Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year in Review and New Year's Resolution

The year 2009 was definitely a lot of things: a year of change (the first non-white president and a near-filibuster-proof Senate majority), a year of denial (with many refusing to believe the president was indeed born American to refusing the democratic mandate for health reform), and a year of frustrations (health care compromises, bank bailouts, and much much more).

Most of all, 2009 was a year of obstruction -- mostly from the conservative side of things, with a few surprises from the center-left as well. TEA Party protesters rose up to call for an end to government growth (albeit in an extremist sort of way), and Republicans continued their unprecedented number of filibusters. Centrists (like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson) joined their conservative colleagues at times, stopping important legislation from holding any significance.

Sure, there were some progressive "victories" as well that deserve recognition, that were hard-fought by Democrats who knew the importance of standing firm against conservative obstructionists. We staved off an economic depression with the passage of a stimulus package; we confirmed the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court of the United States. And though other policies have taken or will take longer than wanted -- withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility -- they are on track to being achieved before the next presidential election in 2012.

But for the most part, the year 2009 was won by conservatives, who derailed health care reform with disruptive town hall rallies and threats of "death panels." Their tactics have caused Americans to view Democratic politicians in a negative light. Indeed, Americans are now just as likely to vote Democratic as they are to vote Republican in the 2010 midterms late next year, even though conservatives' strategies to defeat liberals were rooted in nothing more than lies, mistruths, and fears.

Those tactics began early in the year, as evidenced by Jim DeMint's comments that health care reform would become Obama's "Waterloo," likening the president's top domestic priority to Napoleon Bonaparte's failed military battle in the early 19th century ("We will break him," DeMint said of Obama). Likewise, these tactics continued well-into the year, ending only after health care reform passed the Senate (the Republicans even tried slowing down the process of passing a Defense budget, hoping the delay would cause health care to move into the next year).


The blame doesn't rest solely with conservatives; moderate and conservative Democrats also have themselves to blame, adhering to or doing little to stop the obstruction tactics that conservative politicians practiced.

The Democrats have no one but themselves to blame if they lose seats in 2010. Some will claim that they sided with obstructionists for FEAR of losing seats. But the American people elected a president whom they knew would be liberal, a Congress whom they knew would pass liberal legislation. Through all the lies the McCain campaign threw at Obama, through all the distortions that FOX News and other conservative media spread, the American public still wanted a liberal administration to change things.

Specifically, they wanted health care reform that offered a public option. The polls, up until the public option's death, reflected this.

If the Democrats lose a significant number of seats in 2010, it will be because they threw out their ideals, threw out their dedication to the people's wishes. An energized conservative base can only win seats next year if the liberal base lets them -- and right now, the liberal base is not as motivated as that conservative base is.

The obstructionists won 2009. So how can we ensure they don't win 2010?

The Democratic Party still represents the best chances of passing meaningful, progressive legislation. Health care reform, even if it wasn't the single payer reform we had preferred, had no chance of change at all with a conservative government in power. We need to continue to support Democrats, but only if they continue to support us. That means that those Democrats that aren't true progressives -- Joe Lieberman Democrats -- need to go.

We shouldn't support the party blindly -- I know that I will only donate money to the state Democratic Party and to specific candidates (in-state and out), but not the DNC itself, not until it tells conserva-Dems to fall in line.

That's my New Year's resolution: I will not give money to Democrats I don't support.

But I will continue to support the party's objectives: I will continue calling my legislators, telling them that I want real change, the kind of change I voted for and campaigned door-to-door for in 2008. If enough of us do that, we can continue to change America for the better.

Our leaders were elected in 2008 on the banner of "hope." Here's hoping that in 2010, they change hope into real and meaningful legislation that helps everyday Americans, not corporate interests.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Let's end the filibuster -- or at least end its significance

An interesting debate is raging on the internet involving the frustrations associated with the U.S. Senate rule on filibusters. As it stands now, a filibuster can only be ended by a vote of 60 Senators in favor of cloture. Though in the past it had been significantly harder to break a filibuster (at one time requiring 67 votes), the practice of stalling and effectively tabling measures through the filibuster has risen significantly, used in recent years by obstructionist Republicans an unprecedented number of times.

