Saturday, January 30, 2010

Real Filibusters

In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama pointed out several important bills that had passed the House, but had not been voted on in the Senate. How has this happened?

In the U.S. Senate there are no hard limits on the length of debate on a bill. Senators can talk as long as they like, unless 60 out of 100 Senators vote to end debate. This allows 41 determined Senators to prevent a vote, thus preventing a bill from becoming law.

Before the 2007-2008 Congress the filibuster was rarely used, but when the Democrats won the 2006 congressional election, the Republicans started using the filibuster frequently to prevent bills from passing. Since Democrat Obama won the Presidency in 2008 and put together a 60 vote caucus in the Senate, Republicans have filibustered at an unprecedented rate so major bills can only pass if every single Democrat and Independent votes to end debate. This has significantly limited Congress' productivity. With the recent election of a 41st Republican Senator, the Republicans are in a position to prevent any bill they don't like from becoming law.

While the Republicans are definitely being obstructionist, preventing the majority from governing, the Senate leadership is making it easy for them. To prevent a vote, Republicans don't actually have to keep talking for hours or days, the Republican leadership just says they will filibuster and a 60 vote majority is required. Thus, filibustering is easy and cheap. A few words and it's done.

If the Democrats want to pass their agenda, they need to make filibustering costly, not cheap. This can be done in two ways: physically and politically.

Physically, the Democratic leadership can force the Republicans to actually filibuster, not just say they will. Make them actually stand up and talk for days. The rules say no sitting, no food, and no bathroom breaks. If they stop talking a vote can be taken. Even thought they can tag team, it's still painful and difficult.

Politically, filibusters can be made costly by broadcasting the debate on CSPAN and taking the best bits for YouTube. To talk for days you have to either repeat yourself endlessly or introduce irrelevant material, for example, reading the phone book. That won't look good on TV and can be incredibly useful in campaign ads.

If you think President Obama is intelligent and has the best interests of the country at heart, then help him get his middle-class-focussed agenda passed. Contact Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, at and tell him to make the Republicans actually filibuster, not just say they will.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Republicans and Health Care

Republicans have showed great party discipline in opposing health care reform. With a 41st vote in the Senate provided by Senator Elect Brown, the Democrats cannot pass health care over a Republican filibuster if this discipline holds. The leadership and many senators will oppose any health care bill as they see health care defeat as a way to hurt President Obama and help Republicans regain power. However, there may be principled Republican senators who will vote to reform health care if they believe it is good for the country.

There are a couple of major items that conservatives want in health care that I, as a card-carrying liberal, am very comfortable with. They are: tort reform to limit pain-and-suffering settlements against doctors and selling medical insurance across state lines. I don't believe these will lead to the cost benefits conservatives expect, but so what? I might be wrong and, properly implemented, neither will have a negative impact. Including them, and cleaning up some of the junk in the current bill, might be enough to get a few Republican senatorial votes.

Both California and Texas have limits on legal settlements today. It doesn't seem to save any money, but it doesn't seem to do much damage either. Limiting settlements against big companies is a bad idea, they will tend to favor profit over safety, but limiting settlements against individual doctors and other health care providers is not dangerous on any large scale as the vast majority of doctors and other health care workers care deeply about the health and welfare of their patients.

Allowing companies to sell medical insurance across state lines is no problem at all as long as the regulatory regime is taken from the state the patient lives in. The problem with inter-state insurance is that companies may move to the state with the cheapest regime, but if the rules in the patient's state apply this is is a non-issue. The additional competition will probably drive down prices, but in any case will not hurt anything. Why not include it?

If major conservative ideas are incorporated into the health care bill, it is at least possible that some Republicans will come on board. Of course, if all the Republicans are only concerned with hurting President Obama as much as possible, a real possibility, there is no hope. However, I think there are at least some Republican senators for whom country is more important than party and recognize that the present US health care system is an expensive mess in desperate need of intelligent reform.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Obama: One Year On

I consider the Presidency to be a no-excuses job. If the country does well, the President did a good job. If the country does poorly, the President is lousy. By this measure Clinton was a good president, he inherited a country doing pretty well and left it in excellent shape. By contrast, Bush inherited a country in great shape -- paying down it's debt and militarily and diplomatically pre-eminent -- and left America a mess. Obama inherited that mess, but how is he doing so far?

Last year about this time I posted an article laying out where we were so that comparisons could be made [see Where We Are]. The ship of state is large and doesn't turn quickly, but after a year it's fair to start crediting or blaming Obama for what has happened.

The short answer is that the economy is better (except unemployment), our standing in the world is much better, and the military situation is better, but we are racking up debt at an amazing rate and that will sink us if not reversed.

For the long answer I've copied each of the items from last year's article that could be compared to today. Last year's text is in italic and this year's state in normal text. Note that it is often difficult to find the exact same measures as I did last year, so some of the comparisons must be treated with caution.


  • The federal government is $10 trillion in debt. Today is it over $12 trillion.

  • The projected deficit for fiscal 2009 is $1.2 trillion (not counting the stimulus package). The actual deficit for fiscal 2009 was $1.4 trillion. Estimated deficit for fiscal 2010 is $1.17 trillion. (NOTE: fiscal 2010 goes from 1 Oct 2009 to 30 Sept 2010).

  • The economy is losing half a million jobs a month, a total of three million in the last year. In November, the economy added 4,000 jobs.

  • Total debt, government, commercial, and personal, is about $53 trillion. Total debt is around $57 trillion.

  • The Dow Jones is around 8,000, down from around 14,000 a year earlier. The Dow Jones is at 10,600.

