Senate Rules Reform

Not terribly surprising, but there won’t be major Senate rules reform, let alone filibuster reform, this session. David Dayen has a post up about the deal, which can only be viewed as an early sign of the sort of fecklessness we’ll see from Democrats in the 112th Congress.

Sen. Reid thanked his colleagues in the GOP for coming to this agreement. He also said the Senate “runs on a fuel made of comity and trust” in his speech on the floor, and that the chamber has “the ability to debate and to deliberate without the restraints of time limits.” He said that’s encoded into the Senate DNA. I watch far too much C-SPAN, and I can tell you pretty clearly that I’ve seen almost no debate or deliberation in the United States Senate. The “encoding” in the DNA is a nonsensical statement of exceptionalism that merely invites obstruction. Make no mistake – the Senate, and all its members, are getting precisely what they deserve. Any future whining about how difficult it is to break a filibuster will go in one ear and out the other. They had their chance to fix this, and they punted. I don’t believe Republicans will be as generous.

Reid closed with this:

Senator McConnell and I both believe our reverance for this institution must always be more important than our respective political parties. As part of this compromise, we’ve agreed that I won’t force a majority vote to fundamentally change the Senate. That is the so-called Constitutional option. And he won’t in the future.

Good luck with that one. [Emphasis added]

I really wish Dayen’s assessment was wrong, but I’m right there with him. The Senate doesn’t debate and Republicans will not feel bound to this gentleman’s agreement. Expect the 60 vote filibuster to be repealed at the start of the next Senate, under the constitutional option.

Honest Men in Washington

Matt Taibbi’s post yesterday praising the honest and conviction of Senator Bernie Sanders is a great reminder that these are characteristics politicians are capable of possessing in genuine ways. Taibbi writes:

I can live with the president fighting for something and failing; what I can’t stand is a politician who changes his mind for the sake of expediency and then pretends that was what he believed all along. You just can’t imagine someone like Sanders doing something like that; his MO instead would be to take his best shot for what he actually believes and let the chips fall where they may, budging a little maybe to get a worthwhile deal done but never turning his entire face inside out just to get through the day. This idea that you can’t be an honest man and a Washington politician is a myth, a crock made up by sellouts and careerist hacks who don’t stand for anything and are impatient with people who do. It’s possible to do this job with honor and dignity. It’s just that most of our politicians – our president included, apparently – would rather not bother. [Emphasis added]

Bingo. I would say that as a political operative and someone who has spent most of my life drawn to politics and towards the idea of the nobility of public service, the highlighted passage has been a benchmark assumption. Over time, I’ve come to understand that the number of actually honest politicians is a perilously low number. The depressing side of political work comes not from failing to see any people do this work with dignity – there are those that do and are inspiring as a result – but how many people you thought were in that category are actually disinclined from working honestly, with dignity, for the public good. Some walk away from it because it is hard. Others walk away because they never believed in honest service to begin with. In both cases, the challenge is that the system is run by people who don’t bother to do their work “with honor and dignity.” This speaks to the value of Bernie Sanders 8+ hour long speech against the proposed tax cuts. He stood up as a hero for those who opposed the cuts and did so without apology. We need more actions like Sanders’ in both chambers of Congress, as these inspire people who watch them and remind us that it is possible for people of principle to work with dignity in the halls of power.

Playing Two Different Games

Politico’s Mike Allen:

Gibbs, to Meredith Vieira, on ‘Today’: ‘The president believes that somewhere in all of this, we can find common ground. … The American people … didn’t vote in November for gridlock.’

The entire GOP Senate caucus:

Senate Republicans intend to block action on virtually all Democratic-backed legislation unrelated to tax cuts and government spending in the current postelection session of Congress, officials said Tuesday, adding that the leadership has quietly collected signatures on a letter pledging to carry out the strategy.

CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante said officials had confirmed the letter was being circulated among Senate Republicans.

If carried out, it would doom Democratic-backed attempts to end the Pentagon’s practice of discharging openly gay members of the military service and give legal status to young illegal immigrants who join the military or attend college.

It’s clear that the White House and the Senate Republicans have two diametrically opposed opinions of what the election meant in November. Oftentimes you hear talk of the brilliance of American voters, who will vote one party into the White House and the other party into one or both chambers of Congress. This recipe makes gridlock fundamentally likely and easy. Unfortunately it seems to be what the GOP wants to take away from the voters is that they should get to do whatever they want, regardless of its human cost. Blocking anything from happening is their mission now and will continue to be for the next two years. Pretending otherwise is going to be a very dangerous from a tactical standpoint.

