Kevin Drum

Faking a Filibuster

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:12 PM EST
Over the past couple of years it's become a liberal rallying cry that if Republicans want to filibuster every bill, then Harry Reid ought to make them carry out a real filibuster, Jimmy Stewart style.  Make 'em talk.  Make 'em read from the phone book.  Put it all on CSPAN and let the American public see what GOP obstructionism is really all about.

But Ryan Grim, in an interesting piece over at the Huffington Post today, concludes that it's not going to happen.  Apparently Reid's office has studied the history of the filibuster and says that although at least one Republican senator can be forced to stay on the Senate floor to prevent a vote, he can't be forced to talk.  Bob Dove, who worked as a Senate parliamentarian from 1966 until 2001, agrees:

As both Reid's memo and Dove explain, only one Republican would need to monitor the Senate floor. If the majority party tried to move to a vote, he could simply say, "I suggest the absence of a quorum."

The presiding officer would then be required to call the roll. When that finished, the Senator could again notice the absence of a quorum and start the process all over. At no point would the obstructing Republican be required to defend his position, read from the phone book or any of the other things people associate with the Hollywood version of a filibuster.

....Since [Strom Thurmond in 1957], says Dove, the only time the majority tried to jam a bill through the Senate without having 60 votes ahead of time ended in failure.

Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was majority leader in 1988, when Democrats controlled 54 seats and wanted to push through campaign finance reform. But Republican minority leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming was easily able to block it by sitting on the Senate floor and occasionally noting the absence of a quorum, thwarting a vote...."It was almost a farce," says Dove. "The bottom line is the bill never passed."

Back to square one, then: get rid of the filibuster entirely.  I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen, though.

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Chatting with Michael Pollan

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 12:31 PM EST
In our current issue, we interview Michael Pollan, the man of the moment in liberal food policy.  One way to get people to eat better, he says, is to team up with allies whose economic interests happen to line up with healthier eating:

MJ: Does WIC [the Women, Infants, and Children program] still specify that you buy dairy?

MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billon for what are called specialty crops — fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.

Hooray for California!  But the reality is, this is how things get done.  Read the rest of the interview for more interesting food stuff.

Common Sense on Hedge Funds

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 2:03 AM EST
Noam Scheiber points to some genuinely good news in today's New York Times piece about Barack Obama's upcoming budget outline.  From the Times:

The president will propose to tax the investment income of hedge fund and private equity partners at ordinary income tax rates, which are now as high as 35 percent and could return to 39.6 percent under his plans, instead of at the capital gains rate, which is 15 percent at most.

Senior Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in 2007 to oppose that increase. But with Wall Street discredited and lucrative executive compensation a political target, the provision could prove more popular among lawmakers.

This refers to the "carried interest" loophole, which allows hedge fund management fees to be counted as capital gains on the theory that — well, there was never really much of a theory for it at all.  If you invest your own money and make a return, that's a capital gain.  But if you get a piece of the return for managing someone else's investment, that's a management fee.  It's ordinary income, and there's really no plausible theory under which it should be counted as capital gains.

Except, of course, under the theory that hedge fund managers would prefer to pay low capital gains taxes on their income, and since hedge fund managers contribute lots of money to political campaigns they usually get whatever they want.  It really was just about that crude, and Democrats displayed colossal cowardice when they refused to eliminate this loophole two years ago.  It's good to see that Obama is going to try to embarrass them into finally doing the right thing and making rich people pay the same rate on their income as everyone else.

Nate Silver Finally Gets One Wrong

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 9:49 PM EST
Penélope Cruz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress?!?  But Nate Silver said it would be Taraji P. Henson.  Can we ever trust him again?

UPDATE: Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix bit was pretty funny.

