Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Prelude to WAR! Emegrency Compromise Delays Showdown

May 12(25), 2005
In an emergency meeting yesterday evening, seven Democrats and seven Republicans reached a compromise to avert a Senate showdown of historic proportions. The deal came as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist moved within hours of initiating the nuclear option, a move that would trample the rights of the Democratic minority and pile drive Republican judicial nominees through Congress.
While Republicans retained public solidarity with Frist, a number of the more seasoned lawmakers were gravely concerned with the situation, and their qualms led to the unlikely coupling of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd (D) and Virginia Senator Mark Warren (R ).
“We’ve got to do something about this,” Byrd pleaded with Warren. “We’ve got to stop this.” Warren agreed, and he began a series of high level talks with Byrd and other Democratic leaders. Several moderate Republicans have put their careers on the line, risking rejection by violently extremist Red districts, to save the Senate as a unique and independent institution. Among these courageous men were Senator John McCain (already reviled by many Republicans for combining conservative social values with ethical legislative ones) and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who remarked, “A lot of people at home are going to be really mad at me…but I’m willing to vote for this, because it’s bigger than me.”
In that, Graham is certainly correct. The filibuster has been an honoured institution in the Senate for countless decades, and, indeed, is one of the primary differences between the Senate and the House, the difference that gives the Senate much more power. The Founding Fathers wanted a reasonable minority to stonewall majority efforts to garner greater power. What, is, however, a reasonable minority? Could one miniscule group of senators be able to derail the will of hundreds of millions of American citizens?
Most people are surprised to learn that the answer is, “No.” The Founding Fathers were flexible men. They knew that if protecting minority rights infringed upon majority rights, democracy was not truly working. Therefore, they added a provision to the filibuster that both parties have made use of numerous times: if a faction has an overwhelming majority in the Senate (called a, “supermajority,”), showing that a vastly greater number of the American people support them than support the closest minority, the filibuster may be overturned.
In the 100-member Senate, 60 votes can end a filibuster. Therefore, if a party, say, the Republicans, commanded incredible support from the people, their will could still be done. Unfortunately for the Right, Republicans only control 55 seats of the Senate, five short of the supermajority at which the closest minority party becomes an unreasonably small faction not entitled to shoot down the majority’s legislation.
Because, under current Senate rules, Republicans could not overcome a Democratic filibuster, Majority Leader Bill Frist has decided to overturn the regulations, much the same way that Republicans changed House ethics rules to keep Tom DeLay in his position as House Majority Leader when it seemed that he was about to be indicted by a Texas grand jury. Needless to say, the idea has caused great distress. If it was to go through, the Senate as an independent institution would become effectively null, merely an extension of the autocratic House.
Republicans, of course, have shown very little respect for precedent since George W. Bush stole the presidency in 2000. If the rules fir their own political agenda, they are enforced with the most stringent firmness. If those rules do not fit the Rightist agenda, they are antiquated and must be discarded. Hypocrisy aside, the consequences for both parties and for the Senate will be far-reaching and dire. The prestige of the Senate will certainly be reduced, as will be its ability to stand up to the President (whose influence will undoubtedly be increased, as the serving President is almost always the leader of his or her political party).
Perhaps most perplexing, Senator Frist seems completely oblivious to the fact that his changes will eventually haunt Republican legislators when that party is again a minority (a day that, given Republicans’ recent approval ratings, may not be long in coming). Maybe he is arrogant enough to believe that the Right will stay in power forever, a prospect that many hypothesize could be the ultimate goal of his alterations. In an interesting development, the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, has coincided perfectly with the political upheavals in the United States. The film, about a rogue senator in the fictitious Galactic Senate who changed parliamentary rules and then is able to establish a dictatorship, has been alluded to be numerous political observers (and even some senators in the true Senate) as being paralleling the current situation in America. None less than George Lucas, the film’s director, has stated that he believes the movie makes a political statement.
One senator recently brought a poster of the evil Emperor Palpatine (the aforementioned rogue senator) into Congress and exclaimed, “This is what these changes will lead to.”
That prospect is what has so many anxiously awaiting the outcome of the current crisis. Many are now cheering the compromise as a victory for America, but the deal should be looked upon with caution; as Howard Dean has said, the true test of its durability will be when a vacancy appears in the Supreme Court, which, in light of Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s current medical problems, is likely to happen within months. This compromise has not ended the fight; it has pushed it back temporarily. Bill Frist, expressing disappointment with his more moderate colleagues, has said that he will still continue to pursue what he calls the, “Constitutional Option.”If the vote to change the rules goes to the floor but is defeated, it would be a catastrophic political blow to a Republican Party that has already fallen dramatically in public opinion polls since the 2004 Election. If the vote goes to floor and actually gets through, it would set a terrible precedent for all future minorities and would disable the Democrats until at least the next election in 2006. Either way, both sides have a lot to lose. The bottom line is: this isn’t over.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Democrats Finally Have a Social Security Plan