  • The S&P 500 is around 800, down from around 1,400 a year earlier. The S&P 500 is at 1,136

  • Home foreclosure filings in January 2009 totaled 274,399 [Reuters]. Banks took over 92,000 homes in December 2009

  • Major financial institutions have failed completely, others avoided failure only with massive government subsidies, and many more are on the brink of collapse. The major financial institutions have reduced their leverage from 30-1 to around 10-1 and seem to be much more secure, many are making money, and some have returned their bailout money with interest.

  • Two of the three major American car manufacturers require massive government subsidies to avoid bankruptcy. All three major American car manufacturers are alive, although GM now has the government as a majority stock holder and Chrysler was sold to Fiat.

  • The official unemployment rate is 7.6%. The official unemployment rate is 10%, down from 10.2% a month ago.

  • U.S. GDP has been down every quarter for about a year. It was down 6.8% in the last quarter of 2008. GDP increased 2.2% in the third quarter of 2009.

  • The economy is about as good as one might realistically hope given that it almost went off a cliff right as Obama took over. The stock market and GDP are up, employment is higher, but improving slightly, and home foreclosures are slowing. Debt, however, is very high and growing fast. If not curbed, America will go bankrupt.

    Foreign Affairs

  • Iraq is, relatively, peaceful and arguably democratic. Unchanged.

  • The ruling parties in Iraq have very close ties with Iran. Iran also has very close ties with rulers in the Kurdish areas. Unchanged, but the government of Iran has lost legitimacy after rigging recent elections.

  • America has approximately 150,000 uniformed forces and 190,000 'contractors' (aka mercenaries) in Iraq. In December 2009 there were approximately 112,000 uniformed forces and US troops are no longer actively participating in combat operations.

  • The Taliban have the initiative in Afghanistan and are making major gains. The Taliban were recently reported to be clearedfrom Helman province, which is a key area. Later reports suggest that this was only partially accomplished.

  • The Taliban have repeatedly cut NATO supply routes through Pakistan; in one case destroying hundreds of trucks filled with supplies. In another, destroying a hundred foot long bridge. NATO is being forced to develop alternative supply routes. Such attacks have not made the news in the last six to nine months, at least that I've noticed and I look.

  • Major news stories say Kyrgyzstan will close the Manas air base used to support and supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. The base is still in use by the US Air Force.

  • The Taliban control substantial and growing swaths of territory in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban have lost control of substantial territories in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • The Taliban leadership lives more-or-less openly in Quetta. I've seen nothing to suggest this has changed.

  • The Taliban just cut a deal with local government leaders to impose Sharia on the Swat in exchange for a cease fire. The Taliban were pushed out of Swat by the Pakistan army.

  • The Taliban just launched a successful attack in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The Taliban launched a big attack in Kabul today., all seven assailants were apparently killed.

  • Basically, the Taliban are kicking our butts. These are the guys that harbored al Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attack. They are still close allies. The Taliban are hurting and may have lost the initiative. It's hard to tell the real situation though. Most important, a recent poll indicated abou 70% approval for the US effort, vs 40% a year ago. As support of the population is the key to counter-insurgency warfare, this is very good news.

  • The Isrealis and Hamas just ended three weeks of major fighting. Rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel have mostly stopped.

  • Particularly prior to Obama's election, much of the world viewed America as a country that tortures people, invades others, and pursues a largely go-it-alone, my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy. Many perceive America as a bully. Obama has turned this around to the point that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While Obama did not believe he deserved the prize, awarding it is a strong sign that America's image is on the mend. Again, this is key to winning the war with al Qaeda. This war cannot be won without world-wide support, particularly from Muslims.

  • America has suffered major Islamic extremist terrorist attacks in the first few months of the last two presidential administrations. That would make us due for one now. There have been two small attacks, one killing 13 American soldiers and a failed attempt to bring down an airliner, but nothing on the scale of 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, or the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

  • North Korea tested their first nuclear weapon in 2006. No new tests, but no improvement either.

  • North Korea conducted a number of long range missile tests, including multiple simultaneous launches (important for defeating missile defense). No recent tests.

  • Iran has made major strides in developing the technology and infrastructure to support development of nuclear tipped missiles. Iran has continued on this path.

  • Bottom line, in the foreign policy arena, particularly the war with al Qaeda and their Taliban allies, the situation is much improved in most areas.

    Governing Operations

  • The Republican and Democratic parties are bitterly divided and partisan; so much so that two Republican senators refused an invitation to watch the Super Bowl at the White House and an economic stimulus package passed with only three Republican votes in Congress. Nearly all economists, left, right and center, agree a large stimulus is needed to avert economic catastrophe. The parties are still bitterly divided, particularly over health care reform.

  • Government is generally viewed as grossly incompetent. Little change.

  • U.S. intelligence services regularly spy on American citizens, in America, communicating with others in America, without a warrant. It's not clear if this has stopped or not.

  • The U.S. government operates a network of out-of-country prisons specifically intended to evade the rule of law. Guantanamo being the crown jewel of the network. The network is still intact, but Guantanamo is being closed down, albeit not on schedule.

  • Medical

  • In 2008 there were almost 46 million Americans without health insurance. RWJF. America is the only industrialized country without nearly universal health care insurance. Unchanged, although reform bills have passed both houses of Congress but still need to be reconciled, voted on by Congress, and signed by the President. The primary issue is whether a compromise bill can win 50% plus one in the House and get 60 votes in the Senate to stop a certain filibuster.

  • Bottom line, the country is better off than it was a year ago, by a fair margin, although there are plenty of serious problems. So far so good. President Obama is doing a good, though far from perfect, job.