Recess Appointments and Filibuster Reform

Ending filibusters of executive branch appointments is such an obviously a good idea that no one is pushing it.

I’m delighted that President Obama used his recess appointment power for several key administration posts (and the government printer – WTF?).  He should do it more often, and I suspect will have occasion to if Senate Republicans continue the most egregious abuse of the chamber’s rules in US history.

But there is a way out of this mess, which really should not be a partisan issue — really.  That is to end the filibuster for executive branch appointments.  Many Senate Democrats are pushing for more far-reaching rules, such as ending the “silent filibuster” (which I also support), but getting out of the confirmation mess really is a no-brainer, and hasn’t received the attention it deserves as a common-sense reform.

Alexander Hamilton said it most succinctly in Federalist 68: “the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.”  The ability of individual senators to stymie specific executive branch nominees significantly undermines any President’s capacity to develop sound administration.  That was in fact probably the Republicans’ goal, although many of the filibusters were just using positions as bargaining chips.

Most importantly, though, executive branch filibusters are relatively negligible in terms of the parties achieving their policy goals.  One could at least argue that the minority should be able to filibuster, say, President Palin’s nomination of Joe Miller or Sharron Angle to the Supreme Court.  If she wants them as Interior Secretary, that would be a horrific policy decision, but it’s a decision that can be reversed as the voters throw her out of office.  Yes, there are consequences to terrible executive officials, see, e.g., Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales, but they are temporary.  Justice John Bolton would have been a disaster; former UN Ambassador Bolton is busy foaming at the mouth on Fox News and not doing anyone any harm.  (In fairness, Gonzales was actually a pretty decent state judge).

If there is a truly bad presidential appointment, any future Democratic minority should be able to get enough Republicans to join them and reject the appointment outright, although I admit that the GOP’s flight from reason makes this less likely.

Ironically enough, failure to move on this issue will in fact provide less accountability for the executive branch officials.  Presidents will start using more and more recess appointments, avoiding hearings and scrutiny altogether.  Perhaps that’s what the royalist faction of the GOP wants, but the rest of us should not have to put with it.

We’ve had lots of talk of late about the decline of the American Empire.  Maybe the US government can’t police the world, and if the Republicans have their way, it won’t even be able to run the country.  But it should be able to run itself.

Filibuster reform? OMFG!

All the returning Democratic Senators sign a letter calling for filibuster reform.

Could filibuster reform actually happen? I’ve been dreaming of it, but I doubted the votes were there after the November losses. Maybe I was wrong to doubt.

Many years ago, shortly after Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election, I (as a first-year public policy student) was crying into my beer in the presence of the legendary Richard Neustadt. After all, according to everything we were learning about politics, Nixon was entering his second term with enormous political capital, and therefore capable (from my perspective) of doing enormous damage. Remember, this was long before anyone thought of Watergate as a real threat to the President’s power.

Neustadt was reassuring, not only in this specific case, but in general: “Nixon doesn’t understand limits. He will be destroyed.” He turned out to be right. (Neustadt usually turned out to be right.) In a later conversation, when I expressed surprise that Sam Ervin, the last surviving member of Richard Russell’s segregationist gang, should become a hero of Constitutional government, Neustadt reminded me that it was Russell, more than anyone else, who helped Douglas MacArthur “fade away.”

If I were to try to generalize, Neustadt was asserting his faith in the Madisonian system in which excess on the part of one political actor would be punished by other political actors attempting to maintain their own power.

During the Bush II era, Republicans on the Hill abandoned their institutional loyalties and took a purely partisan stance that had them supporting the most outrageous claims of executive power. After Obama’s election, they shifted quickly from monarchism to whiggery, but with the same willingness to ignore all limits to get their way. And the Democrats seemed to lack the internal discipline to strike back.

Maybe that’s changing now, and maybe Neustadt’s Madisonian faith will be vindicated yet again. But it’s important to remember that Madisonianism is not self-executing. As Franklin said, we have a republic: if we can keep it. The theocrat/plutocrat/nativist coalition now doing business as the GOP has gone unchecked for too long. Meantime, kudos to Tom Udall and his fellow “young bulls” for forcing filibuster reform onto the Senate’s agenda.

Footnote If you wanted to be cynical, you might say that “centrist” Dems and near-Dems such as Lieberman and Pryor are acting consistently; when they were potential 60th votes for legislation, they wanted a working majority of 60; now that they are potential 50th votes, they want a working majority of 50. Whatever the motivation, I’ll take it.

9/11 First Responders’ Health Care: Did Coburn Win?

Tom Coburn took 9/11 first responders hostage — and might have won.

