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Archive for December, 2009

After watching the number of filibusters, or more accurately filibuster threats, skyrocket in recent years, I can recommend some changes.

As aggravating as it has been to see it so mis-used this year, I’m not one to advocate eliminating that procedural measure.  It was designed to serve a purpose — that of minimizing the tyranny of the majority so that it cannot simply jam through legislation without regard to alternative views.  As the political winds change over time, today’s majority may become tomorrow’s minority.  But the filibuster shouldn’t be used as a weapon to provide tyranny of the minority, either.  Let’s face it.  The role of the minority party is to provide alternative solutions that may result in compromise, not simply to stomp their feet and say no to everything the majority attempts.

Neither am I in favor of reducing to a bare majority the number of votes needed to invoke cloture and cut off debate.  That would short-circuit its intended purpose.

Here’s what I propose:

  • If a party or a person decides to filibuster, they should be required to conduct an actual filibuster, not simply threaten one. I can’t help but think that the burden of conducting an actual filibuster would reduce their number closer to their historical averages.
  • The 60 vote threshold could be reduced to 55.  That would still give the minority party the ability to slow the process, but it would limit the effectiveness of abusing the tactic.
  • A third mechanism merits further discussion to identify any unintended negative consequences.  The current system puts the onus on the majority to invoke cloture and end debate.  Bruce Bartlett, who served in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, has proposed that for every bill, a specified number of hours of debate, say 40 hours, would be guaranteed.  Should any member request, an additional 10 hours would be granted by unanimous consent or by a vote of 40 senators.  The agreement to additional hours could be repeated as many times as senators could muster 40 votes or unanimous consent.  That reverses the burden and places it on the minority in order to keep debate open while still preserving their right to slow the process.  It might also prevent the majority from having to be beholden to a small number of senators to invoke cloture, thus limiting their ability to shape a bill to the needs or desires of a particular state.

What do you think?  Would this preserve the ability of the minority to slow legislation?  Would it reduce the number of filibusters and filibuster threats?  Would it help to remove the gridlock that currently exists while reducing the power of individual senators in the majority party to extract concessions or to shape legislation to suit their particular needs while ignoring or subverting the will of the rest of the body?

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As we rush through the last few days before Christmas, it’s time to take stock.  Gifts purchased?  Check.  Wrapped? Check.  Shipped? Check.  Annual holiday letter written?  Check.  Cards mailed?  Check.  So far so good.

Tree decorated?  Check.  Outside lights up?  Check.  Lookin’ good.

But here’s where we hit a log jam.  There are no cookies baked, yet.  For me, that’s a big one.  My role model was my mother.  And she started baking the day after Thanksgiving.  A batch a day, and a different kind each day.  Whew!  That one went out the window long ago, although there are a few kinds that I really miss.  I did make a couple of batches of chocolate truffles.  And I did the grocery store run.  So in some ways, I’m in good shape.  A stitching day Tuesday while hubby runs errands and takes the dog to get her Christmas bath so she’ll be sweet smelling.

The rest of the indoor decorating remains to be done — garlands hung over the archways, wreaths, and the traditional do-dads placed about.  And then there are the ongoing picking up, dusting and vacuuming tasks that never seem to end, sort of like laundry.  If we get all that done on Wednesday, I’ll still have time on Thursday to make a few batches of cookies.

But those are the frills in the final analysis.  The important part of the holiday is to take time to appreciate (and hopefully spend time with) friends and family, relaxing and enjoying each others’ company.  There will be time next week to consider 2010 and the changes I want to make — personal goals as well as continuing to push for the kind of change I voted for in November 2008.  There will be time to bemoan the extent to which our government is broken on so many levels.  But not this week.  I read an article on Huffington Post that I commend to you all.  It is food for thought both this week when we celebrate the longed for peace on earth and as we set goals for next year.

For my Jewish and Muslim friends, I wish you Happy Holidays.  For those who celebrate Christmas, may it be merry.  And to all, the happiest of new years.

