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The Specter of a Post-Specter Era

May 18th, 2010 No comments

Arlen Specter and his wife Joan leave his campaign´s election night headquarters after conceding to Joe Sestak.  (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

As most pundits had come to expect over the last week or so, Joe Sestak did indeed defeat Democrat-come-lately Arlen Specter tonight. Here‘s a good summary of Specter’s unlikely career (from the Inquirer). Hard to believe that Houdini finally encountered a trap he couldn’t escape.

With some hesitation, I voted for Sestak. (I heard him speak at a commencement last Spring, and wasn’t that impressed.) Still, he’s a true progressive and Specter is as soulless and calculating a politician as you’ll find — and 80 years old, too. Yet I wonder whether Sestak will be as effective at getting things done, assuming he defeats Pat Toomey in the Fall.

Categories: Pennsylvania, Senate Tags:

Trenchant Observations on Massachusetts and Ball Boys…in Pink

January 19th, 2010 No comments

There are no shortage of analyses on the Massachusetts Senate race, and I want to weigh in with my own observation: Scott Brown won because he’s a hunk in the same televangelist mode as Mitt Romney.

One key difference: Romney would never have posed in the all-together. That’s altogether non-Mormon. The flap didn’t hurt Brown any, though, perhaps because he looked like this:

Scott-Brown-new3

Put aside the unspeakable early 80’s hairstyle and he looks pretty good. But very straight-looking, thanks — in the Massachusetts Senate, Mr. Soon-to-be-Filibuster supported amending the state’s constitution to ban the gay marriages that have been taking place for most of the decade.

I do wonder if Brown’s image could have survived had an image of him in this get-up surfaced:

James Blake meets some of the ball boys and girls who will be working during the tournament.

(That’s American (falling) star James Blake in the middle.) Ball boys in pink? That’s what they’re wearing this year at the Australian Open! They actually look sort of cool when you watch the matches, but they’ve caused quite the controversy.

An End-Run Around Legislative Paralysis: EPA Will Control CO2 if Congress Won’t

December 7th, 2009 No comments

Today’s news that the EPA has found greenhouse gases to be a public health danger (i.e., hazardous to both human beings and the environment) gives the Obama Administration leverage it didn’t have yesterday. If Congress won’t get behind laws to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases, the EPA can simply regulate the stuff. Legally sound? Probably. Good policy? Probably not. But it might be the only way to get anything done.

Once upon a time, a President with solid majorities in both chambers was considered to have a mandate to actually get laws passed. But that was before the U.S. Senate, already designed to be obstructionist, transformed the “filibuster” from a rarely invoked, desperate, and rear-guard action into an inviolate requirement that nothing can happen without the super-majority of 60 that’s needed to invoke cloture and stop the debate. No one needs to bother filibustering; the threat of it is sufficient. (Of course, there is something to be worried about: Endless debate by U.S. Senators is a prospect you should  keep from small children.)

Things have now reached such a ridiculous pass that, on health care reform, even members of the majority party threaten to vote against cloture, thereby threatening to defeat their own party’s initiatives without even letting them come to a “regular” vote that would require a bare majority. (Maybe this isn’t so bad, though. Who wants to see these people bare?)

One way out of this frustrating logjam is to go the regulatory route. By declaring what most sane people know (despite the distracting email kerfuffle), the EPA has given itself — and the Administration for which it works — an  insanely powerful, practical, and political too.  It reminds me of Tweetybird, hiding that huge mallet behind his head and then slamming the hapless Sylvester. Businesses won’t know what hit them.

But it’s hardly the best way to proceed. The EPA can limit the emissions, but can’t impose a tax or develop a cap-and-trade approach (to name two competing legislative proposals). There’s a notice and comment requirement to regulations, but these can’t stop agencies from doing whatever their statutory authority allows.  Given the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, the threat of a command decision by an agency accountable only to the Executive branch might be needed to get legislation passed. But the situation should be yet another reminder that something needs to be done about the Senate, before it becomes unable to function at all.

Max Baucus and The Supermajority Tilt-A-Whirl

September 30th, 2009 No comments

Has this ever happened to you?

Earlier tonight, I wanted to take the car to go to the gym. But I couldn’t go because my spouse had the car keys. Could I have asked him to just hand them over? Oh, I never thought of that; I guess, now that you mention it, that I did have the power to do that. But since I decided not to ask, I didn’t get to do what I really wanted to do.

This head-spinning absurdity is more or less the position taken by Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) yesterday in voting down the public option amendments proposed to the committee’s health care reform bill. In his words: “My job is to put together a bill that gets to sixty votes.” (Here’s a fuller statement.)

