Next: Senate Reform?

Apparently the Senate took some sort of procedural vote on health care reform in the middle of the night, and it passed. The bill itself didn’t pass, mind you; the vote was a procedural vote that clears the way for another procedural vote. They’ve got at least two more of these procedural votes to go before they get to the real vote, which is expected to happen on Christmas Eve.

At the New York Times, Paul Krugman asks if Congress is capable of making hard choices and acting responsibly. He argues in particular that the Senate must change its parliamentary rules — which are not spelled out in the Constitution, rightie hysteria to the contrary — so that a year like this one in the Senate cannot happen again.

The Senate rules as they are assume that most senators are not crazy. The Senate has always struggled with some level of corruption and incompetence, but when the nation faced a crisis most senators were capable of responding responsibly and rationally. That is not to say that these responsible and rational people always made the best choices, but you could see they had responsible and rational reasons for choosing as they did.

But now the body politic is infested with some sort of social pathology called “movement conservatism,” which is neither responsible nor rational and exists, like a virus, merely to replicate itself. Although there are many vested interests pulling its strings, ultimately movement conservatism is a brainless organism that is killing its host.

The vested interests themselves are not working in their own long-term best interests, since an impoverished and backward America is not conducive to profits. Nor is a dead planet. So one could question whether there is any intelligence at all directing the Right.

That said, Krugman explains the differences in the parties —

Some conservatives argue that the Senate’s rules didn’t stop former President George W. Bush from getting things done. But this is misleading, on two levels.

First, Bush-era Democrats weren’t nearly as determined to frustrate the majority party, at any cost, as Obama-era Republicans. Certainly, Democrats never did anything like what Republicans did last week: G.O.P. senators held up spending for the Defense Department — which was on the verge of running out of money — in an attempt to delay action on health care.

More important, however, Mr. Bush was a buy-now-pay-later president. He pushed through big tax cuts, but never tried to pass spending cuts to make up for the revenue loss. He rushed the nation into war, but never asked Congress to pay for it. He added an expensive drug benefit to Medicare, but left it completely unfunded. Yes, he had legislative victories; but he didn’t show that Congress can make hard choices and act responsibly, because he never asked it to.

Righties have no interest in governing, in the same way that small children have no interest in nutrition, and if you put them in charge of government they behave like the proverbial children in a candy store. Thus, the whole country is being Californiaized.

Once upon a time — the 1960s, to be precise — threatened or actual filibusters affected only 8 percent of major Senate legislation. After the Dem takeover in 2006 this figure soared to 70 percent. I suspect this year it has been higher. Like I said, the Right exists only to sicken its host. (Of course, in the same period of time the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has grown from 50 to 23,000, I’m told.)

And the filibuster is not the only procedural trick the Right has used to screw up the Senate. It appears that using procedure to stop the proceedings is about all they do.

Krugman makes some suggestions for amending the filibuster without abolishing it outright.

For a more radical proposal that I do not necessarily endorse — and which would require a constitutional overhaul — Charles Lemos decries the way in which people in rural parts of the country are overrepresented in the Senate. So often, the senators who stand in the way of progress, both parties, are from states with very low populations. Lemos argues that these low-population senators are the ones most under the influence of lobbyists and do the most damage. Lemos acknowledges that changing the way states are represented in the Senate isn’t going to happen without tearing the country apart.

Even so, there’s an argument to be made that Senate reform must become a priority, because without it nothing else can be a priority. Even if it’s killing us.

27 thoughts on “Next: Senate Reform?

  1. “…neither responsible nor rational and exists, like a virus, merely to replicate itself…” Wonderful!

    Maha, I’m not sure it’s the low-pop rural that skews the situation as much as low-diversity v. high-diversity areas.

    Whatever it takes, though, we have to — we really must look at what is jamming the system and the Senate appears to be jam central. Finance reform, limits on lobbying, maybe return to the fairness doctrine — much greater diversity in opinion — would help. I think we have to grow up and self-impose limits on behaviors and language, too. We’ve been in a kind of country-wide adolescence for decades.

    Or maybe that’s beside the point and we just need to make 2 senate seats per state the basic minimum, increasing according to population, each seat having a much larger constituency than in the House, but ending with a larger, more diverse senate. Certainly the South and Texas have been seeing huge population shifts, greater diversity, numbers of progressives moving to jobs in the new South. And the new populations continue to be represented largely by retrograde white males whose values and ethics predate school integration and shifting political majorities.

    Or maybe, as I think frequently, just move to Canada!

  2. “…an impoverished and backward America is not conducive to profits.” True, but in a banana republic, which may be where we’re headed, the mega-rich who live in them do not invest in them, do not need their citizens to be even relatively well-off. let alone forward because the rich reap their pelf elsewhere – also applicable to America’s financial and corporate players today.