At least that’s what TPM reports:

Dems rounded up the votes they needed to break Coburn’s filibuster earlier this week, and spent much of the morning and early afternoon negotiating with him to prevent him from delaying passage of the legislation by several days.

Coburn’s price: a reduction of the price tag from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion.

It is December 22nd: even Tom Coburn can’t delay a bill in the Senate all by himself, past January 4th — the last legal day of the session IIRC.

What happened?  Most likely, Coburn agreed to be the stalking horse for the rest of the Republican Caucus, which was prepared to join him and perhaps sustain a filibuster.  The question was whether the GOP could have resisted media scrutiny and generated enough false talking points to run out the clock.  Finally, it decided that the answer was no — but the Democrats were worried that the answer might be yes.

Slicing the bill’s price tag meant that it extends over five years instead of ten.  Does that matter?  I would think so: a chronic illness doesn’t stop after five years because the federal funding runs out.

It’s possible, of course, that slicing the bill price made it better.  But given Coburn’s transparently mendacious excuses in the past about it — there were no hearings (false) or that it was illegitimate to consider it in a lame duck session (false and fraudulent, since the GOP had prevented it from being considered earlier), it’s hard to take an argument like this seriously.

In any event, Coburn was able to water down the bill.  Hopefully, this does not harm any of the first responders who risked themselves for his freedom.  But just remember this the next time Republicans tell you how much they care about national security.

The Huge Freudian Slip That Tells All

Stockholm Syndrome comes to Talking Points Memo.

Josh Marshall is up with a piece today about how filibuster reform “isn’t all-or-nothing” — a fact that some of us were saying a while ago.  He notes — as I did here — that the real culprit is the so-called “silent filibuster” that allows the obstructionists to filibuster and not pay any price for it.  But then he unleashes what seems to me to be this whopper:

Given what’s happened over the last four years, it’s probably a bit rich to expect Dems to make a good faith effort to reform or limit the use of the filibuster. Indeed, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the minority ever to do so. And frankly I don’t even think abolishing it outright is even a good idea. It probably makes sense to have some brakes on simple majority votes on the Senate. But some brakes, not absolute brakes, which is what the Republicans have brought it to now.

(Emphasis seriously added).  Now, the passage is a little unclear, but do you catch the problem?  Marshall seems to be assuming that the Senate Democrats are a minority when in fact they are not!  In the 112th Congress, they will hold a 53-47 edge.  Harry Reid will be the Majority Leader.  But Democratic impotence has become so common, Democratic inability to get it way so typical, that a Democratic majority is assumed to be a minority!

After Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, I think it was the Village Voice that led with a headline something like: “Republicans seize Senate majority, 41-59.”  It was funny.  It was also telling.

It’s time to end this nonsense: get rid of filibusters for executive appointments, and end the silent filibuster.  The Dems will chew up time filibustering Medicare cuts, and the Republicans will chew up time ensuring tax cuts for billionaires. I’ll take that.

Evan Bayh: Empty Suit to the End

It is truly a sign of American decline that Evan Bayh could ever get elected to anything.

When Empty Suit Evan Bayh announced his retirment from the Senate a few months ago, I called him an empty suit, although of course it would be better had he stayed and kept the seat for the Dems.  Now, the New York Times has seen fit to give him some of the most valuable space in US journalism to lecture us on why the Democrats took heavy losses in the midterms, and we can see that he’s a not-very-bright empty suit.

His piece was a typical collection of inane Bayh-bromides.  But one thing stood out to me.  Among his suggestions for a Democratic program going forward are:

Democrats should support a freeze on federal hiring and pay increases. Government isn’t a privileged class and cannot be immune to the times.

Now, it’s bad enough that this is absolutely 100% backwards on policy grounds: we’re at double-digit unemployment, so the government shouldn’t hire people?  The cure for a recession is…deflation?

But if that were all, it would be standard inside-the-Beltway idiocy.  The worst thing is his pompous second clause, about the government not being a privileged class.

This is coming from Evan Bayh.  Son of former Senator Birch Bayh (whose record towers over his son’s).  Who went to the St. Albans’ Prep School in Washington DC while his Dad was a Senator.  Who I’m sure had all kinds of problems connecting with powerful people and large campaign contributors when he decided to begin a political career.

We’ve heard idiotic lectures from Bayh before: usually pieces in which he castigates the Dems for not being serious about the deficit and also demands the abolition of the estate tax.  But this is really too much to bear.  At least we won’t have to hear them as much now that he is leaving the Senate.  This pretty much sums up his legacy. Buh-Bayh, moron.

The First Order of Business: Filibuster Reform

The Dems still have one House. They need to clean it up.

