Archive for April, 2010

Legislative Gridlock and the Movement for Reform

Posted on April 21, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

No list of the Senate’s many arcane traditions is complete, these days, without the inclusion of legislative gridlock as a hallmark of the upper chamber’s process.

Along with the use of an ivory gavel and courtly rhetoric, gridlock has emerged as a symbol of 21st Century Senate procedure. Just look at the shenanigans that kept President Obama’s health care package ensnarled for months. Popular judicial nominations are routinely held up over parochial issues by senators more concerned about home-state projects than a qualified federal bench. And the seniority system, as ingrained as any Capitol Hill tradition, keeps new blood from influencing the process.

Clearly, it is time for reform. The country needs a modern, more nimble legislature. The Senate, in particular, needs a facelift so it can escape its well-earned reputation as the place good ideas go to die.

Now, a group of young lawmakers have launched an unlikely battle against tradition, challenging long-standing rules in an effort to make the process more efficient. In their sights: such time-honored traditions as the filibuster, the legislative hold, and the seniority system for selecting committee chairs.

“The more the American people understand the system’s broken, the more the people are going to support rules reform,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told the Washington Post recently. Joining Udall as leaders of this latest young turk movement are Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).

And while there have been periodic calls for reform from Senate newcomers, the Democratic leadership is taking this latest movement seriously. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.); Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.); and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democrats’ No. 3 leader; have all promised to at least consider changes.

The related traditions of the hold and the filibuster have been the bane of thin majorities for decades. Holds allow any senator to block action on any item at any time, anonymously, and filibusters allow them to prevent legislation from coming to a vote unless 60 of the Senate’s 100 members demand action. The filibuster came back into play recently when the Democrats lost their bullet-proof 60-member majority with the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

The young turks favor eliminating holds altogether and maintaining the filibuster, but forcing a return to the days when filibustering senators were forced to remain on the floor ala Jimmy Steward in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”
Former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has a unique perspective on the topic as one of the so-called gang of 14, a bipartisan group of Senators who came together to preserve the filibuster back in 2005. Chafee still favors keeping the filibuster, but limiting its abuse.

Back then, the Republican majority considered using the so-called “nuclear option” to prevent the Democratic minority from holding up George W. Bush’s judicial nomination. Under the nuclear option, the majority would challenge the legitimacy of the filibuster. If the Senate president accepts the challenge, it can be put to a vote which would require a simple majority. The problem is, a nuclear vote would ban filibusters indefinitely.

That would be tough medicine, but even the threat of such a drastic step could go a long way toward convincing entrenched leaders that reform is worthy of early consideration.

“In resorting to the filibuster with unheard-of frequency, Republicans seem to be gambling that Democrats don’t have the nerve to play Republican-style hardball and won’t seriously threaten to take the filibuster away from them,” Chafee wrote in a recent op-ed.

“Let’s see if Majority Leader Harry Reid schedules a vote on the nuclear option…That could be just the nudge that Republicans and Democrats need,” Chafee wrote.

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Legislating Controversial Change – A History of Violence

Posted on April 21, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

“This is our last amendment, I believe…”so promised Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) , Ranking Member on the Senate Budget Committee, at about 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 25.

Phew!!!

It was the 41st vote on a motion or amendment to table or modify H.R. 4872, the “Reconciliation Act of 2010” otherwise known as the Health Care Bill.

As we all know too well, this massive overhaul of American health care has dominated the limelight in every national publication for more than a year. It has been a process that has all but sucked the life force out of every politician on the Hill.

Time–1:33 p.m. Thursday, March 25, and the clerk of the Senate has been droning on for hours: “Mr. McCain. Mr. McCain, No; Mrs. McCaskill. Mrs. McCaskill, Yes; Mr. McConnell. Mr. McConnell, No; Mr. Menendez.Mr. Menendez, Yes; Mr. Merkley. Mr. Merkley, Yes; Ms. Mikulski. Ms. Mikulski, Yes; Ms. Murkowski. Ms. Murkowski, No…”

The Senate, after enduring an obstacle course of Republican amendments and procedural objections, which had kept lawmakers working all day Wednesday until 3:30 a.m. Thursday, finally approved the measure shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday. Senators, weary from their ordeal stood at their desks to cast that final vote, a ceremonial gesture meant to underscore the historical significance of the moment.

Maybe political junkies who I’m sure sat glued to C-SPAN engrossed by every second of coverage, were invigorated by the entire process. But for others who work in government relations and HAD TO listen and witness this sea change in the making, it was maddening. I liken the experience to having to listen to a whining child, or even worse, listening to an airport public address system. All you really want to do is scream at the offending noisemakers–“Shut Up Already!”

That was exactly what I was feeling as I listened to the Clerk of the Senate go through the roll call for the umpteenth time. In fact, I was nearly convinced that the amendments would continue until the 2014 date when the last of the health care bill’s benefits are supposed to kick-in.

