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Enough is enough Senators and I am talking to all of you, but especially really need to clean up your collective act.  Aren't you embarrassed at your reputation?  Do you have any shame at the kinds of tactics you have codified into your moldy, cobweb covered "traditions...tactics which allow single senators to block action, small minorities to block action, and require super majorities for even the simplest of matters.

Yes, the rules as they are now written may still doom you to fail if you try to change them, just because of the filibuster threat, but if nothing else, you can shine a spotlight on just how badly these hoary "traditions" are being used to reduce Congress to a creaking powerless collection of impotent old men.

Just a few examples to remind you of just how idiotic your actions look to the average American taxpayer:

Complete Blockage of Senate Business

ThinkProgress yesterday reported that all of Tuesday’s Senate committee and subcommittee hearings had to stop after 2:00 p.m. because of Republican objections. There is a little-noticed Senate rule that says committees need permission to meet anytime after two hours after the Senate convenes. Without permission, even a committee already in session has to stop meeting. No committee meetings are allowed to occur after 2:00 p.m.

The Senate generally waives this rule by unanimous consent at the start of business each day. But to protest health care legislation, Republicans have refused to give their consent this week, bringing committee work in the Senate to a virtual standstill. Today, the Senate convened at 9:00 a.m., meaning that hearings after 11:00 a.m. were blocked. One hearing canceled today was a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee session on "Contracts for Afghan National Police Training." (snip)

Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI), whose hearing was stopped abruptly at 11:00 a.m., replied, "The Senate should be a place for debate, but I cannot imagine how shutting down a hearing on helping homeless veterans has any part of the debate on the health insurance reform. I am deeply disappointed that my colleagues chose to hinder our common work to help end veteran homelessness."

Giving Individual Senators the Power to Block Appointments

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put an extraordinary "blanket hold" on at least 70 nominations President Obama has sent to the Senate, according to multiple reports this evening. The hold means no nominations can move forward unless Senate Democrats can secure a 60-member cloture vote to break it, or until Shelby lifts the hold.

"While holds are frequent," CongressDaily's Dan Friedman and Megan Scully report (sub. req.), "Senate aides said a blanket hold represents a far more aggressive use of the power than is normal." The magazine reported aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were the source of the news about Shelby's blanket hold.(snip)

According to the report, Shelby is holding Obama's nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track.  (Shelby later backed down when media focus on his actions and the reason behind them made the heat a bit more than he could stand politically.)

Blocking Appointments in General

(Regarding) the nomination of former AFL-CIO and SEIU attorney Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)...Republicans have been using Becker’s nomination as a proxy battle over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — which would level the playing field for workers who want to form a union

Bush’s last nominee to the NLRB — Peter Schauber — was confirmed uncontroversially, along with a boatload of nominees for various positions. But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) placed a hold on Obama’s NLRB nominees last year, and also called for a hearing on Becker’s nomination, which was the first on an NLRB nominee since 1994 (and even that hearing was for an NLRB chairman).

Confirming Becker (and the other NLRB nominees) is important because for two years now, the NLRB has been crippled. Only two of the board’s five seats are filled, which not only leaves many disputes deadlocked at a 1-1 vote, but also calls into question the validity of any cases on which the two members have agreed. As the New York Times reported, "a pending Supreme Court case could ultimately vacate 80 of the [Board's] decisions," because the two members do not technically constitute a quorum.

The NLRB situation has gotten so bad that even Chief Justice John Roberts...certainly no fan of the Obama wondering why the President has not turned to recess appointments to get around this obstruction.

And It's Not Just Boards and Commissions

The Senate GOP is blocking the confirmation of even those Obama judicial nominations that Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee supported unanimously. In fact, Republicans have allowed even fewer of President Obama's nominated judges to even reach an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate than they did for Bill Clinton back in the 1990s. (snip)

"Despite the fact that President Obama began sending judicial nominations to the Senate two months earlier than President Bush, after President Obama’s 13 months in office the Senate is has confirmed only 15 Federal circuit and district court judges," (said Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

"During the 17 months I chaired the Judiciary Committee during President Bush’s first two years, the Senate confirmed 100 of his judicial nominees. That is the stark reality and the difference in fair treatment and approach."

And It's Not Just Judgeships

An individual Senator's confirmation hold is usually communicated anonymously to a party leader, who delivers the black ball to the majority leadership. Anonymity is preserved. Not so, that night. Reid outed Sen. Tom Coburn as the obstructionist whose hold threatened national security.

As transcribed in the Congressional Record, Reid explained that the "junior senator from Oklahoma" had objected to unanimous consent to fill the Department of Homeland Security's Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis vacancy. Reid emphasized that the hold was not based on the nominees' background or competency.

Obama's nominee was Caryn Wagner, a 30-year veteran intelligence expert. The DHS position was created in response to the brutal lessons of September 11, 2001, to focus domestic intelligence gathering, analysis, and sharing.

No Excuse for Coburn's National Security Obstruction

Tom Coburn's hold was insult to obstruction injury for Caryn Wagner. She was one of the 67 nominee-hostages released that day from Richard "$45 billion" Shelby's "'blanket-hold." (Shelby retains holds on three top Defense Department nominees and demands $45 billion in ransom.)

Why did Coburn block her confirmation? The record is unclear. In discussing the Wagner hold, Reid alluded to a Republican who did "not like a decision that has been made as to where a building is to be built." Was the critically important intelligence position being blocked because a Republican Senator wanted a building built in his State? The public may never know; those are the secret ways of the Senate fraternity.

