Saturday, December 11, 2010

This is how it works...

The founders of this nation did not, we have often been told, envision the formation of political parties and there remains a resistance to the idea that the party is more important than the actual office holder. There have been times, indeed, when the party label meant less than than the politics of the time. Stephen Douglas, for instance, was a Democrat when that party stood for slavery but, at best, it was unclear whether he did. In modern times, Clifford Case and Jacob Javits, both Republicans (Lincoln Chaffee even more recently) but far more progressive than people who were members of the Democratic Party, and not just southern Democrats.

Those days are over, at least for now. The Republican Party, minority in the Senate, have successfully transformed Rule XXII to make it impossible for any bill to be voted upon without the proponent having at least the technical ability to obtain cloture. They can do that for two reasons a) they stand to together as a bloc irrespective of the merits of a particular piece of legislation, thus insuring cloture cannot be invoked and b) they get away with it in what laughingly could be called "the court of public opinion."

These Republicans are no better or no worse than any other bloc that has formed in the Senate. If southern Democrats could have gotten away with filibustering everything, they would have done so, not simply to block civil rights legislation, but the New Deal itself. They could not, because the "public" or more accurately, the elites whose consensus means something in Washington and other power centers, would not allow it or stand for it.

The success in stopping serious civil rights legislation from being enacted in 1957. in 1958 (after Little Rock) and 1963 (at and around the march on Washington) was because there was insufficient outrage at the filibuster mounted against it. After President Kennedy was murdered in November, 1963, the public demand that legislation he championed be enacted in his memory made it impossible to prevent cloture and both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts became law. It was not that the public suddenly accepted the merits of the legislation (the country had been divided on the subject at least since 1957, but were it not for the filibuster, there were probably enough votes to enact it), but that filibustering the bill had become, with the president's death, unacceptable to enough people that the two bills could pass.

So it matters not, today, that Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are considered "moderate." If the Republican Party can block legislation by uniformly voting against cloture, all that matters is whether a Senator is a member of that party. After Arlen Specter voted against cloture as a Republican in 2009 he had to change parties (which coincided with electoral realities in his state). Senators Snowe and Collins say they are for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell but Senator Snowe voted against cloture to prevent the Defense Authorization bill, which included the repeal, from being debated and voted upon this week, and Senator Collins did the same thing over the summer citing some objection to the way Senator Reid restricted the amendment process.

This is why voting last November, and not just in presidential elections, was important. This is why, whether you like the Senate leadership, or every White House position, it was important for Democrats to be elected. Even more importantly, this is why whatever anger there is over the failure of this country to address the so many critical issues facing us needs to be directed at the reasons for this.

It is not President Obama. Yes, he does not appear to be the best negotiator there is and his unreciprocated respect for his political opponents, whether real or (more likely) feigned, is almost childish but that it not why so much that needs to be done is not, and cannot. Mourning Joe and others can keep talking about the control of both houses of Congress, but it is not so, as anyone with half a brain can see.

If sixty votes are required to declare Arbor Day then "control" of the Senate means little more than control of the committee chairs, and the floor agenda; not insignificant, but not the stuff that makes history. If the stimulus was too little, which it surely was, it was because it could not get sixty votes. If the health care reform, historic though it was, did not have all that we wished it did, it was because it needed sixty votes. If we have done nothing to deal with the requirements of a green economy and competing with the many other nations which are galloping past us in that area, in education, and countless other areas, it is because nothing can get done unless Senator McConnell allows it to.

Yes, the bully pulpit is something, but citizen action means much more. We have a Supreme Court that is likely to prevent any serious campaign finance reform from becoming law, giving an even greater advantage to those who have the funds to bestow upon needy politicians seeking re-election and to overcome that, if it can be overcome, requires a daily onslaught of angry voters on an otherwise bought and paid for Congress. We have not seen anything like that in any sustained fashion; just blogging and whining. Lecturing the president will not do the trick. Bombarding Congress might, but we seem incapable of that.

In an interview in The Promise, Jonathan Alter's excellent narrative of the President's first year, Mr. Obama tells the story of a 2009 trip to South Korea where he was told about Korean parents pressuring their government to provide more English teachers to first graders to satisfy a demand that their children learn that language. President Obama lamented that when he, in a press conference he held while still in Korea, he tried to discuss the importance of American parents making similar demands, U.S. reporters wanted to know whether he had yet read Sarah Palin's book. Of this intense interest in fluffery and bullshit are the seeds of the decline we see and lament over and over.

'Twas ever so, of course. It's just that more people saw garbage to be garbage during the better parts of our history. Were they around today, of course, Father Coughlin or Westbrook Pegler, among others, would be spewing his hate on Fox News, instead of being snickered at by most of the movers and shakers. And you have to laugh when the "new Nixon" we kept being told had appeared in the 1968 campaign (while many progressives stayed home to protest against President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey since there was supposedly "no difference" between them and Nixon) is further unmasked to be just the rank nonsense the sane among us knew then, even if we were only 16 years old.

Just as there was not a word Senator Sanders said yesterday, at least among those which reached these ears, with which any reasonably sane person could have disagreed. Sadly, there are not sixty of them in the United States Senate.

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