Congress

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it); through cutting a deal on some minority demand, such as allowing one nomination to go through while another is withdrawn; or...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...

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...

Guns and Gut Feelings

Obama's good intentions post-Newtown haven't been enough to fix our gun problem. So what's next for gun-control legislation?

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin
AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin “It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.” —Barack Obama, February 12, 2013, State of the Union Address “We need everyone to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure that what we said at that time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes–that we meant it.” —Barack Obama, March 28, 2013 Sometimes in politics, good intentions are not enough. Even though the president often radiates all the passion of some-assembly-required instructions from Ikea, the dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School obviously scarred Obama’s soul. But nearly seven months after Newtown, perhaps we should sadly conclude that this time is not different and that the president accomplished little that is lasting with his intense advocacy of gun control. Yes, I know this pessimism runs against the liberal wish to believe that a few more months, a few more petitions and...

What Happened to the Obama Scandals?

flickr/United States Government Work
flickr/United States Government Work A few months ago, political scientist Brendan Nyhan started warning that Barack Obama was due for a major scandal. Nyhan had analyzed previous two-term presidents and determined that by this stage of his second term, particularly with low approval ratings among the opposition party and a lack of major stories dominating the news for long periods, a president stands a strong chance of being engulfed in the kind of controversy that can hobble or even undo a presidency. Nothing was certain, of course—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton didn't see their all-consuming scandals until the sixth year of their presidencies, which would give Obama a few months—but conditions were ripe. And for a few weeks there, it seemed like the prediction would come true. The news media became simultaneously fascinated with three separate issues—the attack in Benghazi, I.R.S. scrutiny of conservative groups, and Justice Department surveillance of reporters—and it seemed like...

Congress Is Squandering the Opportunity of a Lifetime

Dan McKay / Flickr
Dan McKay / Flickr It’s the first Friday of the month, which means a jobs report . And this one isn’t bad. The economy added a net 195,000 jobs in June, with upwards revisions of 70,000 in April and May. Which means that, so far this year, the economy has added more than 1 million jobs. To repeat a point, this is why the 2012 election was so critical for Democrats—a Mitt Romney win would have given Republicans a chance to claim credit for the current job growth, and use the political capital to push a highly-ideological agenda. But back to the numbers. Federal government employment dropped by 5,000, a likely result of sequestration, and part of an overall decline of public employment—since 2010, the public sector has shed more than 600,000 jobs. The unemployment rate remained unchanged at 7.6 percent, with a slight drop in long-term unemployment. Still, more than four million people have been out of work for longer than six months. In other words, despite the improving economy, we’re...

The Part-Timer Problem

The Obama Administration’s decision to delay for a year the penalty that employers (in firms of 50 or more employees) must pay if they don’t provide health insurance to their workers shines a light on a problem that may be even more profound than getting health coverage for every American: that is, the decline of the American job. The employer mandate was designed for an economy in which American workers were employed in what had been normal jobs. In firms of 50 or more, all workers who put in at least 30 hours a week were either to receive coverage from the firm or else the firm would have to pay the government a $2,000 yearly penalty. Problem is, fewer and fewer workers are putting in 30 hours a week. To begin with, labor-force participation is at its lowest level since women increased their work-force participation in the 1970s. It has declined even during the past four years of so-called recovery. The past four years have also seen a rise in the percentage of workers who are part-...

The Senate Votes for Cloture on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

pamhule / Flickr
Early this afternoon, the Senate voted for cloture on the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, with 68 senators supporting and 32 in opposition (60 are needed to break a filibuster). Fourteen Republicans joined the 54-member Democratic caucus to move the legislation forward to a final vote, which will be held this afternoon at 4pm. This means, in essence, that immigration reform will pass the Senate. The only question is the margin. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the members of the Gang of Eight, says he wants 70 votes for passage, in order to pressure House Republicans into passing the bill as well. Two things complicate that calculus. First, a large number of House Republicans are still skeptical of the need for immigration reform, and doubt the president’s motives in pushing a bill. For example, Rep. Peter Roskam, the Republican deputy whip, accused the White House of wanting immigration reform to fail, in order to run against Republicans in next year’s...

