filibuster update

Here at Top of JC’s Mind, I sometimes – and more frequently in recent years – wade into the political waters of the US. Last October, I mentioned the Senate filibuster and my hopes that is would be reformed, tangentially in this post and fleshed out a bit in the comments.

Remarkably, these early weeks of the Biden administration have given rise to a lot of public discussion of the filibuster and how this arcane Senate rule might be reformed or eliminated so that legislation can pass the Senate by majority vote rather than needing 60 of 100 senators to end debate and proceed to a vote. This is called “invoking cloture.”

For decades, filibusters and cloture votes were rare. Maddeningly, filibusters were used to attempt to derail legislation on civil rights, voting rights, labor rights, and anti-lynching. (Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has tried to argue that the filibuster was not used as a racist tool, but this twitter thread from Kevin Kruse proves him wrong with a long, but not exhaustive, list of past racially-motivated filibusters.)

During the Obama presidency, McConnell and the Republicans frequently used the filibuster to slow or prevent approving appointments and to keep legislation from reaching the floor for a vote. This was possible because all a senator needed to do was to say they wanted to filibuster and it would take sixty votes to end it, which, with all the Republicans sticking together, meant that there were never enough votes to invoke cloture and proceed to a vote. This led to a rule change that appointments were not subject to the filibuster, though other kinds of legislation still were.

One of the reforms to the process currently being discussed is to require that a senator wanting to filibuster must stay on the Senate floor and speak on the bill being debated. This revives the practice that was in place until 1975, although senators then weren’t required to speak on the bill and could read from the phone book or cookbooks or talk about totally unrelated topics.

There is also a proposal to change the cloture vote. Rather than needing sixty votes to end the debate, which puts the burden on the majority, the new rule would be that 40 or 41 senators would need to vote to continue the debate. This preserves the ability of the minority to put forth their arguments on something they feel strongly about but requires them to put forth effort to do so.

The hope is that these two reforms would break the stranglehold on bills that became so stark during the Obama administration. It might also engender more bipartisan bills actually making it to the Senate floor for a vote. (Mitch McConnell famously once filibustered his own bill when it became clear that President Obama would sign the bill into law. McConnell valued gridlock over governing.)

Or, given that it is just a Senate rule and not a law, the filibuster could be eliminated. Many think this would be the simplest path, but a few Democratic senators are vehemently opposed to ending it totally, although the impetus for reform is definitely gaining momentum.

While I had hoped that, under President Biden who was a long-time senator, some of the more moderate Republicans would want to vote for common-sense and popular bills such as the American Rescue Plan, we have yet to see that happen. The American Rescue Plan, despite its popularity with the public and its many provisions that benefit people in their states, garnered no votes from Republicans in Congress; it passed with a simple majority in the Senate due to special budgetary rules that prevented a filibuster.

There are now some popular and much-needed bills that have passed the House that will become test cases on whether or not bipartisan support is possible or whether it will take filibuster reform or elimination to get them on the floor for a vote. The For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) addresses voting rights, campaign finance reform, government ethics, gerrymandering, and election security. Further voting rights issues are addressed in the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help to restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which the Supreme Court struck down in 2013, on the grounds that these racial provisions were now obsolete. Sadly, we have seen evidence that they are not, as efforts are now underway in 43 states to restrict voting access to certain groups of people, including by making it harder for people of color to vote or by making it more difficult for students or elders to register and vote by mail.

There are two House-passed gun safety bills, one on universal background checks and one extending the time the FBI has to vet purchasers to ten days instead of the current three. Both of these measures have broad public support, including among Republicans and gunowners. An increase in the federal minimum wage is very popular with the public, as are bills to re-build our infrastructure, increase our production of goods and green energy to create sustainable jobs, and to increase taxes on the very wealthy.

If bills like these pass the House and appear on the Senate floor, what will the Republicans do? Will they vote yes in accord with their constituents? Will they filibuster to stop a vote from occurring? If they do decide to filibuster, they risk the Democrats reforming the filibuster, voting that certain kinds of bills such as voting rights are not subject to it, or eliminating it all together.

Fingers crossed that whatever scenario unfolds, these laws will be enacted for the common good. We have been waiting for Congress to actually participate in governing in the way the Constitution sets before them.

again and again and again

I didn’t want to write about mass shootings in the United States today. I’ve written way too many posts about this in the past, most recently about the Atlanta-area shootings last week.

But here we are again, mourning the deaths of ten people, including a responding police officer, at a Boulder, Colorado supermarket. A suspect is in custody, but it is early in the investigation so many details are not yet public.

It is likely that this will become the third Colorado mass shooting to lodge in the nation’s consciousness along with the high school in Columbine and the movie theater in Aurora.

The list of mass shootings in the United States is so long that only some of them are invoked as a litany. I live near Binghamton, New York, which suffered a 2009 mass shooting at the American Civic Association. This post that I wrote for the fifth anniversary of that shooting explains why I think Binghamton is not part of that litany.