Mau Mauing Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 7:13 PM EST
Matt Yglesias thinks Rahm Emanuel should stop whining about Paul Krugman's criticism of the stimulus bill.  In fact, he should thank him:

If you propose something, and every single progressive in all the land immediately lauds it as the greatest bill ever written, then your legislation is now an extreme left proposal and it’s doomed. If you’re going to make concessions to political reality then you need to weather a bit of criticism from your left — that’s what establishes the proposal as moderate and sensible. Things like “some liberal economists such as Paul Krugman say the proposal is too small” is a helpful piece of context-setting that prevents the proposal from appearing too radical.

This sounds right to me, but I wonder if it's really true?  Let's turn it around.  When Rush Limbaugh criticized George Bush's immigration plan, did that convince liberals that maybe Bush's position wasn't so bad after all?  Maybe it did!  But I'm not so sure about that.

(At least in the short term.  Constant kvetching can certainly change the center of gravity of public opinion over periods of years or decades.  But that's a different thing.)

Anyway, it seems like there ought to be some clever way to test this theory.  In general, does criticism from the extreme left or right help a bill's prospects with moderates?  How might we figure this out?  Any ideas?

DNA Testing

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 6:45 PM EST
Over the past few years hundreds of innocent people have been freed from prison thanks to DNA evidence.  So why isn't it more widely available? Answer: because prosecutors and state governments tend to fight DNA testing requests tooth and nail.  Defense attorney and civil libertarians are on the opposite side, of course, and shortly the Supreme Court will hear a case deciding whether they'll get their wish to make testing more widely available:

They are opposed by victims rights groups; the vast majority of states, which have a patchwork of laws granting DNA access; and the federal government. The governments say that creating a constitutional right to the testing would infringe on states' rights, overwhelm them with frivolous demands and create an endless right of appeal for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

Set aside the states' right argument for now.  I'm more interested in the question of whether constitutional protections for DNA testing would, in fact, result in lots of frivolous demands and endless appeals.

If there were, literally, no restrictions at all, maybe that's what would happen.  Maybe every con with time on his hands would demand test after test just for the hell of it.  Maybe.  But if the court required even a minimal showing of cause, wouldn't frivolous requests dry up?  What's the point, after all?  If you're guilty, then you know perfectly well that DNA isn't going to get you off the hook.  So why bother?

That's why I've never found this argument very persuasive.  Prisoners who know they're guilty have little incentive to demand DNA tests.  Conversely, though, prosecutors have loads of incentive to deny DNA tests, even — or maybe especially — in cases where it might well prove wrongful conviction.  This suggests that the court should adopt some kind of balancing test: not an absolute right to endless DNA testing, but at least a presumption in favor of it.  Make the hurdle just high enough to deter the genuinely frivolous, but low enough that nobody has to rot in prison for years just because they didn't have access to a simple test.  We are, after all, in favor of not imprisoning innocent people.  Right?

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Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 3:17 PM EST
I sometimes get the feeling that it's impossible to write a bad profile of Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.  Or at least, impossible to write a boring profile.  The guy's just too good a quote machine.  Here he is in Ryan Lizza's recent New Yorker piece complaining about critics who didn't like the way the stimulus bill turned out:

“They have never worked the legislative process,” Emanuel said of critics like the Times columnist Paul Krugman, who argued that Obama’s concessions to Senate Republicans — in particular, the tax cuts, which will do little to stimulate the economy — produced a package that wasn’t large enough to respond to the magnitude of the recession. “How many bills has he passed?”

....The stimulus bill was essentially held hostage to the whims of Collins, Snowe, and Specter, but if Al Franken, the apparent winner of the disputed Minnesota Senate race, had been seated in Washington, and if Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, had been regularly available to vote, the White House would have needed only one Republican to pass the measure. “No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?” (Franken’s victory is the subject of an ongoing court challenge by his opponent, Norm Coleman, which the national Republican Party has been happy to help finance.) “Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?” Emanuel stood up theatrically and gestured toward his seat with open palms. “Anytime they want, they can have it,” he said of those who are critical of his legislative strategies. “I give them my chair.”

Read the rest, of course.  It doesn't really turn over any fresh ground, but it's still good stuff for political junkies.

