Friday, February 26, 2010

Our dysfunctional government

President Obama should not have had to hold a healthcare “summit”. If the Senate were working properly, healthcare reform would have been passed long before the 2009 August recess – so would have the Climate Bill, and Cap-and-Trade. But Republican-lite Democrats Baucus, Nelson, Lieberman, et al, held up the works. Everyone knew there would be no actual work done during the summit. Everyone knew the Republicans would be spouting party talking points and refuse to negotiate. The point of the summit was to highlight the obstructionism of the Republicans, and at the same time, for President Obama to hold the hands of the Congressional Democrats, make arguments for them, and give them some courage, because they do not have the gumption to get out there and fight for what’s right.

Actually, I blame the entire Senate – both the obstructive, obstinate Republicans (who are doing only what may be politically expedient in the short term which is not good for the country in the long term) and the lily-livered, weak-spined Democrats, especially Reid, for bringing our government to the point where it is not working for anyone. The Republicans work toward their goals in a malicious manner – slashing and burning – but the Democrats are too nice, continuing to extend their collective hand for bipartisanship even though it gets bit off every time.

With Scott Brown’s arrival as the Republican Party’s 41st senator ending the Democrats’ so-called “filibuster-proof majority” in the US Senate, governing the US just got harder. There they go again: the Party of No and Obstruction is feeling emboldened. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has prepared a series of gun rights amendments that he intends to add to must-pass spending bills in the Senate this year, hoping to force Democrats to take tough votes and draw clear distinctions between the two parties [about guns] heading into the midterms. Coburn "believes it's important to stay on the offense," a veteran Senate GOP consultant said in the wake of Senator-elect Scott Brown's (R-MA) win.

Maybe Scott Brown really means it when he says he is a “Scott Brown Republican”. After all, he did vote against his party and for the jobs bill, along with the two senators from Maine. Maybe he will surprise everyone by being truly moderate, helping to vote down some of these ridiculously bad gun amendments. But I doubt it – the Senate will be more broken than ever, with a minority party completely obstructing the rule of the majority.

This is why people speak of the 41-59 Republican "majority".

Republicans believe it is critical that they try to make Democrats appear out of step with the average American. They believe amendments on guns and spending in particular will help GOP Senators achieve that goal. So, for example, the Education bill has a Coburn amendment allowing veterans deemed "mentally defective" to carry firearms. Senator Coburn wants to force Democrats into a situation whereby if they want to approve broad education funding, they also have to approve expanding gun rights to those who have been deemed “dangerous” at the same time.

Amendments having nothing to do with the subject of the bill are not rare, but Democrats do not do this nearly as much because there are no issues that Republicans fear as much as Red-state Democrats fear the gun issue.

As an example of Republican obstruction: After nine months, the Senate finally approved Martha Johnson to head the General Services Administration, which runs government buildings and purchases supplies. It is a nonpolitical position and nobody questioned Ms. Johnson’s qualifications: she was approved by a vote of 94 to 2. Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, had put a “hold” on her appointment, not because he found her to be an offensive appointee, but to pressure the government to approve some pork for his state – a building project in Kansas City.

This dubious achievement may have inspired Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama. Senator Shelby placed a hold on all Obama administration nominations that remained – about 70 high-level government positions. He wanted to hold the nominations hostage until his state gets a tanker contract for the city of Mobile and a counterterrorism center placed in Huntsville. Finally, this was reported all over the media, so, eventually, with egg on his face, he withdrew his hold on all nominations but three.

What gives individual senators this kind of power? Much of the Senate’s business relies on unanimous consent making it difficult to get anything done unless everyone agrees on procedure. And a tradition has grown that allows a Senator, in return for not gumming up everything, to block a nominee they don’t like. With the national GOP having abdicated any responsibility for helping government work, it is only natural that individual senators such as Senator Shelby should feel free to take the nation hostage until they get their pet projects funded.

Until Senator Shelby pulled his stunt, no Senator, in the history of this nation, had ever blocked all nominations. Holds were always used sparingly. That’s because the Senate used to be ruled by traditions of courtesy, reciprocity, and accommodation. Rules that used to be workable in a civil society have become crippling now that the Republicans have descended into obstructionism, seeing political dividends in making the nation ungovernable.

Things are so bad that even bills the Republicans have sponsored are voted against by every Republican if President Obama comes out for it. Last month Republican senators voted in lockstep against any increase in the federal debt limit, a move that would have precipitated another government shutdown if Democrats hadn’t had 60 votes. They rail against the deficit, but they also denounce anything that might actually reduce the deficit, including, ironically, any effort to spend Medicare funds more wisely such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. They promoted a bill that set up a deficit panel, until President Obama said that it was a good idea, and then they were against it.

Yet, Democrats, being verbally-challenged, do not seem to be able to score political points by highlighting their opponents’ obstructionism. It should have been an easy message in the Massachusetts senate race: a vote for a Republican, no matter what you think of him as a person, is a vote for paralysis. But, then again, the so-called moderate Democrats have been holding up healthcare reform and other initiatives, despite the party’s control of the White House and both chambers of the legislature. The progressive Democrats want an all or none approach in that they will not vote for healthcare reform if it does not have the public option. This effectively does what the Republicans want – to kill health reform altogether.

The worst problem of all is how the Obama administration only mildly deals with those who would destroy or betray it. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, accused Mr. Shelby of “silliness” when Shelby blocked all nominations until the Senate gives Alabama millions of dollars in pork. Does the Obama administration really think that using the word “silliness” to define Republican obstructionism will really rile up voters against the obstructionists?

And do not forget the Republican-lite Democrats that come from Red States – they are also obstructionists. The nation would have been much better off had they been actual Republicans. Then maybe Harry Reid would have grown a backbone and pushed things through instead bending over backward to the point that he could kiss his own **** during negotiations with these DINOS.

“The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session.” ~Paul Krugman

According to Paul Krugman, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Polish legislature, called the Sejm, operated on the unanimity principle: any one member could nullify legislation by shouting “I do not allow!” This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century. After the dissolution of Poland, a Polish officer serving under Napoleon penned a song that eventually – after the country’s post-World War I resurrection – became the country’s national anthem. It begins, “Poland is not yet lost.”

America may not be lost yet, but the broken Senate is certainly working on it.