Posts Tagged ‘ congress ’

What the filibuster is and why it’s important

In civics class, every child learns that it takes 51 votes to pass something in the Senate, with the Vice President breaking ties if necessary. Of course, those civics lessons no longer apply to today’s Senate. Because of the Senate’s rules surrounding filibusters and cloture, it now takes 60 votes to pass a motion in the Senate. These rules directly contradict of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution and have made the Senate increasingly dysfunctional and ineffective.

I’ve written before that for the good of the country, the filibuster needs to be gotten rid of. Since its in the news again, here is a rundown on what the filibuster is and why you should care.

What, exactly, is the filibuster?

The filibuster is a Senate rule that allows unlimited debate on an issue before the Senate. This unlimited debate can only be ended by the votes of 60 Senators (called invoking “cloture”). From the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s the filibuster was primarily used by lone Senators or small groups of Senators to block or call attention to legislation they disapproved of. Since 2009, the filibuster has been used to block the Senate from voting on any bills or nominations unless they have 60 votes. Predictably, this has result in intense and debilitating gridlock in Congress.

Where did the filibuster come from?

The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It came about (like anything else) by accident. As Ezra Klein writes:

In 1806, the Senate, on the advice of Aaron Burr, tried to clean up its rule book, which was thought to be needlessly complicated and redundant. One change it made was to delete something called “the previous question” motion. That was the motion senators used to end debate on whatever they were talking about and move to the next topic. Burr recommended axing it because it was hardly ever used. Senators were gentlemen. They knew when to stop talking.

That was the moment the Senate created the filibuster. But nobody knew it at the time. It would be three more decades before the first filibuster was mounted — which meant it was five decades after the ratification of the Constitution.

This extremely powerful and controversial rule was created by accident and should never have come into existence.

When did the Filibuster achieve its current form?

As I said, the filibuster didn’t always function like it does today. In the earliest days, it was a tool for a single Senator (or group of Senators) to use to oppose a particular bill that he didn’t like. After Senators tried to block the Treaty of Versailles from being considered, “cloture” was developed. In its early days, cloture allowed 67 Senators to cut off debate on a motion, ending a particular filibuster. Most famously, the filibuster was used by Southerners to block civil rights legislation in the 1950 and 1960s.

Along the way, the filibuster evolved from being something that a single Senator or group of Senators might use to block a single bill and instead because a tool the entire minority party in the Senate would use to block the majority from doing what it wanted. This turned the balance of power in the Senate on its head, giving the minority party a veto over what got done in the Senate. Today, this forces an electorally victorious Senate majority to beg its defeated opponent for the right to pass legislation the minority opposes.

When it seemed that the number of filibusters was getting out of hand in 1975, the Senate lowered the number of votes required for cloture to 60. In that session of Congress, there had been about 40 filibusters.

Via the Washington Post

Now, the minority party in the Senate stages nearly 140 filibusters per session of Congress. Nearly every act of Congress, no matter how minuscule, is subjected to a filibuster. In this environment, its no wonder people complain about Congress not doing anything to help the American people.

Why the filibuster is important

Voters elect a party to power and expect them to govern. If they govern well, voters will reward them at the next election. If they govern poorly, voters will punish them. Republicans figured out in 2009 that if they simply block everything the majority party wants to do, then it starts to look like the majority party is doing a very bad job at governing. Few bills are passed, and the ones that are have to be loaded down with pork in order to scrounge up enough votes to get to 60. Americans’ problems start to go unaddressed and it starts to look like the majority party is doing a very bad job. So who do voters reward? The minority party.

In short, the filibuster allows the minority to sabotage the majority party, and by extension the will of the people and the good of the country, and then reap the rewards from voters’ dissatisfaction. Obviously, this is not how a democracy should work. Since it is nearly impossible to amass 60 votes in the Senate, this dynamic will be near-constant in the years  ahead.

Would the Framers have liked the filibuster?

