hardline political news and analysis

Month: November, 2013

Hats off to Harry

Harry Reid may be a long-retired boxer, but on Thursday, he played more the referee – laying down the rules to the long battling Senate factions.   After years of delay, compromise and kvetching, Reid did what he had long threatened, and altered the filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to approve most presidential nominations.  Good for him!

Of course, we know the justifications for continuing to coddle the Republican obstructionists – Democrats will live to regret this alteration of the sacrosanct Senate “rules.”  Sen. Charles Grassley offered just such a warning before yesterday’s vote, promising, “When we have the majority … we [will] put more people like Scalia on the court.”  Uh, isn’t that the point, Senator?  You did put Scalia on the Court.

Whenever there have been discussions of limiting the filibuster, the old canards are dragged out to try to make reformers feel guilty about altering a solemn Senate tradition.  The tradition is over 200 years old, we are reminded, and has served the country well by preventing hasty enactment of half-baked nostrums cooked up by the constituent-driven House.  But for the right to unlimited speech, we are told, our system of government would have foundered generations ago.

Nonsense.  A disturbingly high number of Americans think the filibuster is protected by the Constitution, or was sanctified by Jimmy Stewart (which is almost as worthy).  But the filibuster was invented in the nineteenth century and was actually used more frequently in the House until Henry Clay got fed up with the histrionics and instituted tougher Previous Question (PQ) rules to limit debate in 1811.  Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a student of congressional history, decried the adoption of the revised rule as “the most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them.”  (Actually, Senator, Jefferson had recommended adoption of a rule to discourage  long-winded and irrelevant speeches.)

The Senate, not surprisingly, went in the opposite direction, dropping its PQ rules in 1806 and opening the way for two centuries of blowhards to read recipes, magazine articles and otherwise delay the legislative process.  Despite the shock and dismay with which Reid’s reform was greeted as an unprecedented assault on the sacred right of bloviating, changes in the filibuster rule are not all that uncommon, and have occurred in 1949, 1959, 1975, 1979, 1986 and last year, and I’ve probably missed a few.

Senators often assert their tradition of unrestricted speech is part of a strategy to secure changes to a legislative vehicle.  Sen. William Plumer (F-NH) knew better, acknowledging in 1806 that “speeches in the Senate in most cases have very little influence upon the vote.”  More than a century later, Sen. Carter Glass (D-VA) agreed, “I have never known a speech to change a vote.”  Perhaps the most honest explanation of Senate loquaciousness was the admission of  Sen. William Mason (R-IL) who confessed in 1903, “I love to hear the sound of my own voice.”  As Professor Sarah Binder of George Washington University, a renowned expert on the filibuster, has shown, the real motivation behind the use of the filibuster has little to do with high principle or the sanctity of the Senate: it is used to further one’s political agenda.

Of course, senators through the eras have defended the filibuster for more substantive reasons.  Certainly, the practice was used often by Southern segregationists to block consideration of civil rights legislation, although it was rarely described in such blatant terms.  “I ask for the right of unlimited debate in the defense of my people,” declared Sen. Russell Long (D-LA), “in defense of their customs, traditions and society.” He wasn’t talking about defending the right to eat etouffee.  Nor was Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) who, in his maiden speech to the Senate, waxed eloquent about the body’s “freedom of unlimited debate” which he would unleash to defend the South from “the tyranny of momentary majorities.” 

That’s all well and good, but as Harrah Arendt noted (and most halfway unbiased observers would agree), “a minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.”   And so they have, which is why Reid had to act to end the “unprecedented, unbelievable obstruction,” as he put it yesterday.

The problem is, in some ways, less the filibuster than the radical expansion of its use.  Filibustering was a rare phenomena in the 19th century, and as recently as the 20 years following World War II, there were fewer than a half dozen.  In his tenure as Majority Leader of the Senate, LBJ faced one cloture vote to end a filibuster.

As with so many other aspects of American politics, the use the filibuster substantially expanded with the rise in partisanship in the 1970s, and has continued to grow as has the enmity between the parties.  Still in the 24-year period 1970-1994, there were only 191 cases by Democrats and Republicans alike.  In the 1990s, Neil McNeil and Richard Baker note in The American Senate, Sen. Robert Dole “adopted the filibuster as his party’s weapon of choice. This was new. Never before had a party leader adopted the filibuster as an instrument of overall party policy. Filibusters had always been the tool of party minorities, decade after decade, but not this way. Dole’s filibusters came on measure after measure.”

