Welcome to the Future of Voting Rights

AP Images/John C. Whitehead
For months before the November election, battles raged in Pennsylvania over whether the state would require voters to show a state-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Many voting rights activists saw the state's voter ID bill, passed by a Republican legislature and signed by a Republican governor, as an attempt to tamp down turnout among nonwhite and poor Pennsylvanians. Estimates of just how many people lacked ID ranged tremendously, but it was clear that nonwhite voters would be disproportionately affected by the new requirement. Mike Turzai, the state house majority leader, seemed to only confirm the worst when he said publicly that the new law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” But Pennsylvania is not a state with a long history of voter suppression. It wasn’t mentioned in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain states and counties to get new election laws “precleared” by the feds. In those states, controversial measures often...

Vive La Filibuster

In the wake of innumerable warnings of disaster and accusations of bad faith, Democrats and Republicans did something unusual today: they came to agreement on how to do business, at least for a while. The topic was the filibuster, which used to be something the minority party used in extraordinary circumstances, but in the hands of Republicans has become a hurdle every single substantial piece of legislation and nominee has to jump. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid basically got fed up and told Republicans that if they didn't allow votes on three of President Obama's languishing nominees—Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Thomas Perez to be Secretary of Labor, and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency—then he would move to change Senate rules and end the filibuster for executive branch nominations entirely. And in the end, the Republicans blinked, agreeing to a deal in which the filibuster rules would stay, the three nominees would...

Three Things You’ve Got Wrong about the Filibuster

AP Photo/Columbia, File
AP Photo/Henry Griffin W ith the Senate showdown on executive branch appointments—and eventually filibuster rules—moving towards the moment of truth, it’s a good time to revisit some of the myths surrounding one of the hallowed chamber’s most perplexing procedures. Here are three: 1. Filibusters ≠ Cloture Votes Really: Filibusters are not the same as cloture votes. All those charts and fact sheets you’ve seen showing the explosion of filibusters in 2009? Well, it happened, but the explosion was due to an increase in cloture votes, which are—get it now?—not the same as filibusters. Cloture—or cutting off debate on a bill, nomination, or motion, which by rule in the Senate requires three-fifths of all Senators—is one way the majority can end a filibuster. But it’s not the only way. Filibusters can end through attrition (that is, the minority tires of doing it); through cutting a deal on some minority demand, such as allowing one nomination to go through while another is withdrawn; or...

Ending Minority Rule

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
The first test vote that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is scheduled to bring before the Senate this morning is that of Richard Cordray, President Obama’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Reid decided to lead off with Cordray for a very good reason: The Republicans’ insistence on filibustering him makes clear their real intent is to throttle the Bureau. They are using a filibuster of an appointment to effectively repeal legislation they don’t otherwise have the votes to repeal. Nothing could better make Reid’s case that the filibuster has been twisted into a vehicle for minority rule. Republicans have openly acknowledged that their opposition to Cordray isn’t to Cordray himself. Rather, they say, they oppose giving the bureau’s director the power to direct the bureau. Instead, they’d like a bipartisan board to run the bureau. Their reasoning is straightforward: A single director might just advocate for consumers. If there were a bipartisan board, however, it...

When Justice Is Blind and Deaf

AP Images/Matt Smith
AP Images/Matt Smith I f justice is a conspiracy between moral logic and the law, then the revelation of the 36 hours following the George Zimmerman verdict is just how complete justice’s failure has been. The shambling closing statement at the trial last Thursday by attorney Bernie de la Rionda was a testament to how fully the state was seduced—with only occasional bulletins from some larger perspective by fellow prosecutor John Guy—into allowing the terms of the contest to be defined by Zimmerman’s counsel, Second City-wannabe Don West and Mark O’Mara, who was his own greatest competition in the sweepstakes for who could make the proceedings’ most flabbergasting comment. After telling the apparently beguiled jury that his client wasn’t accountable for a single moment of the events of February 26, 2012, that led to the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, O’Mara declared at Saturday night’s press conference that had the ethnicities of defendant and victim been...