Now that the Democrats have held the Senate, they need to get their own house in order, and that means filibuster reform.  This time is now: the Senate can change its rules by simple majority at the beginning of a Congressional session, i.e. this coming January.

I’m assuming that Bennet wins in Colorado, as the Denver Post has already called it, and that Murray wins in Washington, since most the outstanding ballots are in Democratic King County (which includes Seattle).  That leaves the Dems with 53, including Holy Joe.  (Whoever wins in Alaska — either completely crazy Joe Miller or basically crazy Lisa Murkowski — will caucus with the Reps).

Is this majority enough to transform the filibuster?  No.  But it could be able to do one big thing, and maybe another.

First, end the filibuster for executive branch appointments.  It is simply unconscionable for the minority to prevent the President from filling his or her administration — regardless of which party is in power.  You don’t like Obama’s Czars?  Fine.  Give him up-or-down votes.  This really is a good government thing: the government has to run, and it has to be staffed.  No danger here of locking in political appointees past their time.

Will these 53 Dems do it?  I hope so.  You can always count on them to cave, and people like Mary Landrieu have tried to use these holds over appointees in order to extract concessions.  But this is so basic that it is really a requirement. 

Second, make them actually filibuster.  Many — including myself — were initially furious with Harry Reid for not making the Republicans actually filibuster, but there was a reason he didn’t: he couldn’t.  Under current rules, silent filibusters rule: all the minority needs is one Senator in the chamber to “note the absence of a quorum” to bring up a quorum call, and prevent cloture.

Now, most Senators might reject general abolition because they don’t want to give up that weapon if it’s really important.  Fair enough, I suppose — if it’s really important.  Put another way, making them actually filibuster could force them to disclose what some economists call their “reservation price” for something.  Right now, filibustering is costless.  It shouldn’t be.

The question is whether the Democratic caucus actually cares about helping their country (and their party), or whether they are more interested in their personal perks.  Heretofore, it has been the latter.  But they need to know that if they maintain the current system, they will lose the majority in 2012 — the 2012 Democratic Senate map is pretty ugly (defending Tester, Webb, MacCaskill, Cantwell, Stabenow, both Nelsons, and steaming pile of Kent Conrad).  They have to show that they can govern their own institution.

The New Yorker on Climate Legislation

Obama and the Senate “missed a chance” to get comprehensive climate legislation. You cannot be serious.

Read the whole thing.  Really.  Because if you don’t, and all you do is read the subtitle — How the Senate and the White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change — or just read the tag line — “Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change” — then you will get a totally distorted view of the piece.

The article makes it abundantly clear that from the start, only a miracle could have gotten comprehensive climate change legislation through the Senate, perhaps the world’s Most Dysfunctional Legislative Body.  Here’s the money quote, regarding the efforts to get Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on board:

Back in Washington, Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said. “He would say, ‘The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’ ”
Move a bill deeply changing several key sectors of the US economy quickly and quietly through the Senate so that Fox News doesn’t realize it’s a serious process?  John McEnroe has the only real response to that.  If that’s the only way that we’ll get a real climate bill through the Senate, then the answer is that we’re not going to get a climate bill through the Senate.
The article discusses some major tactical errors by the White House, and notes that Obama basically washed his hands of the thing by this part spring, but the line about James Buchanan — coming from an unnamed environmental lobbyist — is really just a cheap shot, not to mention completely inaccurate.  If the energy companies secede from the Union, then come talk to me.  Although at times it suggests weakly that had Obama invested the kind of effort on climate that he had on health care, he could have gotten a bill, even the author (Ryan Lizza) doesn’t really seem to believe it.
Instead, the article teaches quite clearly that if the US is going to do something about climate, it will come:
1.  Through states and localities;
2.  Through the courts, under the public nuisance lawsuits; and
3.  Through the EPA regulating emissions.
Only once that process starts in earnest will there be any chance for Congress to move.  And with the results of the November elections looking bad for the Democrats, it might not even move then.

Jim DeMint is an Extremely Important Person

Jim DeMint thinks it’s so critical that you know how important he is that he doesn’t mind if a few thousand folks in Africa die over it.

So now South Carolina Republican Senator James DeMint has decided to shut down the Senate over the next three months unless he and his staff have personally reviewed any and all legislation.  DeMint announced that he will put a hold on all bills, which essentially will mean taking a week to overcome his obstructionism: even if all other 99 Senators support a non-controversial bill, because the Senate runs on unanimous consent, DeMint will require a cloture vote to consider the bill, which means 30 hours of debate, and then another cloture vote to allow debate on the bill, which means another 30 hours of debate.  That’s what a “hold” is: it’s a threat to make yourself a royal pain in the rear unless you get what you want, and DeMint is very good at that.  And now, being just a pain means defeating the legislation, because there is not much time in a lame-duck session.

