With 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:
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.
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.
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 rules under which American society operates. Congress passes plenty of resolutions that do nothing more than express its sentiments, like saluting the patriotism of the East Burp High students who raised money to buy a new flag for their school, or declaring August to be Plantar Fasciitis Awareness Month. But those things always went alongside actual lawmaking.
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 Obama accomplished little that is lasting with his intense advocacy of gun control.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 right through. Well, it turns out, not so much:
As a member of the Gang of Eight, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is one of the major 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.
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 really 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.
When 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 10 years (the agency typically does not conduct detailed cost projections past 10 years given the difficulty of doing so accurately).
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: