The one black Senator

The Senate finally has an African-American member.  He is a conservative Republican.  South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) announced  she will appoint Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to the Senate, taking the place of Sen. Jim DeMint, who is leaving to head the Heritage Foundation.  Scott is a Tea Party favorite.  See Nikki Haley appoints Rep. Tim Scott to Senate.

Meanwhile, the NAACP is expressing “major concern” about the appointment, since Scott is a small-government conservative.

Reforming the Senate

Ezra Klein reports on efforts in the Senate to reform the filibuster rule in the Senate:

The problem with a president promising to “change Washington” is that the presidency isn’t the part of Washington that’s broken. The systemic gridlock, dysfunction and polarization that so frustrate the country aren’t located in the executive branch. They’re centered in Congress. And one of their key enablers is Senate Rule XXII — better known as the filibuster.

Filibusters used to be relatively rare. There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined. A strategy memo written after the 1964 election by Mike Manatos, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Senate liaison, calculated that in the new Senate, Medicare would pass with 55 votes — the filibuster didn’t even figure into the administration’s planning.

There were more filibusters between in the 111th Congress (2009-2010) than in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s combined. (Data: Congress.gov, Graph: Ezra Klein)

Today, the filibuster isn’t used to defend minority rights or ensure debate. Rather, the filibuster is simply a rule that the minority party uses to require a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done in the Senate. That’s not how it was meant to be.

And it’s not how it has to be. The Constitution states that each chamber of Congress “may determine the rules of its proceedings.” And this week’s election has provided fresh evidence that the Senate, at least, may be preparing to remake its most pernicious rule.

Chris Murphy, the incoming Democratic senator from Connecticut, couldn’t have been clearer: “The filibuster is in dire need of reform,” he told Talking Points Memo. “Whether or not it needs to go away, we need to reform the way the filibuster is used, so it is not used in the order of everyday policy, but is only used in exceptional circumstances.”

Angus King, the independent senator-elect from Maine, said, “My principal issue is the functioning of the Senate.” He backs a proposal advanced by the reform group No Labels that would end the filibuster on motions to debate, restricting filibusters to votes on actual legislation. The group also wants to require filibustering senators to physically hold the Senate floor and talk, rather than simply instigate a filibuster from the comfort of their offices.

via Is this the end for the filibuster?.

The problem, in my opinion, is that the filibuster has become just a procedural matter to be invoked at will–basically, a threat to filibuster–so as to require a 60-vote supermajority on Senate actions (60 votes being the number of votes required to shut off debate).  I think the filibuster should be returned to its earlier days of glory, in which a Senator had to stay on the floor speaking for as long as he could to delay action, just like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But, as part of filibuster reform and perhaps more importantly, I would like to reform the Senate so as to restore the importance of floor debate.  As it is, when you go as a visitor to our nation’s Capitol and sit in the Senate gallery, typically, nothing is happening.  Virtually no Senators are present.  The chair presides–a position constitutionally given to the Vice-President and potentially conveying real power and responsibility, but now that task is delegated to a revolving cast of members.  A few individual Senators are reading statements to be entered into the Congressional Record, mainly for the benefit of their constituents.  There is some back-and-forth debate on bills, but it is mostly canned and pro-forma, with few senators in a position to be persuaded, or even, usually, in attendance.  Only when a vote is called do the Senators as a whole enter the chamber.  Virtually all business is conducted in committees, rather than on the floor.  On the whole, though, what was once called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” does little collective deliberation anymore.

I’d like to see the Senate strengthen the quorum rules so as to require senators to be present while the Senate is convened.  They could still do committee work.   There could be fewer actual sessions.  But the whole genius of legislative government depends on  the wisdom of a collective group as opposed to that of atomize individuals and we are in danger of losing that in the legislative branch.

The two debt-reduction plans

So House Majority Leader John Boehner has a debt reduction plan on the table.  It is competing with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan.  (Notice how both sides are cutting President Obama out of the discussion.)  Both plans cut spending by $1.2 trillion.  Neither plan involves a tax increase.  In fact, the two plans are extremely similar.  Philip Klein gives us a useful comparison:

Similarities:

– Both plans claim to reduce discretionary spending by $1.2 trillion.

–Both plans create a joint, bipartisan, Congressional committee to find future savings.

– Neither plan includes specific entitlement reform.

–Neither plan includes specific tax increases.

Differences:

– Reid’s plan wants to raise the debt ceiling all in one chunk (and boosts the claimed deficit reduction number by relying on savings from the expected wind down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but Boehner it raised in two parts.

– While both plans endorse a joint committee, the Boehner plan makes the second debt limit increase contingent on Congress passing $1.8 trillion in additional deficit-reduction based on its recommendations.

– Boehner plan would ensure a vote in both chambers on a Balanced Budget Amendment.

– Boehner proposes caps to future spending.

Possibilities for compromise:

– It would be easy for Reid to allow a vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment.

– The differences over whether the debt limit increase should be short-term or last through the 2012 election is not an ideological-based disagreement, so it seems either side could give way on that one.

– Depending on the level of the spending cap, there may be some compromise there.

via Boehner and Reid plans aren’t that different: a comparison | Philip Klein | Beltway Confidential | Washington Examiner.

