Another Failed Senate Bill Attempt (or Why I Blame Harry Reid)

I had, perhaps foolishly, higher hopes than usual for the latest attempt to pass climate legislation in the US Senate. Harry Reid killed that completely, formally, yesterday. So I was very frustrated for the rest of the day. I’ve been discussing these multi-faceted frustrations with many of the environmental bloggers I know and trying to work out the next course of action, on what I consider to be the most important policy issue of the era. I will be discussing this more during the coming days, in lieu of my planned action/public lobbying posts (I canceled the one on Thursday about calling Senators and won’t be doing the one today about lobbying the White House).

But I think DR Grist (David Roberts) had an excellent post-mortem on the dead climate legislation attempt, in which he made a number of strong points. The two linked points I choose to highlight today are these… first:

Every cowardly senator repeats it like a talisman to ward off the terrible threat of having to act: “We don’t have the votes.” Two things to say about that. First, of course you don’t have votes for something this controversial before you go to the floor and force the issue. Pelosi didn’t have the votes before she took the House bill to the floor. She got the votes by twisting arms and making deals. She forced the issue. That was the only way the Senate vote could ever work — if the bill was put on the floor, the issue was forced, and Dems united in daring the GOP to vote against addressing the oil spill. There’s no guarantee that would have worked, but at least it would have been a political rallying point. It would have put senators on record. And it’s not like the wimpy avoidance strategy is producing better results.

 
We will never know if the votes are there or not unless we bring these provisions up for votes. It seems inconceivable to me that the Democrats could be taking a political bigger risk at this point by holding and losing big policy votes than by getting nothing done for two years. After all, the public elects them to cast votes and after a while will lose patience with the idea that they can sit there for six years and not cast any major votes in order to avoid casting risky votes. The Senate Democrats are risking their majority by not getting anything done, and they are not getting anything done because they are sure that they will risk their majority by voting on potentially controversial things and losing… somehow.

Like the House Democrats as a caucus, some individual Senate Democrats have put out themselves on the line publicly supporting climate policy provisions that will be unpopular with special interests, only to find the Senate as a whole isn’t planning to even hold a vote, let alone pass it so they have something to show for their courage. Mark Begich of Alaska, for example, is a moderate freshman Democrat from a conservative oil-producing state and he supported this plan publicly; that kind of willingness to take political risks shouldn’t be rewarded with another failure from lack of even trying.

And to finish quoting David Roberts’ related point:

Second, senators need to stop talking about “60 votes” as though it’s in the Constitution that the U.S. Senate — unlike every other legislative body on the planet — has a supermajority requirement. It’s not in the Constitution. It’s an accident, an informal rule that Republicans have taken to relentlessly abusing, not to extend debate but simply to degrade the Senate’s ability to act. The filibuster is anti-democratic and it is thwarting the country’s will. The American people need to be told this and senators who still want their institution to be minimally functional need to start getting angry about it.

 
This was not only another failed climate bill attempt, but one more failed bill attempt in general for the Democrats because of the myth of 60. The blame for this latest failure lies with them almost as much as with the ever-obstructive Republicans. I have condemned many of these Senate Democrats individually over the past year and half, but I reserve my strongest condemnation of failure for Harry Reid on this one. It was his (great) idea to merge the must-pass Spill Bill with climate and energy legislation. We knew it would be limited, but he got our hopes up by claiming (along with others like Kerry and Lieberman) that the caucus was uncharacteristically totally united behind this effort… and then he failed to deliver on this and by extension the job he is most required to do: lead. Now, having failed to unite his own caucus, let alone gather bipartisan support, he has punted climate legislation to November or beyond, when it will have even less chance of passage.

The extent to which I despise the pathetic failure of a US Senate Majority Leader we have right now has now reached unfathomable levels. I don’t say that lightly. I don’t despise the man himself, but the job he is doing (or not doing, more accurately) as “Leader.” When he uses the phrase “we don’t have the votes” — or lets others in key committee roles use the phrase — or refuses to pursue filibuster reform actively, it’s like he expects that votes will materialize when they feel the time is right, and that if we keep vaguely chopping legislation down without any real give-and-take negotiations, eventually 60 lost Senators will wander back to the fold and agree to vote for whatever half-assed stone soup has been assembled (or still remains).