It Doesn't Matter Who Replaces Janet Napolitano

Flickr/U.S. Army/Sgt. Jim Greenhill
Flickr/U.S. Army/Sgt. Jim Greenhill Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano Republicans probably weren’t crying in their coffee this morning after Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced she would resign her post to take over as president of the University of California system. Throughout her tenure—during which the Obama administration oversaw a record number of deportations but also prioritized criminal deportation and offered the children of undocumented immigrants “deferred action”—Republicans assailed the secretary for what they say is the department's failure to enforce current immigration law. This has been a flashpoint in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform: Distrustful of the administration's commitment to securing the border, Republican lawmakers have pushed for reform to include triggers that make the legalization of the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants contingent on various border-security metrics. Democrats...

The Food Stamp-Out

House Republicans’ newest tactic to dilute one of the most successful social welfare programs in the country’s history. 

AP Images/Michael Stravato
Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to pass a farm bill—a bill that influences everything from your lovely weekend farmers market to the subsidies that have led every food in America to be made from corn—without what is normally its biggest component: nutrition programs, including food stamps. It introduces a new wrinkle into a two-year fight over the farm bill, a sleepy piece of legislation that must be passed every five years and is normally uncontroversial. Senate leadership, which passed a farm bill earlier in June, has said it won’t pass one without the food stamp portion. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate agricultural committee, released a statement with a reminder of that yesterday: “The bill passed by the House today is not a real Farm Bill and is an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups.” The split came after a bit of a ruckus: Last month, House leadership brought the farm bill...

Coming to Do Good, Staying to Do Well

D.C. is filled with young, dizzying ambition. This Town wishes the old-timers knew better.  

AP Images/Stephen J. Boltano
AP Images/ Stephen J. Boltano For 20 years, since the weekend of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I have rented against all financial prudence an apartment in Washington, D.C. even though I really live in Manhattan. So, at least in a real-estate sense, I can rightfully claim to be both part of political Washington and an authentic subway-riding, theater-going, real-bagel-chomping outsider. I have no regrets about moving from D.C. to New York in 1983 at a time when reporter friends were bragging about playing tennis with Paul Laxalt who—as anyone who mattered knew—was Ronald Reagan’s closest friend on Capitol Hill. Washington, then as now, was a city of truncated life possibilities: Everyone was either in government, a lawyer, a lobbyist, a journalist or in transition between two of these exalted states of being. But I still nurture a bemused attachment to Washington—the shining city of my post-college youth, the place where I once walked the corridors of other people’s power. Which...

If Republicans Want to Govern, They Should Try Winning Elections

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Gage Skidmore/Flickr Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. To understand Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s renewed push for filibuster reform, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s angry reaction to the proposal—he declared that Reid’s “tombstone” would say that he “presided over the end of the Senate”—you have to look at the last four years of Senate dysfunction. Norms matter as much as rules in governing the conduct of Congress, and the most important norms change of the last decade happened at the beginning of Barack Obama’s first term, when Republicans adopted the filibuster as a routine tool of opposition. Rather than reserve the tactic for consequential or controversial pieces of legislation, Republicans—led by McConnell—invoked it on everything from judicial and executive branch nominations, to small-scale legislation with wide support, like the DREAM Act. By the second...

Making Laws No Longer Part of Lawmaking Process

Flickr/KP Tripathi
Reading through some headlines today, I came across one link that began, "House Votes To..." and I realized that no matter what the end of the headline was, you can almost always insert, "...Make Pointless Statement As Sop to Conservative Base" and you'll be on target. In this case it happened to be a vote to block energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs, but it could have been any of a thousand things. You could argue, as Jonathan Chait does , that Republican lawmakers have basically given up on lawmaking altogether, and you wouldn't be far off. But it's more than that. They've reimagined the lawmaking process as a kind of extended ideological performance art piece, one that no longer has anything to do with laws in the "I'm Just a Bill" sense. It's not as though they aren't legislating, it's just that laws have become beside the point. Granted, the lawmaking process has always involved a lot of grandstanding and occasional votes taken more to make a statement than to alter the...

