Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On the Shoulders of One Election: Healthcare Reform and Filibuster Abuse

So, as I've reminded repeatedly in recent posts here, we're facing a lot of problems in American politics as of late. This problem is systemic. The government's circulatory system is presently suffering from a debilitating blood clot. The clot's location? The Senate, comprised entirely of its most obstinate members.

Majority Rules... Right?

Let's start by talking supermajority. When America's founding fathers detailed the process and function of the senate, they concluded that a supermajority should be required for very little: to move through a cloture motion, to amend the Constitution, to override a presidential veto, and to end a filibuster. Otherwise, legislation is supposed to be comfortably passed by a majority of at least 51 votes. (In cases of votes where all 100 senators are present - which is by no means all.) It's a simple premise: majority rule. The Republicans never had a supermajority through George W. Bush's eight years of increasing instability and still had no problem achieving their agenda, Bush's agenda very rarely checked by the legislative branch as should have happened, had we a healthy, fully functioning government. Whenever the pressure was on, Democrats buckled and compromised. Some far more easily than others, given that there are many conservative Democrats who are more or less Republicans with a different letter by their name, only slightly deviating from the largely united Republican agenda. While political diversity itself is a positive, this has only helped to undermine efforts to legislate toward progress and cleanup from the massive mess the Bush years left behind for Democrats to deal with. For a very brief period, the Democrats had one in the Senate last year - after Al Franken was finally seated leading up to Ted Kennedy's untimely death. Numerically speaking, we're talking a 60-to-40 divide that should, in a functioning and effective government, allow the majority party to move forward with their legislation. Barack Obama has been in office for just short of a full year now, and despite the strong Democratic majority in the senate, this has not been the case.

Lacking the diversity of the Democrats, Republicans have found it very easy to unite as a political mass in recent decades. It doesn't take much - if the Democrats are fighting for it, these days especially, it doesn't take much to get every Republican in the senate to oppose them for the sake of doing so. In terms of political discourse and interest in actual service to the people, our freefall has reached preschool level. Obstruction is the name of the game for the proudly self-proclaimed "Party of No."

We, the American people, are paying the salaries of people refusing to do their jobs - to actually govern - not serving the people, but instead a twisted, regressive corporate anti-humanistic agenda and attempting to shut down the government (Many Americans not quite getting why it's not a good idea to vote for people who insist we shouldn't have any kind of central government structure in society at all and campaign on anti-government policies, completely ignoring and denying just how much of what we take for granted stems from the essential central structure of government.) from properly functioning at all. They owe us what they aren't doing, and their behavior is disgraceful to the very concept of public service. Public servants with no interest in serving the public.

Hey, This Government Racket's Pretty Lucrative!

We got these sorts of corporate servants through the advent of career politicians - politicians who make their political position their source of income, immediately swinging the focus from serving the people to serving themselves. Daily Show host Jon Stewart discussed this problem - amongst the many other obstacles the Obama administration are currently facing - last night with Comptroller General and head of the Government Accountability Office David M. Walker. The minute a politician allows their own financial gain to stand between them and serving the people to their very best, they have failed in their job. In a healthy democracy, these people would see their poll numbers plummet and inevitably end up losing a reelection bid, shamed into leaving office, or impeached by a local, state, or national legislative body. This does not happen. Incumbents almost always win reelection bids in Congress, regardless of performance, in part due to widespread voter apathy. Another key element in the inherent dysfunctionality of American democracy.

Career politicians fear "rocking the boat," and are unwilling to make difficult decisions, as breaking with the status quo - even it for the best - can potentially lose a career politician their job. They tend to sink into a happy little corrupt crevasse where they receive large campaign finance donations from various corporations and special interest groups - looking at our current government, very typically with a strong conservative slant - and enjoy a comfortable life detached from the reality the American people face, voting instead for the agendas of these corporations and special interest groups. Agendas typically in direct conflict with the best interests of the people. As it stands, the Senate is absolutely full of these people - twisting the lofty ideals of representative democracy the country was founded on into fascist corporatocracy. Nothing is being done to reverse this. We don't even have term limits in the Senate - if you can get reelected every 6 years for the rest of your life, you can stay in politics until you're ready to retire. And so the stagnation and ongoing collapse of American governance.