But the Democrats have 60 votes!! So,  what is Baucus saying? That he and/or other Democrats will defy their party’s leadership to the extent of voting against cloture, and thereby prevent a vote on the merits? Notice that he’s not saying that he’d vote against the bill on its merits, just that…well, he won’t be able to vote on the merits, because he will…not let himself do that.

The filibuster has become stranger and stranger, and now it threatens to strangle a public option that has clear public support, as well as the overwhelming approval of physicians (almost three-quarters favor either a public option or a single-payer system). Once upon a time, Senators who felt strongly enough about an issue to filibuster against it really had to…keep talking. Even casual students of history know of Strom “Pardon me for Fathering an Interracial Child While Opposing Desegregation” Thurmond’s legendary, 24-hour filibuster against a 1957 civil rights law.  In the category of “Things I Could Happily Have Died Without Knowing,” Thurmond visited a steam bath before taking to the floor, so as to render himself a dehydrated, urineless husk. No potty breaks allowed! Those were the days.

In recent times, though, the filibuster has changedfrom being a rarely invoked measure by a desperate minority to a routine exercise. Now, the majority party will  just give up if the other side has 41 votes against cloture. The filibuster bluff won’t be called. So the minority can, typically, block any legislation they disagree with — and without resorting to reading aloud from, say, the Minneapolis phone book.

Neither phantom nor real filibuster is possible, in theory, where the majority party has 60 seats. But now comes Baucus, tying the super-majority concept in a knot: Even though we Democrats have 60 votes, we won’t vote to cut off debate because…and here’s  what it comes down to: You need 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything.

Does anyone else see a maddening circle here? A reminder: To pass a law, you need a simple majority. If the Democrats stand firm, they have the 60 votes needed to defeat the threatened filibuster. Then, each Democrat can vote his or her conscience.

I’m guessing that Baucus, who fairly bristles with insurance lobby cash as he strides about the Capitol, doesn’t want to be put in the position of actually having to cast a vote that tests his commitments to his constituents against his loyalty to lobbyists. But his “60 vote” position is an inanity that should be called out. Let’s get the public option to the Senate floor and see who supports cloture. That will tell us what we need to know,  whether or not we ever get to vote on the merits.

Mike Gallagher on Ted Kennedy and Political Disagreement

August 26th, 2009 No comments

I heard the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing this morning; sad, although hardly unexpected. Here’s a comprehensive obit.

Well, I was driving to work when I heard the news, so I thought I’d listen to what the conservative talking heads were saying. Glenn Beck, nothing (too busy going on about ACORN and other reliable red meat). But Mike Gallagher, whom I’d never listened to and, frankly, barely knew existed, brought me up short. After playing Obama’s tribute, he then went on an extended riff about Kennedy’s many friendships in the Senate, some with conservative Republicans (Orrin Hatch, for example), with whom he disagreed. Gallagher then allowed that his wife and his kids were Democrats.

He expressed surprise at the fact that many people can’t get along, or even tolerate in polite company, those with whom they have political disagreement. Having lived with a family of dissenters, Gallagher isn’t in that group. His talk was a welcome call to civility, and I found it surprisingly moving.

Categories: Republican Party, Senate, Social Justice Tags:

Joe’s Journey

May 8th, 2009 No comments

I’d hardly intended to begin a journey-themed series of posts, but I welcomed this title with “open arms” when I received my door prize yesterday: a coffee table book, “Joe’s Journey,” about the 47th Vice-President of the United States. This lovely parting gift, to use the parlance of game shows gone by, was bestowed on the 500 or so of us who’d attended Joe Biden’s return to Delaware yesterday. As Delaware’s first vice-president — a long time coming, considering that it holds the distinction as “the first state” — the six-plus-term Senator was given the “History Makers Award” by the Delaware Historical Society.1

My attendance at yesterday’s gala luncheon (albeit in a room illuminated to invoke a nightclub’s ambience) was one of the l’il benefits of having been a colleague of the veep’s; to use the term “colleague” very broadly. (Biden and a full-time faculty member co-taught a course in constitutional law at Widener on Saturdays for many years.) Another benefit  is that I can prove I was there:

biden award group

(See? I’m third from the left. Biden’s the one with his hands on the shoulders of the Dean, Linda Ammons. Note the inky black background; I was serious about the nightclub comment.)

The event started out with a cocktail hour — at 10:30 am! This is early, even for me, and it was a real cocktail party– no coffee, just drinks. So I had a bloody Mary, then another, then another, then another.2 By now it was 10:35 and I was wondering what I was going to do until lunch. At about 11:30, a cry went up as the VP entered the enormous room and was quickly surrounded by throngs of adoring admirers. Biden really is loved in Delaware, but he must have been taken aback (he never seems ill-at-ease, though) by the uptick in adoration since changing jobs. He could barely move.

