Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Filibuster Problem

The story with the filibuster is always the same: if you are in the minority party, you adore it and if you are in the majority party you despise it. And of course, senators tend to change their positions depending on which party is in power along the Beltway, throwing red meat to the packs of political commentators and lighting up CNN's news tickers. But one thing a surprising number of senators agree on is that, love it or hte it, the filibuster is broken. I happen to think that it's high time we start thinking about filibuster reform. One only has to look at the recent Jim Bunning debacle to wonder about the wisdom of giving one single person the power to cost thousands of people their unemploymet benefits and even thousands more their jobs.

First, some history. The filibuster is a power peculiar to the Senate, written into the Senate rules to protect minority rights. Simply put, it allows one person (or a group of people) to virtually kill a bill by refusing to stop talking about it. In more technical terms, it allows unlimited debate on a bill, which can only be ended by a cloture vote. With 60+ votes, the bill passes; any less, and it is officially dead. The filibuster is in essence a way to protect the rights of the minority and ensure that all sides are heard in a debate. But of course, if the party in power has a 60+ supermajority, a filibuster is ineffective even as a threat (unless senators in the majority party join in the filibuster).

Like many tool made with good intentions, the filibuster has changed -- for the worse. In the old days, a senator who wanted to filibuster a bill had to stand on the Senate floor, stare his or her colleagues and the American people in the face, and say exactly why he or she opposed the bill. Senators has to speak, nonstop, until a cloture vote was called. That happens no longer. The Senate has evolved a 2-track system for legislative business, so that one senator can simply declare that bill X -- say, on environmental regulation -- is being filibustered, while work on bill Y -- say, on equal pay laws -- continues. This removes a lot of the personal accountability from the senators launching a filibuster. And no matter how much Jim Bunning complains about missing basketball games in order to stop the COBRA extension bill, he has it much easier than the Strom Thurmonds and Henry Clays of days gone by.

With this change in how the filibuster is implemented has come a seeming change in its purpose. Not only is it being used as a way to protect the minority, extend debates, and kill potentially damaging bills, it is being used to bring the senate to a virtual halt. Now, Tom Coburn might love gridlock, but as a normal citizen, I despise it. The gridlock was so bad recently that the Senate was sitting on upwards of 200 bills that had passed the House but couldn't be acted on because of filibusters, real or threatened.

So I propose we reform the filibuster. Because it is impossible to get rid of it (at lease from a common-sense point of view, because the Republican "nuclear option" of a few years ago would have allowed a simple majority to override a Senate rule and stop a filibuster). The point is that the filibuster has a defined and useful purpose. It is the constant abuse of the filibuster that must stop. The following reforms would do much to move along the legislative process in the Senate while still allowing the filibuster to serve its original purpose.

  1. A filibuster should only be brought by more than one person. This ensures that there is a real, reasoned-out opposition to a bill, rather than one person acting in their own interest, or that of special interest groups.
  2. We must return to the one-track system. If some senators want to talk a bill to death, they darn well better be prepared to, well, talk . . . for as long as it takes. Not only will this make people think twice about filibustering, it will also re-instate the degree of responsibility and accountability that comes with bringing a legislative body to a complete halt for hours.
  3. Filibusters should not be used on judicial or other presidential nominees. This not conflicts with the powers of the executive branch, it nearly brought the Senate down once, and could possibly do so again. That is one thing no one (except possibly Mr. Coburn) wants to see happen.
  4. If senators choose to filibuster a bill, they should be required to speak on topics related to the bill. This one is common sense, guys. The purpose of a filibuster is unlimited debate over a bill. If you're reminiscing about Grandma's mint juleps, you're not debating a bill (at least, I hope you're not! That would be one strange piece of legislation). If a senator is that eager to delay a vote on a bill, he or she should put a hold on it. Not filibuster it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Healthcare Bill: What’s Going to Really Happen?

