Kevin Drum

Can the Senate Get Any Slower?

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 3:50 PM EST

Annie Lowrey writes today about the quagmire caused by abuse of Senate holds:

President Barack Obama's first year has brought an unusual number of holds, and on unusually prominent positions. One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177.

....The most absurd hold of 2009, perhaps, was on Miriam Sapiro, whom the Obama administration appointed to become a U.S. trade representative. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, held up the respected Internet policy specialist's nomination over — really — candy-flavored cigarettes.

....[TSA nominee Erroll] Southers isn't on hold over concerns about his work performance, political leanings, or employment history. DeMint (one of Congress's most avid holders, by reputation at least) is blocking Southers over concerns over unionization.

....Then there's Lael Brainard, a former MIT economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow. The lauded economist was tapped to be the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, spearheading U.S. economic policy relations with international governments and institutions such as the World Bank. But her approval was held up over muck-ups on her taxes.

What did I call this a few days ago? The institutionalization of personal pique? Something like that. But you know what? Unlike the filibuster, anonymous holds are just a tradition. They're basically a threat to the Senate leadership: if you don't respect my hold, I'll withhold unanimous consent and bring the business of the Senate to a grinding halt.

But this is worth another look. Maybe Norm Ornstein or Tom Mann or Stan Collender can fill us in. Given that Republicans have basically adopted a scorched earth policy of forcing Democrats to jump through every parliamentary hurdle on every bill already, how much more can they slow things down? And if the answer is "a lot," would it be worth the political heat? I imagine this is mostly an academic discussion, but it would still be interesting to find out. Just how much more can Republicans muck up the machinery of the Senate than they already have?

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Will Obama Fight or Fold?

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 2:36 PM EST

Will the real Obama administration please raise its hand? Steve Benen flags this passage from a Politico story today about the possibility of Dems losing their 60-seat supermajority if Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate race:

The narrower majority will force more White House engagement with Republicans, which could actually help restore a bit of the post-partisan image that was a fundamental ingredient of his appeal to voters.

“Now everything that gets done in the Senate will have the imprimatur of bipartisanship,” another administration official said. “The benefits of that will accrue to the president and the Democratic Senate. It adds to the pressure on Republicans to participate in the process in a meaningful way, which so far they have refused to do.”

Steve is dumbfounded: "The only rational expectation is that the scorched-earth strategy of the last year will get worse — they'll be less interested in 'participating in the process in a meaningful way' when they smell blood in the water and have the votes to filibuster literally everything." I agree. But in fairness, the Politico piece is headlined "Obama plans combative turn," and it contains these quotes right up at the top of the piece:

“This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt,” a senior administration official said. “It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard.”

....“The response will not be to do incremental things and try to salvage a few seats in the fall,” a presidential adviser said. “The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, ‘At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.’”

You can find someone to say just about anything if you make enough phone calls. But I doubt that many people in the White House think that Republicans are suddenly going to become more cooperative if Scott Brown wins tonight. Obama may genuinely be dedicated to giving bipartisanship a chance, but he's not an idiot. And whatever else you think of them, neither are guys like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. In fact, who knows? If a loss in Massachusetts is what it takes to finally wake Obama up and show some fight, maybe it will turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Healthcare's Future

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 1:40 PM EST

In an attempt to retain my sanity, I'm trying not to blog too much about the Massachusetts Senate race. There are just too many people to be angry at for contributing to a possible Scott Brown win, and I'm not looking forward to the feeding frenzy of recriminations that's likely to start tearing apart the liberal coalition if it happens. But on a related subject, what Josh Marshall says here is too important to ignore:

If Brown wins, I don't think it makes sense to continue the negotiations or trying to pass a bill through the senate prior to seating Brown. The House simply needs to pass the senate bill without revisions....For the House liberals, it was clear that only very limited revisions were going to be gained in the House-Senate negotiations. It's one thing if someone wasn't going to vote for the final bill at all. But if they were, the differences between the senate bill and whatever the negotiation was going to produce simply were not going to be big enough — not remotely — to justify voting against it.

For the conservative Dems, if they already voted for the more liberal House bill, it won't help them a wink to refuse to vote for the senate bill now — whether that means casting a no vote or just preventing it from coming up for a vote at all. This should be obvious to anyone who knows how 30 second TV ads work (or frankly, even how very reasonable political argument works). And the lesson of 1994 is clear: the folks who killed health care in 1994 didn't gain any benefit from it. They were the ones who got slaughtered in November.

Let me hazard a prediction. If the Dems push through this bill now, bank the accomplish and move on to selling it and working the jobs agenda, it'll be a bad but not terrible November. If they all run to ground after a Brown victory, it's really all bets are off. Why? Because this is about meta-politics. There are all sorts of reasons for the troubles the Dems are now having. They're overwhelmingly linked to the catastrophically bad economy — whether that's because of 10% unemployment, the spending that has been required to keep the economy from slipping into a Depression, the bailouts of the banks etc. But the key reason, the ones the Dems have some control over, is their ability to act and deliver on an agenda.

Obviously I have a dog in this fight: unlike a lot of progressives who have rebelled against the current state of healthcare reform, I think it's gone about as well as could be realistically expected. It brings down insurance rates, expands Medicaid, offers the prospect of moderately priced insurance to tens of millions of the uninsured, forces insurers to take you on even if you have a chronic pre-existing condition, mandates minimum levels of coverage, and takes several small but important steps toward reducing the future growth of healthcare costs. Passing it would be a historic progressive victory, something that conservatives are keenly aware of even if liberals aren't. That's why they've pulled out all the stops to defeat it. They know perfectly well that it will inevitably lead to further progressive victories on healthcare, and they're determined to stop that first step from ever happening.

What's more, on a purely tactical level, Josh is right. The differences between the Senate bill and the likely compromise bill are minuscule. Those differences may have been worth fighting for, but they're nowhere near important enough to sink the entire bill over. Not by light years. If Brown wins and House Dems vote down the Senate bill in a fit of pique anyway, Republicans will have a huge victory, the media will be writing "center right nation" narratives all the way through November, Obama will be badly weakened, and Dems will go into the midterms in total disarray.

If the only option open to the House is to pass the Senate bill, they need to buck up and do it. It's good policy and good politics. Any other path would throw out decades of effort and court a midterm blowout of epic proportions. I still hope Coakley wins in Massachusetts, but if she doesn't it's time for everyone to stand up and be counted. One way or another, pass the damn bill.

I, Pollster

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 1:07 PM EST

I missed this when it was first reported a few days ago, but it's genuinely interesting news from the Rasmussen polling folks:

The pollster’s newest venture, Pulse Opinion Research, will allow anyone to commission a scientific, nationwide poll for the price of an IKEA sofa. Have a long-lasting feud about what America really thinks about a topic? Settle it for $600.

“Soon, anyone can go to the [Pulse] website, type in their credit card number, and run any poll that they wanted, with any language that they want,” said Rasmussen. “In effect, you will be able to do your own poll, and Rasmussen will provide the platform to ensure that the polling includes a representative national sample.”

....The birth of Pulse has roots in frequent requests for Rasmussen to do commissioned polling. Rasmussen Reports has historically turned down outside clients in order to preserve its independence. However, to capitalize on demand, Rasmussen decided to license his polling methodology to a separate firm, Pulse Opinion Research, which plans to launch its online services sometime in February.

The interesting part of this is the potential for quick, inexpensive polling on unusual topics. Want to find out whether a bold liberal pitch persuades more Americans to support healthcare reform than a more centrist appeal? Commission a couple of quick polls with your own pet ideas and find out.

And the dark side?1 Well, if I'm rich enough to afford it, I could commission a dozen polls on the same subject and release only the one with the results most favorable to my cause. Even if the polls themselves are honestly done, you're almost certain to get a swing of ten points or so just by random chance, and if you manipulate a few other factors you can probably do even better. The opportunities for mischief are legion.

