing the “French” or “Mixed” model, in which the people elect both a President who appoints a Prime Minister to run the government, and a Parliament which approves or fires the Prime Minister and passes laws).

I don’t see Americans, with their almost Japanese reverence of their political ancestors, willing to consider a major revamp of our system of government to deal with such paralysis any time soon.  And I sure as heck don’t see a de Gaulle out there anywhere on the political landscape.  (Colin Powell might have had a chance at the role if he hadn’t squandered his credibility defending nonexistent WMDs for a President who rewarded him by letting his administration rivals stab him in the back and heave his political corpse off the second term truck.)

So that, dear Larry, is why the Democrats couldn’t stop the Republicans, why the Republicans can stop the Democrats and why both parties are poised to stop the political heart of the American Republic.

Advertisements

Go Fish

fish-in-newspaperFish left such a thoughtful comment to my last post that I had to take the time to address in an illustrious fashion.

Dear Fish,

You smell like a three-day-left-in-the-sun-real-world-version-of-your-online-avatar.

Sincerely,

Lunacy

No, no. that’s not what I really meant to say.  As far as I know Mr. Fish (who should really pal around with Mr. Chips) is a paragon of hygiene and Body Shop botanical splendor, the mental images of sub par dentistry and grimy fingernails his less than genteel online manor suggests notwithstanding.   A serious statement (or as close to one as Fish seems capable of tapping out with a solitary finger) deserves serious response.

What did then Candidate Obama mean –and his supporters hope for—when promising change?   That would be Change from the worst economy produced by any two term president in modern history?  (And no, this is not the Obama recession any more than the first two years of the Gipper’s Administration are called the Reagan Recession.)  This is not the verdict of left wing hippy type intellectuals.  Check out former Bush speech writer David Frum’s comments last week in which he pointed out:

In terms of income growth and poverty reduction, Bush performed worse than any two-term president of the modern era. Even in the best year of his presidency, 2007, the typical American household still earned less after inflation than in the year 2000. The next year, 2008, American households suffered the worst income drop since record-keeping began six decades ago.

Or maybe it’s change from a litany of some of the biggest mistakes made by any modern administration as summarized  by Craig Newmark, a list which includes:

• Going to war on false premises;

• The greatest disaster relief failure in American history;

• Controversial (and, one might add, potentially dangerous and often unconstitutional assertions of Executive Power;

• Becoming the first administration in modern US history to overtly condone torture;

• Unprecedented politicization of the departments of the Executive Branch (can you say Justice) and political patronage appointments of demonstrably incompetents (see number 2 above) ;

• Fiddling while Wall Street burned and then putting out the fire with a trillion dollars in public money; and

• Gutting environmental policy while exposing millions of Americans to increased health and quality of life risks.

Or how about change in simply ending what an overwhelming numbers of professional historians (more than any other president at this point in the post-presidency) call one of the worst administrations in history.

Of course my own personal favorite bit of change:  having a president who can now use the language of Shakespeare without making the Bard want to switch to French.

Fish,  read a book.  Read history.  Read SOMETHING other than right wing blogs perused while listening to right wing talk radio.  Obama is not the best thing since sliced bread.  He is not the Messiah.  He is making plenty of what I consider to be significant mistakes which all into question his ability to produce the change his supporters hoped for.  But by any objective standard he is so far performing better than his predecessor.  That is a good thing.  Democracy worked.  The people spoke and maybe things improve.

So Fish, I sign off with YAJSCIIYLKJARRWTIJWTDYIMY.EHOC.*

Best, Lunacy

(*You are just so cute in your little knee-jerk and rude reactionary ways that I just want to dip you in my coffee.  Extra hot, of course.)

I

Summer Song

 Broke my long hiatus from punditry today with an article on the city’s faux-budget. Read it, hot from the pages from CityBeat Analog, here. Haven’t written since my last, aptly named entry, “Last Hurrah” back in April. Don’t really plan to write any more until the end of August. I’m not teaching this summer, for the first time in around 20 years, so I’m taking the summer off from my usual concerns–teaching, administrating, teaching, punditrying and, of course, teaching–to pursue other pursuits (beach, patio, other writing projects, beach, patio and, above all, five o’clock proseco time in the gazebo. I’m not kidding. We have a freakin’ gazebo and, every summer day at 5, adjourn there for a glass of cold proseco. It’s a good life.)

