November 03, 2010

What happened?

The overwhelming reaction among some people I know to the election has been primordial despair. They flocked to Obama two years ago and allowed themselves to hope that the Bush Administration was a transitory phenomenon, an evil that could be overturned. Change was in the air and they dared to hope that the American political system had simply lost its way and could be reformed. After two years their hopes have been dashed, without the Democrats even really trying to roll back the damage done by the Republicans under Bush and Cheney, let alone move forward on the real reforms their supporters hoped for. The choice we faced this time around was between Democrats who will do nothing to help us and Republicans who will actively screw us. It seems Americans prefer an active agenda, even if it is wrong, to a passive one.

The general consensus is that anger at politics as usual in Washington fueled the Tea Party successes this year. There is no doubt that there is a deep and abiding anger at the grassroots on both the right and the left. In 2008 this anger fueled the Obama campaign bringing in the Democratic sweep of Congress on his coat tails. This year it brought in the Tea Party. However, it would be wrong for the Democrats to respond by trying to imitate Republican policies. Rather they should realize that they should have used their majority to push through the changes they promised in 2008. Even now, they can energize their base with a program of re-regulation, balancing the budget by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich and reducing the huge bite the wars take by ending them. They can put some muscle behind greenhouse gas reduction, alternative energy and environmental restoration, putting people to work in the process.

After the Obama victory, it was up to the Democrats to exert their newly found political muscle to enact a program that would justify their claim to be the party of change. Without concrete results to show for their efforts, they were vulnerable to being blamed for the problems they failed to solve. Problems that were caused by the Republican policies of the previous eight years. We are talking about 2 unpopular wars, a huge federal budget deficit, and the economic collapse that began in 2008, during the Bush Administration, and continues today. We are talking about massive federal bailouts of the Wall Street banks whose shady practices brought on the recession while their overpaid executives walked away with millions. All of this happened under the Republicans. Although the Democrats have given lip service to changing some of this, they have done almost nothing to change any of it and actively pursued some of the failed policies they were elected to change. So now the Republicans can come back and blame it all on the Democrats.

To be fair, the Republicans have pursued a relentless program of opposition to everything. Their strategy has been to paralyze the government and prevent any possibility of improvement in people’s lives so they can pin it all on the Democrats and win the next election. It was a sociopathic strategy but politically brilliant. And the Democratic response has been to repeatedly give in to Republican demands. They have moved steadily to the right to try to gain bi-partisan support. It was a fatal miscalculation because the Republicans never had any intention of compromising on anything.

The Democratic base of progressive voters feels abandoned. The debate on healthcare reform didn’t even allow their preference for single payer to be heard, let alone adopted. Obama has made a show of following George W Bush’s timetable for “withdrawing” from Iraq but even if he completes it, will leave a mercenary army of “contractors” even less accountable to anybody than the troops they replace. In Afghanistan, he proudly escalates the conflict without seeming to see that he is just adding fuel to the fire. The military budget continues to eat up half of our tax dollars. Bush may have started the bailouts but Obama continued them. And while Obama’s stimulus was a good idea, it wasn’t big enough to pull us out of the recession. Then he backed off.

But all is not lost. If the Democrats take this election as a wake up call, they can use the next two years to re-build their program and their base. Then they will have a chance to come back in 2012. But in order to do that they will have to convince people that they will follow through when they get the chance. Can they do it? Will they do it? I wouldn’t bet on it but I will be watching.

February 18, 2010

If they are going to Filibuster…Make ‘em really Filibuster

Now with all this talk about the 60 votes needed to pass anything in the Senate, I got to thinking. It turns out that the Republicans' so-called filibuster of everything the Dems want isn't really a filibuster at all. The Majority Leader could refuse to put a "hold" on a bill and force the Republicans into a real stand up and talk filibuster with real political risks if they want to block it.

