I think I assumed that everyone already knew this, but probably not. Matt Yglesias points out today that not only do Senate rules allow a minority to obstruct bills with majority support, but they allow them to delay even bills that have supermajority support:

First you need to file cloture on the motion to proceed. Then it takes about a day for cloture to “ripen.” Then there’s the cloture vote. Then a 30 hour waiting period. Then the vote on the motion to proceed. Then, even if there’s nothing left to debate, you need to do the whole thing over again. File for cloture. Take a day for cloture to ripen. Then the cloture vote. Then 30 hours. Then you vote.

One consequence of this is that if you have 100 small ways to improve the health care system, each of which piss off some small interest group, you can’t do the sensible thing and just bring each small idea to the floor separately and pass it. The sheer amount of time it takes to overcome some random bloc of Senators’ opposition makes it not worthwhile for most members. To get an idea enacted into law over determined opposition, you not only need at least 60 Senators to agree with it, you need them to be enthusiastic enough to let your pet plan eat up all this time.

By itself, this isn't such a bad thing. The Senate is supposed to be the "cooling" chamber, so having rules in place that allow the minority to delay action is entirely in keeping with its original intent. But when you put it together with the institutionalization of the filibuster, the routine use of personal holds, and the almost complete breakdown of partisan aisle crossing, it's a recipe for disaster.

But regardless of what you think of all that, this is why the idea of giving up on healthcare reform and instead passing a bunch of little bills is such a bad idea. Policywise it's bad because most of these little things don't work unless they're part of a bigger plan, and politically it doesn't work because the Senate literally doesn't have enough time in the year to pass them all. There's really no alternative to passing the existing bill as is and then working to improve it during the budget reconciliation process later this year.

Unfortunately, that's not going well. So pick up the phone and call your representative and your senators. Tell 'em to pass the damn bill.

Cui Bono?

So who's the real winner of Thursday's ruling that allows corporations to buy all the political advertising their checkbooks allow? Big banks? The Republican Party? The pharmaceutical industry? Maybe. But Jim Innocenzi, a GOP strategist in Alexandria, thinks it will be a windfall for media corporations:

"There is only so much advertising space available the last 30 to 60 days [before an election] anyway, so all the ruling does is jack up the cost of 30-second commercials at the end of the campaign," he said.

Elsewhere, Mark Kleiman nominates another unforeseen beneficiary:

One aspect of the ruling that hasn’t gathered much attention: as far as I can tell, the analysis doesn’t distinguish between domestic and foreign corporations....So the ruling allows Hugo Chavez to spend as much money as he wants to helping and harming American politicians. If the Russian, Saudi, and Chinese governments don’t currently have appropriate vehicles for doing so, you can count on it: they soon will.

....The United States has a $13 trillion GDP, and total annual campaign spending is on the order of $2 billion. Buying influence on the American government has to be the highest-leverage activity ever invented, and Justice Kennedy and his four accomplices just invited every oligarch and tyrant in the world to play. This is not just a threat to democracy; it’s a threat to sovereignty.

It's been quite a week, hasn't it?

Via Matt Yglesias, here is a passage from James Suroweicki’s summary of Obama's first year in office:

I never understood the somewhat messianic qualities that certain voters ascribed to him: Obama has been exactly the kind of President I expected him to be (and the kind of President I hoped he would be), namely rational, pragmatic, thoughtful, and even-tempered. But clearly many voters — even, oddly enough, some of those who didn’t vote for him — expected a miracle worker. When they got a problem-solver instead, one with little authority over Congressional Democrats and no authority at all over obstructionist Republicans, they were disappointed.

I know this is received wisdom, but honestly, it deserves a lot more skepticism than it usually gets. Did a lot of people really think Obama would be a miracle worker? I don't personally know of a single person who felt that way, and the fact that he got huge crowds for his speeches means only that he was a charismatic guy, lots of people liked what he had to say, and liberals were stoked at the prospect of dumping Bush and Cheney. Sure, maybe a few thought he was the salvation of American politics, but there's really not much evidence that this was a very widespread belief — and no evidence at all that Obama himself ever believed it.

In fact, this is mostly the triumph of a conservative narrative. It was conservatives who spent months during the 2008 campaign taunting Obama for his alleged messiah status and it was conservatives who were constantly misquoting him about being "The One" or griping about how he thought his silver tongue could save the world and induce vicious dictators to swoon. Remember the video on the right, prepared by the McCain campaign? Or this one? Conservative media was crawling with this kind of mockery during 2008.

This might not be such a big problem if it weren't for the fact that it's latched onto the political psyche like a leech, causing even normally sensible writers like Michael Hirsh to spout nonsense like this:

It's difficult to understand why, faced with solving a Depression-size economic crisis, two wars, and global warming to boot, he felt that he also had to grab hold of the third-rail issue of health care during his inaugural year.

It's been a disaster, of course, and may go down as one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history. For the American public — haunted by too many rounds of layoffs, appalled by Wall Street's government-aided Grand Heist, aghast at the size of federal spending that never seems to find its way into their pockets — health care was simply an intervention too far.

....There was nothing new about this, of course. It falls into the age-old annals of hubris, the same excess of pride that got Achilles and Agamemnon in trouble with the gods. Obama apparently did buy into the idea that he was a Man of Destiny and, being one, possessed bottomless supplies of political capital.

Look: Obama is a pragmatic, cautious, technocratic, mainstream liberal. He campaigned heavily on healthcare reform, and when he took office he followed up on it. And far from being "one of the biggest political miscalculations in modern history," it almost worked. It's been derailed only by the equivalent of a political meteor strike: a precise 60-vote majority plus the death of a sitting senator at just the wrong time plus the bizarre meltdown of his replacement just as the bill was nearing the finish line. If not for this 1000:1 mischance, it would still be cranking along and would be close to passage.

And honestly, does anyone really believe that healthcare reform would have fared better if Obama had put it off until after 2010, when his congressional majorities would have been smaller? Or that the Senate would have gotten up the gumption to really kick the finance industry's ass if it hadn't had healthcare to worry about? Please.

There are all sorts of ways to criticize Obama's handling of healthcare. Maybe he should have produced a plan of his own. Maybe he should have pressed Congress to move faster. Maybe he should have been more personally involved. Who knows. But he didn't take up healthcare reform because he thought he was a Man of Destiny, he took it up because it was a major campaign promise and presidents aren't limited to doing only one thing at a time. Give me a break.

A reader writes in about my plea to call your representative and ask them to vote for the Senate healthcare bill:

Unfortunately my congressman is a Republican. The closest Democrat to me is Glenn Nye and he voted against it the first time.

It might be helpful if you could direct your readers to where they can get the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of their state's  U.S. Representatives.

It's true: calling Republicans isn't a great use of your time. But if your representative is a Democrat, you should call. Don't email. That's a waste of energy. Pick up the phone and call. For a full list of congressional names and phone numbers, go to Congress.org. Type in your representative's name and it will pop up an information page that includes a phone contact. Don't know who your representative is? Enter your zip code and it will tell you.

Want to do more? You might try calling one of the folks on the list below. On the left are representatives who signed a pledge not to vote for any bill that doesn't contain a public option. They're probably opposed to passing the Senate bill as is, so it's worth calling to let them know that with the political landscape changed, it's time to rethink their position. On the right are Blue Dog Democrats. They should already be willing to vote for the Senate bill since it's a little more conservative than the House bill, but it's also got slightly softer anti-abortion language than the House bill. So if one of them is nearby, give them a call too.

Be polite. Be ready to sit on hold for a while. But we're going to spend the next 20 years working on universal healthcare in America, and by the time we're done what matters won't be precisely where we started, but that we started at all. It's time to start.