There are some who are calling for an all-out abolition of the practice, saying that a majority voice in the Senate should be sufficient enough to pass legislation. There are others who believe that it should remain intact but with substantial reform. Still others believe that it should remain as is, citing that liberals used the filibuster when conservatives were in power just three years ago (though significantly less frequent).

The filibuster, it's interesting to note, isn't mentioned in the Constitution at all; the Senate decided, in its own rules, to institute and enforce it (except in rare occasions like reconciliation). Removing the filibuster, then, would make the entire process of passing legislation more democratic in that, if a majority of Senators wanted to pass a bill, acting in the capacity of representatives to the people who elected them, then they would be able to do so.

What worries some, however, is that a bare-bones majority could enforce its will with hardly any checks and balances (aside from requiring the House to pass legislation similar to it). For example, earlier this decade, reactionary judges nominated by George W. Bush would have been confirmed were it not for a Democratic-led filibuster.

When it's inconvenient, whatever party is in power often talks of doing-away with the filibuster, while the minority party considers such talk deplorable. The truth is that the Senate filibuster is anti-democratic, but can serve a proper purpose if used right -- that is, if used for actually extending debate when needed.

Every piece of legislation deserves to be debated if the minority believes there's something worth arguing over. But using the rule solely to defeat a bill is an abuse of power, a "rule by the minority" that is unacceptable. It's because of that rule that Sens. Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson were able to hold the Senate health care bill hostage until it fit their likings -- without a public option.

Polls show that Americans still want a public option in the health care bill. But because of the filibuster, the Senate could only pass a bill with subsides to those who can't afford care...subsides that will ultimately go to private insurance companies, who put us in this mess to begin with.

It's clear, then, that the filibuster needs to be at the very least reformed. This can be done in two ways. First, the number of Senators needed to end debate should be lowered -- perhaps from 60 to 55 votes. It's overkill to require 60 votes in order to pass every piece of legislation that comes before the upper house of Congress. Lowering that number would ensure that debate could still continue if needed while still being a reasonable number to end that debate and move on.

Second, an expiration date should apply to the filibuster, similar to one that Mr. Filibuster himself, Joe Lieberman, proposed in the early 90s, that would remove the number of votes required to close debate after a certain number of days.

Either way, one or both of these reforms would help lower the significant role that the filibuster plays in American politics. If we continue to keep the filibuster in place as it is today, we will see a minority in control of what bills are passed in the Senate, an ideal that most Americans would rightly reject as undemocratic.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lieberman plays hardball on health care; why aren't Democrats returning the favor?

Joseph Lieberman is one influential U.S. Senator, despite having no official party allegiance. A former vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, Lieberman lost a primary challenge in 2006 but won as an independent in the general election of that year. As an independent, Lieberman still caucuses with the Democratic majority -- though you wouldn't know it judging from some of the controversial stances he takes against the party's main policies.

His latest escapade involves his stance on health care reform. Though a lifelong Democrat, Lieberman opposed the idea of a public option, and in recent weeks suggested that he wouldn't oppose a Republican-led filibuster to oppose it. When other moderate Senators suggested the same idea, a group of ten Democratic Senators devised a compromise that would allow Americans to buy-into non-profit but private health insurance plans, with people over 55 but under 65 being able to buy-into Medicare, the national insurance program for retired Americans.

In the past, Lieberman has supported the buy-in idea for Medicare. In 2000, as Al Gore's vice presidential running-mate, he campaigned on the idea, and suggested the idea himself as a potential compromise no more than three months ago.

So it came as a big surprise to Senate leadership this week when Lieberman said he couldn't support a compromise bill that included the Medicare buy-in provision. Suddenly he had a problem with the idea, and worried the bill would bring greater budget deficits and eventually lead to a single payer health care system (despite it requiring people to buy-into the insurance program, not receive entitlements for free).

Without seeing the estimates for the costs of the compromised bill (still being calculated by the Congressional Budget Office), Lieberman announced this week that, despite most of his demands being met, he would still join a Republican filibuster that would effectively table debate on the issue (this after Lieberman had also denounced using such tactics).

Such an action is not only irresponsible, it's incomprehensible. Lieberman has no basis on which he makes his claims, no grounds to stand on to oppose the compromised bill at this time (except maybe potential campaign contributions). It'd be different if the CBO came back with the estimates and showed the compromise would increase deficits -- but that hasn't happened yet. Lieberman should reserve his judgment, saying he may or may not support the bill based upon such findings, or if he is opposed to health care reform of any kind he should just come out and say it already.