In any event, what is there to say right now that’s worth saying? At the local level things in June, 2009 are not really all that different than in June, 2000 or 2001. The city continues to muddle along with the usual mediocre municipal mundanity: precarious finances, feckless leadership and a gentle diminishment of America’s finest city to just another over-extended, under-repaired American town. Frye will be off the council soon, Jerry will be off to gentlemanly retirement and DeMaio will be Mayor—so it has been written, it seems, so it will be done. The Tribe of Five Old White People will continue to dominate the County. The Airport Authority will continue to plan billions of dollars in new projects that will never be spent for an airport that will never be adequate or replaced. The Chargers will continue to lobby for their new stadium which will inevitably be built with public monies (my suggestion, alas, that they build it beneath a three trillion dollar convention center expansion—which, I think, around the amount the convention center really dreams of spending) whether it takes another year or ten. Only the decline of the UT and the tantalizing possibility that the new owners might realize that if Kittle and Kompany continue to dictate editorial viewpoint the paper’s circulation will continue to shrink to the sixty-five and older north of Mira Mesa Boulevard crowd offers some hope for a break in the local monotony. Who knows – by fall the UT may have a new crowd (albeit probably a bunch of twenty-somethings paid minimum wage) flogging the pagewaves. Couldn’t hurt.

Of course, things have changed dramatically in Sacramento. Six years ago we had an unpopular second-term governor disowned even by his own party presiding over massive state deficits, declining services, increasing taxes, unrestrained partisan warfare with absolutely no realistic solutions being offered by the legislative leadership lugs. Oh, how times have changed. (Dramatic pause for sarcastic effect.)

And, at the national level, we have our Obama moment, Act One. Tobacco has been regulated. Some form of healthcare reform is on the way. The economy is no longer sinking. Yay. Except that the tobacco reform is about two generations too late to really matter, the healthcare reform is going to be delightfully watered down and any leveling off of economy we’re currently seeing is actually a consequence of actions taken last fall before Obama came into office. It takes around six months or more for policy decisions in DC to trickle into the real economy—the Obama stimulus won’t really begin to be felt until late summer and, by then, will be revealed, I fear, to be too little. Unemployment continues to rise – my bet is it eventually hits 11%-12%. Foreclosures continue to mount and the other shoe of the real estate debacle—the commercial side of the house—is caving. (Count empty storefronts and commercial “For Rent” signs next time you’re out.) At some point Obama’s love affair with Wall Street and Wall Street types has got to end and more aggressive Keynesian tactics aimed at homeowners and consumers have got kick in. According to retail experts, it’s going to take ten years, at this point, to get back to consumer spending levels in 2007. If everything starts turning around now. Obama keeps going the path he’s going and he runs the risk of becoming the American Kiichi Miiyazawa, (the Japanese Prime Minister who helped keep Japan from falling into depression back in 1990-1991 but, instead, ushered in a decade plus of stagnation.) The world can—and did—survive a stagnant Japan. It won’t survive, with any stability, a stagnant United States. Meanwhile national discourse has degenerated to a nasty level that simultaneously makes dock workers blush and insults the intelligence of second graders. I’m taking the summer off from Fox, MSBNC and the entire AM dial. I haven’t heard one original thing said (Obama is a radical, communist-socialist-muslim-American-hater and Republicans are Rush Limbaugh) in months by any of my brethren (albeit it far more lucratively compensated kin) in punditry. My bet is, come September 1, I turn on Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews after a two-month hiatus and I won’t have missed a beat. Maybe, by end of summer, democracy will have come to Iran. (Which I doubt. Erstwhile president Ahmadinukejihad will emerge from this ultimately stronger, probably having co-opted the authority of the religious clerics and, thereby, regressing Iran back to a standard authoritarian model.) If democracy does triumph, however, people are going to (oh, it gives me gout right down to my little toe to write this) reassess the Bush-Cheney theory of viral democracy. Look at Lebanon. But that’s a debate for another month.

In short, I go into the summer feeling crotchety and persnickety about all things political. By summers end, though, batteries recharged, feelings reinvigorated, I’ll be back to pound the punditry pages. Hopefully in a reformatted format—one of my summer projects is to try and upgrade and integrate this blog into more comprehensive website that can be useful to both my students and you, my faithful reader. (If there are any of you left – alas, even poor Mlaiuppa has bailed on me given my niggardly natterings. ) As such, a bid you summer time adieu. Look for me when the dog days are over, if you care to.

Land of Opportunity

Which would be–if a Pew Research poll and piece working it’s way around the internet by a former Reagan Treasury official—not these United States. At least anymore.