There has been so much confusion with this Healthcare Bill not only because the contents, like the abortion language, are not clear but also the way it was passed was “unconventional” to say the least. I will try to explain what I know and will give you my personal opinion about the bill and how it was passed.
Some Facts: The bill passed 219-212, the magic number being 216, without any Republicans voting for it. What also passed was the compromises that will be added onto the Healthcare bill after they go to the Senate and are voted on, however if these “compromises” have to do with the budget in some way it falls under reconciliation and therefore senators can’t filibuster them. I believe we talked about the filibuster on this blog before, but I’ll refresh your memory: It’s when a senator decides to disrupt the Senate by declaring his filibuster and then talking at the Senate for hours (sometimes) until a vote for cloture is called for. They can end the filibuster with 60 votes and if they don’t have them that “kills the bill”. As was also mentioned before, Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate anymore with Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, so they decided to go around this rule. How did they do that? The House passed the Senate’s healthcare bill instead of the two bills by the House and Senate being reconciled (which means almost “merged”; the House and Senate duke it out to see what goes into the final bill essentially). But, because the House doesn’t entirely like the Senate’s bill they want to make amendments to it which are the “compromises” I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. This is part of the complication; it’s hard to understand why they passed a bill they didn’t like? Why are they allowed to circumvent the rules of the Senate or House? Why can they be sneaky and go around Democratic processes our Founders wanted, like debate? Why? Because they wanted the bill passed NOW. Time was a major constraint and the Republicans winning an extra seat in the Senate didn’t help much. To pass anything they already had was their option or to scrap the bill altogether and start over (which I would have liked) which would politically look bad for Obama.
What does the bill do: Well, that’s hard to ascertain because many things are “projected” and we won’t know what’s certain until many years in the future. According to the CBO (Congressional Budget Office), this plan will cut deficits by 1 trillion dollars in the second decade. Personally, I don’t understand how that’s possible but I’ll address my qualms later. Remember this is projected not certain. It creates “health exchanges” which make it cheaper to buy insurance, Medicaid will be expanded, It creates new taxes for health insurers and higher income families, and you are required to buy health insurance. An important clarification is that of the abortion situation: NO GOVERNMENT MONEY WILL BE GIVEN FOR ABORTIONS. If people want abortion coverage they pay for it with their private funds and this was also clarified by an executive order issued by Obama.
My contentions with the Bill: First of all, I was unnerved with the way it was passed. No Republicans voted for the Senate Bill in the Senate and no Republicans voted for the Senate bill in the House. There is some talk of their proposed amendments making it into the bill, but as of now we don’t know that for sure. So, basically this bill had NO bipartisan support. In my opinion, on legislation this big and sweeping bipartisan support is needed to legitimize it and also just make it better and more likeable. I like using this example, in the Supreme Court for big cases they much rather have a 9-0 decision than a 5-4 decision because it shows the strength behind their argument. It’s the same with healthcare. I just feel throughout the process Republicans were being ignored because they (democrats) thought they could ignore them. When they had to deal with them, as in after Scott Brown was elected, they still went around them by passing law in an unconventional manner without the thought process that usually is present.
That brings me to my second point; they totally disregarded the rules and ideals of our country. Someone on C-SPAN made a really great point, he asked if they can pass bills like this why do we usually do it the longer way? I think the answer is the longer way makes the bill better in the long run. You are able to fit more ideas/opinions in and really compromise. The founders wanted bills to take a long time because they wanted us to think about what we’re doing. And I think knowingly going around this deliberate process is wrong and the end product turns out being mediocre at best. That’s what I think we have; a mediocre healthcare bill that doesn’t really address cost very well and that could have been worked on longer.
My third point is the contents of the bill don’t fully make sense to me. I think the cost issue is still a problem. I bet the government health insurance will cost more than private insurance because maybe they’ll have to pay doctors more or they have to pay for it because Medicare doesn't cover it, or something like that, so it has to cost more. This is just my opinion, but it seems plausible. Also, how exactly are we paying for this? They stipulate cutting Medicare will pay for a lot of it but they’re also using that money to expand Medicaid, subsidies, etc. so that doesn’t exactly makes sense. They’re obviously going to raise taxes which I think is unnecessary for a bill that doesn’t do much and in an economy that’s not too healthy right now. I believe TORT reform is in the amendments to the bill and should be (which would subjugate insurance companies to ant-trust law and therefore make competition). But, that would have helped in the first place and maybe we wouldn’t need this whole government run thing.
One thing I like about the bill is that it doesn’t let insurance companies drop you for pre-existing conditions. That’s just cruel and also that’s the reason people have health insurance in the first place. That should have been made a law much earlier. Another thing I find beneficial but have some dissonance with is that people must have health insurance. I like this idea because if everyone has to buy it the price goes down (supply and demand) however I also feel the government shouldn’t make you buy something you don’t want (for whatever reason). If it’s a “right”, then shouldn’t we be able to choose if we want it or not?
All in all, I was just disappointed and disheartened to see this bill get passed in this way and the quality of the content. I think there could have been more bipartisan support for the bill and they could have passed the bill in the intended way: with thoughtful debate. Also, I think the bill isn’t that great and doesn’t cover the main reasons why people wanted a healthcare bill in the first place. I suppose it’s fine for now, but once the taxes and costs and deficit’s rise I think we’ll be sorry we passed it. We’ll just have to see what happens.
Further reading:
(text of the Healthcare Bill)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Healthcare Has Passed the House!

The House passed both the Senate bill and the Reconciliation bill (a package of changes to the Senate bill)

Anya is elated.

Ashley is disgruntled.

Both of us are disgusted that we've read more of the healthcare bill than the actual people who voted on it.

We were trying to call C-SPAN when they were taking callers on-air, but neither of us got through. Look for detailed responses from both of us tomorrow!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Promise (Or Two)

The full text of the compromise healthcare bill is online at the New York Times's website (link: So Ashley and Anya promise you, our loyal readers (if there are any . . .) that we will read the healthcare bill in its entirety. Yes, all 153 pages.

We also promise more posts to come soon.  Topics: the filibuster, healthcare, Bart Stupak, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell.