Kevin Drum

Reforming the Senate

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 3:31 PM EST

Back in July, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put a hold on Thomas Shannon, President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Brazil. Why? Not because he was unqualified or anything like that.  It was because Shannon once questioned the value of import tariffs on sugar-based ethanol (mostly from Brazil).  This is heresy in the corn state of Iowa.

In the end, the White House groveled and Grassley relented. But now there's yet another hold.  Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who has had six months to cogitate over Shannon's qualifications, says he's placed a hold on his nomination so LeMieux can “discuss my concerns” and “fully vet” him.  Uh huh.

LeMieux can do this because the Senate rules let him.  Just like the Senate rules allow 40 members to block any legislation they want. Earlier today, Matt Yglesias wrote about whether anything can be done about this aside from whining about it in blog posts:

The answer is that yes there is. Key elements of Senate procedure have been altered repeatedly throughout history and there have been failed efforts to do it that might have worked had folks been a bit more determined.

What’s missing right now is any sign from anyone politically important of any interest in turning up the heat. As Chris Bowers explains here it seems to be possible in practice for 50 Senators backed by the Vice President to force basically whatever procedural move they want. Traditionally, that’s not the way things have worked. Instead, having key people talk seriously about going this route has produced a political crisis and encouraged people to cut a deal. That’s how the filibuster got pared back from 67 votes to 60 votes. And it’s also how, as recently as 2005, Senate Democrats were persuaded to relent on several judicial filibusters.

But I’ve seen no sign of a serious public campaign of pressure from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, or other leading figures to delegitimize this minoritarian obstruction.

Ah, but here's the thing: not only does it take pressure from the Democratic leadership, it also takes 50 Democratic votes.  That's the hard part.  This is just a wild guess, but I'd say that if Team Obama tried to push hard on eliminating the filibuster, they'd get no more than 30 or 35 votes on their side.  Maybe 40.  Even among the majority party, there just isn't very much support for doing away with a procedure that everyone knows they might want to use themselves in the foreseeable future.  Most senators, I think, are far more interested in being assured they can block legislation they dislike than they are in being assured they can pass legislation they favor.

But what about holds?  I'd say there's good news and bad news here.  The bad news is that, if anything, the hold process is nearer and dearer to senators' hearts than the filibuster.  It gives them lots of individual power, lots of authority over home state appointments, and lots of bargaining clout.  It's a personal prerogative that very few of them are willing to give up.

But — I wonder if there isn't some kind of deal that might be made here?  The Shannon case is a good example of abuse gone wild, as is the fate of many of Obama's judicial appointments this year.  Senators aren't likely to give up their power to place holds entirely, but it's possible that a concerted effort might gin up support for a bit of reform.  Maybe stronger limits on the number of holds (so that Grassley and LeMieux couldn't both put a hold on the same guy, for example) or stronger limits on how long holds can last.  The appointment process has become a swamp over the past couple of decades, wasting both the Senate's time as well as preventing the executive branch from operating in a reasonable way, and there just might be enough senators who recognize that to want to do something about it.

In any case, the abuse with holds is more obvious (one guy vs. 40) and the slowdown more routine than it is with filibusters, so it seems like that would be the place to try to put together some kind of reform effort first.  I'm not holding my breath or anything, but I could see this becoming a big enough deal that eventually there's an opportunity to make some change.  Even some Republicans might buy in.

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Unsurprising News Watch - Sarah Palin Edition

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 2:05 PM EST

Maybe I spoke too soon.  Mark Halperin also scores this morning with some pretty unsurprising news.  Here's what he says we'll find in Sarah Palin's new book:

* some score settling with McCain aides she believes ill-served her (names will be named).

* a hearty bashing of the national media.

* an account of how her upbringing shaped her maverick sensibilities.

* a testimonial to the importance of faith in her life.

* a warm and personal tone, written in Palin's own voice, despite the involvement of a collaborator.

Two things not in the book:

* Don't look for hefty policy prescriptions.

* Once source who has seen  “Going Rogue” says it does not include an index.  That would give Palin a subtle revenge on the party's Washington establishment, whose members tend to flip to the back pages and scan for their own names. If they want to know what Sarah Palin has to say about them, they will have to buy the book — and read the whole thing.

Yep, that's a real shocker.  Score settling!  Media bashing!  Maverickiness!  Faith!  Light on policy!

Jesus.  As for the index thing, I hope someone is just pulling Halperin's leg.  It's true that Beltway types like to look in book indexes for their names, but not including one won't slow down that game by more than a few minutes.  Hell, if it doesn't have its own index, some obsessive nerd will scan and OCR the whole thing and create a web index before it's even hit the shelves.  Still, it does reek of that trademark Palin combination of spitefulness and teenage tribalism, doesn't it?  Plus a gratuitous dose of anti-intellectualism, since only scholar type folks use indexes.  So maybe it's true.

Patriot Games

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 1:51 PM EST

Greg Sargent gets the prize today for reporting the least surprising news of the week:

Republican leaders are gearing up to critize Obama’s eventual decision on the way forward in Afghanistan even if it falls modestly short of sending an additional 40,000 troops, a senior GOP aide says.

What a shocker.  But as Spencer Ackerman says, why stop at 40,000?  After all, there's an 80,000 number that's been making the rounds too.  "As long as the GOP is indicating to Sargent that it’s interested primarily in playing politics with the war, why not go for a number with real differences from any 30,000-plus option Obama is likely to favor?"

In any case, it's sort of odd that all these patriots never had a problem with the 30,000 troops George Bush had in Afghanistan for the past couple of years.  Or the 20,000 he had before that.  Or the 10,000 before that.  But Obama's 100,000+?  Why, that's practically treason, my friends.

But like I said: hardly surprising.  So here's the real question: how seriously will the media take this when it happens?  Will they give plenty of coverage to criticism that's so patently contrived that a five-year-old would see though it?  Or will they treat it as if it's a serious national security debate?  Wait and see!

Surveillance State Update

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 1:30 PM EST

Via Alex Massie, the Telegraph reports that Britain's surveillance state is slated to grow ever bigger and ever broader thanks to proposed new rules that would require all telephone and internet hosts to keep detailed records of their customers' activities and turn them over to pretty much anyone who feels like seeing them:

Despite widespread opposition over Britain's growing surveillance society, 653 public bodies will be given access to the confidential information, including police, local councils, the Financial Services Authority, the Ambulance Service, fire authorities and even prison governors.

They will not require the permission of a judge or a magistrate to access the information, but simply the authorisation of a senior police officer or the equivalent of a deputy head of department at a local authority.

....Although most private firms already hold details of every customer's private calls and emails for their own business purposes, most only do so on an ad hoc basis and only for a period of several months.

The new rules, known as the Intercept Modernisation Programme, will not only force communication companies to keep their records for longer, but to expand the type of data they keep to include details of every website their customers visit — effectively registering every click online.

....The latest figures on the use of the RIPA legislation by public bodies, show that state bodies including town halls made 519,260 requests last year — one every minute — to spy on the phone records and email accounts of members of the public.

The number of requests has risen by 44 per cent in two years to a rate of 1,422 new cases every day, leading to claims of an abuse of using the powers for trivial matters such as littering and dog fouling.

519,000 requests in a single year?  That's more than 1% of the adult population of Great Britain.  Terrorism is the putative reason for the new regulations, but if Britain truly has that many suspected terrorists on its soil, they might as well just give up and surrender now.

Pot and the AMA

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 1:00 PM EST

Marijuana use got another small boost yesterday:

The American Medical Assn. on Tuesday urged the federal government to reconsider its classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug with no accepted medical use, a significant shift that puts the prestigious group behind calls for more research.

...."Despite more than 30 years of clinical research, only a small number of randomized, controlled trials have been conducted on smoked cannabis," said Dr. Edward Langston, an AMA board member, noting that the limited number of studies was "insufficient to satisfy the current standards for a prescription drug product."

Earlier this year there was sort of a boomlet in optimism about marijuana legalization, but while I was working on my pot piece for the July/August issue of the magazine I became convinced that it had been overblown.  I'd say we still have another decade before there's a real sea change in policy.

Still, this is the kind of thing that has to happen in order for marijuana use to become mainstreamed.  It's one of those small steps that lots of people can agree on (there's scandalously little serious medical research on marijuana), and the results are almost certain to be good for the cause of legalization.  Still, even if the AMA's call gets some attention, these results are years away, and in the meantime there's also pushback like this taking place.  Progress is going to be slow and arduous, and I continue to think that I'll be surprised if serious moves toward widespread legalization take place in less than five or ten years.

Economic Doom and Gloom

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 12:24 PM EST

James Pethokoukis: 12 Reason Why Unemployment Is Going to 12%.  Actually, the reasons come from Gluskin Sheff economist David Rosenberg, but Pethokoukis blogged 'em.  I sure hope he's wrong.

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Chris Dodd vs. the Fed

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 6:41 PM EST

Felix Salmon has a good rundown of Chris Dodd's proposed regulatory reforms, and overall he finds them considerably better than the proposals that came out of the Treasury.  But on one point he thinks Dodd has it wrong:

The Agency for Financial Stability is the agency charged with monitoring systemic risk — a job which under Treasury’s proposal would be given to the Federal Reserve. On this I think I have sympathy with Treasury: the Fed in general, and the New York Fed in particular, is better placed to monitor these risks than a brand-new agency with no direct ability to supervise banks or to break them up. A giveaway appears on page 3 of the discussion draft:

"The Agency for Financial Stability will identify systemically important clearing, payments, and settlements systems to be regulated by the Federal Reserve."

Clearly, the Fed is going to play a necessary role here, and it’s not exactly rocket science to identify key clearing and settlement systems. So why take that job from the Fed and give it to powerless technocrats in Washington?

I think I'll take Dodd's side here.  As Felix says, there's no question that the Fed is going to have a major role here no matter what: it's just too big and too central to the banking system not to.  But there are at least a couple of big reasons not to give it unfettered authority.  First, the Fed has demonstrated pretty conclusively over the past few years that it's too close to the banking industry, and too invested in its success, to ever be objective about the broad level of risk in the banking system.  Second, pronouncements from the Fed are too powerful.  The Fed would (rightly) be very reluctant to make public statements about systemic risk for fear of sending markets into a tailspin.  So it wouldn't.