Requiring Super Majorities to Pass Virtually Anything

The filibuster — tool of obstruction in the U.S. Senate — is alternately blamed and praised for wilting President Barack Obama's ambitious agenda. Some even say it's made the nation ungovernable Maybe, maybe not. Obama's term still has three years to run. More certain, however: Opposition Republicans are using the delaying tactic at a record-setting pace.

"The numbers are astonishing in this Congress," says Jim Riddlesperger, political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.  The filibuster, using seemingly endless debate to block legislative action, has become entrenched like a dandelion tap root in the midst of the shrill partisanship gripping Washington.  (snip)

Last year, the first of the 111th Congress, there were a record 112 cloture votes. In the first two months of 2010, the number already exceeds 40.
That means, with 10 months left to run in the 111th Congress, Republicans have turned to the filibuster or threatened its use at a pace that will more than triple the old record. The 104th Congress in 1995-96 — when Republicans held a 53-47 majority — required 50 cloture votes.

It is only Senate tradition and Senate rules which create the ability for both parties and individuals to block passage of bills and appointments through threat of a filibuster or hold.  In effect, these tools make a mockery of the established principle of "one man, one vote," by allowing as few as 41 Senators or even a single Senator to block the will of significant majorities and in turn the public who elected them.

President Obama ran, in part, on a pledge to tackle the extremely complex and critical challenge of reforming the nation's healthcare system.  The truly astounding thing to realize today is that despite the huge obstacles he and dedicated members of Congress faced, particularly in the Senate, a bill was passed.....but it is a bill with serious shortcomings and a bill which took over a year to pass in the face of arcane requirements that it pass through multiple committees and overcome the constant threat of filibuster.

Obama won a clear majority of the American electorate in his bid for the Presidency.  That majority said, "We support you and your ideas...carry forward with what you told us you would do."

Today, he has done that, and the Republicans, after a year of outright refusal to contribute, to participate or the negotiate, after over a year of obstructions, delays, and, Republicans are screaming that they were railroaded, that the public will was ignored, and that they are going to just bring the work of Congress to a complete halt in a fit of pique over their loss.

The Rose Bowl, the Super Bowl, Olympic Hockey, NCAA basketball, footraces, Academy Awards, and Razzies.....they all pick winners by who has the most votes, the most points, the winning score.

Only the Senate (and the California Constitution) require that you need not just a majority, but a super majority to win.  And astoundingly enough some members of the GOP are willing to argue that for major pieces of legislation like healthcare....even 60 votes is far from what should be required.  Here's Senator Corker of Tennessee blithely asserting that Democrats should have gotten 80 votes to win passage:


(By the way you really have to admire Corker's chutzpa in calling for more bipartisanship when you read his own Majority Leader's words of warning to all GOP Senators against any hint of such actions.  

And you also have to stifle a scream after remembering that Corker spent weeks essentially playing Rope-a-Dope with Senator Dodd on legislation to set tighter controls on the excesses of Wall Street, only to have Dodd finally drop that effort in frustration after realizing that Corker had no real intention of seeing anything get done, and was in fact simply trying to delay and obstruct long enough to enable his allies on Wall Street to block things altogether.  So far it appears, his efforts and those of Senator Shelby seem to be failing.)

There are some who will argue that if Democrats give up the filibuster it will come back to haunt them when the Republicans regain power as they (or whatever morphs into being from their ashes)inevitably will over time.

But the filibuster and holds and other rules of this nature are a significant factor behind today's legislative paralysis and political purity....making negotiation and bargaining...the heart of the democratic process, virtually impossible....and creating a climate that fosters the Becks and the Hannitys and the O'Reillys and the FOX News, Washington Times and WSJ editorial boards of today.

The challenges facing us as a nation and as a part of the global community are increasingly getting more critical and requiring more rapid action.  Global warming is a prime example.  Every shred of scientific evidence..especially the accelerating pace of global ice melting....indicates we need to act now and in a major way to try and reverse trends which could have incredible political, climatological, environmental, and economic impacts beyond our ability to manage.  And yet our own legislative processes have become so sclerotic that more than a decade has passed with no significant action.

Worse yet, the pervasive influence of massive waves of lobbying money and political contributions have, more than anything, been used to play on the rules of the Senate to obstruct and delay, simply adding to the mess we are allowing to accumulate.  Witness all the lobbying money that went to Max Bauccus and his resulting efforts to drag out his committee's work for months, effectively giving the opposition time to mount attacks based on everything from death panels to government takeover.

Bottom line, Republicans right now are helping Democrats build a case for why change is needed.  Democrats need to focus the spotlight on what is being done to delay and obstruct and why it is so damaging.  In interviews, statements and actions, they must continually remind voters that they stand for change and it is time to change the arcane and obstructionist rules of the Senate.

The party needs to have the courage to reform not just health care, not just Wall Street, not just consumer protections, and the environment, but reform itself.  It is likely that initial efforts will fail and precisely because of the current system and its built in obstructions like filibusters.  But if the spotlight is shone brightly enough, and enough Democrats work together, just maybe change might be achieved.

Remember what happened to Senator Shelby.....he used the secret hold for the most selfish and baseless of reasons (to win earmarks for his home district), but when the media began trying to get him to justify what he was doing, he backed down.  We need to start working now on pressing for change because without it, real change in America will continually be hamstrung and progressive progress will remain forever hogtied.

Originally posted to on Wed Mar 24, 2010 at 04:06 PM PDT.


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