If that's the case, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ought to reconsider whether Lieberman should have leadership positions within the Democratic-controlled Senate. As it stands right now, Sen. Lieberman chairs the committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

As an independent Senator, this is a very generous appointment -- Reid could have selected an actual Democrat to hold this chairmanship. But because of his loyalty to the party, Reid allowed Lieberman to chair the committee when Democrats took control in 2006. (It also helped to appease Lieberman when he was a crucial vote during a time of slim majorities in the Senate).

That committee chairmanship may prove to be a good bargaining chip, should Reid want to play some hardball with Lieberman. Reid isn't obligated in any way to keep Lieberman in that position of power. Reid very well could coax Lieberman, at the very least, into voting for cloture on the filibuster in order to pave the way for an up-or-down vote on health care reform. If Lieberman doesn't want to do that, Reid could threaten him with removal from the Homeland Security chairmanship.

It's very political, but that's the way the game is played. And it seems that Lieberman is very accustomed to playing games, having held the process of reforming health care hostage several times, refusing to budge on any compromise that's been offered to him. He's continuing to play games with Senate leadership, vowing to filibuster the bill before any legitimate reason to do so even arises. Senate Democrats ought to at least consider using this political move to persuade Lieberman to back cloture of the Republican-led filibuster.

After that, Lieberman can vote "no" on reform without any repercussions. At least that way the bill could get a straight vote, rather than being held back by a Senator who has a beef with liberal Democrats.

He has thwarted us before -- he previously opposed Democratic plans for Iraq and campaigned for John McCain during the election for president in 2008 (against Democratic nominee Barack Obama). We should learn from our mistakes: this should be the last time Lieberman thwarts us, on a policy that Democrats have been fighting more than half a century for no less. Reid should offer him one last chance to change his mind on the filibuster. If Lieberman wants to play hardball, the Democrats shouldn't be afraid to return the favor.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The War on Christmas: a conservative fallacy

With Christmastime fast approaching, most Americans have dedicated their time towards finding gifts for loved ones, decorating the house, and making preparations for the all-important Christmas dinner. For many conservative pundits, however, Christmastime signals a time of desperation, of placing blame on those dirty liberals who like to ruin the holiday season, and of inciting fear among otherwise decent Americans who don't want their religious rights violated.

Even Congressional Republicans, who earlier this year railed Democrats for frivolous bills, are pushing a resolution in the House calling for the holiday of Christmas to be respected (as if it hasn't had the past month and a half dedicated towards it already). One conservative mayor even mused that Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan was purposefully scheduled to knock Charlie Brown's Christmas Special off the air.

Though quieter than previous years, the campaign against the supposed "War on Christmas" annually waged by conservative pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh continues on this year. Some have even criticized the Obama family for having "holiday," and not Christmas, cards.

Liberals get a bad rap every year for their supposed suppression of Christmas spirit. They get chastised for taking down Christmas symbols on government property or in public parks, and berated for insisting that employees at shopping malls or other centers of commerce say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas."

However, these accusations are, on their face, unfounded. The true liberal "vendetta" is inclusiveness, not intolerance. Symbols on government property must reflect everyone in the community, not just an exclusive religious belief. As such, a liberal in that community might insist that all religious symbols be allowed to be placed on government property, not just a Christian one. When the government refuses a request by another religious belief to place a different symbol on public grounds (when it has already allowed another symbol by a "preferred" belief), it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Liberals are perfectly content to have a Christian display on state grounds. It's when other displays other than Christian ones are denied that same right that liberals get upset about things.

The issue of replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" is one that is mistakenly blamed on liberalism. If a liberal has a problem with a place of business saying "Merry Christmas," they're not going to do anything about it except take their business elsewhere; and the liberals that do that are far and few between (most liberals are in fact Christian). It's the business owners themselves, not the liberals in the community, that have CHOSEN to say "Happy Holidays" in order to appeal to customers who aren't Christian.

These two points make the "War on Christmas" a conservative fallacy. Liberals have no interest in ruining Christmas, in becoming proverbial Grinches. They want everyone to celebrate the holidays however they'd like. When it comes to the state, it doesn't even bother most liberals when Christian symbols are placed outside city hall, so long as other symbols are allowed that right as well. And if businesses want to say "Merry Christmas," they have that right, too.

