Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Filibustering The Filibuster

 Recently, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a threat to his Democratic colleagues. I.e if you eliminate the filibuster (in which a 60% vote is needed to shut off debate and move a bill forward to a vote), the Republican minority will pursue a “scorched earth” posture towards  all future Senate business. McConnell went on to say that they would use all available Senate rules and procedures to tie up legislation and drag out any proposed legislation as long as possible, thereby rendering the Senate ineffective and unable to accomplish any business or Democratic agenda priorities. (Unsurprisingly, the public’s view of the Senate’s accomplishments and effectiveness is already low, at best.) Further, when the time comes that Senate control flips back to the Republicans (which it inevitably will at some point in the political ebb and flow over time), Democrats will be shut out of any participation or consultation in matters coming before the Senate. To further emphasize his point, McConnell subsequently referred to the filibuster as “Kentucky’s veto.”

It all seems like a pretty scary and intimidating threat, and typical for McConnell as a means for maintaining some level of control over Senate business for his Party. Scary, at least until one looks at the intimidation more closely and sees it to be essentially a hollow threat. In reality, McConnell has already made good on that promise over the past six years since Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2014. Since then, McConnell has de facto exercised his own personal filibuster against virtually any Democratic-sponsored legislation by personally refusing to allow any such proposals even to come to the floor for a vote. Nor has there been any meaningful “consultation” or input solicited, allowed, or accepted from Democrats on Republican-sponsored legislation. To listen to Mitch McConnell (and several other particularly egregious senators) protest about a “lack of partisanship” in the Senate is at best irony, at worse just another example of hypocrisy in the extreme that marks much of the political debate today.

The much-maligned tool of the filibuster was introduced in its present form around one hundred years ago during the debate over the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Ironically, the procedure (“Rule 22”) was originally instituted as a means to END senate debate, which had heretofore allowed unlimited speaking time for Senators. Rule 22 was therefore adopted to end unlimited debate (and allow business to move forward) by a 2/3rds vote (now 3/5ths / 60 votes). In today’s time, the Rule has morphed into being a method to CONTINUE debate, since it is virtually impossible to get 60 votes on any measure – whether procedure or legislation. Additionally, an individual choosing to execute a filibuster used to be required to stand on the floor and speak continuously until they exhausted themselves or were voted down (think the iconic Jimmy Stewart scene in the 1930s movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”). No other business could be conducted while the filibuster was occurring  and the senator was speaking. Today, a senator only has to state off-camera his/her intention to filibuster and the mechanism is initiated – the issue at hand is thereby tabled for an unlimited time. No “closure” vote is publicly taken; no non-stop speeches are given. Meanwhile, other Senate business moves on unabated and unaffected. No muss, no fuss, all virtually invisible to the public.

It should be noted, however, that Rule 22 is not carved in stone. Harry Reid, the previous Democratic Majority Leader, became frustrated at Republican filibustering of Obama’s Executive Office and Judicial appointments. So he changed the Rule to exempt Executive branch appointments, and federal judges other than to the Supreme Court, to be exempt from the 60-vote requirement. Predictably, Mitch McConnell went ballistic over this change and the loss of his leverage. Hell hath no fury like a political leader scorned. Nevertheless, when McConnell became Majority Leader, he was perfectly happy to not only continue the policy for President Trump’s nominees, but to even expand the exemption to include Supreme Court nominees.

We are now two months in with Joe Biden’s presidency. Biden has spoken of a “big agenda” of change: the Covid relief package just passed; renewed voting rights protection; immigration overhaul; climate change; major infrastructure investment; etc. However, he is supported legislatively with only a narrow Democratic Party majority in the House, and a 50/50 split in the Senate. 60 votes in the Senate on anything looks every bit like wishful thinking – stalemate for stalemate’s sake itself. Past history during Obama’s presidency shows that Republican requests for “input and negotiation” in the end have no meaningful substance. McConnell has demonstrated numerous times over that his word is unreliable and not his bond. In the face of these realities, what’s a President to do?

There are numerous calls from supporters of the Biden agenda to eliminate the filibuster option. Or to exempt voting rights legislation (or other categories to be identified) from its purview. Or to reinstitute the requirement for speeches on the floor, and full-Senate votes for closure (or not), so that voters can track the actions of their senators. Or contrarily, to leave everything in place as is. Plus perhaps other ideas not yet identified. What is true is that when you are in the minority, the filibuster is a precious tool for blocking the potential extremes of the other Party. When you are in the majority, it is the devil’s curse and a tool that prevents America’s progress. And at some point in the fickle cycle of shifting political opinion, today’s majority is destined to become tomorrow’s minority. Each side gets its turn at the helm. That turn could easily happen only two years hence.

It will be interesting to see what procedural route(s) Democratic senators take. Move cautiously? Or damn the torpedoes and move forward while you can? As usual, easy answers can have hard, unintended consequences. So think it through. In the meantime, political theater and rhetoric seem to continue to be the drivers, while real solutions to our needs await their turn.

©   2021   Randy Bell             https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Expectations Of A Biden Presidency

“Joe Biden is as good a man as God ever created.”   —U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC

 Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in January 2017, I posted an essay entitled “Expectations of a Trump Presidency”. The intent was to imagine Trump’s four years in office, based upon what we had seen and learned from two years of his campaigning. When I recently \reread that essay, I was surprised at how prescient the conclusions proved to be. Four years later, we have now inaugurated a new President – Joe Biden. It therefore seems appropriate to similarly speculate on what we might anticipate from his next four years.

 Given the events, conduct and outcomes of Trump’s four years in office, one must necessarily insert a context to properly determine expectations of a Biden presidency. Donald Trump drastically changed the landscape of the Presidency and Executive Branch – indeed, all parts of the federal government – as well as the interactions and perspectives of the citizens that government serves. Therefore Joe Biden’s presidency will initially be defined and driven largely by reacting to Donald Trump’s legacy, rather than starting from Biden’s own aspirations and political platform. That reaction will need to focus on four key areas:

 TRUTH: We all know that politicians will at times stretch the truth or a perspective in ways that will cast them in the best light. But not until the last four years has lying become the given, the reflexive response, with truth hidden away unseen in the dense forest of obfuscation. No thoughtful decisions, no effective actions, are achievable in such a distorted climate. The most fundamental priority for the Biden presidency is to restore the telling of the Truth into the national dialog. Certainly there are times when multiple truths can legitimately collide against each other. But only by facing those truths can we successfully plot our course with a reasonable expectation of achieving our objectives. Credibility is an essential foundation for leadership.

 RULE OF LAW: Since the adoption of our Constitution in 1788, our allegiance has been to that Constitution, not to an imperial king or queen. Our government is subservient to that Constitution.  Its elected and appointed officials are subservient to the citizenry. The Rule of Law took a setback over the past four years, as our president flagrantly ignored Constitutional principles, legal requirements, and historical precedent and conventions. He exposed holes in our operating structures that had never been seen or anticipated before, and defied “legal process,” in an effort to convert the Executive Branch into a political extension  of his own making. Restoring the Rule of Law as our guiding principle, strengthening the structures that execute the Law, and rebuilding the trust of the citizenry in impartial execution, is paramount.

 REBUILDING GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: The various departments, bureaus, agencies that make our government function were decimated over the past four years. Internationally respected offices were decimated by budget cuts; staffing cuts and/or leaving posts vacant; wholesale closing of offices; constant turnover in leadership positions, replaced by “acting” agency heads; muzzling and/or blocking personnel from executing their job description. This decimation was extended through politicizing agency missions by subjugating them to a reelection agenda; appointing incompetent and untrained people – with fealty only to the president – to leadership positions; obviating accountability requirements by firing various Inspectors General and inflicting retribution on (supposedly) protected whistleblowers. There is much for our government to do in the days ahead. None of those things can get done until the workforce is rebuilt – in quantitative as well as competency terms – and their missions are reestablished, performed under an ethical apolitical umbrella. Government does not function when the People do not trust that well-qualified people are doing the jobs expected of them.