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As many as 60 million Americans lacked health insurance at some time in 2009.  That staggering number represents 1 in 5.  As disappointed as I am that the public option and an expansion of Medicare have been compromised away, along with a single-payer system which was compromised away before negotiations began, I’m not willing to throw the entire bill out.  Yes, it benefits the health insurance cartel.  But it covers over 30 million people who are currently without coverage.  One argument has been missing from the debate — that 45,000 annual deaths due to lack of coverage is immoral.

As a nation, we concluded that 45,000 deaths each year from traffic accidents was unacceptable.  And in response we instituted improved safety requirements for our vehicles — side mirrors, safety belts, shoulder harnesses, driver side airbags, passenger side airbags, side impact airbags, anti-lock brakes.  That has reduced the total number of deaths annually to under 40,000, despite an increase of over half a billion miles driven.  Why aren’t we similarly concerned about 45,000 deaths each and every year that result from lack of health care?  We know that the safety mechanisms that have contributed to fewer traffic deaths have increased the cost of vehicles.

Liberals and progressives are understandably angry at how much we have had to compromise, and yet a final bill remains in doubt at this late date.  In fact, some prominent progressives are playing right into the GOP’s hands by suggesting the right course of action is to kill the bill.  I’m reminded of what the late Sen. Kennedy identified as one of his greatest professional regrets — his unwillingness to compromise on a health care bill early in his career.  Are we ready to let the search for the perfect bill sidetrack us from any and all reform?

Thirty million more people insured.  Universal standards for preventive and wellness benefits.  People with pre-existing conditions will be covered.  Insurance companies will be required to spend 90% of premiums on patient care.  Exchanges will offer the opportunity for individuals to obtain group rates and will include some not-for-profit choices among them.  Lifetime caps will be eliminated.  The cost curve will begin to bend downwards.  Medicaid will be expanded to cover more people, and subsidies will be available to those in need but who do not qualify for Medicaid.  Excess payments made to insurance companies through Medicare Advantage will be cut.

Nate Silver posted a graph — the proverbial picture that’s worth 1000 words — using CBO figures to show how insurance will be made more affordable under the bill than by retaining the status quo.

If we can make health care more affordable and more accessible, we can then work to make our health care system better.  I for one am willing to take half a loaf at this moment.  But I will continue to press for more reforms.  For to do otherwise is immoral.  We must not forget those 45,000 people who die each year from a lack of health care.  We owe them no less.  They are human beings who love their families and who are loved by them.  And if we take seriously the words of the Declaration of Independence, that we are all created equal and that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we all have the right to health care.

John Podesta has a piece on Think Progress that defines in more detail why progressives should get on board with the bill.  Again, it’s not perfect.  Not by a long shot.  But in our frustration, let’s not forget that politics is the art of the possible.  There are lots of things that will become possible if the Senate bill passes.  Things that aren’t part of the status quo that killing the bill represents.

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It’s the season for giving, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut may find that his gifts may be something less pleasant than he might like.  Since he announced yesterday that he will filibuster health care reform unless both the public option and the Medicare buy-in are dumped, an effort has begun to support an opponent for the senator.  Already over $1.5 million has been pledged by some 30,000 people via a Facebook page.  Here‘s the press release.  This approach seems more productive, if less emotionally satisfying, that Huffington Post’s call for suggested Hannukah gifts for the senator.

As much as I’d like to see Sen. Lieberman dumped by the good people of Connecticut, I’d also like to see some more immediate pressure put on him.  Let’s not forget that as recently as 90 days ago, Joe Lieberman supported expanding the pool of Medicare recipients. His new line is that the Finance Committee bill already had reforms included in it that would help people in the 59-64 age group and the Medicare buy-in plan is therefore duplicative.  The fact that he opposed the Finance Committee bill seems to have been lost on him.  His office is trying to explain his sudden change of heart, but their reasons ring hollow.