Pelosi Sticks Around

This is just great news. Speaker Pelosi has announced that she will run for Minority Leader and, per Greg Sargent, “her candidacy is partly about protecting the legacy of Dem accomplishments, and partly about ensuring that Dems show the fortitude and spine that will be required to resist the GOP urge to repeal them.” Sargent has Pelosi’s letter to the caucus announcing her intentions. It includes:

Our work is far from finished. As a result of Tuesday’s election, the role of Democrats in the 112th Congress will change, but our commitment to serving the American people will not. We have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back. It is my hope that we can work in a bipartisan way to create jobs and strengthen the middle class.

Many of our colleagues have called with their recommendations on how to continue our fight for the middle class, and have encouraged me to run for House Democratic Leader. Based on those discussions, and driven by the urgency of protecting health care reform, Wall Street reform, and Social Security and Medicare, I have decided to run.

Pelosi has been the best advocate progressives have in the leadership of the Democratic Party. I have to imagine that if she’s announcing for Leader, she has the votes in place to win. In a situation where Democrats are in the minority in Congress, I’d hope that Pelosi could be a real agitator and leader in the charge of opposition to the GOP majority in the House. She can take them on more directly than Reid or President Obama.

More to the point, though, Speaker Pelosi has been one of the brightest points in the Democratic Party for years. She is an able public servant and an effective legislator. She deserves to continue to lead the caucus and I hope her colleagues feel the same way.

Speaker Pelosi

Speaker Pelosi says she has no regrets from the last Congress, including the passage of “healthcare reform, student lending reform, financial regulatory reform, credit card reform and the stimulus, even if it meant losing their House majority.” I think we’ll see how all their hard work plays out in the long term. Jonathan Singer is right to note the parallel to the 89th Congress, when Democrats passed “Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act,” while subsequently suffering serious electoral losses.

Prior to the election, there was a lot of talk about Steny Hoyer taking over as leader of the House caucus if Democrats lost the House. There is zero reason why there needs to be a leadership change. Speaker Pelosi presided over an unarguably historic Congress, setting out the House as the most progressive part of the government – more so than the Senate and even the White House. She is a phenomenal organizer, keeping a caucus with many conservative Democrats largely in line. I don’t see the virtue in her being moved along because of a change in the calendar, especially as she serves in the highest elected office an American woman has ever held.

Obviously Speaker Pelosi has the right to make the choice for herself. I just hope that no one in the party pressures her out. There have been precedents where a Speaker loses the majority, but remains Minority Leader (the legendary Sam Rayburn comes to mind and, obviously, his Republican counterpart in the intervening years, Joseph Martin).  There’s no reason why Speaker Pelosi can’t join Rayburn as a congressional leader whose tenure as Speaker of the House is broken by a session or two as Minority Leader.

The last part of my concern about Speaker Pelosi stepping aside as leader of the House caucus is that she is unquestionably more progressive than her likely replacement, Steny Hoyer. John Larson of the CT-01 is another candidate whose name is talked about, though he would face an up hill battle against Hoyer. Larson is more progressive than Hoyer, but he’s still a New Democrat and isn’t the same fiery liberal that Pelosi is. Rather than see an internal fight over what sort of person leads the House while Democrats are in the minority, I’d much prefer that her colleagues recognize and honor her incredible work for the Democratic Party and for America, and encourage Speaker Pelosi to stay on as Minority Leader.

The Consequences of Franken

Dave Weigel makes a very solid and under-made observation that the consequences of Al Franken not being seated in January 2009 were dramatic on the ability of Democrats to pass their agenda in a timely and effective fashion.

If Franken had eked out another 1000 votes in Minnesota, or if Republicans simply decided not to keep suing to overturn the recount he won, the Democratic agenda would have been radically different. In January and February, the 59 — not 58 — Democrats in the Senate would have only needed to grab one Republican to pass the stimulus. That probably would have resulted in a larger stimulus bill, with extra billions of dollars (maybe $110 billion) going to tax cuts or spending. Democrats would have had the votes for card check, and gotten that out of the way quickly, while Ted Kennedy was still healthy. Just having that extra vote to play with when Obama’s popularity was peaking might have shaken up the whole schedule, gotten nominees like Dawn Johnson into their jobs, and led to more action in the Senate that pleased the Democratic base and — possibly — had a marginal impact on the economy. As it was, Democrats only had a functioning “supermajority” from September 2009 (Franken in the Senate, Paul Kirk in Ted Kennedy’s seat) to January 2010, and all they did with it was pass health care.

I think Weigel is glossing over the impact Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy’s illnesses had on the composition of the US Senate in 2009. For most of the year, 59 or 60 seats on paper meant 56 or 57 seats in reality. Franken would have made a huge difference had a been seated earlier. But it’s not as if Kennedy and Byrd were being rushed to the Senate floor from their hospital beds with any regularity as it was – it was never quite clear under what conditions men who were struggling to survive another day or week would risk their health to come cast a vote. That is, even with Franken being seated promptly, I don’t know that all the things Weigel says could have gotten done would have gotten done. Yes, I’d expect a bigger stimulus and more confirmations, but I still doubt Employee Free Choice would have happened or healthcare would have happened any quicker.

