Kevin Drum - November 2013

3 Charts Explain Why Democrats Went Nuclear on the Filibuster

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 4:00 AM PST

No one has completely clean hands when it comes to filibusters in the Senate. Democrats have used them and Republicans have used them. But hoo boy, Republicans sure have used them more. That's why Democrats went nuclear on Thursday. Three charts tell the story.

The first two charts show the evolution of filibusters by presidential administration. As you can see, their use rose steadily through the '80s and then leveled off starting around 1990. Democrats mainly kept things pretty stable throughout the Bush administration, with the number increasing only when Republicans lost the 2006 midterm elections and became the minority party. At that point, they ratcheted up the use of filibusters to record levels, and there was no honeymoon when Obama won the presidency, not even for a minute. Republicans went into full-bore filibuster mode the day he took office, and they've kept it up ever since. For all practical purposes, anything more controversial than renaming a post office has required 60 votes during the entire Obama presidency.

 

But it was Republican filibusters of judicial and executive-branch nominees that finally drove Democrats to act on Thursday. Democrats had struck one deal after another with Republicans to try and rein in their abuse of the filibuster, but nothing worked. A few nominees would get through, and then another batch would promptly get filibustered. The chart below tells the tale. Under George Bush, Democrats mounted filibusters on 38 of his nominees. That's about five per year. Under Obama, Republicans have filibustered an average of 16 nominees per year.

The last straw came when Republicans announced their intention to filibuster all of Obama's nominees to the DC circuit court simply because they didn't want a Democratic president to be able to fill any more vacancies. At that point, even moderate Democrats had finally had enough. For all practical purposes, Republicans had declared war on Obama's very legitimacy as president, forbidding him from carrying out a core constitutional duty. Begging and pleading and cutting deals was no longer on the table. Eliminating the filibuster for judicial and executive branch nominees was the only option left, and on Thursday that's what Democrats finally did.

UPDATE: Some edits made to the passage about Republicans losing control of Congress in 2006, to clear up exactly who was filibustering during the 2008-08 period.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

President Obama Is Getting Camera Shy

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 10:06 PM PST

The New York Times reports that the press is unhappy with the Obama White House:

A mutiny has erupted among photographers who cover President Obama over what they say is the White House’s increasing practice of excluding them from events involving the president and then releasing its own photos or video.

On Thursday, the White House Correspondents’ Association and 37 news organizations submitted a letter to the press secretary....The letter cited seven recent examples of newsworthy events from which photographers were banned, including an outdoor lunch for Mr. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and a session in the Oval Office at which Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani human rights campaigner, spoke with Mr. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Malia.

....White House photographers have historically captured private moments of the president, with his family or conferring with advisers in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. During the debate over the civil war in Syria, Mr. Souza’s images of internal meetings provided a revealing account of the tensions felt by the president and his staff....“The way they exclude us is to say that this is a very private moment,” said Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times who has covered the White House since the Reagan administration. “But they’re making private moments very public.”

The story is a little frustrating because it doesn't provide a good sense of whether photographic access has changed significantly over the years. But the AP's director of photography, Santiago Lyon, added this on his blog:

While photographers are granted some access to Oval Office meetings and other activities, it has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents....In fact, since 2010 we have only been granted access to the President alone in the Oval Office on two occasions, once in 2009 and again in 2010. We have never been granted access to the President at work in the Oval Office accompanied by his staff. Previous administration regularly granted such access.

This is part of a troubling trend, as presidential administrations have all gotten successively more and more single-minded about managing their image. By itself, it's hard to get too worked up about photographers not being allowed into a few meetings here and there, but this is yet another step in the direction of obsessive White House media management. It's the wrong direction, and it's also kind of pointless. Whether he likes hordes of photographers around or not, Obama should know that it's all part of the job. He should let the photographers back in.