Obviously no framers were around to see a filibuster, but many of the filibuster’s defenders claim that the framers would have liked having it around.  This claim doesn’t make any logical sense. After all, the framers had the opportunity to create the filibuster and they didn’t. Turns out that this claim doesn’t make any historical sense either. The framers thought about creating a super-majority requirement for the Senate and specifically rejected it. Again, from Ezra:

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton savaged the idea of a supermajority Congress, writing that “its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

In Federal 58, James Madison wasn’t much kinder to the concept. “In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.”

In short, the filibuster was a historical accident that was never intended to exist. It makes it impossible to legislate for our country and should be gotten rid of immediately by changing the rules for the Senate.


Obama’s strategy and prospects for re-election

Before continuing with “diversity week” on this blog, I’d like to do something I haven’t done yet and talk directly about President Obama’s prospects for re-election. Currently, his poll numbers are lower than ever, and the Democrats just lost two special elections that may portend bad news for their chances in 2012. The economy is looking like it will grow only slowly for the next year, so unemployment will remain about where it is now.

Since Republicans won the House of Representatives last year, Obama has tried to portray himself as the “responsible adult in the room,” who can mediate Congress’s damaging and unproductive conflicts. The results have been underwhelming. Instead of separating himself from Congress, Obama’s poll numbers have been pulled down along with Congress’s since Republicans almost forced the country to default.

Talking about the deficit, as Republicans wanted to do, meant that talk about jobs and economic revival had to be put on the back-burner. In order to seem reasonable (and because he truly did want a deal to solve the nation’s debt problem), Obama agreed to put Social Security and Medicare on the table for cuts. When Speaker of the House John Boehner refused Obama’s deal on the debt, Obama was just left with egg on his face. He had given miles in the negotiations while Republicans refused to give an inch, making him look like a weak leader and like he was ready to sacrifice Medicare to the GOP. This angered the Democratic base and confused independents, who had previously turned against Republicans in another special election because of their plans to end Medicare as we know it.

Obama’s response has been to sharpen the contrasts between himself and the Republicans. He is going to portray himself as the champion of the middle class and a fighter for jobs. The centerpiece of this effort is the American Jobs Act that he announced last week. The Act is full of traditionally bipartisan policies that independent economists say will create millions of jobs in the next year. These include tax cuts for all working Americans, tax credits for small businesses who hire, and spending on roads, bridges and schools.

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, it seems that Obama is on very strong ground here. Moving the conversation to the economy is good because people trust him over Republicans to handle the economy 46-37%. They narrowly favor Obama’s entire jobs package 43-35%, but the individual portions of the package have very wide support. For example, his tax cuts, increased funding for roads, schools and bridges, and increased money for states to hire teachers and first responders all receive about two-thirds of Americans’ support.

These proposals are popular and Republicans have supported them in the past, but of course they are not going to support them now  because that would be good for Obama (and incidentally, America). So Obama can paint Republican opposition as hypocritical and as standing in the way of creating jobs.

But wait, Republicans say, Obama wants to pay for this package by “raising taxes”! Ah, yes. Obama wants to lower taxes for all working Americans and pay for it by limiting the tax breaks very rich people can take advantage of. This is also an argument Obama can win. In order to oppose his jobs plan Republicans will argue that the rich deserve tax loopholes more than everyone else deserves a tax break. Obama’s position, that the rich should pay more in tax, is very popular. If this argument comes down to: “do the top 2% deserve a tax break or does everyone deserve a tax break?” then Obama surely wins.

Obama’s strategy is shifting. He has seen his “responsible adult” strategy fail and has also witnessed the power of attacking Republicans on Medicare. It appears he will stop his tendency to make preemptive concessions to Republicans and will propose shrinking the deficit without touching Social Security and Medicare. Republicans’ support for tax cuts for the rich (above all else) can also be used against them.

Imagine Rick “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” Perry versus Barack “protector of the social safety net” Obama in the next election. Obama certainly is, and he likes what he sees.

IPAB- The most important part of health care reform (that you’ve never heard of)

Besides the insurance subsidies that will provide every American with access to health insurance, the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) is the most important part of the Affordable Care Act. Why is this obscure board, buried in the pages of the health care law, so important? It represents the best chance to save and sustain America’s Medicare system for the long term.

When fully implemented, IPAB will be a panel of 14 health care experts who will be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They will be charged with making changes to Medicare if costs in that program rise too rapidly. The board will have the authority to make changes to Medicare without the approval of Congress (though Congress can overrule it) if Medicare spending rises above the yearly bar that Congress has set. The changes can be something like lowering payments to hospitals that have high rates of readmission, incentivizing preventive treatments or bundling payments to save money and promote more efficient care. Its important to note that the board can’t raise fees or ration care, but has  significant power to tinker around the edges.

You’re probably thinking: well, that sounds good and all, but why is this board so important? Several reasons:

It can succeed in cutting costs where Congress has failed.

Medicare will be a large contributor to the nation’s debts in the future. Even though Medicare is much more efficient than private insurers at controlling costs, health care costs are still rising at an unsustainable rate in the economy as a whole. This affects Medicare as well. So, when health care costs rise in the private sector, Medicare can’t be too far behind.

Congress has tried and failed to control costs in Medicare. It tried to slap a sustainable growth rate (SGR) on Medicare but that has been permanently delayed by later Congresses. Congress caved to special interests when it made Medicare’s prescription drug benefit and the result is that drugs cost much more here than in other countries (which is why people go to Canada for cheap prescription drugs).

It should be no surprise to anyone that Congress is inept at saying “no” to special interests. The IPAB takes responsibility for saying “no” out of Congress’s hands. As a panel of healthcare experts not responsible for raising campaign contributions or dealing with lobbyists, the IPAB can succeed where Congress has failed. The CBO projects that the IPAB will save the country billions in Medicare spending.

IPAB can make all health care cheaper and more effective

Medicare does  not exist in a vacuum. When costs in the private sector go up (and they have been for years), Medicare’s costs must go up as well. IPAB can help by making both Medicare and our health system as a whole, more effective.

Our system is plagued by inefficiencies, and as a result we have the highest healthcare spending per capita in the world. Its important to note that all our extra spending hasn’t bought us any better healthcare than the rest of the world enjoys. Our life expectancy is 36th in the world (right below Cuba). Clearly there are ways to drastically improve healthcare in the US. How are they going to happen?

Because Medicare occupies such a huge part of the health care market, reforms to that program have the ability to spread throughout the healthcare system. Peter Orszag, Obama’s former budget director has said 

If the board realizes its potential to push Medicare toward paying for better quality care, as opposed to paying for more care, “it could well turn out to be perhaps the most important component of the new legislation,”

For example, if Medicare starts lowering payments to hospitals with high re-admission rates, hospitals will have to improve their treatment methods or else lose a lot of money. That will save all health insurers money, not just Medicare. If bundling payments does save money and improve care, private insurers might start copying Medicare, so that their costs go down as well. If Medicare stops paying for new and expensive procedures that have not been proven to work better than older, cheaper procedures, then private insurers will have the cover to do that as well.

Those are just a few ways that innovation in the large Medicare market can spark innovation through the private sector (where the costs really are located) as well.

There is no good alternative to IPAB

The alternative to controlling costs through the IPAB are, as I understand them, thoroughly underwhelming. Adopting a complete single-payer system in the US would work, but it is unlikely to happen. The other options are to

  1. raise taxes until health spending starts slowing, or
  2. shift costs.

I’m no fan of simply raising taxes every time health care spending increases and option 2 seems equally terrible. This is the plan proposed by Republicans. They have proposed giving everyone who would traditionally be covered by Medicare a small voucher that they could use to buy insurance on the private market. Since private insurance is much more expensive than Medicare, seniors would be responsible for almost all of their own costs.

Another alternative would be to raise the Medicare age from 65 to 67. This option, as the graph below shows, would save the federal government money, but would actually increase system-wide costs as a whole. 

Neither of the alternatives would not slow the growth in medical costs. They would just be the equivalent of the federal government saying “somebody else should pay for it!” That “somebody else” would be you, me, employers and state governments.Shifting costs is just a budgetary sleight-of-hand that saves the federal government a nickel but charges everyone else a dime.

If implemented correctly, the IPAB can get our growing federal health care budget under control. It also has the potential to reduce costs and improve quality in the private market. Growing health care costs are the greatest future budgetary threat to the US. The IPAB is the only serious, recent effort that has the potential to both improve care and lower costs in our health care system. We sorely need it.

Obama pushes Republicans to pass the WHOLE jobs bill

I stated yesterday that I think the Republicans will try to split up and pass only small parts of Obama’s proposal. Doing so will minimize the beneficial economic effects of the American Jobs Act (the jobs bill Obama proposed Sept 8th) and deprive the White House a badly needed win, while making the Republicans look like a reasonable political bloc that is able to compromise. It seems the White House has foreseen this Republican strategy.

Greg Sargent reports that the White House is doubling down on President Obama;s proposal and is pushing Congress to pass the entire American Jobs Act, as is.

In the debt ceiling fight, the White House at first demanded a “clean” extension, only to quickly concede to the GOP demand that it be accompanied by spending cuts. In the days leading up to the construction of the Congressional deficit super-committee, Democrats immediately signaled an openness to negotiate on their core priorities, even as Republicans drew a hard line and said they wouldn’t budge on their principles.

But this time — for now, at least — the usual dynamic seems to be reversed. It’s Republicans who want to be seen signaling a desire to compromise at the outset, while Obama and White House are the one sinsisting they won’t budge — and are even prepared to take their case to the American people to prove it, whether Republicans like it or not.

Its still not likely that this good bill will pass in its entirety. The best strategy for Republicans is still to just sit on their hands and wait for the furor over this jobs bill to pass everyone by. That way the economy continues to get worse and Obama is denied a needed victory. But at least this shows that Obama is aware of the risk posed by splitting up his bill.  If the bill gets split up, the economic benefits are small and Obama is unable to attack Republicans as a “do-nothing” group of partisans. Obama needs to keep his momentum here and keep up the pressure on the GOP for a good, long time.

President Obama’s speech and what happens next

President Obama gave a rousing speech last night in which he called for public investments in our country’s schools, roads and bridges, as well as large tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses. As the President noted, the individual components of the package have typically received bipartisan support. These tax cuts and investments are particularly needed right now as the economy is slumping, teachers are being fired across the country and our infrastructure is crumbling. The President also promises that it will be payed for.

Several economists have given preliminary scores to this $450 billion plan. All think it will help the economy. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s thinks the plan will create almost 2 million jobs. That seems to be the average estimate from economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal. The economists also expect that passing the plan will increase growth by about two percent and bring the unemployment rate down a percentage point or more in the next year. But with Republicans opposed to almost everything the President puts forth, what is the chance that this package will pass through Congress?

First, the political dynamics at work here:

  • An improving economy helps President Obama’s approval rating and makes it more likely he will be re-elected. If the economy improves between now and the election it will be seen as a vindication of his economic leadership.
  • Passing a popular, bipartisan bill also helps President Obama’s brand. He has cast himself as a bridge-builder and as the responsible adult in the room. If he can bring Congress together around a jobs plan, that will help how he is viewed in the public eye.
  • Refusing to consider a jobs plan that is entirely made up of bipartisan proposals (as Obama’s is) probably hurts Congressional Republicans. They are already the most unpopular members of a very unpopular Congress and flat out refusing to consider a bill to put people back to work would hurt their brand even more. It is entirely possible (though unlikely) that voters could throw both Congressional Republicans and President Obama out of office next year, so Republicans must be careful.
  • That being said, Republicans don’t want to do anything that might damage their nominee’s chances of winning next year.

Taking all that into account, what is the most likely course of action for Congress to take? My prediction is that Congressional Republicans will make a show of considering the President’s proposals. They will wait for something to derail the proposals or for the jobs bill to fall out of the news, but their leadership will not come out and dismiss it.