    We’ve entered the global economy in more ways than one. Not only is our work force getting the shaft, corporations and private investors now have the whole world as their proverbial oyster.

    • ” True, but in a banana republic, which may be where we’re headed, the mega-rich who live in them do not invest in them, do not need their citizens to be even relatively well-off. let alone forward because the rich reap their pelf elsewhere – also applicable to America’s financial and corporate players today.

      The elites of banana republics are not nearly as wealthy as the elites of a functioning and prosperous first-world nation. That’s partly because they have to pay for bodyguards and security because they live in the midst of instability.

      They could bail out and move somewhere that is still prosperous, secure and stable, but then if they impose their “governing” ideas on that place, eventually it will sink into chaos and poverty also.

      People who exploit economies and resources rather than invest in and cultivate economies and resources are ultimately always working at odds with their own long-term best interests.

  3. When I was growing up I remember a quaint phrase – “We The People” in my American History class. Unfortunately, we seem to have moved on the a “highest bidder” paradigm for governance. Campaign reform & somehow scaling back the influence of the K Street lobbyists on legislation would go a long way towards reforming the system. To quote Upton Sinclair. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Too many people profit from the status quo to imagine they would allow it to change any time soon. I’m afraid too many adults have left the room.

  4. Yesterday on CNN, Republican strategist and CNN contributor Mary Matalin railed against Democrats for pushing forward with health reform efforts. “They’ve been on this jihad for 70 years. Moments later, she smeared the prior efforts to establish Social Security and Medicare as “entitlement jihads” as well

    Yes Mary – we’re tired of your worn out G(NO)P minority party obstructionist talking points, please STFU! BTW if anybody gives you any gift certificates for botox treatments this Christmas – do yourself a favor & re-gift them. I think you’ve had enough.

  5. The Founding Fathers feared a time when “factions” would become so entrenched that they care more about the perpetuation of the faction than about the good of the country as a whole. We have clearly reached that point in the U.S. I know Maha will disagree, but now is the time for all progressives to form a. 3rd and maybe even a 4th party. The two existing major political parties are too corrupt and cynical to be saved!

  6. I know Maha will disagree, but now is the time for all progressives to form a. 3rd and maybe even a 4th party.

    I don’t disagree with the need for alternative parties. I am saying it’s not possible for a 3rd or 4th party to be viable on a national level in the U.S. If it were possible I’d say go for it, but it isn’t.

  7. maha – I was thinking of Mexico, admittedly not a banana republic per se – but the level of and extent of poverty would give a banana a run for its money – or lack of it.

    According to a UN report of a few years ago, “Mexico has some of the highest and lowest standards of living in the world.” The life-styles etc. of Mexico’s elites match – and sometimes surpass – the life-styles of their counterparts in the wealthiest European cities.

    • felicity — my point is that even given a global economy the mega-rich need at least some part of the world to be stable and prosperous in order to maintain their cushy lifestyles. If they do nothing but exploit, consume, and destabilize, eventually there will be no place left to exploit, consume, and destabilize. Then where will wealth originate? And if the planet itself dies, where do they go?

      In the short term, yes, they can stay fat and happy. I’m talking long term here; sustainability.

  8. Certainly there needs to be a change in the filibuster rules. The Senate is much less democratic than the House to begin with, and has always been structurally so. Even with 51 vote majorities being able to act on legislation without obstruction, its membership is not proportional to population, etc. Past reforms have been made by Constitutional amendment, to require at least direct election of Senators. But the institution resists democracy.

  9. The Founding Fathers wanted to create a pretty cumbersome process, but since then we have made it even more cumbersome. A committee system in each house, procedural votes in each house, besides the final vote and presidential approval. None of which is constitutional (except the last part, of course). Conservatives will cry and say that progressives did not want to end the filibuster when they were in control, but many actually did. If you control the Senate and House and the presidency, America has given you control of the government to implement policy, you should be able to do it. Like it or not, the Republicans had the reigns for four years in the early ‘oughts’, America wanted it so they should have been able to implement policy to conservatives likings. Granted, tax cuts that don’t ask for program cuts are not actually tax cuts, just tax deferment. But at least we could then have an actual debate on policy. As for a multi-party system, our current ‘winner take all’ system necessitates a two party system. We should encourage the tea baggers as much as possible.

  10. I think the problem is the ‘streamlined’ fillibuster. If the majority wants to pass a bill and the minority wants to kill it, they need 40+ votes to block ‘cloture’ – which is the end of debate and amendments. Cloture marks a transition to a vote on the bill as it stands (with whatever amendments passed) and a simple majority is needed for passage after cloture.

    The fillibuster says ‘we want to keep talking’ and implies the minority intends to keep talking until we get what they want or hell freezes over or the majority abandons the bill. Under our current ‘streamlined’ rules, if the majority fails to get cloture, it’s called a fillibuster, the majority rolls over and the bill is tabled. Why?