Republicans Refuse to Cover the Poor, Then Complain that Obamacare Isn't Covering the Poor

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 4:30 PM PST

The New York Times has gotten hold of the "House Republican Playbook" on Obamacare, and I have to admit that it brought back warm memories. It's just like the launch kits I used to produce for our sales force whenever we came out with a new product, and I have to say that it looks very professional. For Eric Cantor's sake, I hope his sales force pays more attention to it than my sales force used to pay to mine.

In any case, it's all pretty predictable stuff: Obamacare is an abomination; people are losing their insurance; small companies are being ruined; etc. etc. But I have to say that this is my favorite talking point:

Needless to say, this is primarily because Republicans governors have refused to implement Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, even though it's 100 percent paid for at first and 90 percent paid for forever. These governors literally prefer to have their state's residents pay taxes and get nothing in return rather than give so much as an extra dime to poor people who need health care. It's truly hard to fathom what kind of human being is callous enough to do this, but apparently there are a bunch of them in the Republican Party.

And then, just to add a cherry of chutzpah on top of this ice cream sundae of spitefulness, they crow about how Obamacare isn't covering as many people as Obama hoped it would. You really have to marvel.

We Spend a Ton on Health Care, And We Get Lousy Service in Return

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 1:32 PM PST

The 2013 version of the OECD's "Health at a Glance" is out today, which means that if I'd waited a day I could have posted the very latest data on the number of doctors per capita in the United States compared to other countries. Not to worry, though: nothing much has changed since yesterday. We still don't have very many doctors, even though we pay them far more than in most other countries.

In any case, "at a glance" means 209 pages to the OECD, so there's plenty of other stuff to chew on today. I'll pick out two tidbits for you. First, the chart below shows the number of doctor visits per year. We're very low. Despite spending far, far more on health care than any other country—$8,500 per person compared to about $4,000 for other rich countries—we don't get to see our doctors very often—about four times a year compared to six for the rest of the world. So does this mean that American doctors are lightly worked compared to other countries? As the next chart down shows, yes it does! The average American doc sees about 1,800 patients per year. The average for other rich countries is about 2,500. Again, this is despite the fact that American doctors are very highly paid.

Next up is a chart brought to my attention by Paul Waldman, and it could be one of the greatest and most instructive health care charts ever made. It shows what people think about their health. And despite the fact that by any objective measure, American health is mediocre at best and our health system is both expensive and lousy, Americans think they're in great health. They think they're in the best health of any country in the world!

This is Stockholm Syndrome at its finest. Apparently one of the reasons we don't mind the lousy service and high cost of our health care system is because our health care system has convinced us that it's great and, therefore, our health must be great too. We're Number 1, and we won't put up with anyone who tells us otherwise.

Once Again, Republican Obstinacy Bites Them in the Ass

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 11:32 AM PST

So, the filibuster. Did Harry Reid do the right thing getting rid of it for judicial and executive branch nominees?

I'd say so. And yet, I think Republicans missed a bet here. I've never personally been a fan of the idea that the Senate's raison d'être is to be the slowest, most deliberative, and most obstructive branch of government. Hell, legislation already has to pass two houses and get signed by a president and be approved by the Supreme Court before it becomes law. Do we really need even more obstacles in the way of routine legislating?

Still, I'll concede that my own feelings aside, the Senate really was designed with just that in mind. It wasn't designed to be an automatic veto point for minority parties, but it was designed to slow things down and keep the red-hot passions of the mob at bay. So here's what I wonder: why weren't Republicans ever willing to negotiate a reform of the filibuster that might have kept it within the spirit of the original founding intent of the Senate?

What I have in mind is a reform that would have allowed the minority party to slow things down, but would have forced them to pay a price when they did it. Because the real problem with the filibuster as it stands now is that it's basically cost-free. All it takes to start a filibuster is a nod from any member of the Senate, which means that every bill, every judge, every nominee is filibustered. The minority party has the untrammeled power to stop everything, and these days they do.