First of all I was surprised because we never heard about this when the Republicans were in control with fewer than 60 Senators, and the Democrats were in the minority. I couldn’t help but wonder why the Democrats didn’t avail themselves of this rule to block the many abuses of the Bush Administration. There wasn’t any filibuster to block the Patriot Act (oh sorry, the Dems voted for that one en masse.), or the war in Afghanistan (they liked that one too); Going to war in Iraq; funding the war year after year; massive tax cuts for the rich and huge defense budgets that produced record deficits. The Dems never filibustered Supreme Court nominations of Scalia, Roberts, Thomas or Alito even though it was obvious they would lead the court in the wrong direction. And they have, with, most recently, the decision that rolls back a century of campaign finance reform, allowing faceless corporations to flood the political landscape with cash.

So, the Democrats are to be faulted for not doing everything they could, but to be fair, the Republicans’ use of the filibuster is unprecedented. They are using it to stop the majority from doing anything at all and then blaming the Democrats for not getting anything done. This strategy may not make friends for Republicans but it does appear to be alienating the Democrats from ordinary voters. With only two political parties, a negative image of the Democrats helps the Republicans. Although I hate what they are doing, I have to admire their organization and party discipline. If the Democrats had the same determination and discipline to carry out the mandate conferred on them by the voters in 2006 and 2008, they could achieve wonders. At least they could if they wanted to. Unfortunately, it appears that they don’t want to. You can speculate why all night but the fact remains that if they haven’t exercised party discipline or used every tool available to get their program passed.

Now, back to the 60 vote rule. What this refers to is a long Senate tradition of not limiting debate. In the House of Representatives, there are strict limits on how long a member can speak on a particular item before it comes to a vote. Not so in the Senate. One Senator can hold up a vote for as long as they can talk day and night. That is a filibuster. However, Senate Rule 22, Part 2, allows 3/5 of the Senate, or 60 Senators, to overcome this tradition and limit the debate, so a bill can come to a vote. Over the years, filibusters have been relatively rare, most often to oppose Civil Rights legislation. Since a filibuster can only oppose, it is most effectively used to support the status quo. Thus it is essentially a conservative tool, and that is how it has most often been used. It is anti-democratic because it can be used to thwart the will of the majority, as is happening now.

It is difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of stamina to keep going. One person will eventually have to stop. A group could theoretically take turns and keep going but at a price. They very visibly paralyze the Senate, actually all of Congress because nothing gets done without the Senate. If you saw Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, you get the picture. The majority has to decide, if they can’t get the votes to stop it, how long they are willing to let everything stop. Eventually somebody gives.

But, this isn’t the way its been working. It turns out that since 1975, the Majority Leader has extended a courtesy to any Senator to put a “hold” on any bill or nomination. As long as the Senator continues the “hold” nothing happens with that bill. It gives any Senator the power to filibuster without having to actually keep talking and without blocking the rest of the Senate’s business.

Here is the Definition of a “hold” from the Senate website:
hold - An informal practice by which a Senator informs his or her floor leader that he or she does not wish a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration. The Majority Leader need not follow the Senator's wishes, but is on notice that the opposing Senator may filibuster any motion to proceed to consider the measure.

Note that this is an informal process and “The Majority Leader need not follow the Senator's wishes”. This process is not part of Rule 22, or any other Rule of the Senate. It is entirely up to the Majority Leader. Senator Reid could wake up tomorrow and declare an end to the “hold”. He could bring up a Healthcare bill with Single Payer or a strong public option, the strongest bill that he could get 51 Senators to vote for, and bring it to a vote. Of course, the Republicans would still be able to filibuster it for real, (that is in the Senate Rules) and without 60 votes the filibuster could last for a while. However their game of blocking progress and then blaming the Democrats would be harder when the Republicans were forced to do their blocking in the glare of publicity.

Activists on both sides would be mobilized, which is good for our democracy. (Its always good when people break out of their political passivity) The next election might actually be decided by a spirited debate on the issues. Remember, the Democrats’ positions agree with the voters. The right is already mobilizing, so the Democrats had better find a way to mobilize their base or they could be in trouble. Progressives have become disaffected from Democratic leaders because they haven’t delivered on their campaign promise of Change. If the Dems stuck it out and passed a strong bill with a mobilized electorate behind them it could be even better than Obama’s promise of “Hope” in 2008. (and we would have a better healthcare system)

January 22, 2010

Granny D responds to the Supreme Court

When Granny D was 90 she got a lot of attention as she traveled around the country promoting campaign finance reform. Well, she turns 100 on Sunday and she still says it all so well. Here is her response to the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend all they want on our elections. Click on the headline to see the article on her blog.

