Death of the Filibuster

Well, not really death, maybe more of a wounding. Well, not really a wounding, maybe more of a paper cut (ooh, but those things are nasty!), since the recent Senate rule change (see NYT article) blocked the filibuster only in regards to certain executive branch nominations and lower federal court appointments (not the Supreme Court). So it’s still fine to filibuster each and every one of the myriad other Senate bills that come up to help make the world safe for American business. But it raises an interesting question. How many votes should it take to decide something?

Our first response is that of course it should just be a simple plurality. What got more votes? If 51 people want Tom to be dog catcher (I’m sorry, Animal Control Officer) and 49 want Bill, then Tom’s got the job. That’s the default of democracy, right? But what if the Community Association is ordering pizza for its annual meeting? Should 51 meat lovers be able to order only pepperoni and sausage pizzas and force the 49 vegetarians to go hungry (or violate their principles)? That’s certainly “democratic” (small d) but somehow just doesn’t seem right. It’s what they call tyranny of the majority and of course has impacts far beyond pizza. After all, if Hitler found 51% of Germans (a not unlikely percentage) willing to say “Let’s get rid of all the Jews” and “Let’s invade everybody, even though we’re hopelessly outnumbered,” should the Germans have gone ahead with those plans even though a significant minority of the population thought “this is evil and insane and will destroy our country”? (the survivors getting to say “We told you so” after the war doesn’t make up for it)

No. Clearly some things are too important and/or too risky to enter into without more significant consensus than 51 to 49. Maybe 75% of people should need to agree to start a war?

But which things are that important? What decisions are so impactful that we would like to see more than 50.1% agreement? Hard to say—that would require some thought and careful analysis, substances that are in short supply in the government right now (and the country at large, for that matter). I suggested that going to war and ordering pizza are some possibilities (and the Constitution says amending the Constitution also is one) but there certainly are many others. Since it’s pretty hard to come up with a comprehensive list, the Senate, by permitting filibusters, has simply allowed significant minorities (originally 33%, now 40%) to decide on their own what issues they think are momentous enough to require more than 51% agreement. However, the original intent was that the minority would demand such greater consensus only when they had serious, strongly-held, principled objections (like to going to war or to denying Black people the vote). But the way the filibuster is now conducted, the “serious, strongly-held, principled” part has become simply “whenever we don’t like something.” Every vote has become vegetarians vs carnivores and the minority always feels justified in requiring a supermajority. Hmm. That doesn’t seem right either.

Eliminating the filibuster (either completely or only for certain types of bills) would just take us back to tyranny of the majority. But keeping the filibuster as it is makes every decision, from appointing postmasters to agreeing to pay bills we’ve already incurred, as momentous as going to war. What seems more sensible is to raise the bar for when a minority is allowed to put on the brakes. And that would involve coming up with some way to distinguish strongly-held, principled objections to major policy issues from mere annoyance at not getting one’s way. Now we know we can’t just ask politicians how important something is. They’re all capable of describing the closing of a post office in terms worthy of the apocalypse. No, we need them to demonstrate their level of commitment—prove that their issue is really important stuff and not just partisan pique. Perhaps holding their breath until they turn blue? That would be fun to watch, but probably too easy. The original filibuster rules required speaking until you turned blue. That’s a bit harder, how about that? Well, it demonstrated commitment but also blocked every other bit of occasionally-legitimate business of the Senate for an extended period of time. We need something that doesn’t stop the government in its tracks. Hunger strikes? Getting a face tattoo (“Block Senate Bill S. 47!”)? Shaving their head and painting their scalp green? Hmm, I sort of like the face tattooing, but maybe there’s something that also shows that their constituents go along with the idea. How about saying senators can only “super” a bill (ie, require a supermajority) if they present a petition signed by a significant percentage of their constituents? How many? I don’t know, but demonstrating buy-in by more than a core of rabid partisans would entail major effort that wouldn’t be undertaken at the drop of a hat (or bill) and would also ensure that senators couldn’t filibuster something that most of their constituents agreed with.

Anybody have other alternatives? Unlike the Congress, I’m open to ideas.

Lies, Damn Lies and Mistakes

A staple of knucklehead-dom is the man who, on being challenged about some inane statement he made like “Obama is a Kenyan-born, Muslim socialist,” “The Apollo moon landings were Hollywood fakes,” or “Sarah Palin would make a fine president, ” blusters the retort, “You callin’ me a liar? Huh, are ya’?” Although the tempting reply is simply a whack on the nose with a rolled up newspaper (something you can’t do with your iPad—more than once, anyway), the rational person instead sighs and points out, “No, I’m not calling you a liar. I’m just saying that you’re mistaken—sadly and deludedly mistaken, but nonetheless simply mistaken. There’s a difference.”

