2013 - %3, January

Filibuster Reform Stumbles to the Finish Line

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 12:15 PM EST

One of the great liberal hopes of 2013 was that Harry Reid would pull the trigger on filibuster reform and return to the Jimmy Stewart talkathons of Hollywood legend. Well, it's not going to happen. Rather than use the "nuclear option" to pass filibuster changes on a party-line vote, Reid has reached an agreement with Mitch McConnell for a bipartisan reform. Sam Stein and Ryan Grim have the details:

The deal would address the filibuster on the motion to proceed, which had regularly prevented the Senate from even considering legislation and was a major frustration for Reid. The new procedure will also make it easier for the majority to appoint conferees once a bill has passed, but leaves in place the minority's ability to filibuster that motion once — meaning that even after the Senate and House have passed a bill, the minority can still mount a filibuster one more time.

Reid won concessions on judicial nominations as well. Under the old rules, after a filibuster had been beaten, 30 more hours were required to pass before a nominee could finally be confirmed. That delay threatened to tie the chamber in knots. The new rules will only allow two hours after cloture is invoked.

There's a bit more to make post-cloture debates a little more onerous for the minority, but this is about it. Instead of three chances to filibuster, the minority party will now be able to filibuster only twice (once when the bill comes to the Senate floor and a second time after the final conference report comes to the floor). [See update 2 below.] In addition, once a filibuster is broken on a judicial nomination, the minority party can waste only two hours of floor time, not 30. [See update 1 below.]

So did Harry Reid cave? Could he have gotten more by ignoring McConnell and passing a more robust reform with just Democratic votes? Maybe. But I think David Atkins is right:

Despite Senators Udall's and Merkley's bold claims, it has never been entirely clear that there were ever a full 51 votes for real reform. So it's possible that Harry Reid, rather than subterfuging Democrats, is instead counting votes and playing his best hand.

....But the most important outcome is the realization that while we aren't quite there yet, the newer crop of Democrats like Merkley and Udall is far better than much of the old guard responsible for abetting and supporting the broken system. We're only a few retirements and progressive primaries away from a Democratic Senate majority progressive enough to make the necessary changes.

The sad truth is that Democrats only have 55 votes in the Senate, and there were almost certainly more than five Democratic senators who just weren't willing to give up the filibuster. Partly this is because they want it in place in case Republicans ever get back into power, and partly it's because they themselves don't want to give up the personal privileges associated with the filibuster.

This is a pretty tiny step. But for now, anyway, we simply don't have a strong enough Democratic Party to get more than this. Maybe someday.

UPDATE 1: Apparently this is an even tinier step than I thought. Dave Weigel reports that the 2-hour limit on judicial nominations applies only to district court nominees, not to the more important appellate court nominees.

UPDATE 2: Worse and worse! Apparently even the filibuster on the motion to proceed hasn't been eliminated after all. Instead, reports Ezra Klein, Reid's deal "allows the chamber to sidestep the filibuster with agreement of the minority and majority leaders and seven senators from each party." In other words, Mitch McConnell can continue to filibuster every motion to proceed if he wants to. And I'll bet he wants to.

Now that we have the details in front of us, it's pretty clear that this deal accomplishes almost nothing. A few scraps have been thrown to reformers, but that's all.

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The Silly Conservative Freak-Out Over Women in Combat

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 11:55 AM EST

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Wednesday that the Pentagon plans to lift a 1994 prohibition on women serving in combat roles. The announcement prompted an ill-informed outcry from conservatives, who were perhaps unaware that American servicewomen are already in the line of fire, serving in combat though not doing so in what the Defense Department defines as "combat roles."

Late Wednesday night, Daily Caller founder Tucker Carlson tweeted, "The administration boasts about sending women to the front lines on the same day Democrats push the Violence Against Women Act," suggesting an equivalence between choosing to serve on the front lines and being targeted for domestic assault. Carlson followed up: "Feminism's latest victory: the right to get your limbs blown off in war. Congratulations."

Carlson is a political journalist, so he might be expected to know that there is a woman US Army veteran amputee named Tammy Duckworth currently serving in Congress. Duckworth, who represents Illinois' 8th District, lost her legs after an attack brought down the helicopter she was piloting in Baghdad.