So I say to my conservative colleagues: Let's stop the charade already and end the War on Christmas once and for all. After all, no one wants to get coal this Christmas -- or holiday -- season.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An option by any other name...Senate Democrats reach deal

Ten (maybe) Senate Democrats late Tuesday night came to a consensus on health care reform, with major compromises and deals worked out including the removal of the so-called public option.

The group of ten settled on a proposed deal with several broad components. First, a not-for-profit private exchange would be set up for those without health care (replacing the public option plan), and would be managed and heavily regulated by the Office of Personnel Management (which currently overseas a similar program for federal employees' insurance plans).

Second, those between the ages of 55 to 64 would be able to buy into Medicare coverage, greatly expanding the program for those who represent the age-group most affected by the health care crisis today.

Third, the public option would reportedly remain in the bill but would only go into effect through a trigger -- that is, only if private insurers don't fix things themselves within a set number of years (this might not be the case, however, if conservative Senate Democrats don't sign onto it).

The group of ten who came up with the compromise consisted of five liberal and five conservative Democrats. Not everyone within the group was happy with the final outcome, however; Wisconsin's own Russ Feingold had reservations about the deal.

"I think a public option as an alternative is the best way to go," the Senator said, adding that he had concerns over whether assistance would be provided to those 55 and older buying into Medicare.

Feingold is right to be concerned -- the best option for covering all Americans, after all, would have been providing everyone with single-payer health coverage, essentially a Medicare-for-all program. Following that, a public option -- insurance coverage that Americans could have bought into through the government itself -- would have provided competition to private companies, thereby lowering costs.

This proposal, however, shouldn't necessarily be shunned outright -- if it comes down to it, and if there's no way to get 51 votes on the public option, then this compromise is the next best thing to the next best thing. If it includes the all-important abolition of the practice of discrimination based upon pre-existing conditions, then it would provide essentially the same deal to the American people that a public option would.

The problem with this compromise lies with who gets the money -- private insurance companies. A public plan would have encouraged private companies to be more competitive, to provide more services to its clients in order to beat out the federal plan. This compromise, on the other hand, doesn't provide such an incentive.

But it DOES provide Americans more choices through a not-for-profit exchange. It DOES expand Medicare to those older than 55. And it DOES provide assistance to poor families in need of economic aide. In other words, the compromise being discussed by this gang of ten wouldn't be much different than a public option plan in the eyes of the consumer.

What's needed, then, if this compromise does indeed become law, is more reform and regulation of the industry itself, especially for those who buy into the not-for-profit system. Protections need to be afforded to the people who buy insurance, to ensure that those who buy it get adequate coverage, and don't have to pay an arm and a leg to do so.

It'd be better to have a public option rather than a not-for-profit (but still private) option. However, if it's between the not-for-profit option and nothing else, we're better off taking the compromise that's been discussed. It's not the ideal, but it's much better than what we currently have.

Keep telling your Senators to fight for the public option -- but don't oppose this compromise if it's what we end up with.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Republican DeMint chooses politics over national security

Republican Sen. Jim DeMint is holding up the confirmation of Errol Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), leaving the agency without a leader. An important post that ensures the security of all Americans traveling across the country and abroad, scrutiny over who will run the TSA is well-deserved...except over something as mundane as collective bargaining rights for TSA employees.

That's right -- your security is being held hostage by a Republican who has a beef with unions.

DeMint believes that, by allowing TSA employees to organize and bargain collectively their contracts, security at airports and other areas prone to attack could be put at greater risk.

"Collective bargaining would standardize things across the country, make it much less flexible, much harder for the agency to adapt to changing threats around the world," DeMint said recently.

But other agencies that deal with issues of national security -- such as Border Control and the Federal Protective Service, among others -- are allowed to bargain collectively as a union without compromise to the nation's security whatsoever. And one committee in the House of Representatives has already approved a move towards allowing TSA employees these rights.

Southers himself has remained neutral on the subject, telling DeMint that he wouldn't implement any practice that would worsen the agency's commitment to security. DeMint has accused Southers of skirting the issue.

If DeMint wants to debate the merits of collective bargaining for TSA employees or whether such an idea would adversely affect national security, he should do so within the Senate version of the bill proposed in the House. But holding up the nomination of an important position that deals with matters of national security seems to benefit no one except DeMint himself, who it seems is trying to make the matter political.