So how is it that so many people on all sides, including the typically rational Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, seem to have bought into the Fox trope that Obama “lied” to us about the ACA. You know, the part where he said “If you like your coverage, you can keep it.” Well, he was certainly wrong. But was he wrong on purpose, that is, was he lying? Was he muttering to himself, “If we tell people their shitty coverage isn’t allowed under the new law, they’ll be really upset and will call Fox News and complain. I know! Let’s tell them that they can keep policies that are specifically banned by the law! Even though it’s written down in the ACA in black and white where everyone can read it, who will know?”  Really? Because that’s the thought process that would have to have been going on for this to be a lie. And that would make it not just a lie, but a really, really stupid lie. I mean, you’ve got a better chance arguing that the shadow angles on the videos prove the moon landings were fake than you do arguing that a law doesn’t require what it specifically says it requires. Now the 15% of the population who would believe absolutely anything bad about the president also have no trouble believing he’d lie like this. As for me, it doesn’t make much sense. Especially when there’s the alternative possibility that he was mistaken.

I think he (mistakenly) meant something else, and I say that mainly because I (mistakenly) thought he meant something else. When I heard him talk about keeping your policy if you liked it, I interpreted that to mean the fairly minor points that if you liked having health insurance, the insurance company couldn’t throw you off for outrageous offenses such as getting sick and costing them money, and that if you were already covered at work, then you wouldn’t be required to drop that plan and sign up on the exchanges—that the ACA didn’t apply to the vast majority of people who had coverage through their company. It was designed to facilitate coverage of people who were unable to get basic health insurance on their own. I (mistakenly) wasn’t thinking about the few percent (and that’s all it is) of people who purchase their own insurance, and purchased a plan that doesn’t meet the basic ACA standards, and don’t want a better one, and don’t qualify for enough subsidies to make one of the ACA plans cheaper. Mistake? Yep. Lie? No way.

I think the president (and I) have done enough mea culpas. Let’s remember what this whole thing is about. We’re trying to make health insurance available to more of the nearly 50 million Americans who do not have it, AND we’re trying to set some pretty minimum standards for what can be offered as “health insurance.” There are standards for what’s in gasoline and how your house plumbing has to be put together, so why not standards for health insurance? And just a reminder, here’s what we’re talking about:

The essential health benefits include at least the following items and services:

  • Ambulatory patient services (outpatient care you get without being admitted to a hospital)
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization (such as surgery)
  • Maternity and newborn care (care before and after your baby is born)
  • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment (this includes counseling and psychotherapy)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (services and devices to help people with injuries, disabilities, or chronic conditions gain or recover mental and physical skills)
  • Laboratory services
  • Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  • Pediatric services

In addition, health insurers will be prohibited from imposing lifetime limits on coverage and will be prohibited from rescinding coverage; new health plans will be required to cover certain preventive services with no cost-sharing; increases in health plan premiums will be subject to review; insurers will be required to spend at least 80% of premiums on medical costs; young adults will be allowed to remain on their parent’s insurance up to age 26.

Don’t like that? Maybe you also like water in your gasoline and plumbing made out of cardboard. The rest of us think it should be standard.

Less Food for the Hungry

Republicans are using the new farm bill as a vehicle to continue their long tradition of ensuring government money does not go to undeserving recipients. Oh, you say, they’re going to change the law so that rich people no longer qualify for farm subsidies and crop-insurance subsidies (see NYT article yesterday)? You mean billionaires like Paul Allen and Charles Schwab won’t continue to get government $$ for the farmland owned by the intertwined rat’s nest of corporate shells they maintain? Multistate food producing corporations that bear as much resemblance to a struggling family farm as the US Navy does to a couple duck hunters in a rowboat will have their handouts cut?

Hah! Of course not. We can’t do means testing when the well-to-do are involved. No, the undeserving recipients of aid who worry the Republicans are hungry people (as in hungry for food, not as in hungry for wealth and power—those people don’t bother Republicans a bit). The specific hungry people are those receiving food stamps from SNAP, the supplemental nutritional assistance program (interestingly always handled under the Farm Bill). The food stamp program was cut by $5 billion Nov. 1, which is already having a significant impact. And the House is proposing to cut $40 billion over the next decade which will remove 3.8 million people from SNAP the first year (and keep 210,000 kids from getting free school meals).

Why are the Republicans doing this? Well, they say the economy has recovered, so there theoretically shouldn’t be as many hungry people, so we should cut down the number we help. Unfortunately the “recovery” didn’t trickle down to the bottom. There are still 49.7 million people living in poverty and the SNAP program helps keep several million above that line (see

And if the Republicans don’t care about feeding the poor (perhaps they all misplaced their Bibles) they should at least consider that the food stamp $$ go directly to businesses (ummm, businesses making money! Me likey!). And if that isn’t enough benefit to people who are not desperately poor, perhaps we could tack on a provision to have SNAP fund caviar carts that circulate around the offices of busy hedge fund managers. Then food aid would never be touched.