IRS Scandal Ends With a Whimper

No, not that kind of bolo. (Flickr/Magpie Gal)
With Edward Snowdon on his whirlwind tour of countries unfriendly to the United States and the Supreme Court handing down a bunch of important decisions, this is a good week for stories to get lost in the back pages. So you may not have noticed that late yesterday, the IRS scandal, supposedly Worse Than Watergate™, came to a sputtering halt with the release of new documents in the investigation. The whole scandal, you'll recall, is about how conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were given extra scrutiny, while other kinds of groups just slid by. Well, it turns out, not so much : The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their titles also included groups whose names included the words "Progressive" and "Occupy," according to I.R.S. documents released Monday. The documents appeared to back up contentions by I.R.S. officials and some Democrats that the agency did not...

The GOP Loses Big if Immigration Reform Fails

As a member of the Gang of Eight, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is one of the most prominent Republican proponents of comprehensive immigration reform. His motives are straightforward: For the GOP to stay competitive, it needs to make inroads with Latino voters. Creating a path to citizenship for existing immigrants—and smoothing the process for future ones—is the only way Republicans can begin to repair their relationship with a community that has been alienated by the party’s harsh—sometimes xenophobic—rhetoric on immigration. Graham’s latest word on the subject was yesterday, on Fox News Sunday , where he warned Republicans of what would happen if they failed to get behind the comprehensive reform bill currently making its way through the Senate. “If it fails,” he said, “and [Republicans] are blamed for its failure, our party is in trouble with Hispanics; not because we are conservative but because of the rhetoric and the way we’ve handled this issue.” Insofar that there...

My, What a Long Bill You Have!

A page of the immigration bill, with very few words on it.
Some people imagine that talking points are distributed by some Central Office of Liberalism or Conservative Headquarters, put out each day with instructions for what to say and how to say it. That's not really how it works; sure, there are organizations that email around suggestions on arguments people ought to make, but for the most part, talking points are more viral, spreading from person to person when they find an amenable host. Sometimes a talking point spreads because it is vivid and persuasive, while at other times, it spreads despite being completely ridiculous. So it is with an old chestnut we've heard before on issues like health care, and we're now hearing on immigration reform. The talking point says that a bill currently being debated contains many pages, and therefore must be a bad thing for America . This is almost always offered by Republicans, in part because they generally think government should refrain from tackling complex problems that might require complex...

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...

The Gang of 8 Lobbies Fox News

Ryan Lizza has a behind-the-scenes article about immigration reform in the New Yorker , based mostly on interviews with members of the Senate's Gang of Eight, which shows some of the personal aspects of how big legislation can get accomplished. For instance, John McCain, ever the prima donna, comes across as seething with resentment that Marco Rubio has gotten more attention on the issue than he has. And the part that may get the most notice is the blunt words of an unnamed Rubio aide, who in regard to the question of whether certain immigrants take jobs from Americans, says, "There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can't cut it...There shouldn't be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can't get it, can't do it, don't want to do it. And so you can't obviously discuss that publicly." Hey dude, guess what: you just did! But in any case, here's the part that interested me: Fox News has notably changed its tone since...

What's Next for Immigration Reform?

pamhule/Flickr
Jens Schott Knudsen / Flickr For the first time since 2007—and arguably, for the first time in decades—a comprehensive immigration-reform bill stands a good chance of passing the Senate. Built over the last seven months by a bipartisan group of senators (the “Gang of Eight”), the 867-page proposal comes to the floor of the Senate this week, where lawmakers will debate its provisions, and Republicans will have to decide if passing reform is more important than avoiding the political consequences of working with President Obama (and thus becoming a target for conservative activists). In the Senate, we’re almost there. On Saturday , New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte—a conservative favorite—announced her support for the bill, praising its pathway to citizenship as “tough but fair,” saying that immigrants would “go to the back of the line, pay taxes, pass a criminal background check, learn English.” “Our immigration system is completely broken,” she said on CBS’s Face the Nation , “This...

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