It's Time to Reform the Filibuster

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

There are serious issues our country needs to be resolving, yet our Senate has a paralyzing procedure that stands in the way of progress.

There are national debates we need to conduct, yet the Senate is held captive by a measure that, under the pretense of extending debate, actually prevents debates from ever taking place. Furthermore, there are times when a broad consensus exists across party aisles, yet secret steps allow individual Senators to scuttle this unity.

For all these reasons, the efforts of some Senate Democrats, led by Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), to reform the rules of the Senate are critical to ensuring the Senate is a functional body in today’s government. The shorthand for their effort is “filibuster reform,” but it also includes reforms to “secret holds” and confirmation processes for uncontroversial nominees. This push is about more than the filibuster. It’s about making sure the Senate is doing the business of the American people.

January 25, 2011

As Olbermann Departs

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

The sudden announcement Friday night that Keith Olbermann would be leaving his nightly program “Countdown” on MSNBC sent his largely-progressive, ferociously-loyal viewers into shock. Amid the sadness, confusion and anger, though, there is a consolation: over eight years Olbermann has already succeeded more than many could have been imagined. He has demonstrated that brash, charming, progressive commentary could succeed on cable television. He has dented the armor of the overpowering Fox News. And he has ushered in a series of dynamic hosts whose voices are critical in today’s discourse.

The show — which had become, in the words of Olbermann’s departing comments, “established as antiestablishment” — had become an anchor for many liberals in the stormy sea of mostly conservative cable TV. The loss these viewers felt was on display immediately after his surprise announcement. The Twittersphere erupted with a mix of heartfelt thanks and farewells to a man whose forceful commentary shaming the Bush administration brought him national prominence. In the era of Obama, he continued to challenge those in power, condemning the actions of the new administration as forcefully as he had exposed the wrong-doings of its predecessors.

January 22, 2011

When Democrats Retire

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

The news this week that Senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota’s senior senator, would not seek re-election was quickly swamped by word that Senator Joe Lieberman would be stepping down at the end of his turn as well. Conrad quickly ceded the spotlight to Lieberman, a darling of DC media and a favorite nemesis of liberal pundits. 

Lieberman has spent a career finding his way into the center of attention, while Conrad has spent his time under budget documents and behind data charts.  Ezra Klein quotes Senator Mitch McConnell calling Conrad “Chart Man.” The talk about Lieberman has often been much more colorful, varied and not always flattering, starting with his nicknames — from “Holy Joe” for his sanctimonious tendencies to “Senator Palpatine,” a reference to his uncanny resemblance to the Emperor of the Star Wars universe. It was Senator Lieberman himself who brought the phrase “Joementum” to the American public right before he cruised to a “three-way tie for third” (his polite re-branding of his fifth place results) in the 2004 New Hampshire primary.

Name-calling aside, what does it mean to lose two senior Democrats in the same week?  And should progressives see an opportunity or a concern that both retirees are viewed as two of the more conservative members of the caucus?

January 21, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg's Ready to Listen?

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

Not many people expected to say the word “crowdsourcing” in Bloomberg's 10th State of the City address on Wednesday. 

The concept of crowdsourcing is that a project can trust the wisdom, actions and insights of the public to get better information and results. Wikipedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia — rather than paying a group of editors, writers and researches, it trusts the public to produce, edit and monitor content.  As the mayor noted, companies like Netflix use the reviews and responses of the masses to get you better information about the movie you are choosing. NPR’s On The Media is crowdsourcing listeners to help identify the Senator who put an anonymous hold on the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. 

It’s not surprising to hear the word employed in a public official’s speech. Far from simply being the latest fad, crowdsourcing is real, potentially quite powerful and should be thoughtfully engaged by government. What makes it surprising is hearing it in this mayor’s address, because Mayor Bloomberg is not a crowdsourcey kind of guy.

January 20, 2011

Congress: Back to Work as Usual

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

Perhaps the greatest week of the 112th Congress will be remembered as the week they didn’t do anything at all.

Even before the midterm elections decidedly handed the Speaker’s gavel to Rep. John Boehner, people expected that the 112th Congress would be different. The 111th had been marked by the energetic, progressive agenda of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House, which produced a series of far-reaching legislation over Republican objections.  Then, these proposals died in the Senate, which was paralyzed by the threat of a filibuster at every turn. As the Republicans relished their role as “The Party of No,” the Democrats — in a non-obvious strategy — mostly negotiated with themselves, making concessions to their caucus’s conservative colleagues and producing watered-down results that the GOP still didn’t vote for.

Surely, the 112th Congress would change this story line. Speaker Boehner would have to lead a majority that does something more than say no if he wanted to show that his party could provide solutions for our country’s woes. At the same time, as articles like Peter Boyer’s feature in The New Yorker insightfully described, he would have to contend with a more extreme Tea Party contingent in his ranks, and a roster of “Young Gun” Congressmen who may be gunning for his job.

Would we see a tempered Republican Party ready to lead?

January 19, 2011

Our Distorted Debate Exaggerates Our Divisions

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

This week pushed Americans together. Like feuding relatives in a dysfunctional family who put aside differences at moments of mourning, our fellow Americans — left, right and center — joined together to condemn the violence, to honor the victims and to affirm that peaceful discourse is important to our democratic society. Congressional Republican leaders postponed divisive votes. The President addressed the nation with words that bridged and healed. One Senator proposed altering a tradition at the State of the Union to have members of different parties sit together rather than across an aisle. 