On the flip side, the opportunities for swallowing your own spin are also legion once you head down that path. But I doubt that will stop many people. A new era in polling is upon us, folks.

1One of them anyway. The other dark side is that this becomes a huge fad and we are all bombarded by robopolling calls on a daily basis. Soon we get so sick of it that no one will pick up the phone to talk to a pollster at all, and the entire industry is destroyed. That actually might not be so bad. Unfortunately, I don't suppose it's likely to happen.

Haiti and Obama

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 12:16 PM EST

Tyler Cowen, in an apparent effort to make me even more depressed than I already am, suggests that for all practical purposes, Barack Obama is now president of Haiti. And it might end up being his Waterloo:

Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President.  Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost.  Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual?  It will be a test of the American populace; at what point will people start whispering that he is "favoring the other blacks"?

Just as it's not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won't be easy to pull out of Haiti.

Maybe you thought health care was a hard problem.  Maybe you thought that cap and trade would make health care look easy.  This may be the hardest problem yet and it wasn't on anybody's planning ledger.  Obama won't have many allies in this fight either.  A lot of Democratic interest groups might, silently, wish he would forget about the whole thing.

Mass starvation wouldn't look good on the evening news either.  What does it mean to preside over the collapse of a country of more than nine million people?  It's Obama who's about to find out, not the increasingly irrelevant Rene Preval.  Everyone in Haiti is looking to President Obama.

This actually sounds overwrought to me, but I wouldn't post it if it didn't also have at least a small ring of truth to it. In fact, aid to Haiti, both in dollar and military terms, is likely to be small enough that it never becomes a big political flashpoint. And the sociopathic Rush Limbaugh aside, congressional Republicans, I think, will have a hard time making an issue of it. My guess: America will spend a billion dollars a year in Haiti for the foreseeable future and keep maybe a brigade or two of troops there. Conditions will continue to be dire, but not so dire that they affect American politics. That combination will be enough to keep it under the political radar and off the nightly news once the initial media coverage has worn off.

Nope, No Waiting Times in America

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 11:52 AM EST

California has finally decided to lay down the law to HMOs:

The regulations by the California Department of Managed Health Care, in the works for much of the last decade, will require that patients be treated by HMO doctors within 10 business days of requesting an appointment, and by specialists within 15. Patients seeking urgent care that does not require prior authorization must be seen within 48 hours.

Yes, that's right. After seven years of negotiations, HMOs have finally agreed that patients shouldn't be kept waiting more than two weeks to see a doctor, and not more than two days for urgent problems. And that's for people who have insurance coverage. Best healthcare in the world, baby, best healthcare in the world.


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Fake Terrorism

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 11:33 PM EST

The Washington Post reports on yet another bit of intelligence community overzealousness:

The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist or simply persuading phone companies to provide records, according to internal bureau memos and interviews. FBI officials issued approvals after the fact to justify their actions.

...."We should have stopped those requests from being made that way," [FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni] said. The after-the-fact approvals were a "good-hearted but not well-thought-out" solution to put phone carriers at ease, she said.

....FBI officials said they are confident that the safeguards enacted in 2007 have ended the problems.

Good hearted! And anyway, the FBI is confident it won't happen again. Nothing to see here. Go about your business, citizens.


| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 5:13 PM EST

Here's a selection of recent headline:

McClatchy: Obama gets an 'incomplete' in foreign policy for first year

Bloomberg: Obama Gets ‘Incomplete’ as Decisions on War, Joblessness Loom

Deseret News: Washington Post columnist David Broder gives Obama an 'incomplete'

The Hill: Cantor grades Obama: 'Incomplete'

OK, OK, we get it: he's only been president for 12 months. Of course his grade is "incomplete." Sheesh.

Chutzpah or Desperation?

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 4:38 PM EST

The finance lobby is hard at work:

Wall Street’s main lobbying arm has hired a top Supreme Court litigator to study a possible legal battle against a bank tax proposed by the Obama administration....Executives of the lobbying group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, wrote that a bank tax might be unconstitutional because it would unfairly single out and penalize big banks, according to these officials, who did not want to be identified to preserve relationships with the group’s members.