In other words, Jim DeMint has decided to remind everyone in the country that he is an Extremely Important Person, and thus play to the rabid GOP base.  What he doesn’t want you to know is that his little hissy fit will have real consequences to real people.

Senator James DeMint (R-Romper Room)

Consider a bill like S.384, the Casey-Lugar Global Food Security Act, a piece of legislation that is close to my heart: I just got back from DC to lobby for it on behalf of the American Jewish World Service, and found that Congress probably won’t be able to take up the bill in the lame duck session because Jim DeMint has decided to remind people that he is an Extremely Important Person.  And so the bill will die. (To assist in bringing it up again in January, please consider contributing to AJWS’ efforts here: that’s my fundraising page, and the money raised there goes to food security efforts.).

By way of background, a recent United Nations study reports that more than 925 million people worldwide suffer from severe hunger and malnutrition. 

925 million starving people?  Shouldn’t we do something about that?  You don’t understand: Jim DeMint is an Extremely Important Person.

Casey-Lugar would (among other things) create an emergency fund to purchase food in countries where starvation is at its worst: as Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman observe in their recent spectacular book, Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, in many countries suffering from hunger, farmers have food but can’t get it to starving populations, and in any event, current US law forbids purchasing food on site, delaying distribution by several months and impoverishing developing country farmers.  Most importantly, Casey-Lugar would begin to shift US aid policy away from just giving food to people toward making the poor self-sufficient by allowing for US assistance to develop agricultural capacity in the Global South.  For example, as Thurow and Kilman show, Ethiopia has made great strides in recent years toward food security by creating an agricultural futures market that stabilizes agricultural prices, allowing farmers to make a profit but keeping prices at more affordable levels.  Casey-Lugar would enable more experiments of this kind, and authorize (although not appropriate) $7 billion in funding for it and for the emergency fund.  A good short backgrounder can be found here.

An agricultural futures market like the Chicago Board of Trade?  That’s hardly socialist.  Who could be against that?  Well, you see, you don’t understand: Jim DeMint is an Extremely Important Person. Casey-Lugar is not an earth-shattering piece of legislation: at this point, it doesn’t seem even to be all that controversial.  It even has two Republican co-sponsors in the Senate (Lugar — of course — and Susan Collins). It passed the Foreign Relations Committee — which DeMint sits on — unanimously.

Well, maybe Jim DeMint will see all of this, and will deign to allow the Senate to take up the bill.  Or maybe not.  After all, Congres still has to take up all 12 appropriations bills, which of course the Republicans could also filibuster.  And who knows how many other good, small bills will die because Jim DeMint wants you to know that he is an Extremely Important Person.

DeMint claims he is a Christian: I have no idea, but I take him at his word. Conceivably, hundreds of thousands of people in the Global South could die because of the failure to pass this pretty non-controversial bill.  Theoretically, aren’t Christians supposed to be against that?  Well, maybe so, but these people aren’t nearly as Extremely Important as is Jim DeMint.

How about this, Senator?  Every time you come into a room, a band will play Hail To The Chief.  That seems to be really what is interesting to you.  The rest of us would like to act like adults.  In the meantime, if you want to try to make sure that DeMint has as little influence as possible in the next Congress, you can drop a few dollars here.

Steaming Piece of Senator

Kent Conrad makes clear his relationship to excrement.

Yes, it’s Kent Conrad again.  The AP reports that although Conrad claims to be a deficit hawk, he supports extending the Bush tax cuts for the extremely wealthy.

The worst thing about it?  I think he’ll get what he wants.  The Republicans will filibuster any attempt to do what President Obama wisely wants to do, i.e. extend only those tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000, and couples making less than $250,000.  Thus, in order to maintain the tax cuts for the middle class, Republicans will insist on the very rich getting their share.  And I think that the Dems will cave.

Oh — Evan Bayh, who loves lecturing the Democrats on fiscal responsibility, also wants to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.   Plutocracy is alive and well and living the Senate Democratic Caucus.

The Easy Way to Extend Unemployment Benefits

There’s a relatively painless way to pay for the extension of unemployment benefits.

The Republican Party, having blown massive holes in the federal budget when they were in power, have suddenly rediscovered fiscal responsibility.  Although tax cuts for the rich never need to be offset, the GOP insists on offsetting the extension of unemployment benefits wth spending cuts.

Fine.  Cut every single earmark in every single House district represented by a Republican.

I don’t know whether it adds up, but let’s try it.