May 4(17), 2005
At long last, a Democratic member of Congress has stepped forth with a comprehensive, well thought out, and practical plan to handle the social security problem. As President Bush made his way across the country to (unsuccessfully) lobby the American people around his proposed Social Security privatization plan, Democrats called out passionately against the idea.
Privatization, they say, would effectively create an entirely new system, ripping apart the old Democratic innovation that has become a staple of so many Americans’ later lives. Unfortunately, the Democrats were struggling to put together a solution of their own, which led top Republicans to label them, “The Party of, ‘No.’” The Republican line of reasoning was, “Privatization may be unpopular, but it’s the only thing out there on the table.” A mythical Social Security, “crisis,” has been used to feed a feeling of urgency concerning the issue, and it is likely that panic alone is responsible for the few Americans who support privatization in the first place.
Naturally, Republicans would have loved a chance to dismantle Social Security; what better victory could there be for laissez-faire policy than to strike down a cornerstone of the Democratic modernization of America, an institution that has helped innumerable poor elderly make ends meet and maintain their dignity?
Just this last week, Senator Robert Wexler of Florida unveiled a plan to manage the future Social Security shortfalls and ensure that the fund is preserved for many more generations. The Democratic senator proposed a 6% tax increase on incomes of $90,000.00 a year or more. The slight increase in taxes would affect only a small percentage of the population and would raise considerable revenue to be used in the maintenance of Social Security and other much-needed government programs.
Senator Wexler deserves enormous praise for his industriousness and ingenuity in formulating an entirely plausible and workable proposal. This could very well be the key to the Social Security problem.
Senator Wexler described the plan, saying “It's the lifting of the taxable earning cap. That certainly is. It will raise substantial money. And the reason for doing it is to avoid benefit cuts, to avoid privatization schemes, to avoid having to increase the retirement age for Americans. What we see on the one hand is the president offering a plan which requires significant benefit cuts. And what I wanted to show the American people was that we could resolve the Social Security shortfall without benefit cut, without raising the retirement age and without engaging in risky market privatization projects.”
Touché.
He was then asked his opinion on the current Democratic Congressional policy of not negotiating Social Security at all with President Bush until the Commander-in-Chief took privatization off of the table. This is really quite a stubborn and inefficient line to take, a position that is rather Republicanesque. Democrats have criticized President Bush for refusing to negotiate with Kim Jung Il of North Korea until the rogue nation promises to abandon its nuclear weapons program, but everyone knows that such a thing will never happen. Similarly, it must be common knowledge among groups with even a rudimentary understanding of politics that no headstrong Republican, much less the same arrogant president who engages in foreign wars for purposes of economic gain and personal bravado, would ever dream of acquiescing to such a narrow Democratic demand.
In all honesty, most Democratic leaders probably wouldn’t take kindly to a similar request from a Republican. It is amusing to picture Harry Reid’s furious reaction in a reversed situation.
Wexler was diplomatic, remarking simply, “I don't think the American people win if the Democratic Party by default does not address the Social Security shortfall. We have spent months showing the American people that the president's plan will require benefit cuts, it requires a risky privatization scheme, it diverts one-third of Social Security's revenue away from Social Security. And I think we add to our credibility by offering an alternative, particularly one that does not require benefit cuts. The American people want to know, how do the Democrats stand on Social Security. And now that Congress has begun its hearings, I think it's important that Democrats speak up.” How very well put.

Some Numbers...

Here are the most recent polling numbers, gauging the opinions of the American people concerning a variety of issues.

President Bush's Job Approval Rating: 43% (an unprecedented low for a wartime president, or for any president at such an early point in their second term)
Approval Rating of Democrats in Congress: 39% (showing than Democrats are being too weak and are not doing enough to stand up to the Republicans and put forth good ideas)
Approval Rating for Republicans in Congress: 35% (showing that the American people don't like their extremist policies or their shameful exploitation of religion)

In the words of one CNN correspondent, "2006 is going to be an interesting year."

Many are looking even further ahead than that, to the 2008 presidential race. One Democratic strategist was moved to remark yesterday that, "After three more years of this [the Bush Administration], the country is going to be so screwed up that people are going to be ready for a change."

If current trends continue and the president's approval rating maintains its downward spiral, the Democrats may be right.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Will the Filibuster be Done Away With?