So from here, you'd think, "Sure, the Republicans unite as one big wall of anti-government rhetoric and refuse to serve the people or actually govern without one of their guys in the White House, but the Democrats have this locked up even just short of a supermajority, right? Even if it means making a few pork barrel project concessions to their state to get a few conservative Democrats on board, they should be comfortably getting their way at every turn, right?" Wrong.

Either We Rule or Nobody Does

Let's talk filibuster - the political tactic used to kill legislation by prolonging debate indefinitely. The go-to technique to obstruct government. You need a 60 vote supermajority in order to end a filibuster by invoking cloture - simply threatening to filibuster is all it takes to kill legislation if a bill doesn't have a guaranteed 60 votes ready to back it. Therein lies the next part of the problem - the Republicans have united against the Democrats, wanting to stop them from accomplishing anything. The threat of filibuster has become their most powerful tool and a major threat to functioning government, let alone even beginning to clean up the mess Bush brought us to. They want the narrative to be changed to that Obama caused the trouble he came into after the Bush years, positing that if he can't fix the decades' worth of damage Bush caused in a scant few months, he and the Democrats have failed and the only solution is to vote more of the Republicans who played a key role in thse problems back into power. All while acting like their refusal to participate in government - solely obstructing - has nothing to do with any legislative failures on the part of this administration. A faulty argument derived from outright lies - nothing new there.

In these past two decades, filibuster abuse has been at its worst in American history, to the point at which even Obama addressed the problem last month. This is not a new political strategy, as Republicans used it to force the Democrats out after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, stopping them from legislating and freezing government function, then blaming Democratic incompetence for Republican abuse of senate rules. The filibuster was strengthened further with the addition of Senate Standing Rule XXII, removing the requirement for a filibuster to entail continuous speeches to obstruct Senate floor discussion.

While the filibuster was conceived as a means to putting down toxic legislation and motions, to allow a minority to stand up for the best interests of the American people, the Republican party - with their interests vested very much elsewhere than the people - have turned it into a dangerous political weapon, showing a tremendous amount of disdain for the foundation and function of the senate, the people, and the legacy of the government itself. They have no respect for their once-esteemed office and job. Now more than ever, we need to end filibuster abuse by invoking the "nuclear option" and moving to deem filibuster abuse unconstitutional by a simple majority. The filibuster itself was never established in the constitution and is in no way enshrined - or even mentioned - in America's foundational documents. At this point, it's little more than an affront to government function and progress, threats being invoked whenever meaningful progress or legislation for the people are brought up these days. The filibuster only serves its purpose when used cautiously - to obstruct and terminate legislation and political nominations against the best interests of the people. Now it's nothing more than a wall to ensure that even as a minority no longer in power, Republicans and continue to force America down their self-destructive path and stop Democrats from cleaning up their mess. In their eyes, either they run the government, or it doesn't run. For all they talk about the 'oppression' of freedom and liberty from 'socialists' when we don't have anything resembling a real left-wing presence anywhere in our legislative bodies, they're doing a much better job attacking our democracy and oppressing government function by anybody else themselves.

Martha Coakley vs. Scott Brown: On the Shoulders of One Election

All that said, we face a critical election in Massachusetts right this second as I type. Today's the special election in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy following his passing last fall. He died fighting for healthcare reform, making it his life's goal: to see to it that every American has healthcare access. When he passed, Republicans feigned respect for the "lion" of the Senate, while not so secretly cheering the death of one of their fiercest, most hated enemies - the rare Democrat willing to stand up and stand strong for the right thing, even when most others in his party buckle to pressure from the right. That's one of the biggest problems with the Democrats - a severe lack of strong, gutsy leadership willing to fight and fight hard for their ideals and to stomp down the opposition when it's right to do so. And healthcare reform was one of the times to do that.