Our Old History of Fights Over Voting

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy I n the United States, voting rights don’t march forward as much as they ebb and flow. Often, it happens like this: The prospect of short-term political gain leads one of the two parties to make a massive push for democratic participation, which is then countered by the other side, which has an equally large interest in maintaining a smaller electorate of particular people. In the late 18th century, for instance, New Jersey was one of the few states to grant voting rights to (property-owning) women. The exact reasons for taking this path are unclear, but partisan politics had something to do with it—“As different political groups struggled to gain ascendancy during and just after the revolution, they tried to enlarge their potential constituencies, one of which was female,” writes historian Alexander Keyssar in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States . But, he...

The Wendy Davis Rebellion in Texas

AP Images/Eric Gay
AP Images/Eric Gay A rowdy crowd of women making demands as loudly as they can—and winning? That sort of thing doesn’t happen in Texas. Except that now, apparently, it does. Beginning on Tuesday morning and stretching into the wee hours of Wednesday, Democrat Wendy Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, became a national pro-choice hero as thousands of Texans flooded the state capitol to cheer her effort to stop a draconian anti-abortion bill. Governor Rick Perry had added abortion restrictions to the agenda halfway through a special session of the legislature originally intended to pass new redistricting maps. Before the session ended at midnight on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers hoped to rush through what would have been one of the nation’s most extreme anti-abortion laws. For 11 hours, Davis filibustered a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and shut down all but five of the state’s abortion clinics. It was high drama: If Davis could hold out till midnight, she’d...

The Supreme Court's War on the Great Society

The ignoble American tradition of using "states' rights" to trump real, fundamental human rights carries on with the Roberts Court's decision gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

AP Images/Yoichi Okamoto
AP Images/Yoichi Okamoto The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) is arguably the most important and successful civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress. Today, without remotely adequate justification, a bare majority of the Supreme Court cut the heart out of the centerpiece of the Great Society. That this outcome was expected doesn't make it any less outrageous. The key issue in Shelby County v. Holder is the "preclearance" provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 of the VRA "covers" numerous jurisdictions—predominantly but not exclusively Southern—with a history of vote discrimination and Section 5 of the VRA requires the covered jurisdictions to get approval from the federal government before changing their voting laws. We should start with the explicit constitutional authority for this legislation. The majority opinion asserts that "the Framers of the Constitution intended the States to keep for themselves, as provided in the Tenth Amendment, the power to...

Republicans' Immigration Spending Spree

Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection W hen the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its analysis of the Gang of Eight's immigration bill Tuesday—which showed the legislation would cut the deficit by $197 billion over the next 10 years and by $700 billion over the next 20 thanks to tax revenue from increased economic activity—its opponents pounced. "If there’s one thing Washington knows how to do, it’s to come up with bogus cost estimates," Texas Senator Ted Cruz told right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who like Cruz sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a staunch opponent of the bill, assailed the agency for failing to account for spending past the first ten years (the agency typically does not conduct detailed cost projections past ten years given the difficulty of doing so accurately). But despite the ballyhoo over how much the bill will cost U.S. taxpayers, there is one area where money seems to be no...

If Pot Becomes Legal

What will become of its secretive California hometown?

AP Photo
AP Photo/Ben Margot Humboldt Cannabis Center horticulturist Steve Tuck gestures beside both mature and baby marijuana plants he is growing for medical users of the drug. A t one point in Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier , Emily Brady’s account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book’s subjects—a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace—talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma’s dorm room wall. “Did you know all these people who died?” she asked. “Yeah, I grew up with all of them,” Emma replied. “Oh my god, that seems so tragic.” The kicker was that Emma’s friend was the one who came from a “rough part of the Bay Area.” “Well sure, maybe every year someone from my school died,” her friend said. “But I went to high school with five or six thousand people.” In a large city, the fallout from youth violence represents an awful loss. In...