April 27(May 10), 2005
In Washington and around the country, the filibuster debacle grows with every day. As tensions continue to grow over judicial nominees, both sides are gearing up for a Congressional battle of historic proportions. Increasingly, however, the Left and Right (with the exception of a few members) seem more polarized than ever, and a showdown has thus far been averted only by the heroic efforts of individuals like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
“There ought to be enough moderately intelligent senators to come up with a solution,” Democrat Ben Nelson lambasted yesterday on CNN’s, “Inside Politics,” with Judy Woodruff.
Charles Schumer, a Democratic member of the Senate, cautioned that the revocation of the filibuster would, “dramatically change the way that the Senate functions.” He is certainly correct in that assertion. The Senate is the upper house of the legislature, and, as such, the Founding Fathers intended it to have more stringent standards than the House of Representatives. The majority vote legislation to come out of the House could often be (and many times still is) deeply partisan, with the slant of the bills depending on whichever party is in control of the lower chamber. Today, it’s the Republicans, who also hold the Senate, White House, and Supreme Court. Therein lies the key.
It was for this very situation that the filibuster was created in the first place. To prevent single-party rule or a takeover of the whole government by any one group, the framers of the Constitution wisely bestowed upon Senate additional stipulations and privileges that the other house of Congress did not have to adhere and was not privy to. One of these, the filibuster, allowed for a reasonable minority to stall (and eventually kill) legislation that it found disagreeable. A very large majority (sixty senators) can override the filibuster, although this technique (donned the, “nuclear option,” by melodramatic Democrats and the, “Constitutional option,” by Republicans who want to downplay the partisan nature of their own attacks and the significance that such a legislative action would have) has been used quite sparingly in American history.
In a period when federal institutions are already coming under an alarming amount of influence from extreme right wing religious organizations, the majority of the American people feel that eliminating the filibuster would not be the wisest course to take. Not only that, but most feel that this is not just an issue of Democrats being bullied by Republicans; as Republican Senator Hutchinson notes, “We stopped sixty of Clinton’s judges,” using the filibuster during a period when the legislative and executive branches had come under the sway of the Left. Perhaps Senator Hutchinson is right, and the filibuster should be preserved for all minorities, regardless of party. Americans, in any case, seem to think so, and generally are not taking kindly to Republican assertions that, “President Bush’s nominees deserve an up or down vote.” Given that a huge number of President Bill Clinton’s nominees (judicial and otherwise) were never even given a committee vote, it is not just Democrats who find this to be a bit hypocritical.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Some Numbers...

April 21(May 4), 2005
How Average Americans Feel About…

President Bush’s Overall Job: 48% Approve, 49% Disapprove
President Bush’s Foreign Policy: 45% Approve, 49% Disapprove
President Bush’s Economic Policy: 43% Approve, 53% Disapprove
President Bush’s Social Security Policy: 35% Approve, 58% Disapprove
President Bush’s Energy Policy: 34% Approve, 52% Disapprove
President Bush’s Actions to Curb Gas Prices: 27% Approve, 67% Disapprove

Continued Use of the Filibuster: 52% Approve, 40% Disapprove

And what about Independents, those Centrist voters who often swing an election? After all, 2008 is right around the corner. Well…

President Bush’s Job Approval Rating Among Independents: 39% Approve,
57%
Disapprove

Wow. A sign of things to come?

Democrats Win Victory in House Ethics Brawl

April 21(May 4), 2005
In a monumental development in the ethics debacle that has held the whole of Washington entranced for weeks, Democrats have claimed an enormous triumph. Following accusations that Congressman Tom DeLay had engaged in questionable activities, Democrats were eager to see him investigated by the House Ethics Committee. The instant that they realized the House Speaker might be held accountable for his misdeeds, Republicans rushed to change the House ethics rules. Prior to the alteration, if an issue could not be settled by the bipartisan committee within forty-five days, said issue would automatically be opened to an independent investigation.
The new regulations allowed the ethics complaint to simply be dismissed after the forty-five day mark, thus making it possible for either party to deadlock the committee and thus prevent an investigation of any person whom they favored. Incidentally, Republican leaders stepped forth shortly after this egregious new restriction was placed around the committee’s neck and proclaimed their willingness to see DeLay investigated. Democrats knew however, that if his case went to the committee, it would merely be stonewalled and then, when no decision could be made, quickly forgotten. As such, the Democrats brought the committee to a deadlock that they said would remain in effect until the old rules were reinstated. Bowing to tremendous political pressure from their constituents around America, the Republicans finally gave in and were forced to resurrect the old, fair rules. We can expect to see more of this in the future; Republicans doing whatever they think will get them votes, and not letting their consciences act as an impediment. Now, as DeLay becomes an increasingly disliked figure, the right will slowly begin to withdraw, all the while professing their superior, “moral values,” and the Democrats’ supposed lack of.