Why Filibuster Reform Matters

Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic
Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic

Imagine for a moment that the US Senate is like a train with 100 people on board. The majority party gets to appoint the conductor, but in extraordinary situations, any one of the passengers can pull the emergency brake and stop the train. As one would expect, use of the emergency brake would be reserved for emergencies. If the emergency brake gets pulled once every few years, it probably means that the passengers are not abusing their responsibilities and can be trusted with it. If they pull it on 70 percent of trips, then we have a problem and it should be obvious to everyone that these yankers are simply trying to prevent the train from getting to its destination. Last week, the Senate agreed to limit the use of this emergency brake.

Like most stories in the news cycle, the Senate’s recent filibuster reform was a big deal for a day or two, and was then promptly forgotten. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what it means for the future of American democracy.

So what is a filibuster? It’s a procedure by which one senator can stand and speak for as long as he/she wishes in order to postpone/prevent a vote on a piece of legislation or a confirmation (not unlike an emergency brake on a train). It effectively gives all 100 senators the power to veto anything. In order to override a filibuster, 60 senators must come together and invoke “cloture” which basically forces the rambling senator to shut up. The filibuster is featured prominently in the 1939 Hollywood film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (sound familiar?) in which a young senator uses the tactic to prevent the passage of an unjust law.

Is a filibuster good or bad? A filibuster is good because it’s a check on the power of the majority party; in extraordinary situations, the minority party can stand in the way of something they feel very passionately about. A filibuster is bad because it gives the minority party the ability to filibuster every little thing, even in non-extraordinary situations, effectively preventing the majority party from governing.

This bad scenario is exactly what’s been going on for the past five years. Both parties are guilty of abusing the filibuster, but the under the Obama presidency, this tool has been abused to an extent unprecedented in American history. Just about everything requires 60 votes to pass now.

This is not the way to run a government. It’s one thing to oppose a president. It’s reckless, however, to stand in the way of routine business and prevent the president and his party from governing. And that is why Harry Reid (Senate Majority Leader) went nuclear last week.

What’s the nuclear option? This refers to the recent vote in the Senate, which passed by 52-48, that eliminated the filibuster for all executive branch nominees and federal judicial nominations (other than the Supreme Court). On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much at all, let alone nuclear.

But why is this a big deal? The vote itself is not as remarkable as the fact that it became necessary. Let’s not pretend that government dysfunction is new. In some ways, bipartisanship is a myth that never existed. Conflict and hatred are old, but the current level of obstruction is new. The reason the recent “nuclear option” is such a big deal is that it’s an open admission that our polarized political climate is irreconcilable – one side will have to win.

In some ways, this is the end of congressional propriety, and it’s not because Washington is divided. It’s because the country is divided. It’s not as if filibustering Republican senators are scorned by their constituents for getting in Obama’s way. They’re treated like heroes. Every society must deal with the contradictory forces that pull it apart and keep it together. This contradiction is currently manifesting itself in ways not seen since the civil rights era. There is no consensus on how to govern. And this speaks to a larger problem. There is no consensus on what it means to be an American.

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Is Edward Snowden a Hero?

In my previous post, I argued that Edward Snowden is the storybook character that the world has been waiting for. Most folks already assumed that the NSA was involved in nefarious snooping, but with a potential hero on our hands, the leaks and the Government actions they pertain to suddenly seem more interesting. But is Snowden a hero?

Luckily, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy  and  Jeffrey Toobin have provided us with articles arguing for and against Snowden’s hero status.  I’ve broken down their main points below to see how they stack up against one another.

Hero (Cassidy)

Criminal (Toobin)

  • Revealed important info the public deserved to know about
  • Put his career and life in jeopardy
  • Leaks contain nothing sensitive that threatens national security
  • PRISM tracks Americans and our allies more than terrorists
  • Revealed that senior intelligence officials misled Congress
  • Potentially seeking publicity
  • Potential messianic complex
  • Broke the law
  • He had other options

When you see it like that, the answer seems rather clear. At the very worst, Snowden is an opportunistic young charlatan who for personal gain, helped the country out. There’s no denying he broke laws, but by doing so, he exposed a problem much larger than his crime – we’re talking violation of the Constitution level of problems. As Cassidy points out:

Just a couple of months ago, at a Senate hearing, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden…asked Clapper (Director of National Intelligence), “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied: “No, sir.” (He added, “Not wittingly.”) At another hearing, General Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., denied fourteen times that the agency had the technical capability to intercept e-mails and other online communications in the United States.

Toobin claims that Snowden had legal options to pursue his grievances, but if the heads of our national intelligence apparatus are willing to lie to Congress when confronted with questions on domestic surveillance, what chance does a 29-year-old techie stand? From what we currently know, this guy looks pretty heroic to me.

This Scandal Just Went Hollywood

We don’t want privacy – we want a good story.

Edward SnowdenI’m not sure what to make of the revelation that the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans for years, secretly monitoring our phone calls and internet activity in ways that certainly push the boundaries of what is legal and just.

I had already assumed that the NSA (and who knows what other agency) was violating our privacy. So the leak provided by Edward Snowden merely confirmed reasonable suspicions that I and many Americans have held since…well always, but certainly since September 11, 2001.