The problem with Dodd's Agency for Financial Stability, of course, is that it might end up with a fairly limited amount of substantive power.  But that's not entirely a bad thing as long as it has reputational power.  Standing clearly outside the banking system would likely help it develop a reputation as an honest broker that demands attention — or, at very least, a counterweight to the institutional and industry-centric judgments of the Fed.  That's no bad thing.

Overall, it's a mixed bag.  On balance, though, I think there's a strong need for a non-Fed voice, one that considers systemic risk to be its primary mission, not its 17th most important one.  Besides, look at the Fed's track record on assessing systemic risk so far.  How much worse can a new agency be?  Might as well give it a try.

UPDATE: More detail on Dodd's proposal here from Mike Konczal.

Political Correctness

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 2:22 PM EST

Is "political correctness" to blame for the Ft. Hood massacre?  Did the military fail to confont Nidal Malik Hasan's growing disillusionment with the war because it was afraid of appearing overly critical of Muslims?  Marc Lynch pushes back:

This framing of the issue is almost 100% wrong. There is a connection between what these critics are calling "political correctness" and national security, but it runs in the opposite direction. The real linkage is that there is a strong security imperative to prevent the consolidation of a narrative in which America is engaged in a clash of civilizations with Islam, and instead to nurture a narrative in which al-Qaeda and its affiliates represent a marginal fringe to be jointly combatted.

....The grand strategy of al-Qaeda and its affiliated ideologues is, and has always been, to generate a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West which does not currently exist....To make inroads with mainstream Muslim communities, they need to change the context in which they live — to render their status quo unacceptable and to make their narrative resonate.  And for that to happen, they need a lot of help — for the targeted governments to take inflammatory measures against their Muslim populations, for the non-Muslim citizens in the targeted countries to discriminate against them, and for the media to fan the flames of hatred and mistrust.

....A lot of people — some well-meaning, some clowns or worse — evidently want the American response to the Ft. Hood shootings to revive the post-9/11 "war of ideas" and "clash of civilizations" anti-Islamic discourse.  It's a jihad, they shout, demanding careful scrutiny of the loyalty of American Muslims.  That's what they seem to mean by the demand to throw away "political correctness" and confront the ideological menace.  The overall effect of their recommendations, however,  would be to revive the flagging al-Qaeda brand and to greatly strengthen the appeal of its narrative.  And that's exactly what we should not want.

The whole piece is worth a read.  The military almost certainly has some lessons to learn from this tragedy — as do the rest of us — but that plural is deliberate.  Lessons, not lesson.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 1:36 PM EST

From RNC chairman Michael Steele, talking to Roland Martin on a new Sunday talk show aimed at black audiences:

MARTIN: One of the criticisms I've always had is Republicans — white Republicans — have been scared of black folks.

STEELE: You're absolutely right. I mean I've been in the room and they've been scared of me.

Via Steve Benen.

Going Big in Afghanistan

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 12:22 PM EST

Counterinsurgency or counterterrorism?  Traditionally, the former requires lots of troops in order to root out and defeat a local insurgency while protecting the civilian population, while the latter requires only a small, light force to chase after bad guys and kill them.  But Spencer Ackerman reports that in addition to top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the two commanders of U.S. special forces, Vice Adm. William McRaven and Vice Adm. Robert Harward, both favor big troop increases to back up their counterterrorism efforts:

The fact that JSOC veterans like McRaven, Harward and McChrystal favor an overall counterinsurgency strategy with a counterterrorism component demonstrates that the military no longer believes distinguishing between the two is tenable in the Afghanistan war. “Special Operations Forces that were traditionally used for counterterrorism better understand how their capabilities fit into a counterinsurgency campaign than perhaps they did when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began,” said Andrew Exum, a veteran of both wars and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who over the summer advised McChrystal in a review of Afghanistan strategy.

....McRaven runs a secretive detachment of Special Forces known as Task Force 714 — once commanded by McChrystal himself — that the NSC staffer described as “direct-action” units conducting “high-intensity hits.”....In a move signaling his own importance to McChrystal, Harward will arrive in Afghanistan later this month to command a new task force, known as Task Force 435, that will take charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan.

....The advice of McRaven and Harward to the White House strategy review, the [NSC] staffer said, was to push for a “heavy, heavy, heavy COIN [counterinsurgency] presence” in select population centers like the capitol city of Kabul, while relying on new or expanded counterterrorism units like Task Force 714 for hunting and killing terrorists outside of those population centers — particularly in areas like the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a key transit point for Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.

Basically, there seems to be no support anywhere in the military for a light footprint in Afghanistan.  In a way, that's no surprise: why not get as many troops as you can, after all?  But it also highlights Obama's dilemma: regardless of where his heart is, it's almost impossible to defy military advice when it's nearly unanimous.  Picking one side vs. another is one thing, but trying to impose your own strategy on the entire bureaucracy is quite another.  It sounds like the light footprint never really had a chance.