Democrats unleashed their own fusillade of filibusters in the early 2000s, eventually exceeding 100 before regaining Senate control in 2007.  And then, things got really out of control, particularly after the election of President Obama signaled for Republicans that the old constraints on obstruction, vilification and denigration were off.  As the New York Times noted, half of all filibusters against presidential nominations have occurred since President Obama took office.  Twenty district court nominees have been filibustered under Obama, compared to just 3 before he took office.  Little wonder that Sen. Reid has repeatedly chastised Sen. McConnell at congressional leadership meetings at the White House for using the filibuster over 400 times to delay legislation high-level appointments of competent individuals. 

Predictably, Republicans are now warning that they will exploit the new majority vote rule when their turn in the majority comes, as it eventually will.  If and when it does, Democrats will doubtless chafe under the Republicans’ strong-arm tactics.  But let’s not pretend there was a better outcome here than Reid chose.  It is all well and good for critics like the Washington Post editorial board to intone that “a filibuster should be rarely invoked,” but the Post offered no solution for discouraging chronic filibustering by Republicans.   So what is the alternative: grin and bear it?

Some bemoan that ramping up a partisan battle in the Senate will jeopardize the progress made on bills like farm reauthorization and immigration reform.  Unlikely.  Republicans didn’t let those bills pass because they wanted to be buddies with Democrats.  They passed a farm bill for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks – that’s where the money is; and they passed an immigration bill because Republican senators, unlike their clueless House colleagues, have faint hopes of again becoming a nationally competitive party.  When they want to gum up the works, of course they will attribute it to the Reid power grab, but the likelihood is they would have done it anyway.  As former Sen. Byron Dorgan noted, “the Senate is 100% human break pads.”

I would not be all that surprised to see the Senate revisit the issue of the filibuster in the next few weeks, after passions have cooled and interest revives in finding a compromise.  Such accommodation, after all, is what the Senate intuitively seeks.  If that happens, Leader Reid will have been even more justified in taking the step he did to end chronic obstructionism by the minority.  In the meantime, hats off to Harry Reid and Senate Democrats who had the fortitude to declare what most Americans believe: enough is enough.



Nearly 40 years ago, a septuagenarian California crackpot named Howard Jarvis dreamt up Proposition 13 to lower property taxes and, not incidentally, starve state government of needed revenues.  California paid dearly in chaotic budgets and underfinanced services until the electorate finally decided in 2012 that enough was enough and raised taxes.

The economics of Prop 13 never really worked, but it didn’t have to.  The goal, Jarvis  admitted (decades before Grover Norquist fanaticized about drowning an under-financed federal government in the bathtub) was “to demolish local government and eliminate all the bureaucracy.”  Jarvis wasn’t much concerned with the zany impacts of his initiative, and dismissed criticism as a “crock of manure” while denouncing critics as “liars,” “dummies, goons, cannibals or big mouths.”

As goofy and destructive as Prop 13 was, it concisely laid out the immutable mantra of the American right from Jarvis through Reagan to the Tea Party: “lower taxes, less government.”  End of story.  Bumper strip nirvana.  The specifics were irrelevant; the needs of the nation – for example, providing jobs and unemployment assistance during the worst recession since the 1930s – were immaterial. If there was a question, the answer was, and remains, “lower taxes, less government.” 

It didn’t matter that Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times, or presided over the tripling of the federal deficit, or that under his leadership, the United States became the world’s largest creditor nation, or that interest payments on the debt more than doubled. Newt Gingrich’s nascent Conservative Opportunity Society stuck with the unalterable watchwords, “lower taxes, less government.”   It didn’t matter that under George W. Bush, deficits swelled three times higher than under Bill Clinton, or that we actually balanced the budget under Clinton while exploding the deficit by trillions under Bush.   It didn’t matter that in 2001, only 5% of Americans identified excessive taxes as their leading complaint; Bush twice-lowered taxes, especially for the superrich, and hyper-inflated the national debt.   “Lower taxes, less government.”   

Regardless of your respect for the perfidy of their motives, you have to hand it to conservatives: when they’re bought, they stay bought.  Their slogan was catchy and credible, and they were sticking with it, facts be damned.  Even when a report showed that Tea Party freshmen were seeking largesse for their districts just like earmark zealots of the past; even when it was shown that people like Majority Leader Eric Cantor were lobbying for stimulus money they had opposed providing; Republicans in Congress never waivered.  “Lower taxes, less government.”  

Democrats have been a little behind the messaging curve, despite the best efforts of some congressional leaders.  Shortly after losing the House in 1994, Democratic leaders gathered at a downtown hotel to listen to messaging experts from Anheuser-Busch – the constituents of the new Democratic Leader, Dick Gephardt – tell them that ceaseless repetition was essential in driving home a message.  “When you have repeated the message so many times you think you’ll vomit if you say it again, the public is just starting to hear you,” they advised.  Democrats would spend a dozen years in the minority until a succession of events and the stirrings of message discipline helped to restore their majority in 2006.