In the US military, a woman's service is not recognized, professionally or financially, the same way as a man's. Because women have not been eligible for "combat role" positions—even though they were shooting and being shot at—they were denied access to certain career opportunities. The plaintiffs in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the Department of Defense over the exclusion of women from combat roles offer great examples of this discrimination. Two of the plaintiffs in that case have received Purple Hearts, and two have received combat medals. One of the plaintiffs, Air Force Major Mary Jennings Hegar, a helicopter pilot, was shot down in Afghanistan attempting to evacuate wounded US service members. She engaged in a firefight with enemy forces and was shot before escaping. Women are already "getting their limbs blown off in war." Panetta's announcement will ensure they are recognized for it.

The Daily Beast's David Frum, appearing on CNN, also raised a misguided objection to the new policy. Frum claimed that servicewomen will face sexual violence from America's enemies and therefore shouldn't be allowed to serve on the front lines:

The people we are likely to meet on the next battlefield are people who use rape and sexual abuse as actual tools of politics. In Iranian prisons, rape is a frequent practice. Women are raped before they are executed. In Iran, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan rape is a conscious tool of subjugation and it is something women will be exposed to. In the name of equal opportunity they will face unequal risk.

It's true that women face the danger of sexual assault if captured. The same could be said of men. Frum's objection seems somewhat selective; women in the US military are more likely to face sexual assault from their comrades in the service than they are to be killed by enemy fire. Perhaps that's less sensational than the thought of scary foreigners violating American women, but it's a more urgent threat.

Most men cannot meet the necessary mental and physical requirements for service in combat. Any woman who can meet those standards should not be denied the opportunity because of an arbitrary gender restriction. Moreover, removing the restriction is not about celebrating militarism. The military has long been a path for historically disfavored groups to claim the full benefits of citizenship. Justifying discrimination against blacks, gays and lesbians, or women becomes much more difficult when they're giving their lives for their country. 

Unions and Income Inequality: Two Charts

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 11:47 AM EST

Over at Bloomberg, Kris Warner follows up on yesterday's report on U.S. unionization rates with this chart, comparing us to Canada:

Why have union membership rates stayed high in Canada, which faces all the same globalization pressures as the United States? Mostly because Canadian labor law is more union-friendly than U.S. law, which has been gutted over the past 60 years by anti-union Republicans:

Several provinces have bans on temporary or permanent striker replacement, which don’t exist in the U.S. And there is no Canadian equivalent of the “right-to-work” laws that have been enacted in 24 U.S. states....A second distinction is the manner in which Canada enables unions to be formed....In Canada, the process is relatively quick. Card-check authorization, which is used in almost half of Canadian provinces, allows a majority of employees to form a union at their workplace simply by signing cards stating that they would like to do so....Similarly, there is an important difference in how the two countries deal with charges of illegal obstruction of union drives. In general, Canada handles such charges much more quickly than the U.S., where they often aren’t resolved until long after a union drive is over. This helps to ensure an atmosphere free of coercion and intimidation.

As a result of this, unions have spread into service industries—which are less affected by globalization pressures—more rapidly in Canada than in the U.S. So what does all this mean for the growth of income inequality over the past few decades? Here's another chart showing inequality rates:

This is only one data point, and you can draw different conclusions depending on whether you look at pretax or post-tax income inequality. Still, it's an instructive data point because the U.S. and Canadian economies are so closely bound together. In Canada, income inequality has gone up, just as it's gone up in most English-speaking countries. That's no surprise, largely because the Canadian economy really is similar to the U.S. economy, and subject to similar globalization pressures. But it hasn't gone up as much, and part of the reason is probably unionization rates. Most research finds that the decline of unions has contributed to perhaps a third of the growth of income inequality in the United States, and comparisons like this confirm that. It's not the whole story, not by a long way, but it's a significant chunk of the story.

Can Two Dedicated Congressmen Make Their Colleagues Care About Climate?

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 11:37 AM EST

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) announced on Thursday that they are forming a joint House-Senate Climate Change Task Force. The effort will be "dedicated to focusing Congressional and public attention on climate change and developing effective policy responses." Any member of Congress interested in the issue can join.

The group intends to release reports, memoranda, and correspondence "to advance the group's goal of increasing awareness and developing policy responses to climate change."

The task force's first action is a letter sent today to President Obama asking him to outline specific steps that federal agencies will take to get the country to the administration's previously stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. They also asked him to scale up investment in clean technology and develop a strategy for dealing with climate impacts across the US. Obama gave climate change significant space in his inaugural address earlier this week, but hasn't yet outlined plans to deal with it in his second term. 

"The window to deal effectively with a warming planet and to mitigate long-term risks is quickly closing," they wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "Our best hope to change course is to forge together a national consensus that insists on addressing climate change. And our best hope for forging that consensus is the presidential leadership we know you can give to this issue."

The letter pretty much acknowledged that Congress isn't likely to do much in terms of meaningful action, which puts the onus on Obama to take executive action. "We in Congress need your leadership most of all. Virtually all Republicans in Congress opposed comprehensive climate legislation in the 111th Congress, and they voted to strip EPA of regulatory authority in the last one. Progress is Congress may be so difficult or protracted that you should not hesitate to act."

When John Kerry Was a Lone Hero in Congress

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 11:20 AM EST

Thursday was a big day for Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat. The son of a foreign-service officer, he was appearing before the Senate foreign relations committee (which he used to chair) as President Barack Obama's pick to be secretary of state. Though Kerry failed in 2004 to win the nation's highest job, becoming the country's top diplomat is a tremendous accomplishment and marvelous capstone for his decades-long public career, which began when he returned from service in Vietnam a war hero and led the movement against that war.

Over the years, it has been easy for some to poke fun at Kerry for his sometimes stodgy senatorial ways and for his occasional lapses, such as his 2002 vote authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. But those who weren't around Washington in the 1980s or who have short memories might not realize that Kerry has been one of the more courageous members of the Senate. Back in 2004, when Kerry was running for president and some progressives were grumbling about him, I wrote an article for The Nation reminding folks of the gutsy actions Kerry had taken in the dark days of the Reagan-Bush era, when Republicans in the White House were cozying up to dictators, the CIA was using assets tied to drug smuggling to prosecute its secret wars, and Democrats were nervous about probing international banks with shady ties (that in several instances implicated Democrats). As Kerry reaches the pinnacle of the foreign-policy world, it's an appropriate time to recall his years of noncombat bravery. Here's the bulk of that article:

It's Not Illegal To Buy a Gun for a Criminal

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 10:48 AM EST

Want to buy an AR-15 for a friend who happens to be in a Mexican drug cartel? The way gun laws stand right now, you can: It's not illegal to purchase guns for a criminal. And federal laws surrounding gun trafficking across the border are notoriously weak. Legislation that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) unveiled Wednesday would help fix that.

The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), strengthens laws governing the "straw purchase" of firearms, or the buying of guns or ammunition for someone who is prohibited from owning one. Under current law, it is only a crime to transfer a firearm to someone else with the knowledge that the person will use it in a crime. So prosecutors usually cobble together "paperwork" violations such as lying on federal forms in order to bring charges against a straw purchaser. Leahy's bill prohibits weapons transfers in which the transferor has "reasonable cause to believe" that the firearm will be used in criminal activity, and sets up heavy penalties for doing so.

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Top Obama Organizer Wants to Turn Texas Blue

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 10:42 AM EST

For the last decade, Democrats have dreamed of turning Texas blue. Yet for the last decade, Texas has turned increasingly red—peaking over the past two years, when Repbulicans gained a supermajority in the Legislature for the first time ever. Those two facts, needless to say, can't really coexist. Now, Politico's Alex Burns reports, Democrats think they may have found a solution:

The organization, dubbed "Battleground Texas," plans to engage the state's rapidly growing Latino population, as well as African-American voters and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that have been underrepresented at the ballot box in recent cycles. Two sources said the contemplated budget would run into the tens of millions of dollars over several years—a project Democrats hope has enough heft to help turn what has long been an electoral pipe dream into reality.

At the center of the effort is Jeremy Bird, formerly the national field director for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, who was in Austin last week to confer with local Democrats about the project.

One month into its existence, though, the group has already hit its first road bump: Thanks to a quirky system that forces legislators to draw straws to determine the length of their terms in redistricting cycles, the party's best statewide candidate (per the story), state Sen. Wendy Davis, will only serve two years instead of four. That means that come 2014, Battleground Texas' first bite at the gubernatorial apple, its most viable candidate for governor will likely be fighting for statehouse re-election instead. Such is life for Lone Star Democrats.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 24, 2013

Thu Jan. 24, 2013 10:29 AM EST

U.S. Marines with Romeo Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, receive their ammunition at a live fire range on Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 22, 2013. The Marines of Romeo Battery deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kowshon Ye.

The NRA in 1905: More Mustaches, Less Politics

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 6:06 AM EST

A look through the National Rifle Association's 1905 annual report (price: 10 cents) shows how vastly the gun group has changed since it was merely "A Patriotic Organization...Organized in 1871 for the purpose of promoting and encouraging rifle shooting among the citizens throughout the United States," as the title page explains.

Unlike the leadership of today's NRA—whose board of directors includes has-been actors, a loudmouth rocker, America's most zealous anti-tax activist, and a former GOP senator who fell from grace following a 2007 escapade in an airport men's room—the 1905-1906 board consisted overwhelmingly of former or active-duty members of official state militias. (Only 30 percent of the current NRA board has served in the military.) You'll see a similar contrast between the NRA's officers and executive committee then and now. Check out the 1905 officers' titles (and 'staches!) below.

 

I daresay the chaplain has been downsized. In any case, this vintage report is little more than a voluminous shooting-club newsletter, portraying the activities of men consumed with target practice, marksmanship, and competitions held by NRA-affiliated shooting clubs across the nation. You'll find therein endless names, scores, and stats, plus plenty of photos of uniformed gentlemen with funny facial hair shooting or standing around in fields.

 

What you won't find is a hint of today's politics and fearmongering. The only controversies you're likely to encounter are of a sporting nature. From one dispatch: "Under such circumstances, the conditions which prevented the finish of a range on one day by all was manifestly unfair to many contestants, as some of them had to shoot during a heavy rain and wind storm, while others had favorable conditions over the same range another day."

It seems that if you were an NRA member back then, you were most likely an active, engaged member, not just someone who got a free membership because you bought a gun or a ticket to a gun show. And the 1905 NRA, of course, had no wine club. But some things haven't changed. The NRA's grass-roots shooter-members were always viewed as a customer base for the makers of rifles, uniforms, and related gear. The NRA acknowleges these special "Life Members" in its report.

Over the years, the NRA has expanded its symbiotic ties with gunmakers to the point that it seems to have lost sight of its founding mission. It vehemently fights even the most reasonable proposals to curb runaway gun violence, makes outlandish proposals when confronted, and engages in tasteless and misleading political attacks. It doles out leadership positions to the CEO of Bushmaster (which made the rifle used in the Newtown massacre) and the founder of Barrett Firearms Manufacturing (who invented the very unsportsmanlike .50 caliber sniper rifle).

Nowadays, in the magazines that the NRA gives away free with every membership, its corporate sponsors—$1 million-plus recently from Smith & Wesson!—advertise advanced killing machines. It makes you yearn for the days when the group's trade members proffered their simple wares to a group of dedicated sportsmen, minus the machismo. I'll leave you with some of the ads from the annual report. Forget Walmart—check out these low prices!

 

 

 

 

Republicans Are Not Being Cynical Enough in Their Power Grabs

| Wed Jan. 23, 2013 6:45 PM EST

Virginia Republicans, last seen ramming through a quick mid-decade redistricting plan while a Democratic state senator's attendance at Monday's inaugural ceremonies gave them a one-seat majority for a few hours, are now busily in the process of changing the way they allocate electoral votes. Unhappy over the fact that Barack Obama won all their EVs by the sneaky subterfuge of winning a majority of the vote, Sen. Bill Carrico has introduced a bill which would change the winner-take-all method that served Virginia so well until Obama came along and ruined things. But Carrico went even further than other GOP-dominated states that are doing the same thing. Dave Weigel explains:

I interviewed Carrico about the bill last month, asking why he added a provision that makes this even less democratic than other vote-split schemes. Most of these bills assign one electoral vote for every congressional district, then give the two at-large districts to whoever wins the state. But the Carrico bill would assign the final two electors to whoever won the most districts....Had the Carrico plan been in place in 2012, Mitt Romney would have won nine of Virginia's electoral votes, and Barack Obama would have won four — even though Obama won the popular vote of the state by nearly 150,000 ballots, and four percentage points.

Here's what I don't get. Why even bother with the pretense of fairness here? Everyone knows this is a naked power grab, and there's not much point in pretending otherwise. So why not keep the winner-take-all rule, but change it to one that gives all of Virginia's electoral votes to whoever wins the most districts? Or the most counties? That would pretty much guarantee that a Republican would win them all, rather than a mere 9 out of 13, wouldn't it? What's the holdup here?