Saturday, March 9, 2013

Me and Ezra

Ezra Klein is a very smart man.  And I don't say that only because he agrees with me;  he knows a lot more than I do.

But, as I said in a prior post, the higher purpose of the filibuster is to slow down the process so there can be more debate and so minority opinions can be heard.   While the media is focusing on the "talking" aspect of Rand Paul's filibuster, having his say was the important thing.   Here's how Ezra puts it:
"When I say that if more filibusters were like Paul’s, the filibuster wouldn’t need to be reformed, I don’t simply mean that Paul spoke while other filibusterers wage silent, procedural war. I mean that Paul’s filibuster was a rare and unusual effort to . . .  draw attention to a senator’s very real concerns on a very serious issue. It wasn’t about obstruction of a nomination so much as it was about attention to a set of ideas and concerns that are often brushed aside."
Couldn't have put it better myself.

Contrast this with the other, "silent" filibuster begun that same day by some anonymous senator to block the debate on President Obama's nomination for an appeals court justice.   Nothing comes of it but obstructionwe don't even hear what the objection is, although it's pretty clear that it's political.   That is why it contributes to the terrible dysfunction of the senate these days.


Elizabeth Warren -- "war horse" on the war path

Nobody has come to the Senate in recent years more ready to do battle for a good cause than newly elected Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.    Specifically, her chosen task is financial regulation -- for consumer protection and reining in financial institutions.

Now an important member of the Senate Banking Committee, which held hearings on money laundering by banks.    She made this memorable point about our system's failure to police big banks :
"If you're caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you'll go to jail.  If you're caught repeatedly, you can go to jail for life. Evidently, if you launder nearly $1 billion for drug cartels and violate our government's sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night. I think that's fundamentally wrong."
Yeah !!!   Finally someone is challenging the coddling approach to big banks and corporations who have all the advantages.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Colbert nails it

Stephen Colbert took on Justice Antonin Scalia and the case to overturn the Voting Rights Act.   Quoting the attorney for Selma County, AL that's bringing the suit, he extolled the "fact" that we don't need the Act any more "because it has solved the problem."   Racism is over in Selma, apparently.

His scathing satire was directed at Scalia, quoting him as saying it couldn't be left up to the legislature to overturn the law, because, in the future, "Who would vote against something called The Voting Rights Act?"

Colbert satirically answered the question:  "Only an a-hole would vote against it in the future.  So the court has to deal with it now while it has an a-hole who will vote against it."

And then the zinger:   "Saying we don't need the Act any more because it has solved the problem is like the boyfriend asking to have the restraining order lifted because he hasn't assaulted his girlfriend since the restraining order was put on him."

Once again, leave it to the comedians to tell the truth.


Lindsey's strange flip-flop

Frequenly petulant Senator Lindsey Graham had said he was not going to vote for CIA nominee John Brennan as a protest against the administration for not being more forthcoming about what happened in Benghazi.

He has flipped and says now he will vote for it because of Rand Pauls' filibuster over the drone program.   Duh???

Benghazi and the drone killings have no connection -- except that they both kinda, sorta have to do with our government.   One is the State Department, the other the CIA.  And in different countries.

Little Lindsey said that he had gotten what he wanted.  I guess what he means is that he got his stick-it-to-Obama fix for the week, so he can call off his temper tantrum about Benghazi.   Just as long as there was some attack that got lots of media attention.

And guess who will be on Sunday morning tv shows, lapping up all the publicity along with Rand Paul???


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Big flap about not much

Republicans and Fox News are trying to crow about Rand Paul's filibuster "forcing" the administration to answer the question about drones killing American citizens in the U.S. territory.   Megan Kelly (FoxNews) said that "Under duress, and under public humiliation, the White House will respond and do the right thing."

They're playing it as a reversal of Eric Holder's statement, in which he responded to a question in a hearing earlier this week, saying that the administration could technically use military force to kill an American on U.S. soil in an "extraordinary circumstance" but has "no intention of doing so."

A today's press briefing, Jay Carney read out a statement from Holder to Rand Paul, saying: 
"It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: 'Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?'  The answer to that question is no."
This is not a flip-flop.  Read the two statements.  There's no contradiction.   'An American engaged in combat on American soil' obviously would be in the category of 'extraordinary circumstances' -- like going to war in actual armed combat against our own government here at home.

Seems to me that the two statements are quite compatible.   Move along, folks;  there's nothing to see here.  Unfortunately, the anti-Obama circus barkers think this straw man they created is a big story that will pull in the crowds, so they'll hype it a while longer.


Everybody is right on this . . .

Much as I disagree with Rand Paul's political stances, and much as I find him annoying personally (his self-importance, so unlike his father) -- still I sort of admire his honesty in doing an old-fashionged talking filibuster.

It was not designed to stop legislation, only to stall it for more debate.  That is the high purpose.  Lately, it has been used only for the low purpose of thwarting President Obama at every turn -- without even having to get up and talk for hours and hours.

But what's it about?   The controversial drone, target-killing without prior clearance by anyone outside the administration.    I have serious questions myself about the lack of oversight.

But the specific measure that prompted Rand's filibuster is the lack of Congressional oversight allowed Congress -- and Attorney General Eric Holder's less than stellar testimony when asked directly if the president had the authority to order the killing of an American citizen in the U. S.

He gave a vague answer -- I can't imagine any circumstances under which that would happen, but, well, -- and then he more or less said yes.   This produced outrage, and it got amplified into 'we should all be afraid that we'll be zapped by a drone while we sleep in our beds,' thus fueling the paranoid fear of the government that Republicans have been so good at amplifying and exploiting.