The lunch finally began. Valerie Biden Owens, sister to The Man a Heartbeat from the Presidency, showed that eloquence and public grace were distributed abundantly to the Biden family. Without announcing what she was doing, she began mentioning a series of little moments — quickly it became apparent they were from her brother’s life as a public servant — actions, she said, that “were gathered up and stacked on top of each other over many years” to describe and (in so doing) honor her brother. One that stuck was the image of Biden racing for the train to Washington, but looking back in parting to his family. “Am I here, or there?” cries the perplexed protagonist in a Hawthorne short story. The thirty-six years of Amtrak commuting must at times have made him ask that question. And the importance of that train ride resurfaced, as you’ll see.

Then Biden fairly raced up the stairs, to a standing-ovation homecoming.3 Roughly, his speech divided  into two parts. The second part, while eloquent and inspiring for the political speech genre, wasn’t as moving or heartfelt as the first. That’s where Biden spoke to his homies in a voice from deep within. Whatever role speechwriters may have played, the personal message and feeling broke though. He began with a brother’s loving but playful tribute to his sister, saying that, while he’d heard her speak many times before, he’d “never heard her so loving.”

He then told a story that visibly moved him, and furthered deepened his connection to the audience. When asked to consider the most significant moment in his many years of political life, he had no hesitation. “Without a doubt,” he said, it had been the train ride from his native Wilmington to D.C., on the Saturday before the inauguration. In sight of the Third Street Bridge, he’d thought back to many years ago, when, as a young man, he’d been the only white employee at the pool located on the other side of that bridge. This, in turn, reminded him of the segregated society in which he’d grown up. And now, here he was, just about forty years later, boarding train to Washington with our nation’s first African-American President, with whom he was lucky enough to work. Reciting this story  was almost more than he could emotionally bear.

Biden’s reputation as a “gaffe machine” is probably deserved (and came out of hibernation recently with his impolitic and biologically inaccurate remarks about the flu), but anyone who hears Biden in full flight understands that  “gaffes” are the inevitable flip side to a kind of authenticity and honesty rarely approached by our political figures. It’s “small wonder” Delawarans have loved this guy for so long.

  1. Of course you’re wondering: But has Delaware ever sent a President to Washington? I didn’t know whether the fact that the question didn’t come up yesterday meant anything (if Delaware had sent, say, FDR and three other guys to the White House, it might have made the historical first celebrated yesterday accurate but…odd). But no, there have been no Presidents from this three-county state that touts itself, variously, as “The First State” (good), “The Diamond State” (inexplicable), “Small Wonder” (cloying), and… “The Home of Tax-Free Shopping” (practical, anyway). When it added this last nickname, Delaware surely claimed an additional distinction as the only state with more sobriquets than counties. But you don’t necessarily want a President from your state in any case: Just ask Iowans, who still look at the ground and absently kick pebbles when anyone mentions native son Herbert Hoover.
  2. Not really.
  3. I’m omitting extended discussion of the gauzy biopic that preceded Biden. Perhaps the book and a DVD can be packaged and wrapped together for future events.

Equality Forum Day 5: What Now?

May 1st, 2009 2 comments

After a political eternity, several bills directly relevant to LGBT equality are queued up before Congress. In order of both expected ease of passage and anticipated timeline, these are: hate crimes, which has already passed the U.S. House, and is expected to navigate the more treacherous waters of the Senate and be signed, possibly within a couple of months; the bewhiskered Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”), which could go through by the end of 2009; repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which seems to enjoy broad support but is trickier because it involves the military; and repeal of all or part of the Defense of Marriage Act (date and prospects less clear).

Friday’s National Legal Panel seemed in remarkable agreement on these issues, and more cheered by these seemingly modest anticipated developments than might have been expected. After all, Obama’s in office and the Democrats hold power in both houses of Congress (even a looming filibuster-proof majority in the Senate now seems very likely, given Arlen Specter’s party flip). As the ACLU’s Chris Anders asked rhetorically: “What’s the problem?” Why shouldn’t all of these agenda items so long sought, and for which so much laborious lobbying has been done, sail right through?

Welcome to the sausage factory! All of these bills have to be introduced, go through committees, survive amendments, and then go to the floor for  passage. Then there’s reconciliation of possibly differing versions of the legislation between the two chambers. According to Georgetown law professor and legislative expert Chai Feldblum, the complexity of the process and the list of backed-up agenda items from various constituencies means that we’ve been “given” two slots for this legislative session: one for hate crime and one for ENDA. Time is the most precious resource on Capitol Hill; getting the “face time” you need is vital to move things forward.

The hate crimes law (“The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act“) isn’t strictly a “gay rights bill,” because it also covers criminal acts motivated by a victim’s race, religion, disability, national origin, or gender. It thus has a broad coalition working toward its passage. ENDA is trickier; whether the version that’s passed will offer “gender identity” discrimination is unclear. That’s the goal, but the TG community could be thrown overboard to get the bill enacted. I wouldn’t be in favor of  such a bill, because no one needs workplace protection as much as those who are gender nonconforming, and if they’re not included now — forget it. They’ll never get a bill through on their own.