That didn't happen. The right - between Republican obstructionists and conservative "blue dog" Democrats that had to get pork barrel projects and some awful concessions to get on board - has gutted healthcare reform. In its current form, it can still at least potentially extend healthcare access to another 30 million Americans, and as obviously angry as I am to see the reform we've needed - even the great bill Kennedy drafted himself, which was laughed at and tossed out quickly - I'm not going to stand against 30 million in need. Though if the Stupak-Pitts Amendment makes it in after reconciliation of the House and Senate bills is completed, I may just find myself doing that. That would be the final line - essentially obliterating women's right of choice in exchange for giving insurance companies millions of new customers.

So now the people of Massachusetts are determining today whether or not the Democrats will be recovering their supermajority or if Republicans will gain the final bullet in their gun to ensure they can completely shut down government function through filibuster abuse. It's a very important, potentially very dangerous day for this country. We had a great deal of prosperity and stability to tide us over during the early Clinton years as the Republicans made a mockery of the legislative branch. We're very much in the opposition situation now, the Republicans offering no working solutions to any of the problems we face - just additional means to deepening them, having played the role they have in their causation.

On the Democratic ticket, we have Massachusetts State Attorney General Martha Coakley. She's received endorsements from Ted Kennedy's widow - Victoria Reggie Kennedy - and family, as well as the Clintons and President Obama. Of the two candidates, Coakley is the only qualified one, actually tapped into political realities here and abroad, and set on seeing to it that healthcare reform will be passed in Kennedy's name. She'd make for a historic victory as well, becoming Massachusetts' first female Senator. (I didn't think we'd beat Massachusetts on that here in North Carolina, but we actually did. Thankfully, Democrat Kay Hagan - who replaced lockstep Republican Elizabeth Dole after winning the 2008 election here - has done mostly well so far, and is standing for healthcare progress, whatever little we can hope to achieve now.) She's the respectable successor for Ted Kennedy that Massachusetts needs - and the Democrat the American people are in dire need of, given the devastated state of our legislative processes. And her biggest scandal? A bad joke referring to a Red Sox pitcher being "A Yankees fan."

He's happy 'cause he's thinking about the uninsured dying!From the Republicans, we've got State Senator Scott Brown. In 1982, he was named Cosmopolitan Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" at age 22. (What is it with Republicans thrusting people who've gotten ahead in life on their looks to the forefront lately?) If you watch his campaign ads, you'll learn that he owns a truck. Which can only mean that he's a down home American everyman just right for the people of Massachusetts and not at all treating the voters like morons. Yes, he's a handsome "good old boy" with a truck - running mostly on that he wants to kill healthcare reform. That's pretty much it. Another case of not being interested in the best interests of the people of Massachusetts or the nation as a whole - he just wants to join the Republican "NO!" wall and become another part of the lockstep obstruction actively working against the people and any efforts to solve the problems we all face. There's also some accusations that there will be voter fraud from the Democrats - which we seem to hear over every election now despite that that hasn't been happening at all - and general aggressive mudslinging. Classy. Would you be surprised to hear he's also aligned himself with the "teabaggers?" I didn't think so.

In our first president, George Washington's 1796 farewell address, he warned the nation of the perils of a two-party political systems. Of geographic factionalism, and of two competing factions to inevitably seek to wreak vengeance upon one another at the expense of the people. All it takes is for one party to lose respect for this nation, its people, and its foundation. To reject their rejection when rejected by the American people. They lost the 2006 and 2008 elections. Their vegeance? Cheering on our problems and saying they hope the Democrats fail, and doing everything they can to make that end a reality. The fact that these people are still remotely politically viable - let alone considered electable - speaks much of how dwindling this nation's future has become.

One party spent the past decade running this country and the global economy headfirst into the ground in the interests of the rich and corrupt, screwing everybody else. The American people elected the other party - which promised real change. A soon as they lost, the right decided to dig their heels in and make their focus obstructing government function entirely while announcing that the president "isn't accomplishing anything," as though it has something to do with incompetence as opposed to half our more powerful legislative house being deadset on stopping him from fixing any of the problems they created. (All while insisting that the Bush era problems should have been cleared up in no time, as if by some great, magical force that doesn't exist. George W. Bush left us with more problems than even decades of Democratic rule with no Republican obstruction could fix at this point. And that's not even getting into what cannot be fixed - the incredible number of civilian deaths in the Middle East and the casualties in our own armed forces as a result of ill-advised invasions and occupations.)