One never gets the feeling that Harry Reid is shepherding the flock toward anything in particular or that he even has a bell to lead them home. They’re more like free-range chickens. That’s why I say he’s a pathetic failure as Majority Leader. And because his Republican opponent is out-of-her-mind crazy, he’ll be re-elected this year, which means at least another two years of his leadership, since he’s unlikely to step aside and won’t be challenged (or at least not successfully, since his hands-off style is exactly what most of the ego-maniacal Democratic caucus members love in a majority leader). Sure, the White House should get some of the blame too for not taking a more active role in pushing the Senate on these things, and that’s probably a function of President Obama’s tenure as a legislator himself for many years, but Harry Reid’s very title should command some level of reasonable expectation that he will lead the caucus.

For now, it will be time to re-evaluate on climate change mitigation efforts, perhaps by supporting inclusion of a strong renewable energy standard, as DR Grist suggests (although Reid also doesn’t want that), or by defending the Environmental Protection Agency vigorously as it works to regulate CO2 emissions without Congressional action. To be continued, as they say, but I wanted to make some initial comment on this Senate failure first…

This essay was originally published at Starboard Broadside.

We endorse Mike Capuano for US Senate

This is the official endorsement by the Editors-in-Chief of Starboard Broadside for the US Senate special Democratic primary election to be held on December 8th, 2009. The final special election will be in late January.

For us, this was a pretty simple choice: former Somerville mayor and current US Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA-08) should be the next US Senator from Massachusetts. We made this decision based on several factors… First, Capuano has an impressive, unabashedly progressive voting record in the US House of Representatives. Second, on the big issues of today, he is not only already engaged in working on them and ready to hit the ground running in the upper chamber, but he has the right campaign positions. Finally, he is the best candidate to take up the banner of Ted Kennedy’s vision for America.

In office since 1999, with a lifetime progressive score of 95.42%, Rep. Capuano has been voting the right way on all the major issues that matter to progressive and liberal Democrats. Of particular importance are his votes against the 2001 USA PATRIOT ACT, the 2008 FISA domestic surveillance amendments, and the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002, which shows he has his head on straight. While it is a bit troubling that he has supported some of Israel’s more aggressive actions, such as the 2006 campaign in Lebanon, he also believes that a comprehensive two-state-based plan for peace in Israel and Palestine will help Israel in the long run more than endless war with terrorist groups. Capuano has also created a coalition of US representatives to take action on Sudan and the genocide in Darfur, and he has worked to end illegal torture and rendition of terrorism suspects, which we feel demonstrates a clear commitment to a humanitarian foreign policy that lives up to America’s ideals. He has a record of voting against nuclear weapons buildups and missile defense boondoggles. We conclude that as one of one hundred senators, his sensible foreign policy votes and stances will have even more impact. On the current health care reform, Capuano has voted against the dangerous Stupak abortion restriction amendment but for the overall reform plan. On the environment, he has a solid record heading into the ongoing climate change legislative process early next year. On education, he has voted to mitigate the negative effects of the No Child Left Behind legislation and has supported increased funding for public education in general. His record is virtually impeccable, he defends his liberal credentials vociferously and without apology, and there’s no mystery as to how he’ll vote in the Senate, which unfortunately cannot be said for any of his Democratic rivals, none of whom have any legislative record.

Whoever is elected to the Senate in January must have the right campaign positions on four pressing issues: the economy, the environment, and the War in Afghanistan, and health care reform. Capuano does have the right positions (given in those links) on these issues…

As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, Capuano is working right now on reforms that we hope will prevent a similar economic catastrophe in future. We believe that while the TARP financial bailout program was problematic and poorly executed, we still think it was necessary, and therefore we commend his vote in favor of it and his recognition that we need to keep fixing the problems of the bailout. In another area, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) has introduced aggressive consumer protection legislation, and Mike Capuano has been an advocate for consumers in the House, so we know he’ll support tough legislation such as Dodd’s.

On the environment, Capuano has pledged to continue strengthening climate change (cap-and-trade) legislation, which will still be on the table in January. Critically, he supports green jobs programs and renewable energy projects such as Cape Wind (off Cape Cod) that benefit Massachusetts and help fight global warming. He will also support tougher emissions standards for vehicles, which is always a good thing. From recycling programs in Somerville to legislative work in Washington, Capuano understands the need for strong environmental legislation.

On the campaign trail over the past couple months, he has called for the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan; while we have debated whether or not it is the right time to draw down, we are agreed that we should not escalate further and that we need to prepare a clear exit plan. Capuano has consistently voted against indefinite timelines and military proposals that do not include an end plan.