Public Option Blue Dogs
Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
Corrine Brown (FL-03)
Andre Carson (IN-07)
Judy Chu (CA-32)
Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05)
Mike Capuano (MA-08)
John Conyers (MI-14)
Elijah Cummings (MD-07)
Bill Delahunt (MA-10)
Lloyd Doggett (TX-25)
Donna Edwards (MD-04)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Chaka Fattah (PA-02)
Bob Filner (CA-51)
Barney Frank (MA-14)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Luis Gutierrez (IL-04)
Alcee Hastings (FL-23)
Maurice Hinchey (NY-22)
Mazie Hirono (HI-02)
Michael Honda (CA-15)
Jesse Jackson, Jr. (IL-02)
Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30)
Hank Johnson (GA-04)
Marcy Kaptur (OH-09)
Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI-13)
Dennis Kucinich (OH-10)
Barbara Lee (CA-09)
Carolyn Maloney (NY-14)
Eric Massa (NY-29)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Jim McGovern (MA-03)
Gwen Moore (WI-04)
Jerry Nadler (NY-08)
Grace Napolitano (CA-38)
John Olver (MA-01)
Bill Pascrell (NJ-08)
Donald Payne (NJ-10)
Chellie Pingree (MN-01)
Laura Richardson (CA-37)
Lucille Roybal-Alard (CA-34)
Linda Sanchez (CA-39)
Jose Serrano (NY-16)
Albio Sires (NJ-13)
Jackie Speier (CA-12)
Pete Stark (CA-13)
Bennie Thompson (MS-02)
John Tierney (MA-06)
Ed Towns (NY-10)
Nydia Valezquez (NY-12)
Maxine Waters (CA-35)
Diane Watson (CA-33)
Mel Watts (NC-12)
Lynn Woolsey (CA-06)
John Yarmuth (KY-03)
Jason Altmire (PA-4)
Mike Arcuri (NY-24)
Joe Baca (CA-43)
John Barrow (GA-12)
Robert Marion Berry (AR-1)
Sanford Bishop (GA-2)
Dan Boren (OK-2)
Leonard Boswell (IA-3)
Allen Boyd (FL-2)
Bobby Bright (AL-2)
Dennis Cardoza (CA-18)
Christopher Carney (PA-10)
Ben Chandler (KY-6)
Travis Childers (MS-1)
Jim Cooper (TN-5)
Jim Costa (CA-20)
Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3)
Lincoln Davis (TN-4)
Joe Donnelly (IN-2)
Brad Ellsworth (IN-8)
Bill Foster (IL-14)
Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8)
Bart Gordon (TN-6)
Jane Harman (CA-36)
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL)
Baron Hill (IN-9)
Tim Holden (PA-17)
Frank Kratovil (MD-1)
Betsy Markey (CO-4)
Jim Marshall (GA-8)
Jim Matheson (UT-2)
Mike McIntyre (NC-7)
Charlie Melancon (LA-3)
Mike Michaud (ME-2)
Walt Minnick (ID-1)
Dennis Moore (KS-3)
Patrick Murphy (PA-8)
Scott Murphy (NY-20)
Glenn Nye (VA-2)
Collin Peterson (MN-7)
Earl Pomeroy (ND-AL)
Mike Ross (AR-4)
John Salazar (CO-3)
Loretta Sanchez (CA-47)
Adam Schiff (CA-29)
Kurt Schrader (OR-5)
David Scott (GA-13)
Heath Shuler (NC-11)

Jim Manzi on Barack Obama's proposal to rein in the size and riskiness of big banks:

The political aspects of such reform are compelling. People are disgusted at recent bank bonuses. I’m a right-of-center libertarian businessman, and I’m disgusted by them....The “populist” observation that the fact of a bunch of well-connected guys each pulling down $10 million per year while suckling on the government teat constitutes almost certain evidence of self-dealing is accurate, and all the fancy finance talk in the world can’t get around it. President Obama has a clear political incentive to pursue this proposal. I assume Republicans will see that they have a clear political incentive to go along, rather than standing up for such a situation. Hopefully, this will create the political dynamic that will allow real, positive reform.

Well, I hope Republicans see it that way too. Unfortunately, Scott Brown's victory on Tuesday probably makes this unlikely. After all, what lesson are they likely to take from it? There's no deep thinking required to figure this out: obstruction works, and the louder and more furious the better. I expect them to double down on their opposition to all things Obama, cheered on by Drudge and Fox and Palin and Limbaugh and the tea partiers, certain that this is the path to maximal electoral victory in November.

But maybe I'm wrong! Maybe they'll suddenly do a U turn and decide that cooperating with Democrats to reregulate Wall Street millionaires is a great idea. Offhand I can't think of anything less likely, but you never know.

Erroll Southers, who withdrew his nomination to head up TSA yesterday, talks to CQ about the confirmation process that hounded him out:

Q: You’ve said that TSA needs leadership. The tone of your confirmation process undoubtedly will influence the next nominee’s willingness to go through it. Are you concerned that future nominees will be discouraged?

A: You don’t know how many people warned me off this process, and I didn’t listen to them. Two months ago, if you’d googled my name, you would have seen a couple of references to the airport and a lot of conferences that I keynoted. Now if you google my name — I hope my daughter never has to google my name, because it’s disgusting.

I should have listened to my friends and colleagues that tried to warn me off, but I didn’t. I thought I could contribute to this country and this organization, and it’s unfortunate what people who only want to serve their country go through. But there’s no way in the world you can convince me that qualified, talented people aren’t scared off by this process. And that is unfortunate, that is a disservice to this country.