Hateful radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh openly announced last year that he wanted Obama to fail, knowing full well that his failure would mean far worse and far more problems for the American people. There's no regard for the needs of the American people or what America's many dire problems (Especially from the economic side of things) mean for the rest of the globe. It comes down to putting as much money in corrupt industry and banking execs' pockets as possible while wrecking the nation for the rest of us and defunding as many public programs as possible, treating the people as nothing more than cattle for the corporate slaughter instead of actually serving them as is the government's foundational purpose. The political right is hellbent on keeping us on this deeply self-destructive traack they've been focusing the country on since the Reagan years. They'll do everything they can - including shutting down government function - to keep us on the Reagan/Bush track for as long as possible until this entire country is derailed by it and collapses into chaos.

These same people are making gains on the idea that Obama is "failing," and that as such, the only other place to turn for answers is the same party that ran this nation into the ground to begin with - their "solution" being to keep on that same self-destructive track. We're at a deepening hate-and-ignorance-fueled low for this nation politically, and now more than ever, we need a strong, populist progressive party to storm the political scene, win elections left and right, and take power. This isn't going to happen.

America is in deep, deep trouble - far deeper than most are willing to comment on, and certainly not in our corporate-controlled mainstream media. The best we've got for honesty lies in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and it says a lot when our best newsmen are comedians. And just as one of our most impressive new senators to come out of the 2008 election - after a long-fought post-election battle - ended up being Al Franken, himself a comedian who saw a strong Republican opposition to legislation last year extending rights to rape victims after a young woman working for a contractor in Iraq was raped and not allowed to sue the company for allowing it to happen. Yes, the same political side where you've got the gasbag decrying aid and relief for Haiti and the majority of their Senators voted against legislation to help rape victims get justice is the one trying to shut government down and dangerously close to succeeding.

In 2008, the American people voted for a promised major policy change from the Bush years. For a new government administration that would address and solve the numerous problems we face. Obama promised these things, and he's trying to follow through. What did we get? An opposition trying to shut the government down that wants to see Obama fail - for us all to fail and suffer. And that thinks we're stupid enough to believe Obama's failures on account of Republican filibuster abuse are solely his and the Democrats' faults and signs that the Republicans need to be voted back into power. The sad thing is, this works on the uninformed - they cash in on ignorance in the Republican party, as they do hate. They've established just how broken the Senate is this past year.

It's hard to be optimistic about the future. All it takes is one election in Massachusetts - that should be an easy win, no less - to take us to a new low.


CrazyCris said...

don't you wish there was a third healthy party to add some balance to all this mess? sigh!

Benjamin Fennell said...

No kidding. The right is wreaking havoc on this country - and our problems impact the rest of the world, too - and the Democrats are a center-right party with too many far-right leaning members that in no way serves to balance things here or counter the insanity from the right. We get lots of insanity countered by somewhat better sense and lots of awkward fumbling from the center-right, which buckles at every turn.

Guess who won the Massachusetts election today too?

CrazyCris said...

yeah, I heard about that. depressing! :s

Benjamin Fennell said...

Yeah, now if we want to get anything done, we need to do what the government should've done last year - attack the filibuster abuse the Republicans are using to shut down government and get things back on track.

But things are taking even more turns for the worse, as I may do another blog on soon - I need to do some more humorous posts soon just to balance out all the dire political turns America's taking - since the heavily right-leaning Supreme Court just overturned democracy safeguards we'd had since Teddy Roosevelt was president in removing all restrictions on corporate involvement in campaign finance. In reality, we've needed even MORE restrictions and regulation since corporations already have a dangerous amount of influence on our elections as is, but since this ruling, they've literally handed democracy over to the corporations, claiming that their money is "free speech," and that corporations are individual people - horrible precedents that are literally taking the power of choice away from the American people and will strangle what little is left of democracy here. This Supreme Court really did not want Obama elected (And Obama's one justice he was able to bring to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, voted against this decision, realizing how terrible it would be for the country. So she's proving to have been a good choice.), and wants to pretty much see to it that we don't solve our problems as a country and that the Republicans take power again - a la oppressive corporate-backed fascists - and never lose power again. It's an increasingly scary and sad time to live in this country.