Finally, on health care, the current legislation may have passed Congress by the time the next Senator takes office in January, but we don’t know what form it will take and we know that it will be far from a complete piece of legislation. For this reason, especially since the next person elected to the Massachusetts Senate seat could well hold the spot for decades, it is critical to have a Senator in place who will continue to push for more and better health care reform legislation. Thus far, he has voted the right way, and he maintains that he has been a strong, longtime supporter of increasing coverage for Americans, which we believe he will continue to be.

The third reason we have decided to endorse Rep. Mike Capuano for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is that he is best suited to continue Senator Kennedy’s vision for the country. Kennedy served Massachusetts in the United States Senate from 1962 to 2009, and throughout it he fought for access to health care by all Americans and for quality education for all American children, and he worked to improve the lives of middle income and poor Americans. Whether serving in Somerville MA or on Capitol Hill in DC, Mike Capuano has demonstrated a commitment to these same ideals, as a liberal, as a Democrat, and as an American citizen. Although the Kennedy family or their loyal friends have held that Senate seat from 1953 to the present (with interim Sen. Paul Kirk Jr.), for the past three decades Ted Kennedy used that seat for fulfilling his ideals, not simply for fulfilling family or personal ambition. Thus, we feel that it is important to elect the candidate best suited to continue pursuing these aims. We don’t want a carbon copy, but we believe Ted Kennedy was one of the greatest Senators in US history, and so it’s important to fill his shoes as best we can. With a proven legislative record living up to Ted Kennedy’s vision, and the experience and Washington connections needed to continue the Dream, it’s clear Capuano will keep up the work that the Kennedy family started long ago with that seat.

Although we looked at the other candidates, we were not as impressed as with Rep. Capuano. State Attorney General Martha Coakley does not have a legislative record at any level, and she has had a fairly low-profile in her current office, which concerns us because we don’t want a wildcard, but rather a reliable liberal vote. Many of her supporters have argued that we need more women in office and that this is a sufficient reason to elect her. While we appreciate that we certainly do need more female leaders, we also believe that we should elect the candidate with the best positions and the best record, regardless of gender, and we feel that Capuano is better on both counts. We believe that Alan Khazei, a co-founder of City Year and a friend of Ted Kennedy, is an earnest candidate who is probably quite liberal, if untested, but he lacks the relevant experience we’d like to see in such an important office at this critical time. He would be new to government, and he would not be able to hit the ground running if elected. Furthermore, because he is so unknown, if Khazei won the primary he would be the most likely to put the seat at risk for a Republican capture — an unlikely scenario for the others. Mike Capuano is a much safer bet on all counts. Steve Pagliuca is the candidate we definitely cannot support in this primary because he is a former Republican and seems like a rich opportunist whom we can’t trust to represent the liberal Massachusetts constituency. He supported the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, despite abandoning the Republican Party before that. We have trouble supporting anyone who did that. Pagliuca’s positions are also questionable, including when he confuses people by issuing and backtracking from position statements, such as supporting a military draft. He has also showed insufficient concern for women’s rights, suggesting that the Stupak abortion restriction in the House health care bill was largely irrelevant or unimportant. Mike Capuano, on the other hand, raises none of these doubts in our minds.

In conclusion, we enthusiastically join the impressive list of those who have already endorsed Representative Mike Capuano for United States Senate for the Massachusetts Democratic primary on 12/8/09, and we will be casting our absentee ballots for Newton MA to help him win. We hope those of you who are registered to vote in Massachusetts will do the same.

Learn more about Mike Capuano and his positions at MikeCapuano.com

Yet another reason the US Senate sucks

Yeah, I get the need for compromise in 1789 to get the Constitution passed, and I can see how back in the day it made sense to worry that some states would be trampled by others. But that matters less and less these days as the country is far more unified than before, with regional concerns often trumping state-by-state concerns. And thus the Senate serves as an undemocratic obstruction to passing sound policy backed by the country.

Specifically, on health care reform, 40 Republicans elected by 44.2 million voting Americans are able to stall and block 55 Democrats and independents elected by 79.8 million voters, with help from 5 obstructionist Democrats who were elected by a mere 2.5 million voters.

We know the polling data shows overwhelming public support for serious health care reform. We know that 79.8 million Americans voted for 55 US Senators (or their predecessors for the appointees) who support this reform. And yet 40 lousy Republicans concentrated in a decreasing number of states – mostly in the southern United States – backed by half as many voters are able to stall things to the point where health care reform is in danger again.

The US Senate sucks. It’s great when you’re in it, but it’s not so good for the rest of America. And, in my view, it’s getting pretty obsolete.

Originally published at Starboard Broadside