And yet, for all of the similarities, both sides are still at each other’s throats. Not only that, Boehner’s own party is in revolt against his plan.   I’m not sure why.  Surely the Republicans are getting what they want, over a trillion dollars in cuts and no new taxes.  The main issue now is political:   Reid is proposing a two year package, tiding things over until after the 2012 elections, while Boehner wants to go through all of this again in a year.

Meanwhile, the country faces default and probably worldwide economic collapse if the debt ceiling isn’t raised by August 2.

Under President Clinton, the ascendant Republicans  in Congress shut down the government, sparking a popular backlash that re-elected the unpopular president.  I suspect the same thing will happen again:  Today’s ascendant Republicans, giddy with having taken the House of Representatives, will show themselves willing to shut down the economy, sparking a popular backlash that will re-elect President Obama.

Destroying the Senate

The “Christian Science Monitor,” not a conservative publication, has a piece by Mark Sappenfield entitled Reconciliation: why healthcare reform ‘nuclear option’ is deadly. It discusses the tactic of evading the filibuster rules so as to pass the Health Care Reform bill with a bare majority, rather than needing 60 votes. The author is referring to a “Face the Nation” appearance by centrist Republican Lindsey Graham and centrist Democrat Evan Bayh:

To many senators, including Graham, these procedures are not roadblocks to effective governance, they are the building blocks of it. The Senate is generally the last word in American legislative politics partly because it is seen as being more collegial and collaborative than its congressional cousin – and these seemingly arcane rules are the reason it is so, some would argue.

What is the significance of requiring a bill to win 60 votes or face a filibuster, after all? It is, at least on one level, an inducement to find compromise – to cross the aisle, to build coalitions.

To Graham, using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform circumvents the very mandate for consensus-building that makes the Senate unique.

Of course, reconciliation has been used before by both parties. But Graham noted that other cases involved at least some cross-party consensus. In this case, not a single Senate Republican voted for the healthcare reform bill.

If Senate Democrats used reconciliation to make changes to their healthcare bill, Republicans would pull out every stop to bring work in the Senate to a halt between now and the November elections, both Graham and Senator Bayh conceded.

Filibuster

Now that Democrats have lost their filibuster-proof supermajority, some are clamoring to eliminate the filibuster.  That refers to the traditional Senate principle allowing unlimited debate apart from a vote of cloture.  That means that any Senator can keep talking on an issue, preventing it from coming up for a vote, unless 60 Senators vote  to end debate.  In practice, this means that bills need 60 votes just to get to the floor for action.  Here is a non-partisan defense of the system:  Ruth Marcus – Why the filibuster is frustrating but necessary – washingtonpost.com.

But, as I understand it (somebody correct me if I’m wrong), today’s Senate rules do not require anyone to do the work of actually filibustering–that is, continually speaking on the Senate floor in marathon session without eating, going to the bathroom, or falling asleep, as in Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  That was the old school Senate.  Today, a member simply has to invoke the filibuster and the cloture rule goes into effect.  It is no longer necessary to, you know, filibuster.  No wonder the number of cloture votes has sky-rocketed and the Senate can hardly get anything done!

I propose keeping the filibuster for the reasons Ruth Marcus mentions.  But changing the rule back to the true tradition of the Senate so as to require actual continuous debate.  That would prevent the filibuster threat from being used all the time, while saving it for the big issues.

Buying the votes for the Health Care bill

It wasn’t just Ben Nelson who sold his vote for the Health Care bill. Senator after Senator did. Dana Milibank reports:

Formally, it is known as H.R. 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But this week, it has acquired an unhelpful nickname: “Cash for Cloture.”

As Senate Democrats finally complete their health-care legislation, those combing through the bill have uncovered many backroom deals that were made to buy, er, secure the 60 votes needed to "invoke cloture" — the legislative term for cutting off debate and holding a final vote. . . .

First there was the "Louisiana Purchase," $100 million in extra Medicaid money for the Bayou State, requested by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Then came the "Cornhusker Kickback," another $100 million in extra Medicaid money, this time for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

This was followed by word that Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) had written into the legislation $100 million meant for a medical center in his state. This one was quickly dubbed the "U Con." . . .

"I don't know if there is a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that was important to them," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reasoned when asked at a news conference Monday about the cash-for-cloture accusation. "And if they don't have something in it important to them, then it doesn't speak well of them."

Indeed, the proliferation of deals has outpaced the ability of Capitol Hill cynics to name them.

Gator Aid: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) inserted a grandfather clause that would allow Floridians to preserve their pricey Medicare Advantage program.

Handout Montana: Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) secured Medicare coverage for anybody exposed to asbestos — as long as they worked in a mine in Libby, Mont.

Iowa Pork and Omaha Prime Cuts: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) won more Medicare money for low-volume hospitals of the sort commonly found in Iowa, while Nebraska’s Nelson won a “carve out” provision that would reduce fees for Mutual of Omaha and other Nebraska insurers.

Meanwhile, Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both North Dakota Democrats, would enjoy a provision bringing higher Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors in “frontier counties” of states such as — let’s see here — North Dakota!

Hawaii, with two Democratic senators, would get richer payments to hospitals that treat many uninsured people. Michigan, home of two other Democrats, would earn higher Medicare payments and some reduced fees for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) held out for larger Medicaid payments for his state (neighboring Massachusetts would get some, too).


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