Unlike the annoying whining child, or the irritating voice coming through the airport loudspeaker, the patience-grating acrimony surrounding health care will not end quickly. I’m afraid we are only at the beginning of many years of litigation, regulation writing and re-writing and endless political arguments. Let’s hope for the sake of civility that the disagreement over health care reform doesn’t degrade into anything more than a PR bonanza for the 14 Attorney Generals who filed suit against the federal government and the civic unruliness being channeled through the Tea Party and the Coffee Party.

However, if the best predictor of future performance is past performance, ugly civil disobedience and possibly even violence (already evidenced) will ensue as the result of the passage of this controversial and hotly contested legislation. In fact, I’ve wondered whether there is a high correlation between the use of “special” parliamentary congressional procedures to pass legislation and a subsequent threat of violence and acts of violence. Is there anything to the theory that says once Congress resorts to convoluted special motions; once the entire process depends on the machinations of the Rules Committee; or, once arcane Parliamentary procedures and maneuvers are employed to get legislation passed, we as a society face the increased likelihood of social eruption?

To date, ten members of Congress have reported being threatened or attacked. There have been bricks thrown through windows. Faxes, bearing threatening and violent images have been sent. Obscene, hateful phone calls have been made. Profane names have been shouted. One member of Congress said a bullet shattered the window of his campaign office building. Relatives of another member claim a propane gas line to their home was cut.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a long and arduous process. House opposition forced the bill to lie dormant in the House Rules Committee. In the Senate, opponents attempted to table the bill via filibuster. In early 1964, House supporters overcame the Rules Committee obstacle by threatening to send the bill to the floor without committee approval. Only through the procedural expertise and the dogged persistence and heavy-handed persuasion of then President Lyndon Johnson, Senator Hubert Humphrey and Senator Everett Dirksen was the Senate filibuster overcome and the measure finally approved.

It is impossible to conclusively find a nexus between the legislation and the subsequent race riots. However, the nation’s cities were plagued with race riots from 1964 to 1971. There were more than 750 riots, killing 228 people and injuring 12,741 others. After more than 15,000 separate incidents of arson, many urban neighborhoods were in ruins.

In short, violence immediately preceded and succeeded the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Some posit that the urban violence of the 60s erupted mostly in cities where median family income had dropped and/or unemployment was highest. Today, with unemployment at post Depression highs and middle income families facing uncertain futures, we need to recognize the possibility that we are sitting on a tinder box.

No less contentious was the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution–Women’s Suffrage.

It was only in the aftermath of World War I, when women “manned” the factories in support of the war effort, that the U.S. House of Representatives agreed upon an Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. On June 4, 1919, the Senate agreed upon it too. The quaintly named, “War of the Roses” was in full force with the pro-suffrage forces wearing a yellow rose and opponents donning the American Beauty red rose.

For the amendment to become the law of the land it had to be ratified by 36 states. Thirty-five states had agreed to ratify when the national battle for suffrage shifted to Tennessee. Only one more state was needed to reach the 36 state total.

Just as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) ultimately dropped his opposition and voted to approve the health reform bill it was up to Harry Burn, a 24-year-old Tennessee lawmaker to change his position on suffrage if the measure was to pass.

Initially, Burn had voted with the anti-suffrage forces. As it stood Tennessee lawmakers were all but deadlocked. If Burn would again vote against suffrage the measure would have been tied 48 to 48. But at that critical moment Burn’s mother stepped-in.

In a short note to Burn she wrote: “Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your Mother.”

Young Burn decided to vote as his mother had urged. That’s when it got ugly for Mrs. Burn’s son. After the vote was ratified angry anti-suffragist chased Burn through the Tennessee Legislature Hall and he barely escaped bodily harm.

Tennessee’s anti-suffrage lawmakers, not willing to concede defeat, used every parliamentary maneuver they could think of to delay and derail the measure. Despite their desperate efforts Tennessee’s governor eventually sent the required notification of the ratification to Washington, D.C.

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law giving women the vote.

For months after casting the deciding vote Burn came under attack. He faced constant threats and scurrilous accusations, including charges that he sold his vote for $10,000. His mother was accosted more than once and Burn could only go out in public with a bodyguard.

When he ran for re-election protestors from across the country poured into Burn’s district agitating for his defeat. However, Burn survived and won a second-term.

After the House approved the health care bill 219-212 we’ve been witnessed to the hate-filled rants and calls for unrest being ratcheted-up by health care reform opponents who have vowed to repeal the bill.

Congress members, who like Burn were vote switchers, have been singled out for vehement attack and targeted for defeat in November.

A mob mentality is threatening to engulf the entire political process outside and more disturbingly, inside the halls of Congress. This nation can ill afford to have its elected officials using overheated rhetoric to light the fuse of violence. It’s imperative that cooler heads prevail on all sides.

Witnessing what’s happening on the Hill brings me back to the letter Mrs. Burn’s wrote to her son, Harry. She continued: “I hope you see enough politicians to know it’s not one of the greatest things to be one. What say ye?”

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