    If they want to fillibuster, make them talk and make them keep talking. At ANY time we think we have the votes to accomplish cloture, and they don’t – members absent or whatever – call for another cloture vote. Make them publicly STOP government with a fillibuster – make them wear themselves out for days – and don’t let any of the 40 opposing votes dare to leave town because we can call for another cloture vote.

    The problem is not with the fillibuster – it’s with the modern procedure, protocol & habit of the majority to walk away from a bill at the moment the minority (40+) Senators refuse cloture. The price of a fillibuster should be that the minority has to keep 40 Senators on hand for as long as the majority is willing to keep the matter on the floor.

    I’m not suggesting a Constitutional Amendment. I’m sugggestiong a return to the parlamentary process that I think the founding fathers intended. The minority deserves a voice, and the fillibuster is the loudest voice they are allowed. But there should be a price. If there is a cost – the fillibuster will be invoked rarely.

    Barbara, this is my opinion only, but you and Paul Krugman have brought up some critical topics. Is there a way you can punt this over to Glenn Greenwald for input from a Constitutional scholar. If there is merit to the idea – and I think there is – it should go further than discussion on the blogosphere. A refined, workable proposal needs to find it’s way to the right Senator for consideration while frustration is at a peak in the Senate chamber.

  11. Not that I’m happy with the status quo, but the R’s have some remarkable party discipline that the Dems seem unable to duplicate. A splinter Prog party would be more divisive to us than the Baggers are to the R’s, I think. If we see some splitting of the R’s, then the Dems should be able to do more. But then, considering how they went in with Obama “trailing clouds of glory” and managed to trash their position, I just don’t see anything but a revival of a Rove-led R agenda of extreme effectiveness if we dump the Dem organization.
    As far as getting a re-org of the Senate, I suggest everyone re-read a few volumes of Dilbert comics, especially the ones featuring the cat HR director and the dog managing the pointy-haired boss. Then think long and hard before asking for what you might get.

  12. Did you see John McCain doing his John Paul Jones impersonations? Really, if “brainless organism” doesn’t describe them to absolute perfection..then nothing will.

  13. In the short term, yes, they can stay fat and happy. I’m talking long term here; sustainability.

    This does not compute for either major party so far as I can tell.

    Bill, I’m not sure that it’s discipline so much as the pathology that Maha suggested. There doesn’t seem to be any hint of reason, reality or rationality in their actions or blather.

  14. Maha, the answer to your question is “Miami”. I spend a lot of time down there, its the play ground of the third world elites, and the safe haven for the insane Generalelismos.

  15. I’ve been asking the same question that Doug Hughes posits. If the minority believes in something and if the Majority believes in something different each needs to put their mouth where the money is, to coin a phrase. Let ’em talk. Read the phone book. Read Grainger’s catalog. Whatever.

    Right now they are empty suits. One side merely threatens and the other side caves-in.

  16. Since liberals are far too willing to consider/debate/fight/fractionalize over potential solutions, I think it’d be more productive to get conservatives to split R into multiple parties. How long can “party discipline” made up mostly of ” We’re the NotLiberals!”, last?

  17. maha – on the face of it, what you’re saying makes good sense to me as it does to you. However, when I read that the three most profitable businesses to be in world-wide are illegal sales of arms, drugs and human trafficing, I wonder if (good) sense really means anything in the end.

  18. maha – to lighten your day. I know a woman who owns five houses, LA, London, Paris, Toronto, Corfu, owns thousands of pairs of yet-to-be-worn shoes (duplicates in all five houses) and recently bought her 9-year-old daughter a sweatshirt for $1,114. Given her obscene wealth, she can’t/won’t live long enough to ‘go down eventually.’

    • felicity — no, but her daughter or granddaughter might.

      I tend to think long-view, as in multiple generations or centuries, rather than in years or decades, and I forget other people don’t do that also. You keep misunderstanding what I’m saying because you’re thinking short-term — a mere lifetime.

  19. maha – if you haven’t already, read the book “American Dynasty” by Kevin Phillips. The Bush family saga is a tale of how generational wealth combined with the power inherent in holding high public office can profoundly affect an entire country over many generations. The subtitle of the book is “Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush.”

    From the jacket – “The evidence accrued (by the author) over four generations of special interests, biases, scandals (especially related to arms dealing), and blatant favoritism is extraordinarily damning.”

    How long the dynasty will last is anyone’s guess, but having read a number of books on American ‘dynasties’ I’ve concluded that great wealth, though it may not span centuries, during the generations it wields its power it can wreak havoc.. To quote Phillips “…the Bush family has systematically used its financial and social empire – its ‘aristocracy – to gain the White House and to subvert the very core of American democracy…”

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