The public tumult following the NSA leaks is different than the controversies surrounding Obama’s other scandals. Ben Gazi seems like a case of incompetence being stretched to one of treachery. The IRS targeting conservative organizations was inappropriate but a drop in the bucket compared to the number of right-leaning organizations that received little scrutiny. The Justice Department seizing phone records of the Associated Press is a dispute in policy rather than a scandal – if the actions seem despicable, blame the law that allows the Government to take such actions.

Although none of the three scandals mentioned above should be excused, upon closer inspection, they fail to get my blood boiling. It feels like the Government acting dumb – just as it always has. This week could have featured another tired news cycle of a Government agency overstepping its boundaries in a flood of partisan talking points had it not been for one key element that changed everything – Edward Snowden.

One man. A face. That’s all it takes to turn this whole mess into a story of good versus evil. We knew all along that the Government was the bad guy, but what we were missing until now, was a hero, and we have found him. Is he a hero? I have no clue, and most folks won’t care because we want the narrative more than the substance of character or policy. For goodness sake, his name sounds like that of a character from Game of Thrones – the next Lord of Winterfell, Ed(w)ard Snowden!

We don’t want our privacy – we want an individual (preferably a white male so as to fit the Hollywood narrative) to stand up to the system and fight. If we really wanted our privacy, we wouldn’t be signing it away every single day to Facebook, Google and all types of companies collecting our personal data. Edward Snowden represents the answer to all our collective longings. He’s a nerd who took a stand. He has libertarian tendencies (donated to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign) which gives him automatic anti-establishment cred. He’s tough (enlisted in the Army in 2003 to join the Special Forces) and not ugly, which is not insignificant. And of course, his main concern now is the pain he may be causing for his family, many of whom work for the US Government. I expect that the screenplays are already being written.

The place he chose to go makes the story only more interesting. Hong Kong is, for all intents and purposes, a democratic system within a larger authoritarian one. The semi-state already has an extradition treaty with the US, but none of that matters if China, which has the final say on all foreign relations with Hong Kong, decides to step in. Snowden’s decision to flee east sets up a potential clash of superpowers that would never have been possible had he fled to anywhere else in the world.

Had the same news about the NSA’s PRISM project came from a boring committee of journalists at a big newspaper, I guarantee that the story would not have made as big a splash as it did. We are much more concerned with the fate of this troublemaker than the laws and policies he hopes to change.

Marriage Equality: About Damn Time

The Court may go this way or that, but finally, the country seems to be on the right path. 

As many of you may have noticed this week, Facebook was flooded by a wave of digitized Rothkoesque profile pictures in support of marriage equality as two pivotal cases make their way through the Supreme Court, challenging the governments’ ban (California – Prop 8) and non-recognition (federal – DOMA) of same sex marriages.

The hater inside of me initially thought about the silliness of reducing a civil rights issue to a social media profile image. What difference would it make? I doubt I was alone in dismissing the value of the trend. In spite of my own cynicism, I changed my profile and was hit with a feeling I had not felt since November 2008 – another instance in which I scoffed at (yet publicly supported) a national campaign that was unforeseeable just a few years earlier.

SC Supreme Court Facebook

Nearly five years later, Continue reading “Marriage Equality: About Damn Time”

Nuances of the State of the Union

Every political circus has its rules. Here are some of ours.

Obama SOTU

I must be a fool because every time I watch the State of the Union, I am surprised by the amount of clapping there is. Watching the speech in another country makes it feel all the more ridiculous and choreographed. I imagine that Brits feel similarly about the shouts and sneers that erupt in the House of Commons. Continue reading “Nuances of the State of the Union”

Time Magazine’s non-Presidential Persons of the Year

Time Cover Obama POYTime magazine recently named President Obama as their Person of the Year. This isn’t much of a surprise – any time you win the US presidential election, you have a pretty good chance of winning. In fact, five out of the last six President-elects have been bestowed with the honor.

What I find more interesting is all the instances in which the President-elect was not named the Person of the Year. Who were these people that were so outstanding that they managed to outshine the most obvious candidate? Here’s a list of election year winners going back to the award’s inception.

Year

Person of the Year

What’s so special?

 1928  Walter Chrysler  People really hated Herbert Hoover
 1932  Franklin D. Roosevelt  President-elect
 1936  Wallis Simpson  Caused crisis in English monarchy
 1940  Winston Churchill  FDR had already won twice before
 1944  Dwight D. Eisenhower  FDR had already won thrice before
 1948  Harry S. Truman  President-elect
 1952  Elizabeth II  Fresh young queen for a tired country
 1956  Hungarian freedom fighter  David v. Goliath
 1960  American Scientists  DNA, space and computing
 1964  Lyndon B. Johnson  President-elect
 1968  Apollo 8 astronauts  First human orbit of moon
 1972  Nixon and Kissinger  President-elect
 1976  Jimmy Carter  President-elect
 1980  Ronald Reagan  President-elect
 1984  Peter Ueberroth  Managed 1st privately financed Olympics
 1988  The Endangered Earth  officially the “planet of the year”
 1992  Bill Clinton  President-elect
 1996  David Ho  HIV-AIDS scientific research
 2000  George W. Bush  President-elect
 2004  George W. Bush  President-elect
 2008  Barack Obama  President-elect
 2012  Barack Obama  President-elect

It used to be that you didn’t have to win the US Presidential election to stand a chance. These days, it’s near impossible without it. Still, your best options would be to (1) make a breakthrough in the natural/physical sciences, (2) be a business hotshot, (3) go to war with a great power, or (4) shake up the English royal family. If none of that works, try being a planet.