But what if filibusters came at a cost of some sort? There have been several proposals along these lines, and all of them would have allowed the minority party to obstruct things they truly felt strongly about. But there would have been a limit to how many things could be obstructed, or how long the obstruction could go on, and the majority party could eventually have gotten its way if it felt strongly enough. It would have been ugly, but at least Republicans would have retained some ability to gum up the works.

Instead, by refusing to compromise in any way, they've lost everything. Just as they lost everything on health care by refusing to engage with Democrats on the Affordable Care Act. Just as they lost everything on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. Just as they lost the 2012 election.

Hard-nosed obstinacy plays well with the base, but it's not a winning strategy in the end. Republicans never seem to learn that lesson.

The Filibuster Is Dead (Partly)

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 10:36 AM PST

CNN reports that by a vote of 52-48 in the Senate, the filibuster of judicial and executive branch nominees has been eliminated. The nuclear option has been detonated.

UPDATE: I was in the middle of writing a post about this when the vote was taken. Here's what I was writing:

A few minutes before the vote, Dana Bash was on CNN talking about the Democratic effort to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. "It's going to make things a lot more tense in the Senate, if you can believe that," she said. "I imagine it will provoke a lot of anger on the Republican side," said another anchor. This was followed by some back-and-forth about just how angry Republicans would get and how they'd take advantage of this during next year's midterms.

This is typical, and telling. Republican anger is always taken as a given, and always treated as genuine. But for some reason Democrats don't get the same consideration. This despite the fact that Democrats stepped away from this brink several times already earlier this year, and the only reason they're going forward now is because Republicans have finally pissed them off beyond endurance. Even the moderates have reached the end of their ropes. If things are tenser now in the Senate, Republican need only look in the mirror to find the cause. They're no longer even pretending that they'll allow President Obama to perform the normal functions of his office—functions that every other president in history has performed without any serious obstacles.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Summer Reading Mark Twain's Autobiography

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 10:17 AM PST

Via Andrew Sullivan, here is Ben Tarnoff's review of the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography, which is now being published 100 years after it was written:

The hundred-year ban seems less about protecting Twain’s reputation than about sparing the feelings of the many people whom he attacks in his autobiography. The list is long. He has total recall of past slights, as well as an undiminished stream of vitriol for those whom he feels disrespected or deceived him. But he wants to make sure that his victims—and their wives and children—are dead before he dismembers them as cruelly as necessary. He feels a special hatred for publishers, especially Charles L. Webster....“The times when he had an opportunity to be an ass and failed to take advantage of it were so few that, in a monarchy, they would have entitled him to a decoration.”....Twain’s rage is unrelenting. He pumps his enemies’ bodies full of bullets when one or two would do the job.

That's kind of fascinating, isn't it? What sort of person can be simultaneously so brimming with rage and so sparing of others' feelings? It's an odd mix. Normally, I'd guess that it was the act of a calculating man who didn't want his contemporaries to know what he was really like, but Tarnoff suggests that's not the case. Instead, it seems to be the case of a man who knew, perhaps, that his rage was unfair, but was vain enough that he couldn't bring himself to let it go unexpressed or unseen forever. Very peculiar.

It's Doctors Who Control the Number of Doctors in America, Not the Government

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 9:31 AM PST

After writing yesterday about the reason we pay doctors so much, I received a bunch of tweets basically calling me a communist, or a moron, or sometimes a communist moron. I mostly ignored them because that's what I usually do, but Matt Yglesias didn't. You can view some of the reactions he got to a similar post here.

