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Posts Tagged ‘cloture’

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.