As the WSJ points out today, Rand should just calm down.  Eric Holder is right, but he explained it badly.   What he sould have said, quoting the WSJ:
"Mr. Holder is right, even if he doesn't explain the law very well. The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else. What it can do under the laws of war is target an "enemy combatant" anywhere at anytime, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant."
I agree.   If we're going to have war at all, drones are the face of modern warfare.  It does require careful thought about the ethics of those not in the heat of battle cooly taking down those who are.   But is that fundamentally, and morally, different from a general sitting in a tent a mile from the trenches directing the battle up front?

What is really the issue here that should be debated -- and which Paul to some extent highlighted -- is the role of Congree in the declaration and conduct of war.   The Constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility for declaring war, and to the Executive the right and responsibility to conduct the war.

But Congress does have an oversight function.  And even some Democrats have been critical of the administration's lack of transparency about the drone program.   The Senate Intelligence Committee has been trying to get copies of the DoJ internal legal justification for targeted killings of American citizens (who are considered enemy combatants) without a warrant or some other, prior authorization outside the White House.

The Paul filibuster also brought into clearer focus the differentiation between Congress' demand to see the legal justification used by the DoJ and the demand to see the actual tactical plans and lists of targets.   It is the former that they are asking for.

So let's all calm down.   The filibuster is over now, after 13 hours of actual, mostly substantive talk.  It didn't get to the silly stage of reading the phone book just to fill up the time and control the floor.   Let there be an honest debate on the larger issues -- but let them go ahead now and vote on Brennan's confirmation as the new Secretary of Defense.


Big Brother is watching . . .

I've read about the data-mining function of the internet, which lets companies know your interests and tastes so they can individualize ads for you.

Well, today, I experienced that first hand.   I've been online shopping for a duvet cover for my bed.   Yesterday I visited the Nordstrom's web site and clicked on one particular design to look at more carefully.

Just a few hours later, I was reading Ezra Klein's "Wonkblog" web site about Paul Ryan's latest budget proposal to eliminate the deficit.   And there, right to the side of the screen, was a Nordstrom ad for duvet covers -- the very one that I had looked at in the afternoon.

It was more amusing than troubling, really.   But when you think about the broader implications, we really are not in Kansas any more, Toto.  We are in Big Brotherland.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The haves just get more

The gap between haves and have nots just keeps getting wider in this "jobless recovery."

Yesterday, the Dow Jones hit an all time high of $14,286, and corporate profits have skyrocketed to record levels.   Companies are sitting on tons of money, but they are not investing it in new jobs and expansion.

At the same time of this elitists' prosperity, workers' wages are stagnated and unemployment is only very slowly recovering.

To me, what is needed could not be clearer:   the government needs to stimulate the economy by putting money into it:  infrastructure spending, more (not less) jobs in teaching, construction, and police.    More people working will increase demands for goods and services, which will increase production.  Corporations would invest the money they're hoarding in expansion and new jobs.

Instead, conservatives have sold the mantra that we have to get spending under control and reduce the deficit -- and they insist it has to be done by spending cuts alone.   But austerity does not work in a depressed economy like ours.   Even Paul Bernanke says we should not be focusing on spending cuts.

Democrats won the election . . . decisively.   Why are we still caught in a situation where the minority calls the shots?


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Study: politicians out of touch with constituents

An academic study at the University of Michigan surveyed nearly 2,000 state legislative candidates as to where they thought their constituents stood on three issues:   same-sex marriage, universal health care, and abolishing all welfare programs.

The results showed a remarkable misperception.   Overall, the politicians thought the people were more conservative than they are.   For example, their estimate of support for same-sex marriage and universal health care was 10% lower than it actually is.

Those politicians identified as conservative were off by 20%;  i.e. they thought support for those issues was 20% lower than it actually is.   In fact, the authors of the study concluded this:
"This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country."
This, of course, is a survey of state-level candidates for office in one state, albeit a swing-state in national elections.   Even if the numbers are not generalizable to the national level, they are still significant enough that it probably does indicate an effect that should be considered.   It fits with the Romney team's miscalculation of their chances of winning.

And, as the authors also point out, the findings rebuke the Nixonian notion of a "silent majority" that is more conservative that known.

Shouldn't progressive politicians look at this and take heart?   Dare to be bolder?   Listen up, President Obama and Democrats in Congress !!


Sunday, March 3, 2013

If this was a political campaign, we would call it "momentum"

In a sense, it is a political campaign, with one grand three-day debate scheduled this month when SCOTUS holds hearings on two cases involving marriage equality, DOMA and Prop 8.  And then nine people will vote.

No question, there is a campaign going on in the very formal filing of legal briefs by interested parties.   They are called amicus curiae, or "friend of the court."   All manner of advocacy and mental health organizations, thirteen state governments, and the federal Department of Justice all filed briefs supporting marriage equality.   Last week an affidavit signed by 100 prominent Republicans weighed in -- also in favor.

As proof that this is a momentum in a positive direction, now corporate America is jumping on the bandwagon.    With the deadline for filing briefs being January 31st, more than 100 corporations, from Armani to Goldman Sachs, Home Depot, and Nike, are saying that it is not only the right thing to do -- but it is good for business.

It's actually that sense of momentum that brought the business community in.   They don't want to be late for the wedding, once they began to see its inevitability.   As some corporations began to do what had never before been done in civil rights cases before the court and file supportive briefs, they didn't want to be left out.  The last week became quite frenzied when yet another Fortune 100 corporation called wanting to know if it was too late to join a brief.

I am gratified, and really quite surprised, by how relatively quickly we have gone -- to borrow a title from a book by Harvard Law School professor Michael Klarman -- From the Closet to the Altar.

Will the campaign matter?   Legal purists will say No.   I disagree.   It may not sway Scalia and Thomas.   But I think Roberts and Kennedy are more mindful of the court as a part of our national cultural landscape and mindful of its place in history.