This actually all gets at a point that I’d like to see more commentators make. While Democrats had a 59 seat Senate in early 2009 and a 60 seat Senate after Specter switched parties at the end of April. But throughout that time Franken was not seated and Kennedy and Byrd were not there to vote with regularity.  The historic moment America was promised from a Democratic super majority in the Senate simply did not exist, at least not as advertised. There is certainly more that could have been done had all of the caucus been in place and healthy. Even in the reality which we experienced where those votes were not present, there could have been more done to pressure conservative Democrats to vote with the caucus – through incentives and threats and public campaigning. This isn’t an apologia of Reid or Obama for more not getting done due to structural hurdles. Rather, I see this as a valuable effort to remind people that part of the disappointment came from being sold what amounted to a bill of goods about what we could reasonably expect the US Senate to accomplish with the Democrats’ historic majority.

I don’t know why Democrats let Republicans obstruct Franken’s seating and have their be any political consequence for it. But it had real consequences, especially as two other Democratic senators were deathly sick. The inability for Democrats to do more substantial legislating in 2009 was directly, though not wholly, attributable to the absence of Franken. It’s going to cost Democrats electorally in November. There should have been a price to pay for it.

Build A Larger Case

Greg Sargent is right:

All I’m saying is that raging against successful Republican efforts to block individual Dem initiatives isn’t enough. Raging about GOP obstructionism in general isn’t enough, either. The point is that Dems need to build an effective larger case that transcends individual issues and reckons more directly with the strategy underlying all the GOP obstructionism. That’s all I’m saying.

Blaming the GOP and obstructionism for failure to achieve your agenda is not effective. Passion, as demonstrated by Rep. Weiner, is refreshing. But beyond wonks in the blogosphere, I don’t see it as being adopted as part of the larger assessment of who each party is and what they do.

Filibuster Reform

Chris Bowers is doing really interesting work tracking votes in the Senate for meaningful filibuster reform. The post he has up today looks at the appearance of Democratic opponents to reform. The list is an interesting one, ranging from conservatives who tend to oppose progressives regardless the issue (Nelson, Pryor) to senators who benefit from having out-sized vote based on their state’s population (Tester).

It’s really interesting to watch a real movement towards filibuster reform emerge on the left. Outside of a smaller leadership footprint than we’d hoped with control of the White House and both bodies of Congress, the structural challenges in the Senate are probably the most visible obstacle to actual progressive governance in America. To change the filibuster, there has to be efforts to educate the public about the problems it causes. People think Washington is “broke” but this is an assessment that doesn’t look at how conservatives ensure the government breaks. So education is obviously important.

But the actual whipping of the Senate is where progressive activism can make a meaningful difference. Bowers is right that the reform movement does not have to be grounded in specifics now – different reform options will, at this point,  close off support from certain members. Fifty-one votes may be the most equitable solution, but that doesn’t mean it is the absolutely necessary definition of reform. We just need to un-foul the works and make it so the Senate majority can get things done in absence of a super majority.

Filibuster reform is going to be hard. Likely harder than passing a healthcare bill. There’s a structural window at the start of the next session, but if that is not made, then change is going to take a monumental amount of work. It’s good to see people regularly writing about it now. That in itself is a sign that there is momentum for reform.

Congress & The People

In the middle of a must-read article by Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney on Huffington Post, Rep. Tom Perriello has what I believe is a fundamentally true quote about the American people and politics:

“Part of the problem is that we often take this “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” approach that assumes that people are reactionary and stupid and that we just need to convince them that they’re going to make more money under our plan,” says Perriello. “But the fact is people are good, decent, smart people and we should treat them that way. … People don’t have to agree with you on every issue but they do have to believe that you are genuinely doing what you believe is right.”

This has absolutely been my experience working in politics. I’ve had the privilege to travel all over America while working on campaigns and at the end of it all, I have seen that Americans everywhere are pretty similar. They care about their families, their children’s education, their job security and planning for retirement. They want to succeed and they want to be good to their neighbors, improving their communities. It doesn’t matter where I have been, I have had the same experience: Alaska, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida, Connecticut, or Michigan. We are one people, smart and seeking to be engaged genuinely by political candidates and elected officials.

Tom Perriello seems to get this. Good for him.

Perriello also sounds a lot like one of my heroes, Paul Wellstone, who used the same good faith and authentic attitude towards his constituents to repeatedly win elections he was never supposed to win.