Just last week he promised to wait until the Congressional Budget Office had come back with their scoring of the revised Senate bill.  Could it be that he has figured out that expanding Medicare won’t actually be a budget buster after all and that in order to placate his insurance company masters, he had to undercut the CBO report?  Unless he’s as petty as Chris Matthews suggests — that his stance is revenge served cold, payback for the Democratic Party’s failure to support him in his last Senate race — it’s about the only thing that makes sense.

I’d respect him a bit more if he just told the truth — the health insurance giants, many of whom are headquartered in Connecticut own him lock, stock and barrel.  No matter that 60% of the people in Connecticut support a public option.  He doesn’t care about that because he knows that the insurance companies will fund his next campaign.  And that brings me back to where I started.  We the people simply must support those who follow through on their promises to stand up for the people.  If they do not, we have the power of the ballot box.  We can vote them out.  It takes work to stay engaged, to keep track of what our legislators say when they talk to us and then how they vote.  We must hold them accountable.

President Obama wasn’t given much of a chance by the pundits when he began his campaign for the White House.  But he organized people.  And they, we, worked phone banks, gave money, rang door bells.  And we voted.  Let’s work to give Joe, and others like him the boot.

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A friend emailed me over the weekend asking, “Shouldn’t we just trust the president? We elected him.  Certainly he got the information from his military advisers to inform his Afghanistan policy.”  Of course.  But I wonder if he is relying too heavily on the advice of the military.  Hearing over the weekend that only 5% of the funding is focused on humanitarian efforts only added to my concern.  I don’t know if that’s a reliable number.  And I don’t know how it would be spent.  So I reserve judgment other than to say it concerns me.

The President, tacitly acknowledging the extent of corruption in the Karzai government, said that we will work with the village and provincial leadership.  Yet, I was struck by a comment by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools) where he observed that while the real power in Afghanistan resides with the village elders, their input into the US decision-making process was filtered through our military leadership.  And that assumes that the elders’ input actually made it into the Situation Room discussions.

Further adding to my discomfort, we watched Thirteen Days in October, a gripping dramatic account of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.  Whether through a deliberate intent or a series of coincidences, one couldn’t help but wonder the extent to which the Joint Chiefs and other senior military staff sought to increase the drum-beat towards war with the Soviet Union.  And, knowing that there were a series of leaks that identified opposing views during the Afghan surge discussions, I wondered if the military was once again pushing a military solution above all other possibilities.

The job of the military is to fight.  It’s what they’re trained to do, and those in the officer corps who do it well are rewarded through promotions.  That reality just may push them to favor war as a means of personal advancement.  This may not be a conscious bias, but it would be understandable.  We all want to do things that advance us in our chosen efforts. I realize that there are distinct advantages to having an all volunteer military.  And I understand that the senior officers have a broader set of experiences and education than in many past generations.   But not all the personnel in Afghanistan will be officers.  And I’ve seen the video clips and news reports and documentaries and read books in which the grunts haven’t demonstrated much in the way of cultural understanding and sensitivity, to say the least.

I truly wish that I didn’t have these reservations.  It would be ever so much easier simply to believe that President Obama is receiving the best and the widest range of information to inform his decision.  I trust that he is making sound decisions based on the information he has.  What I worry about is whether he has all the relevant available information.  And I worry about the enlisted personnel who will be interacting with the local Afghanis.

And then there was Tom Friedman, writing an op-ed piece and appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square.  Friedman makes the argument that we need nation building here at home as his reason for opposing the Afghan surge.  I was very critical of President Bush funding wars on the national credit card.  So I would have preferred an approach that recognized the importance of a nation sharing in the sacrifice needed to wage war.  Instead, for the past 9 years, the only ones asked to sacrifice have been our nation’s military families as they endure repeated deployments in addition to high rates of PTSD, traumatic brain injury and suicide.  But we Americans too often want something for nothing.  It is that thinking that is at the root of the anti-tax sentiment while our roads and bridges, our public schools, and our other public services deteriorate at an alarming rate.  Can we really have it all?