Yet, even as we feel a spirit of unity, few of us would pretend there aren’t significant differences within our country. We know that before long, Congress will return to loud debates and party-line votes — and that’s all right. Our representatives should find common ground when they can, but need to stake out different sides when there are real divisions. I surprisingly found myself agreeing with Sarah Palin, when she noted that vigorous — and at times heated — debate are part of our country’s DNA.

In a column last week, Paul Krugman took it a step further, suggesting that’s our country doesn’t just differ on policies and legislative solutions, but that there are competing sets of moralities that animate the left and the right. For example, the left sees it as a moral imperative to take proactive steps, including government action, to ensure health care for all Americans. The right sees it as equally morally critical that we not force individuals to pay for others, that we not let the government become a nanny state that interferes in what should be choices by individuals.

Brian Lehrer pursued this question on his program, asking listeners to call in for a debate about the values underlying health care reform , and It’s A Free Country continued the debate, giving readers a forum to discuss “Different moralities, different ‘hopes and dreams.’”

Krugman’s assessment — that there are competing visions for our society and our country — is right on. But that doesn’t meant the country is as evenly divided as our our split Congress in Washington suggests. There’s a liberal majority in America…that just doesn’t know it’s liberal yet.

January 16, 2011

Thank You, Mr. President

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

These words, in the final moments of President Obama’s address in Tucson, refer to the 9 year-old victim, Christina Taylor Green. Christina’s life began on a day of national tragedy, September 11th, 2001, and ended with a national tragedy — spanning a decade that saw rancor, war, and economic crisis, as well as historic elections and moments of nationwide unity, prayer and celebration. 

Her life began at the moment of President Bush’s peak of popularity, when he stepped beyond his partisan alliances and delivered words to a grieving nation. Now, a decade later, President Obama has stepped up for his turn to console us, calm us, empathize with us and inspire us.

And in his speech, President Obama did what so many Americans from both ends of the political spectrum had reprimanded him for not doing effectively at many points over the past two years: he led us.

January 13, 2011

Lots of Talk after Arizona, but What's the Solution?

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

Emotions have been running high across the country since the Saturday shooting shattered our sense of security, took a half dozen lives and injured a dozen more victims in Tucson, Arizona.

The emotional reaction has included horror at this massacre, sympathies for the victims and their families, as well as fear for the safety of our communities and our political process. There has also been anger that has led to assignments of blame, accusations of contributing to a culture of violence and recriminations charging that people are politicizing a tragedy for narrow gain.

But amidst all of this passionate discussion, are there solutions?

January 11, 2011

It is the Right Time to Examine Our Political Culture, Gun Laws

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was doing her job, and doing it damn well, on Saturday morning when a gunman lodged a bullet in her brain, assassinated Judge John Roll, and murdered and injured nearly a dozen bystanders.  She was doing exactly what we want our representatives to do: coming to her constituents, listening to them, being part of their lives and making them central to her work.

She was paying tribute to the First Amendment of our Constitution.  Then, a deranged man who took the Second Amendment to a lunatic extreme, shattered this democratic morning in Tucson, Arizona.

We all know, in our hearts, that there are dangers in an open society like ours.  Especially our elected officials must feel that awareness that we ask them to make unpopular choices, at times, then walk with us as our peers.  We don’t want them surrounded by bodyguards or hidden behind iron gates.  It is important that we have access to those who govern and represent us.

Their safety – and by extension, our own safety – comes not from security ropes and magnetometers, but from a society that sets rules and expectations: that we don’t urge or tolerate violence; that we may scream and shout, but not punch or tackle; that guns are not a solution to our political problems.  And these expectations – which create a workable democratic society – need to be reinforced by our laws, our rhetoric and the example of our leaders.

January 10, 2011

Cuomo's Mixed Metaphors

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's a Free Country)

Governor Andrew Cuomo likes symbols. He removed the barricades of “Fort Pataki.” He staged a more humble Inauguration to reflect our serious times, then hosted a more open State of the State to gesture that he was returning the government to the people of New York. Using visuals in his Address wasn’t just about making points with a graph and winning a few laughs – it was a symbol of moving government into a new century.

One of the symbols that appealed to me in Saturday’s address was that of the State Capitol. He pointed out the grandeur of it – the murals, the craftsmanship, the aspirations captured in the architecture. Then he made an appeal to the people of New York:

Look at the statement that they were making. Look at the commitment, look at the resources. They could have built a building in one-tenth the time, with one-tenth the expense, and one-tenth the effort. That’s not what they wanted. They wanted to make a statement when they built this institution of government. They wanted to say: we believe in government; we respect government; we are committed to government; we want the government to succeed.

Those words inspired me. Far from a Reagenesque “Government is the problem” mentality or even a Clintonesque sentiment of “the era of big government is over,” Andrew Cuomo was daring to say something for the government: that it reflects our shared aspirations and is a tool to achieve our greatest goals.

While it may be a great metaphor, it is also a mixed metaphor for Cuomo at best. It is a symbol that required investment, at a time when the governor is talking about cuts. It is a symbol of the importance of the public sector, while attacks against public sector employees increase. It is a symbol of what Albany can achieve — or what our government can achieve — at the same moment our elected leaders are telling us that only private business can achieve our goals.

January 06, 2011