Sleep

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 2:23 PM EST
All of us have things we believe in even though we don't really have any evidence for them.  One of mine has to do with the causal direction of depression and sleep problems.  The conventional wisdom says that depression causes you to sleep badly, but I've long thought it was more likely the other way around: poor sleep makes you depressed.  So I'm happy to report that Science™ has finally caught up with my uninformed prejudices:

Doctors studying psychiatric disorders noticed long ago that erratic sleep was somehow connected. Adults with depression, for instance, are five times as likely as the average person to have difficulty breathing when asleep, while between a quarter and a half of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suffer from sleep complaints, compared with just 7 per cent of other children.

Until recently, however, the assumption that poor sleep was a symptom rather than a cause of mental illness was so strong that nobody questioned it. "It was just so easy to say about a patient, well, he's depressed or schizophrenic, of course he's not sleeping well - and never to ask whether there could be a causal relationship the other way," says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at Harvard University. Even when studies did seem to point in the other direction, the findings were largely overlooked, he says.

....So how does poor sleep lead to behavioural and psychological problems? Some of the links are apparent. For example, every parent knows that tired children usually become hyperactive rather than sleepy. Sleep disruption also bumps up stress hormone levels, which could contribute to daytime anxiety, a component of many psychiatric disorders. More intriguingly, it now seems sleep disruption can fundamentally interfere with the brain's ability to process emotion and to react to an emotional stimulus in an appropriate way.

[Etc. etc.]

I used to look forward to sleep.  It was relaxing; it was pleasant; it would make me feel better about the world.  But it's been a long time since that was so.  Now it's just something I do when I get tired every night, with no prospect that I'll feel anything other than tired and grumpy when I wake up in the morning and then stay that way pretty much all day.  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong enough with my sleep that it's obvious on a routine sleep test.  I found out years ago that I have mild sleep apnea, but it's pretty mild and the fix is a C-PAP machine, which I tried but was never able to tolerate for an entire night.  So no help there.

But now, science is on the case!  Hooray!  Maybe they'll finally start taking this stuff seriously.  Maybe.  (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

R.I.P. Socks

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 1:54 PM EST
Sad cat news today:

Word tonight that Socks Clinton, the one-time Arkansas stray adopted by the Clintons who rose to international prominence and literary fame as sole feline inhabitant of the White House, died today....Upon leaving the executive residence in Washington, the Clinton family gave the cat to the president's secretary, Betty Currie, who had recently lost her own pet.

....Though reticent in public, Socks was known as an affectionate creature, even tolerating the First Dog, a brown Labrador named Buddy, who was killed in a 2002 collision with a car near the Clintons' suburban New York home.

....Some foreign leaders were said to have even requested to have their photo taken with the First Kitty, which he tolerated because he favored diplomacy over militancy. At the end Socks was reported unwilling to eat and unable to stand. He had a last walk outdoors Thursday in Currie's arms.

This has been a bad year for presidential cats. Rest in peace, Socks.

Safe Haven

| Sat Feb. 21, 2009 1:17 PM EST
Looking for a safe haven for your money?  Beirut probably isn't the first place that comes to mind. But it turns out that back when Wall Street was running wild, Lebanon's central banker, Riad Toufic Salame, was busy keeping his country's banks some of the safest in the world:

In 2005, he defied pressure from the Lebanese business community and bucked international trends to issue what now looks like a prophetic decree: a blanket order barring any bank in his country from investing in mortgage-backed securities, which contributed to the most dramatic collapse of financial institutions since the Great Depression.

....He says the mortgage-backed securities worried him from the start. He watched curiously as investment bankers engaged in what he calls "rituals" to please the credit ratings agencies and got back such safe assessments of their products. He didn't get it. Why were these considered safe investments? They were just too complicated. They went against a major tradition in Lebanese and Middle Eastern banking: Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back.

"We could not really sense who would be responsible in the end to collect these loans," he said. "And we do not perceive banking as being a place to speculate on financial instruments that are not really concrete."

"Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back."  Words to live by.