Does anyone seriously think that the Senate needs to confirm the head of TSA? Seriously?

Obama's Bank Plan

Paul Volcker has been championing stricter bank regulation for months now — and seemingly getting nowhere against the combined forces of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. But I guess a 6' 7" former Fed chairman can still wield some clout after all.  Today, with Volcker at his side, Barack Obama announced his new proposal to limit bank size and risk:

"My resolve to reform the system is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see record profits at some of the very firms claiming that they cannot lend more to small business, cannot keep credit card rates low, and cannot refund taxpayers for the bailout," President Obama said Thursday. "It is exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary."

Admistration officials said the new rules would force major institutions from J.P. Morgan Chase to Bank of America to decide the direction of their business. Banks shielded from risk through federal-deposit insurance, or aided in financial crises by low-interest loans from the Federal Reserve Board, would no longer be allowed to engage in trading unrelated to their customers' interests, one senior administration official said.

Just how tough will these new rules be? We don't know yet, since Obama offered no detail at his press conference. However, Tyler Cowen offers a list of things to watch for:

  1. Do its restrictions apply to subsidaries, affiliates, and holding companies in a meaningful way?  Can they apply?
  2. How do the restrictions apply to off-balance sheet activities, if at all?  Keep in mind the various lessons about the construction of synthetic asset positions.
  3. How will Congressional oversight committees apply and interpret the plan?  This is a big one.
  4. Can a financial institution avoid or sidestep the restrictions by changing its status as a commercial bank, legally speaking?
  5. If you cap bank size, are the new and smaller banks still "too big to fail" by prevailing standards?
  6. How does the proposal treat bank leverage, including implicit forms of leverage through off-balance sheet activities?  Does leverage get redistributed elsewhere?
  7. How does it affect the political economy of bank lobbying?

"I don't pretend to know the answers to these questions," Tyler says, "nor do I expect such answers to be announced on day one." Me neither. But as we get them we'll begin to know whether this is a serious proposal or just a PR move.

Jon Chait says the House should pass the Senate bill. The alternative is nothing. Andrew Sullivan argues with him:

So let this process play out. Let Obama use SOTU to argue that nothing is not an option and if the Republicans prove they really do want nothing, then the argument for passing the Senate bill gets stronger. But doing this now, greeting public anxiety with contempt, would be dreadful politics.

It would destroy Obama's commitment to open dialogue and respect for the process, which has already been battered by some of the necessary sausage making to get a final deal. It would make Obama look like a brutally partisan president. That would break Obama's presidency.

This is magical thinking. Obama is already a brutally partisan president. He just doesn't seem to know it. But it only takes one side to make politics into a partisan slugfest, and at this point the only credible response is to slug back. If Obama really believes in healthcare reform, he needs to use every lever he's got to press the House to pass the Senate bill — and then use the SOTU to explain why it happened that way and what the bill does for everyone. If he can't sell it, then he can't sell it. But several more months of "process" sure aren't going to make it any easier. Real resolve and real commitment are all that matter now.

This is it. We either pass it now or else wait another 15 years. It's time for Obama to buck up and show us what he's made of.

No Coasting

This story is from California, but I imagine it's being repeated in pretty much every state in the union:

Until recently, many Democratic strategists believed that incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer was a prohibitive favorite for reelection in November and that their party's presumed candidate for governor, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, would coast to victory. Now, confidence has faded on both.

....Boxer sought to reassure supporters that she knew she had a battle ahead. "Every state is now in play, absolutely," she told reporters in Washington. The lesson from Massachusetts, she said, is "never, ever, ever take an election for granted."

I don't want to pretend that there's a silver lining for Democrats in Martha Coakley's defeat on Tuesday. There isn't. But if there were, this would be it. At least nobody's going to be coasting from this point forward.

I guess this is a week for big changes in American politics:

Sweeping aside a century-old understanding and overruling two important precedents, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

....The 5-to-4 decision was a doctrinal earthquake but also a political and practical one. Specialists in campaign finance law said they expected the decision, which also applies to labor unions and other organizations, to reshape the way elections are conducted.

“If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included the four members of its conservative wing, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

I confess that I've become more sensitive to First Amendment concerns about the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law over the years. But treating corporations as mere "associations of citizens"? Color me skeptical. That's just not what they are, and this is a decision that we're probably going to live to regret. After all, it's not as if lack of ability for corporations to influence the political process has historically been a major problem in the United States.