Penn law professor Tobias Wolff, who advised the Obama campaign on issues of interest to the LGBT community, offered a rich and complex account of Obama’s support. Wolff said he “lost count” of the number of times Obama mentioned issues of gay equality on the campaign trail, even when his audience (say, a conservative black church) might have been less than fully receptive to it. Yet Obama never did a presentation before any of the national LGBT advocacy groups; which was also unprecedented (this time not in a good way) for a Democratic candidate. This might be looked at as less than supportive, but Wolff’s interpretation was that Obama preferred to construct coalitions that were more broad-based, and not especially associated with any particular interest group. He also related that Obama isn’t going to independently decide to do things for us; he expects advocacy and persuasive arguments, and can be moved by them. So in an odd yet paradoxically exhilarating way, there’s more work to do with a sympathetic President and Congress, not less.

According to Hayley Gorenberg, Deputy Legal Director for Lambda Legal, much less promising are the prospects for any kind of substantial help from the U.S. Supreme Court on marriage equality or the military policy. Here the situation is markedly different from that of the state level, where courts have often been strong allies, especially in recent marriage equality cases and on family law questions, such as second-parent adoptions. Although the Court has some good precedent cases (Romer v. Evans, which declared anti-gay animus an unconstitutional basis for legislation; and Lawrence v. Texas, striking down statutes that criminalize intimate sexual conduct between consenting adults), they’re very deferential to the military and not likely to require marriage equality any time soon. The Court might be receptive to the carefully crafted challenge to the part of DOMA that denies federal benefits to legally married couples; that case, though, has just been filed and would take years to reach the Court. By then, perhaps DOMA would have been repealed.

At least as far as “don’t ask, don’t tell” is concerned, though, the Obama Administration could adopt some internal policies and rules that would greatly lessen its arbitrariness and devastating impact on dedicated military personnel. And that interplay between decisional law, legislation, and regulatory law was consistently emphasized by the panelists, especially Feldblum. Moderator Nan Hunter, a Georgetown law professor, did a nice job in getting the participants to explain these relationships, and the law itself, in a way that the “lay” audience could understand.

What we’d have trouble understanding is a lack of movement. If these initiatives fail, the panelists agreed that we’d be forced to take responsibility for that failure. This prospect, though, wasn’t enough for anyone to seek the return of the Bush era.

The Legion of Super…Somethings

February 8th, 2009 No comments

As a kid, I was the kind of voracious comic book reader who would haunt the local store in anticipation of my favorites. At the top of the heap was “The Legion of Super-Heroes,” a 30-century group of teenagers whose clubhouse was a retro-future looking space ship impaled into the ground.

Legion Clubhouse

Cheesy, no? Well, so was the whole Legion, really: They started with a powerful trio but soon expanded to take in about thirty(!) heroes, with increasingly absurd super powers. This tendency reached its apogee with characters with the (unfortunately) self-explanatory names of Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad (from the planet Bismoll). By this time, the powers seemed little more than elaborate parlor tricks.

Somehow, the subject of the Legion was recently exhumed through a series of e-mails among friends; two of us went on about distressingly obscure tidbits (“Triplicate Girl became Duo Damsel after one of her ‘selves’ was killed by Computo…”) while the others peeled away from the list at increasing speeds. But it did get me thinking about our political equivalents in the spaceship-challenged 21st century. Here are some examples, drawn exclusively from the Senate. See if you can guess their secret identities (answers at end of post):

Pork Boy:   Can derail any piece of legislation by crying “Pork!”

Clueless Kid: Confuses foes by making increasingly inscrutable references to such events as “little green doctors pounding on [his]  back.”

The RINO Lasses:  Frustrate their party by joining their powers to prevent filibusters.

Shadow Lad 59: Hovers menacingly just outside of Washington frightening Republicans, the humor-challenged, and really everyone else.

The Triangulator: Confounds Democrats and Republicans with political gyrations to the left, right and center. Can’t be defeated by any known enemy.

Clayface: Destroyed enemies with unearthly death gaze:

Henry Clay

By the way, after the writers ran out of uses for Matter-Eater Lad’s power (this took about two issues), he became…a Senator. Apparently his new power was the ability to suck every molecule of oxygen out of a room.

Answers: John McCain, Jim Bunning, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe,  Al Franken (OK, not officially a Senator yet), Arlen Specter, and Henry Clay (OK, he’s not from the 21st century, but his outfit is very a la mode).

Scoring:   6-7:  fivethirtyeighter;   3-5:  wonk-in-training;  0-2:   amazed you’re still reading