The Pew Research poll, published this morning, concludes that “far more Americans now see their country as sharply divided along economic lines.” According to the poll results, in 1988 only 26% of Americans thought the country is divided between haves and have nots; today the country is evenly split 48%/48% on the issue. The number of Americans who see themselves as falling in the have-not category has also grown significantly, doubling from 17% to 34%.

Meanwhile, in a scathing analysis by Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration and a former assistant editor of the Editorial page of that bastion of Capitalism, The Wall Street Journal, the hollowing out of the American economy by over twenty years of Reaganomics and neo-liberal trade policies is blisteringly laid out.

Craig opens the piece, entitled “American Economy –R.I.P.” with the statement that “The US economy continues its slow death before our eyes, but economists, policymakers, and most of the public are blind to the tottering fabled land of opportunity.” He concludes “Hubris prevents realization that Americans are losing their economic future along with their civil liberties and are on the verge of enserfment.” What flows between is a detailed analysis of the real numbers in US trade and productivity that point toward a continued downward spiral for US middle and upper middle class households.

Click the links above for the documents in their entirety—they are a worthwhile read. They also underscore what is likely to prove to be the final nail in the Bush/GOP political coffin (as if Iraq wasn’t enough) –- the failure of the Republican supply-side agenda to provide true prosperity to the vast majority of the American public. In 1992 Bush the elder went down to defeat because, as Bill Clinton, they forgot “It’s the Economy Stupid. It looks like Bush II didn’t learn from Poppy’s mistake.

You Go To War With The War You’ve Got

Of all the canards presented in this Tuesday’s State of Denial speech, the line that has stuck in my craw the most was the President’s statement, in regards to the situation in Iraq that: “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we’re in.” What a load of balderdash.

OK, it isn’t the war he and the Vice President of Darkness said we were entering. They told the American people this was going to be a cakewalk. What they failed to mention was that it was going to be a cakewalk lined with IEDs. But plenty of other voices argued loud and long right up to the dropping of the first cruise missiles that this, what we have today, is exactly the sort of war we were entering in March, 2003. An endless list of scholars, political figures, foreign intelligence services and journalists pointed out that if evil Saddam was bumped off, the US would either have to commit a Vietnam-era level of force and money for a Vietnam-era amount of time or face an escalating descent into chaos and sectarian violence which would weaken American security and heighten the power of even more radical regimes in the region.

So, when the President says “This is not the war we entered in Iraq,” he is being either disingenuous, naïve, deliberately deceitful or just plain dumb. None of these being answers that heighten confidence in our Commander in Chiefly-cluelessness.

Oh, and to all of you out there who wake up every morning thinking, “Impeach Bush,” forget about it. The real target of impeachment should be Darth Cheney.

George W. Bush lives a fantasy life that he believes to be real. You know, the one in which he was a successful oilman and big league baseball team owner and not just the beneficiary of the largess of his daddy’s sycophant friends. People may have marveled when George W. met the former KGB’er cum head Russian, Vlad “the impaler of Russian democracy” Putin and could “get a sense” of the up and coming Pinochet of the East’s soul. I didn’t. Having observed both Bush’s and Putin’s rise to power in 1999-2000 while living and teaching in Russia for the year, I saw great similarities in the two. Both are men of such limited imaginations that they cannot conceive of their own limitations.

No, George W. Bush truly and honestly believes everything Dick “I didn’t get to nuke the Commies but maybe I’ll get a chance with Al Qaeda and Iran” Cheney told him. Therein lies the pity. Felony stupid is not grounds for impeachment. But if it can be shown Dick “The truth? We don’t stinkin’ need no truth.” Cheney deliberately lied to Congress on his various beat the war drum forays to Congress in 2002 and 2003, we’ve got a high crimes of the sort that sent Ollie “yeah I was convicted but I got off on a technicality just like all those criminal scum I rail about on the radio” North to jail, albeit briefly.

So if the Democrats in the Congress want redress for the mess the nation finds itself in thanks to Bush & Cheney, Inc., they should vigorously pursue the promised hearings on pre-war intelligence and build an evidentiary trail leading not to the White House, but to Number One Observatory Circle (You know, the place the Veep lives—and charges lobbyists a fortune to have tea at….) That’s where the bill for the political manipulations of the past six years should be presented for payment in full.

(Editorial note. Apologies for all the links– I’m like a kid in a new toy. In 3+ years the UT could never set me up with a weblogging system that supported me, a Mac [the one, true, faith] user allowing me to actually link my blogs. The CityBeat folk, bless their underpaid little hearts, managed to do it in about 7 minutes. Home sweet home.)