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Then and now

I ran across this quote today.  See if you can guess its source.

Obstruction has become the only thing which the other side of the aisle appears to be able to do, obstruction for the purpose of obstruction for the purpose of obtaining power around here.

If you guessed that it was a Senate Democrat decrying the GOP tactics for the health care debate, you’d be wrong.  It was Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, circa 2006.  The topic under debate was a bill Sen. Gregg supported, one that aimed at cutting funds from Medicare and Medicaid.  And yes, the same Judd Gregg who authored a memo to his fellow Republican Senators on how to kill health care reform. In the memo, Gregg suggested using such tactics as “hard quorum calls,” endless numbers of amendments — whether germane or not — in addition to endless filibusters at each and every opportunity.  It was a textbook lesson on how to use some of the more archane Senate rules to obstruct the process.

Isn’t it interesting how people’s tune can change when the bill in question is one the good Senator supports compared to one he opposes.  Of course, to hear Sen. Gregg tell it, he’s simply using the rules as the Founders intended — to ensure that the Senate not succumb to the passions of the people’s representatives in the House.

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I listened to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last night, and I remain unconvinced.  Yes, there were definitely some things that represent a positive change in policy — more Congressional oversight, no more “no-bid” contracts come to mind immediately, as does the reality of whether we can afford the financial drain an open-ended commitment implies.  But I remain unconvinced that sending in another 30,000 troops will contribute to any long-term solution, regardless of the length of the surge.

The President spoke of the situation in Afghanistan as vital to our national security interest.  To be sure, Al Qaeda still wants to harm us, and the Taliban once gave them safe haven.  Yet, Al Qaeda has moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan.  So, given that Pakistan possesses something like 65 nuclear weapons, isn’t that the logical focus of our efforts?  And given that Pakistan is officially an ally, how do we best work with them to ensure both the safety of their arsenal and their active commitment to root out Al Qaeda, Taliban and other extremist elements while preventing their relocation back across the border into Afghanistan?  That seems to be the military objective.

What confounds me is why we still seem to put so much emphasis on the military option, despite frequently asserting that the situation doesn’t have a military solution.   We are told that one of the two primary military goals is to train up the local security forces.  But when the desertion rate for the Afghan national police force approaches 1 in 4, one must wonder if training Afghans to take over their own security is a viable solution, despite the assertion that several thousand Afghans, plus another 5,000 or so NATO troops will be added to reach the 40,000 that were requested.

In the lead up to the speech, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs asserted that our mission in Afghanistan is not nation-building.  For heaven’s sake, in my mind that is exactly our mission there!  That unfortunate country needs schools over and above almost everything else.  Every time we bomb a wedding party or rack up another set of civilian casualties, we create more reasons for people to turn to the Taliban.

A national literacy rate of only 10% is very telling.  Teaching Afghans to read and offering them an alternative to poppy cultivation would be powerful tools against the Taliban.  We need many more Greg Mortensons working in Afghanistan.  If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Mortenson, I urge you to read “Three Cups of Tea.”  Then, in the spirit of the holidays, make as big a contribution as you can afford to his Central Asia Institute.  The money goes to build schools in rural villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Schools that are required to be open to girls as well as to boys.

Then, lobby Congress to use our aid money in the form of micro-loans.  The model there is Mohammad Yunus.  Mr. Yunus has discovered that small loans, often only a few hundred dollars each, allow people to begin small, local, culturally and technologically realistic businesses that will improve their standard of living.  In most cases, the repayment rate would be a US banker’s delight.

Literacy and self-empowered economic development are powerful tools against extremism.  Unfortunately, the history of USAID tends to be reflected too often in warehouses filled with American goods that benefit mostly the American expatriate community there.

I want to give the President the benefit of the doubt.  He’s truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.  I was hoping to hear an explanation of a wider strategy.  What I heard was a speech by a very reluctant warrior that focused on the military option.

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