 WORLD LEADERSHIP: For most of its young life, America adopted an isolationist stance, happy to go about its business with minimal interaction and interference from Europe and with other countries of the world. That changed when Pearl Harbor committed America to a new role of principal leadership in global affairs, working in partnership with other countries in formal treaties and ad hoc engagements, articulating the case for democracy. Our leadership has not eliminated wars, but the world has become more mutually intertwined, culturally and economically, to the mutual benefit of all. America – by word, by deed, by its steadfastness – has been the linchpin for this current stability. These relationships have been turned upside down and severely tested over the past four years. Our adversaries have seemingly become new-found “friends”; long-standing true friends have been pushed aside as new adversaries. The America countries have depended upon for years has walked away from its global opportunities and obligations; our word, and our participation, is now suspect. At a time when the countries of the world are more connected and interdependent than ever, America has become a minor player in world affairs. These relationships demand to be rebuilt for the benefit of all.

 Today, there is a laundry list of specific issues that demand our attention. Most critical are the inter-joined issues of the Covid pandemic and our crippled economy that have upended our daily lives. After that come issues of climate change and the environment; of health care reform and access; immigration reform / DACA / caged children; racial justice; the continuing assault on voting rights; policing reform; livable wage / economic disparity; etc. It would be great to attack all of these issues immediately and concurrently. But that is not possible given the status our government has been brought to. We first have to rebuild the infrastructure and capacity of our government in order to address our national laundry list, else we will flounder in the sea of good intentions not realized. We need to rebuild with the right people, policies, clarity of mission. This rebuilding will require patience from a citizenry whose patience runs very thin these days. But it is the first priority for America before much else can be done.

 Can Joe Biden accomplish this rebuilding task, especially in these hyper-partisan times? I honestly do not know. I do know he will need wide support to get it done. Support from people whose first concern is for the Country, not their personal agenda nor their reelection prospects. Joe Biden is not intuitively a big-picture thinker. A political moderate, he sees things in much more of a “task to do” working-class mentality: here’s a problem, let’s solve it, and use a hefty dose of common sense in the solution. We have witnessed the damage an inexperienced “outsider” president can do through four years of a pretend President who failed to understand and neglected the institution of the Presidency. In contrast, Joe Biden’s 30+ years of experience in the federal government gives us a president who should know his way across the playing field of governance, operating with a genuine understanding of people’s needs and with minimal malice in his heart.

 Getting things done. That is what we need right now. The big visionary dreams can perhaps come later. Made possible by a well-functioning government in which we can have confidence and pride. Joe Biden likely will not be a candidate for a future likeness on Mount Rushmore. But will he get this very important core job done? If so, he could just be one of those right people who shows up at the right moment for the right need. We shall see.

 ©   2021   Randy Bell             https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

  

Monday, January 11, 2021

Constitutional High And Low

A written Constitution. Allegiance pledged to Constitutional Law rather than a monarch. Governance decision-making by a Vote from the governed. Adopted by a new, presumptuous little country strung out along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in a distant and isolated “New World,” these were radical concepts in 1788 with no precedence among world governments. But they became the principal gifts from the United States of America to the advancement of human civilization. All too often, we take these special gifts for granted, as though they always were and always will be. As a result, we fail to protect them by stepping up to our responsibility to engage and exercise these gifts that so many have given so much effort to ensure. Yet what we take for granted – the power of the Vote – was on full display over 48 recent hours. A display that showed the high point, and the low point, of the awesome privilege and responsibility of the right to Vote as guaranteed by our Constitution.