The message said the association had hired Carter G. Phillips of Sidley Austin, who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, to study whether a tax on one industry could be considered arbitrary and punitive, providing the basis for a constitutional challenge, they said.

Paul Krugman calls this chutzpah — which it certainly is — but what I'm curious about is why they're wasting their time on this. A tax on one industry might be considered arbitrary? The United States has loads of excise taxes that fall on individual industries. It might unfairly single out big banks? There's no constitutional bar to progressive taxes — and in any case, there are lots of compelling policy reasons to focus on big institutions. Beyond that, the federal government generally has lots of leeway both in tax policy and banking regulation. The tax would have to be way, way out of line before the Supreme Court would be likely to strike it down.

That's my amateur opinion, anyway, which is worth exactly what you just paid for it. But I'd sure like to hear from someone more knowledgable about this stuff. Is this idea as cockamamie as I think it is? Or might they really be able to make a case? And why bother fighting such a minuscule levy anyway? They should be celebrating for getting off so easily.

Suicide or Murder?

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 2:31 PM EST

In June of 2006 the Pentagon reported that three prisoners being held at Guantanamo had committed suicide. In Harper's this month, Scott Horton presents some eyewitness testimony suggesting that, in fact, the prisoners died as a result of torture during interrogation. According to Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman, who was on duty the night of the deaths, he observed a van used for transporting prisoners make three separate trips from Camp 1, which housed the prisoners, to a secret facility outside the main perimeter that had been informally dubbed Camp No:

The night the prisoners died, Hickman was on duty as sergeant of the guard for Camp America’s exterior security force....A moment later, two Navy guards emerged from Camp 1, escorting a prisoner....When the van reached the first intersection, instead of making a right, toward the other camps, it made the left, toward ACP Roosevelt and Camp No.

Twenty minutes later — about the amount of time needed for the trip to Camp No and back — the paddy wagon returned....The guards walked into Camp 1 and soon emerged with another prisoner. They departed Camp America, again in the direction of Camp No. Twenty minutes later, the van returned. Hickman, his curiosity piqued by the unusual flurry of activity and guessing that the guards might make another excursion, left Tower 1 and drove the three quarters of a mile to ACP Roosevelt to see exactly where the paddy wagon was headed. Shortly thereafter, the van passed through the checkpoint for the third time and then went another hundred yards, whereupon it turned toward Camp No, eliminating any question in Hickman’s mind about where it was going. All three prisoners would have all reached their destination before 8 p.m.

In all, three prisoners were ferried out. Later the van returned, but instead of returning the prisoners to Camp 1 it backed up directly to the medical clinic:

Hickman says he saw nothing more of note until about 11:30 p.m, when he had returned to his preferred vantage at Tower 1. As he watched, the paddy wagon returned to Camp Delta. This time, however, the Navy guards did not get out of the van to enter Camp 1. Instead they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.

Hickman [...] asked his tower guards what they had seen. Penvose, from his position at Tower 1, had an unobstructed view of the walkway between Camp 1 and the medical clinic—the path by which any prisoners who died at Camp 1 would be delivered to the clinic. Penvose told Hickman, and later confirmed to me, that he saw no prisoners being moved from Camp 1 to the clinic. In Tower 4 (it should be noted that Army and Navy guard-tower designations differ), another Army specialist, David Caroll, was forty-five yards from Alpha Block, the cell block within Camp 1 that had housed the three dead men. He also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the cell block itself to the clinic. He likewise reported to Hickman, and confirmed to me, that he had seen no prisoners transferred to the clinic that night, dead or alive.

The next day, Horton reports, the camp commander called a meeting of the guards and told them that “you all know” three prisoners in Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. But then he told the guards that "the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells."

There's more at the link. The evidence here isn't bulletproof, but it's strongly suggestive that the official story was a coverup. It's worth reading the whole thing.