If Obama and Democrats can force the issue and keep up the pressure on the Republicans, I think that they will agree to pass a few limited portions of the bill. This may include some of the payroll tax cuts and some of the tax breaks for small businesses. It is less likely that Republicans will agree to pass the infrastructure-repair, or the proposals aimed at helping teachers and schools. The GOP will complain that they cost too much or that they remind them too much of the stimulus bill, or that they’re too tired to take them up when they have so much else going on, or something of that nature.

Splitting up the bill and only passing some of it, has already been suggested by GOP majority leader Eric Cantor. This option has several advantages for Republicans. By passing some of  the President’s proposals, they can claim that they did indeed work with the President and extended a hand across the aisle. The proposals that they accept will likely be the ones that are most in alignment with their own principles and also the least likely to produce serious job growth over the next year.

By accepting only Obama’s weakest and most conservative proposals, Republicans will hope to get credit for being bipartisan, and rob Obama of his last chance to improve the economy before the election. That helps the Republican brand but also denies the country a chance at economic recovery. Afterall, an economic recovery makes it more likely that Obama will be re-elected.

How to Fix Congress, the list

The two main goals of Congressional reform should be to reduce partisanship in Congress and to make Congress more effective by requiring less cooperation between increasingly antagonistic parties. In addition to ending gerrymandering and lengthening the terms for US representatives, the best ways to fix Congress are:

1. Adopt an “open” primary system, where the top two candidates, regardless of party, go on to compete in the general election.

Having separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans usually leads to the most extreme Democrat and the most extreme Republican facing off in the general election. This obviously means that whoever wins the general election will be a shrill partisan from one side. In an “open” primary system, all possible candidates would compete together in a single primary and the two highest vote-getters would then face off in the general election. This system would give moderates a chance to compete, instead of mostly forcing them out of elections.

For instance, if there was an open primary system in place in 2010, moderate Senator Bob Bennett of Utah would not have been forced out in the Republican primary, only to be replaced on the ballot by extreme conservative Mike Lee. Likewise, Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican governor of Florida, had to run for the Senate as an independent because it was clear that hard-line Tea Party supporter Marco Rubio was going to win the Republican primary. Both Crist and Bennett would have easily won an open primary and probably the general election as well. Obviously, Congress would be a better place if it had more moderates who better represent the majority of Americans.

2. End the filibuster

The filibuster is a very technical term and process but here’s what you need to know: it makes everything you learned about the Senate in high school civics class meaningless. Instead of bills needing 51 votes (or 50 votes plus the Vice President) to pass into law, the filibuster makes it so that 60 votes are necessary for anything to pass through the Senate. Instead of  being an opportunity for the two parties to work together to pass moderate bills acceptable to both sides of the aisle, the filibuster is just used by the minority party to block anything the majority wants to do.

Because a party almost never controls 60 votes in the Senate, the filibuster acts as a minority party’s veto over legislation and appointments. The filibuster gives a minority party power without responsibility. After all, the minority won’t  be blamed if legislation fails to pass, or a problem goes unsolved, they will be rewarded! The minority party has the incentive to see the majority party fail. And yes, perversely, that means that it is in the minority party’s interest to see the country fail (a bad economy or the existence of other big problems mean the majority party will be punished at the ballot box). The filibuster gives the minority party the ability and the incentive to stop responsible action on behalf of the country. The filibuster makes sure that no one can solve our country’s problems.

3. Remove some powers from Congress

This probably would not be necessary if the above reforms pass, but failing that, this would be a good step. If Congress remains a dysfunctional, bickering body, then the only way to keep our government moving is to take powers away from it. America does not benefit from Congressional inaction, as Ezra Klein explains. It is not in the country’s interest to have a third of our federal judge’s benches sitting empty because a mere 41 Senators want to filibuster all of the President’s nominees. Likewise, we need people to be appointed to the Federal Reserve board (seeing as we are in an economic crisis and the Fed controls our money supply and interest rates) but we can’t even get a Nobel prize winner past the filibustering Republicans (literally).