HIGH POINT – TUESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2021: In a rare convergence of circumstances, the State of Georgia found itself voting for both of its U.S. senators in a special runoff election. To virtually everyone’s surprise, Democratic Party candidates won both seats against the two incumbent Republican senators (albeit by extremely narrow margins) – this in what has been a deeply reliable Republican state. Simply winning these two election races against the odds was significant unto itself. But the significance was magnified by its immediate multiple domino effects:

-the U.S. Senate became equally divided at 50/50 senators from each Party, changing from Republican to Democratic majority control due to the incoming Democratic Vice President having the tie-breaking vote;

- all Senate committees will be now chaired and controlled by Democrats, significantly improving (but not guaranteeing) the prospect for Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, executive branch appointments, and federal court nominees;

-Mitch McConnell, who has heretofore controlled the Senate’s legislative agenda with a proverbial iron fist, will become the Senate Minority Leader, with Chuck Schumer becoming Majority Leader.

Why does all of this constitute a Constitutional “high point”? It is not because the Democrats won, or now take charge. Depending on one’s own personal politics and partisan affiliation, “Democratic control” can be a thrilling prospect or a cause for alarm in anticipating the next two-to-four years of national governance and initiatives. Rather, it is a “high” because it demonstrated the full power of the act of voting. Citizen turnout set a record for a “special election,” and within the slim 1%+/- margin of victory for those two senatorial elections, the national political landscape was transformed. That is the power of the Vote: the power to make a statement and effect a difference. It is why the right to Vote is so powerful and precious.

LOW POINT – WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6, 2021: Yet less than 24 hours later, we descended into the low point of our Constitutional governance and heritage. In the November election, the incumbent President lost his bid for reelection. In the two months since, he has claimed on a daily basis that the election was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud and illegal election processes. He has sought to directly (and illegally?) intervene with election officials and state legislators to overturn the results of the vote of the citizens. Thousands of local Boards of Election, and various combinations of 50 state Boards of election, &/or 50 state Secretaries of State, &/or 50 state Governors, &/or 50 state legislatures said there was no fraud, and certified the voting results. Over 60 federal and state lawsuits filed echoing the fraud claim were summarily dismissed – including rulings by federal judges appointed by the President. At no time during these certification and lawsuit steps was one shred of proof of voter fraud offered. Yet the drumbeat from the incumbent loser and his supporters incessantly carried on this “big lie."

The protest of the election result culminated in a call by the President for a public rally in Washington on January 6th (“It is going to be wild”) – the day that the votes of the Electoral College would be ceremonially counted and formally accepted, as specified by the Constitution. Thousands of supporters showed up and listened to several speakers exhort them to march to the Capital building to protest the counting and certification of the true election results. So march to the Capital they did, and we all saw in real time what happened next. It was a scene unmatched in our entire American history. A sitting President personally and publicly convened a mob of insurrectionists, and exhorted them to attack the Capital building of our federal legislature. And so this armed, lawbreaking mob did – forcibly breaking into the building and preventing the duly elected Congress of the United States from conducting their Constitutionally mandated business. They overwhelmed Capital Police charged with protecting the integrity of the building and its occupants. They broke into offices, into legislative chambers, vandalizing and stealing property, putting the safety of its occupants at genuine risk, resulting in deaths and injuries. Only after hours passed and law enforcement reinforcements arrived at the scene were the insurrectionists finally pushed out of the building.

There will be months to come of investigations and hearings into what happened on this day, and how such an extreme security failure happened. It is therefore not the intent of this essay to try to preempt such inquiries. Rather, it is to note why this is a Constitutional Low in our nation’s history. An incumbent President calls for a violent attack by his followers to prevent the ongoing functioning of the Congress of the United States, based on a lie about an election result. Yet in its own way, that is another demonstration and affirmation of the power of the Vote. It is a power to fear if you are on the wrong side of democracy by attempting to overturn that vote. And when you find yourself on that wrong side, you are guilty of the high crime of Insurrection against our government and the democracy it stands for.

©   2021   Randy Bell             https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com