Supreme Court sends Doris a Birthday Greeting

January 21, 2010 statement from Doris “Granny D” Haddock in response to the Supreme Court’s decision today to kill campaign finance reform.

Ten years ago, I walked from California to Washington, D.C. to help gather support for campaign finance reform. I used the novelty of my age (I was 90), to garner attention to the fact that our democracy, for which so many people have given their lives, is being subverted to the needs of wealthy interests, and that we must do something about it. I talked to thousands of people and gave hundreds of speeches and interviews, and, in every section of the nation, I was deeply moved by how heartsick Americans are by the current state of our politics.

Well, we got some reform bills passed, but things seem worse now than ever. Our good government reform groups are trying to staunch the flow of special-interest money into our political campaigns, but they are mostly whistling in a wind that has become a gale force of corrupting cash. Conditions are so bad that people now assume that nothing useful can pass Congress due to the vote-buying power of powerful financial interests. The health care reform debacle is but the most recent example.

The Supreme Court, representing a radical fringe that does not share the despair of the grand majority of Americans, has today made things considerably worse by undoing the modest reforms I walked for and went to jail for, and that tens of thousands of other Americans fought very hard to see enacted. So now, thanks to this Court, corporations can fund their candidates without limits and they can run mudslinging campaigns against everyone else, right up to and including election day.

The Supreme Court now opens the floodgates to usher in a new tsunami of corporate money into politics. If we are to retain our democracy, we must go a new direction until a more reasonable Supreme Court is in place. I would propose a one-two punch of the following nature:

A few states have adopted programs where candidates who agree to not accept special-interest donations receive, instead, advertising funds from their state. The programs work, and I would guess that they save their states more money than they cost by reducing corruption. Moving these reforms in the states has been very slow and difficult, but we must keep at it.

But we also need a new approach––something of a roundhouse punch. I would like to propose a flanking move that will help such reforms move faster: We need to dramatically expand the definition of what constitutes an illegal conflict of interest in politics.

If your brother-in-law has a road paving company, it is clear that you, as an elected official, must not vote to give him a contract, as you have a conflict of interest. Do you have any less of an ethical conflict if you are voting for that contract not because he is a brother-in-law, but because he is a major donor to your campaign? Should you ethically vote on health issues if health companies fund a large chunk of your campaign? The success of your campaign, after all, determines your future career and financial condition. You have a conflict.

Let us say, through the enactment of new laws, that a politician can no longer take any action, or arrange any action by another official, if the action, in the opinion of that legislative body’s civil service ethics officer, would cause special gain to a major donor of that official’s campaign. The details of such a program will be daunting, but we need to figure them out and get them into law.

Remarkably, many better corporations have an ethical review process to prevent their executives from making political contributions to officials who decide issues critical to that corporation. Should corporations have a higher standard than the United States Congress? And many state governments have tighter standards, too. Should not Congress be the flagship of our ethical standards? Where is the leadership to make this happen this year?

This kind of reform should also be pushed in the 14 states where citizens have full power to place proposed statutes on the ballot and enact them into law. About 70% of voters would go for a ballot measure to “toughen our conflict of interest law,” I estimate. In the scramble that would follow, either free campaign advertising would be required as a condition of every community’s contract with cable providers (long overdue), or else there would be a mad dash for public campaign financing programs on the model of Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut. Maybe both things would happen, which would be good.

I urge the large reform organizations to consider this strategy. They have never listened to me in the past, but they also have not gotten the job done and need to come alive or now get out of the way.

And to the Supreme Court, you force us to defend our democracy––a democracy of people and not corporations––by going in breathtaking new directions. And so we shall.

Doris “Granny D” Haddock

Dublin, New Hampshire