Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Obstruction

Saturday's Senate debate has as much to do with Republican obstruction as it does with health care.

The Republican strategy of arresting any progress on the country's problems, of suppressing the will of voters who elected President Barack Obama and a attendant Democratic congressional majority, has begun to garner attention.

Which is why this post will be written more by other writers than the highway scribe, whose intention is to extend their reach and blow off a little steam at the same time.

Like Social Security, the weekend, paid vacations, and health care reform, the first volley came from the far left of the American spectrum in the form of a Nov. 11 "Washington Post," piece by Harold Meyerson.

In the "Do-nothing Senate" the one-time "L.A. Weekly" essayist referred to that body as "dithering heights."

That's pretty good and demonstrates how you need a sense of humor to make your ideology go down a little easier.

Meyerson noted that a few weeks ago, the Republicans thrice filibustered a measure to extend unemployment insurance. Once they relented, the measure passed 98-0.

"Just flexing their muscles, mind you," he wrote. "Establishing a new normal. If we have anything to do with it, nothing moves."


The filibuster, as we know only too well now, is an endless stream of B.S. meant to bury a bill under the Senate's terms of unlimited debate. It was not always thus. At the beginning, under rules drafted by none other than Thomas Jefferson, a senator was allowed to "move the previous question" and end floor discussion.

But Aaron Burr, the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton and came to personify American infamy (except for Gore Vidal), got that rule stricken and the filibuster was born. Its use was nil at first, but grew over the years.

During the Bush II debacle, Democrats used it with greater frequency, but typically infuriated their radicalized supporters with an urge to cooperate and get things done.

Under Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell (pictured), the thing has taken on a life of its own, since voters so reduced his caucus that filibusters are all he can use for leverage.

And use it McConnell has.

As Meyerson pointed out, "Unless you can get a 60-vote majority to end debate, all major bills (and some minor ones) are dead in the water."

He left out political and judicial choices, but on Nov 16, Michael Savage of the "Los Angeles Times," picked up on the meme, detailing a disparity in the judicial appointments made by his predecessor over the same time-period Obama has been in office.

"So far," Savage wrote, "only six of Obama's nominees to the lower federal courts have won approval. By comparison, President George W. Bush had 28 judges confirmed in his first year in office, even though Democrats held a narrow majority for much of the year."

The point being Democrats recognize the president's prerogatives, even when he garners less votes than his opponent and the Supreme Court shuts down a recount in a state governed by his brother (making him president).

On Nov. 17, one day later, the "New York Times" joined the chorus in an editorial generically entitled, "Obama's Judicial Nominations."

While noting the president has been tentative, the anonymous editorialist observed that Senate Republicans bear the blame on the confirmation side by, "doing their best to drag things out."

On Tuesday, a crack in the armor appeared over Obama's nomination of Judge David Hamilton to the U.S. Seventh District Court of Appeals.

The gentleman, who hails from a paternal line of Methodist ministers and enjoys the support of home-state Republican Senator Richard Lugar, apparently ran afoul of "conservative activists," because he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union before joining the bench.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) demurred in respecting the president's choice, saying "a common DNA" ran through Obama appointees in the form of an "ACLU chromosome."

And they say Republicans are "anti-science."

They tried to filibuster the nomination and, in the words of the "Washington Post's"Dana Milbank, got "Filibusted."

Which is pretty good, too.

His piece does a great job of detailing the suddenly changed views of Republicans who, just a few years ago, likened Democratic filibusters to obstruction.

By November 19, the big boys were taking a wider view of the filibuster phenomenon.

"The Washington Post's" E.J. Dionne came out with the "The GOP's no-exit strategy," which warned that it is "time to start paying attention to how Republicans, with Machievellian brilliance, have hit upon what might be called the Beltway-at-Rush-Hour Strategy, aimed at snarling legislative traffic to a standstill so Democrats have no hope of reaching the next exit."

On November 22, "The Post's" Fred Hiatt got into the act, further fleshing out the ramifications of what the "New York Times'" Charles Blow referred to as "the Republican's surprisingly effective obstructionist strategy."

Hiatt noted that, "more than a year after his electoral triumph, President Obama has filled only 55 percent of Senate-confirmed slots in his government. He has nominated few judges, won confirmation for fewer. The principal item on the agenda of the unions that went all in for him, labor law reform, is on hold. Almost everyone agrees that America's immigration laws are broken, yet no fix is in sight. Long after the collapse of our financial system, new systems of regulation have yet to emerge. There is no discernible trade policy."

Hiatt's point of departure was what all this looks like to friend and foe alike overseas. And what it looks like is that American democracy is in paralysis.

The Republicans, the party of flag-wrapped patriots, care a lot about America's image, but not so much as they do about regaining power. And they show no shame in their effort to do it.

For example, in "Help in Battling the Big Boys," highwayscribery lauded the efforts of Democrats, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut in particular, for proposed legislation that would prevent credit card companies from imposing the arbitrary interest rates and fee increases they're dumping on customers before the new law capping such things takes effect.

But in "A Gift to Credit Card Companies," the "New York Times" reported that Sen. Thad Cochran of (R-Miss.), blocked a vote on the bill, "in yet another act of obeisance by Senate Republicans to the banking and credit card industries."

Thanks Thad.

"The Times" editorial on the judicial nominations noted that, "In March, every Republican senator signed an outrageous letter to the White House warning that they would filibuster any nominee from their home states if they did not approve the choice in advance."

That the Republican caucus is "outrageous," is not the point here. It's that "every" Republican senator signed the piece of trash.

Democrats have never enjoyed such lock-step discipline and as Meyerson and Dionne pointed out, "Blue Dog" or "centrist" or "spineless" Democrats (whatever you want to call them) are playing an important role in all of this.

Dionne said Republican use of the filibuster is making the majority look "foolish, ineffectual and incompetent." Moderate Democrats, by making their own narrow interests paramount on crucial matters like health care reform and climate change, "will only make themselves complicit in this humiliation."

The balky Democratic senators are not only betraying their own party, Myerson wrote, but simultaneously making a mockery of majority rule.

If they are "comfortable with the idea that elections shouldn't have consequences, they should say so publicly. If not, they should let the debate begin."

The word is out. Spread it around. Let's see what happens.

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