It is not necessary for Congress to have some powers, either because  the chance of mischief  is too great (the debt ceiling) or because partisanship will gum up necessary governmental functions (the appointment process). We should eliminate Congressional votes on the debt ceiling (no other country has one) and we should cut in half the number of federal positions that have to be confirmed by the Senate (there are currently over a thousand that  need confirmation, which is down from former highs).

4. Give Congressmen back the power to earmark money for their districts.

This may seem counter-intuitive, from everything else I’ve said, but hear me out. Earmarks have, for the time being, been done away with because  they were labelled as “pork barrel” spending by their opponents. The problem with earmarks wasn’t that they cost us a lot of money (they didn’t) but that in the past they were ways for Congressmen to secretly slip in funds for their own pet projects. But they also fulfilled a valuable role. They undermined partisanship.

Congressmen tend to know their districts well and are somewhat good judges of the constituents’ needs. Earmarks allowed Congressmen to redirect funds in individual ways for their district. Making a valuable and personalized action on behalf of their home state or district helped to tie a Congressman to his voters. This makes that Senator or Congressman less beholden to corporations or the vested interests in Washington for campaign cash and political support.

The answer is to make earmarks more transparent and open and to hold Congressmen accountable for bad ones, not to get rid of them entirely. Right now, Congressmen just lobbying behind closed doors to try to convince bureaucrats to funnel money to their district. Why not just let Congressman do it openly and directly?

How to Fix Congress, part 1

As I discussed in my last post, the curious thing about American politics is that the majority party (almost) always needs the help of the minority party to implement absolutely anything, while it is normally in the interests of the minority party to make sure that the majority party fails. This paradox results in gridlock as a political system built on cooperation runs into political parties that are currently built on rigid, ideological opposition to the other. So how do we fix this? I am planning a three- or four-part series advocating simple, easily implemented reforms that have a precedent in American politics. The goals of the reforms, like the problems they are meant to solve, are two-pronged: to make Congress more effective by requiring less cooperation between increasingly opposed parties and to reduce partisanship in Congress.

Two of the best ways to reform the House of Representatives would be to lengthen the terms of Congressmen from two to four years to get rid of the endless campaign cycle, and to eliminate the process of gerrymandering, whereby liberal politicians pack their districts with liberals and vice versa for conservatives.

Politicians generally need time to breathe and to get down to the hard work of legislating after a campaign. The public also needs time to digest their politicians’ work and respond to it. Our current system forces US representatives to begin raising money, pandering to special interests and looking for ways to score cheap political points almost immediately after they win their election. Two years is a very short time in politics, and when legislators constantly have the next election in the back of their mind, they may prove unwilling to take a politically unpopular stance that is nevertheless good for the country. Quick elections also mean that Representatives must constantly be raising campaign contributions, distracting from their job of public service and putting them at the mercy of their big donors. More infrequent elections mean that members are less vulnerable to the corporate slush funds and superPACs that now dominate our elections.

Ending gerrymandering should be a no-brainer. In most states, politicians fiddle with political district lines to do their best to deny voters the right to choose their legislator. Its the ultimate case of politicians choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians. Gerrymandering has made it so that the majority of Congressmen are never in danger of losing their seats. Most districts in America are either soooo conservative or soooo liberal that there is never any doubt as to who is going to win an election. Here’s a primer on gerrymandering. Gerrymandering also causes some really lopsided results.

Let’s use Florida, one of the most politically moderate states in the nation, as an example. Because Florida Republicans have been so successful in cheating their citizens out of their votes, the Florida Congressional delegation is made up of 20 Republicans and 7 Democrats. Florida’s Republican politicians have made it so that one of the most notorious swing states in the nation has to send more Republicans to Congress than Democrats, no matter what. The same thing has happened in Texas. You could use Massachusetts or North Carolina as somewhat less egregious examples of Democrats doing the same.

The simplest way to solve this is to have independent commissions of judges or private citizens draw district lines without any considerations of party or the residences of lawmakers. Several states do this already and as we can see from California’s experience this year, doing so results in more competitive seats and less political favoritism. Independent commissions should be adopted across the country to make our districts more fair and to give voters a choice when they go into the ballot box.