Which brings me, pretty circuitously, to Elizabeth Warren — or more accurately, to the proposal by some alleged Democratic “activists” to entice the novice  Massachusetts senator into the Democratic presidential primaries against Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Now, I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in hell that Sen. Warren would actually challenge Sec. Clinton, although politicians do sometimes embrace strategies that are unfathomable to anyone with a scintilla of detachment.  (Barack Obama did so in 2008, to Sen. Clinton’s detriment, but that was, in so many ways, another time.) 

My anguish is not over potential damage to the Clinton candidacy, but rather over what this undisciplined, fantastical, self-destructive idea says about those who are promoting a Warren challenge.

The headline in Tuesday’s Hill newspaper (11/12/13) was startling, to say the least: “Left wants challenger for Hillary.” The article discloses that “influential progressives” and “liberal leaders want Hillary Clinton to face a primary” in the 2016 primaries – “leaders” in this case identified solely as those at Democracy for America and the Campaign for America’s Future, neither with claims to influence in fashioning Democratic strategy or legislation.  Granted, the Hill is trying to breathlessly drum up little controversy and excitement where precious little exists, but the real concern is why any “liberal leaders” would conclude that what Democrats really need now is another knock down, dragged out primary battle that will consume hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used electing Democratic congressional candidates.

Such liberals must surely have a death wish if they think the best formula for Democrats is to promote an intra-party bloodletting.  Not that Hillary Clinton is a perfect candidate. (For the record, I wasn’t a supporter of her in 2008.)  But it is absurd to attack her for accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.  She has “some heavy lifting to do to show she’s not in the pocket of banks and a candidate of the 1 percent,” muses Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America. “That’s a more open question.”

No it isn’t.  Clinton was dead wrong on Iraq, and it cost her dearly in the 2008 primaries against Obama.  But to suggest that she is insufficiently dedicated to the Democratic constituency and is rather a tool of capitalist Wall Street – come on!  Show us the voting record that supports such a ludicrous claim. 

But there is something even more disturbing about this self-luxuriating, holier-than-thou purism that pervades certain liberal activists.  It should be abundantly apparent that there is a strong correlation between experience and success in the careers of our Presidents, both Democrats and Republicans.  Those who have held governorships where they have worked with legislatures, or senior legislative seats where they learned the art of negotiating and strategizing are the candidates who have the skills and savvy to succeed in the Oval Office.  Elizabeth Warren is an admirable and talented Harvard professor who rode a wave of popular support on one central issue to a Senate seat she has occupied for less than a year.  Her principled fight for consumer protection against Wall Street earned her the financial support of Democrats across the nation (including from many affluent contributors — does that make her also a tool of the 1%?).  She may well grow into a candidate of national proportions, with the skills and experience to be a credible presidential contender.

So why do some liberal activists seem to fall prey to grabbing for the nearest blinking light instead of thinking and behaving with the strategic aplomb required for national politics?  Why are they always so intent upon faulting the dedicated but pragmatic politician who knows the difference between professing an ideal and enacting a statute?  Why is there always one more issue, one additional cause, that rises above all other considerations to disqualify a talented, experienced, practical politician in favor of the glitzy rock star of the moment? And that’s where we get back to “lower taxes, less government.” 

Liberals believe that government has an essential role to play in addressing social and economic issues, so are relentlessly looking for the next cause, the next battle, the next priority.  They reflexively jump from issue to issue, adding up the causes and the expenses, compounding the new responsibilities for government.  One day it’s the environment, or income equality, then labor rights, then energy policy, or health care, then education, then regulating Wall Street, then nutrition programs —  all admittedly meritorious areas for attention.  But this smorgasbord approach to policy priorities makes messaging a challenge because the simple message that can be easily repeated and understood by the electorate invariably leaves out some cause that diverse Democrats are loath to slight.  So we typically include them all and forfeit the message.  (A notable exception: “Change.” But that had a unique messenger, as well a vague policy mandate.)

Conservatives have no such compunctions or inclinations.  It’s been the same, reliable, simplistic (and duplicitous) message for 40 years: lower taxes, less government.  Those few in the Republican Party who would expand the conservative portfolio to include other concerns (excepting extremist social issues) are not welcome and play no role in fashioning the message.  They don’t chair committees, they don’t get nominations, they do invite (and lose to) hard right primary challengers.  So there aren’t many of them left.

So as repellent and hypocritical as the conservatives’ playbook has been, can Democrats learn at least one lesson from them? Focus.  Stop piling issue after issue, purity test after purity test, on top of candidates. Stop threatening to withhold support and money and grassroots efforts for any Democrat who doesn’t measure up on every single one of our encyclopedic litany of priorities.  And stop promoting candidates who are tantalizingly wholesome or alluring on one issue but lack the basic experience and know-how that is essential in a national leader.  Hard as it may be, just once, take “yes” for an answer.