Anyway, the whole thing is kind of amusing. There are certainly some people who would consider Yglesias and me raving redistributionist socialists, and I guess that's fair enough. It's the price you pay in America for advocating modestly more progressive taxes. But in this case, at least, we're the ones taking the side of the free market. American doctors are paid far more than doctors anywhere else in the world, and yet we have fewer doctors per capita than nearly any other rich country. Why is that? One especially misguided tweeter suggested that this was, yet again, the fault of Big Gummint, which controls the number of residency slots for new medical schools grads, and therefore keeps the number of doctors low. There's a certain kernel of truth to this, because the federal government subsidizes residency programs to the tune of $13 billion per year, just as the federal government controls Medicare reimbursement rates via a committee called the RUC. But that's only half the story. Who controls RUC? Physicians do. They have a stranglehold on it. And who controls how many residency slots there are and what specialties they're in? Again, physicians do.

So the number and composition of residencies is controlled by doctors, even as they're subsidized by $13 billion in taxpayer money every year. And doctor pay, which almost everywhere is based on Medicare rates, is controlled by doctors. It's doctors who are directly responsible for both their own high pay and their own low numbers.

Another tweeter suggested that, in fact, the number of med schools and med school grads has been rising steeply over the past decade. But it ain't so. Since 2002, we've opened 13 new MD-granting med schools, an increase of about 10 percent. Likewise the number of med school grads has risen from about 15,000 to about 17,000, again an increase of 10 percent. That's roughly the same as the overall population growth of the United States. The number of medical schools per capita and the number of med school grads per capita has barely budged in that time.

Whatever else you think about our views on the economy or the proper role of government, in this case Yglesias and I are the ones on the side of the free market. Let the number of doctors rise to meet demand. Let the number of nurse practitioners rise to meet demand, and stop artificially restricting what they're allowed to do. That will put downward pressure on prices all by itself. Then we can add some Big Gummint to the mix by taking RUC out of the hands of physicians and using it to set lower prices. But by then we'll be pushing on an open door. The market will have already done all the heavy lifting.

Filibuster Reform May Be Just Hours Away

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 10:32 PM PST

Is filibuster reform coming as soon as tomorrow? Maybe so:

“We’re not bluffing,” said one senior aide who has spoken with Mr. Reid directly and expects a vote on Thursday, barring any unforeseen breakthrough on blocked judges.

The threat that Democrats could significantly limit how the filibuster can be used against nominees has rattled Republicans. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has brokered last-minute deals that have averted a change to filibuster rules in the past, visited Mr. Reid in his office on Thursday but failed to strike a compromise.

Of course, as Rick Hasen says, "If Democrats were bluffing, they'd have every incentive to say 'We're not bluffing.'" Still, it sure doesn't look like any serious negotiations are taking place, and Harry Reid wouldn't bring something to the floor unless he knew he had the votes to pass it. Thursday could be a very interesting day in Washington DC.

The Media Once Again Refuses to Answer Questions From the Media

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 7:14 PM PST

Personally, I've never really understood the appeal of Mike Allen's "Playbook"—or any of the other morning briefing newsletters. Why would reporters deliberately read something whose explicit goal is to make sure that everyone is saying and chasing the same stories? This has never made any sense to me.

That's not really the topic of this post, though. I just wanted to get it off my chest as a prelude to the latest example of the press going into full stonewall mode whenever they're the ones a story is about. Today, Erik Wemple reported the results of a deep dive into the contents of Playbook, and it wasn't pretty: organizations that advertise with Allen, such as the Chamber of Commerce, get an awful lot of friendly mentions that are presented as straight news. Does Allen do this as part of his deal with his advertisers without telling his readers, or is there a more innocent explanation? We'll never know:

Politico’s leaders didn’t cooperate for this piece. In rejecting a sit-down discussion, Editor-in-Chief John Harris said the premise “is without merit in any shape or form.” Without an interview, it’s impossible to judge Allen’s motivations. For example, does he write nice things about the chamber because he wants more advertisers or because he feels their agenda doesn’t get fair play in other outlets? Did he publish those BP plugs because he thought they were newsworthy or because he’s got a friend at the company?

Of course Harris refused to say anything. It's standard journalistic practice. It's only other people who have to answer questions. It's outrageous to expect news organizations themselves to do the same.