DeMint isn't unaccustomed to the politics of obstructionism -- he was the Senator who tried to rally his GOP allies to make health care Obama's "Waterloo"; who regrets not coining the phrase "YOU LIE!" when Joe Wilson yelled it out during President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress; and who is congratulating Tea Party protesters for helping to obstruct the bill through intimidation at town hall meetings during the summer. Those issues, however, didn't involve national security.

It's understandable why a Republican senator would want to obstruct health care reform -- it's practically part of their platform. But what DeMint is doing would be considered treason by some of his right-wing colleagues -- that is, were it a Democrat doing it against a Republican nominee. Where's the outrage from conservatives now? Why haven't we seen criticism from conservative lawmakers over this issue, over DeMint's insistence to make a stand against a nominee who has no real opinion on the issue?

It's important that we truly examine every person nominated for positions that deal with national security. But the examination of these candidates shouldn't be on the basis of policy that they don't control or don't have an opinion on. A political stand should be made on policy matters, but it should be done in the appropriate venue -- in this case, within debate the Senate will have over granting TSA employees the right to collective bargaining.

DeMint obviously thinks otherwise, and is putting his politics ahead of national security. He should be ashamed for doing so, and his colleagues should call him out on it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reluctant support for Obama's Afghanistan war strategy

Last night, President Barack Obama announced his official plan for the war in Afghanistan. In his remarks, Obama told the nation (before a live audience of West Point cadets) that 30,000 more troops were needed to stabilize the region, with the goal being a complete withdrawal of forces beginning July of 2011.

"I do not make this decision lightly," the president told the cadets. "I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake."

His plan is likely to draw complaints from both the left and the right, though it may appeal to centrists. It contains elements that both sides would want -- and that both sides will undoubtedly hate.

Many liberal Democratic lawmakers are sure to be displeased with the troop buildup. Most of those on the left opposed the buildup of forces during the Iraq war (commonly known as the "surge"); many felt that policy prolonged our presence in the beleaguered nation. A buildup in Afghanistan, then, is only guaranteeing delay in the removal of U.S. troops from that country. Other liberal Democrats, like Wisconsin's Dave Obey, are worried that the costs of Afghanistan will deviate from other important domestic programs during a critical time in America's economic crisis.

Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, are voicing their opposition to the proposed end-date to the war. John McCain has already voiced his concern that allowing the enemy to know when we plan to leave will embolden al Qaeda and/or the Taliban, who will (supposedly) sit on the sidelines waiting for that date to come, reclaiming the country upon our exodus.

But Obama is also gaining support. While members from both sides disagree with the plan in part, moderate liberals and moderate conservatives are finding some aspects of the plan appealing.

The moderates on both sides are pleased to see Obama listening to military leaders on the ground, like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who have asked for additional forces to the region. Moderates are happy that Obama is taking the war on terrorism seriously (even if he doesn't call it by that name), understanding the threat that al Qaeda poses to us, and that the threat will increase if we don't stabilize the country before we leave. And moderates on both sides are happy about the plan to gradually remove troops from the region, with moderate liberals and moderate conservatives both concerned with the human and economic costs the war has burdened us with.


Even with his reservations, John McCain has said he will support Obama's plan. Though for different reasons, my feelings on the matter are similar: I have some reservations, but I do believe that the overall plan is one I can cautiously support.

This plan has an exit strategy. That in itself is reason enough to support the president. There is a timetable for withdrawal, and a plan to gradually let the Afghans take control of their own security.

I'd rather have the goal for withdrawal begin now, and not in 19-month's time. A troop escalation, in my mind, simply delays the inevitable while placing more troops in harm's way. But Obama and proponents of escalation make a good point: Afghanistan forces are not yet ready to defend themselves. U.S. troops can assist in that endeavor, ensuring that al Qaeda and the Taliban won't retake the country once the U.S. and NATO forces leave.

Democrats aren't wrong to encourage the president to take a different direction, to begin withdrawing troops sooner; and lawmakers like Sen. Russ Feingold have every right to try to stop the escalation. But the plan set forth by President Obama is one that has my support because it does have a date in mind for a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan. It's not perfect by any means, and I'm reluctant in my support of it, but it's a lot better than staying in the region indefinitely.