There has long been a majority of the public in favor of taking measures nationally to curb gun violence. Some of the proposals are universal background checks to purchase firearms, limits on size of ammunition clips, banning of military-style assault weapons, and requiring gun licensing. At this point, each state has its own laws with some allowing municipalities to enact stricter regulations and others not.

There are also proposals to better diagnose and treat mental health issues. Some mass shooters, such as the one in Binghamton, suffer from mental illness. The biggest potential reduction in deaths from firearms related to mental health would be from self-inflicted shootings. In the United States, suicides account for the largest percentage of gun deaths every year. (For help with issues about suicide in the United States, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ .)

What compounds the recent tragedies in Atlanta and Boulder, though, is that there will be sadness, outrage, prayers, vigils, fundraisers, and hopes that this will be the time when Congress finally takes action – and they won’t. Again.

And then, inevitably, there will be another mass shooting which gets attention and hundreds of other murders and thousands of suicides which won’t.

And the cycle will repeat.

One-Liner Wednesday: Liz Cheney

There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.
~ Rep. Liz Cheney (Republican of Wyoming) from her statement saying that she will vote in favor of the impeachment resolution against Donald Trump over his “incitement of insurrection”

This sobering quote is part of Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays and Just Jot It January. Join us! Find out how here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/13/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-13th-2021-snow-carolers/

One-Liner Wednesday: sedition

“Sedition is a bad idea.”
~ John Heilemann, on Morning Joe, January 4, 2021

This helpful reminder brought to you by Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday and Just Jot It January. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/06/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-6th-2021-icy-fingers/

what hasn’t changed

The last few years have been challenging for me and my family. As I have written in (many) posts, these personal challenges have been compounded by what is happening in the United States.

As I begin a busy week in caring for my family, the back drop is the horrifying news that United States has passed 20 million confirmed COVID cases with over 352,000 known deaths with COVID. It is immeasurably sad – and infuriating because we could have prevented a large share of these with good public health measures and accessible, timely medical care. There is hope for the coming months with vaccines becoming available and the incoming administration has a good team to improve the national pandemic response.

Unfortunately, the current president and many Congressional Republicans are still trying to prevent the duly elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from taking office as president and vice-president on January 20th. Over the weekend, an hour-long recording of a telephone call from the president to the secretary of state of Georgia and his legal counsel was released, in which the president repeatedly pressures and threatens them to change the certified election win of Joe Biden to a win for Trump. On Wednesday, both houses of Congress will meet to count the electoral college votes, which will be 306 for Biden and 232 for Trump. Nevertheless, over a hundred Republican members of the House of Representatives and a dozen Republican senators plan to challenge or vote against acceptance of the count from six states Biden won, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Given that dozens of court cases alleging fraud or procedural problems with the voting system have already been dismissed and the proper certifications by the states have been done, there are no real grounds for the objections and they will be defeated after hours of debate. That so many members of Congress are willing to violate their oath to uphold the Constitution and US law is frightening and disconcerting and does not bode well for passing needed legislation through Congress.

Yes, the change from 2020 to 2021 did not erase any existing problems, but we need to work toward rectifying them and making life better for people, not devolving into lies and blaming others.

*****
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January. Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/01/04/jusjojan-prompt-the-1st-fingertips/

Calling on Republican Senators

As I write this, the US presidential race has not yet been called, although it is likely to be called later this weekend for Joe Biden. This would mean that Kamala Harris, as vice president, would preside over the Senate, with the power to break tied votes.

We also don’t know what the final make-up of the Senate will be and we won’t know until January as the state of Georgia, in a highly unusual circumstance, will have run-off elections for both of their Senate seats in January.

Regardless of the final composition of the Senate in 2021, I am making a plea to those Republican senators who actually want to help craft legislation and govern the country rather than engage in obstruction under the leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell.

I think that those senators should form their own caucus. Their first act would be to vote for Sen. Chuck Schumer as majority leader, so that House-passed legislation would actually be considered in the Senate rather than gathering dust on McConnell’s desk as it has been.

They would then meet with the Democratic caucus on a regular basis to offer their ideas for advancing bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, which could then be enacted and signed into law. I’m sure that the Democrats would gladly agree to this solution to the Senate gridlock that has prevailed for years.

In my mind, some senators who might consider such an initiative are Sen. Romney of Utah, Sen. Collins of Maine, Sen. Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Toomey of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Sen. Sasse of Nebraska. They would not necessarily have to leave the Republican party to become independents, although some with strong support in their home states might be able to do that, thus obviating the threat of a primary challenger.

A lot would depend on what becomes of the Republican party without Trump as president. Will it attempt to revert to being a traditional conservative party or continue in the rather haphazard counter-factual populism it has exhibited in recent years? Would even the willingness to engage in bipartisanship be enough for the Republican leadership to kick out any senators who dared to attempt it?

In the House, the Democrats will still hold a small majority, but there might be some Republicans willing to form a similar caucus to help craft and advance bipartisan legislation.

Joe Biden has a long history of bipartisan cooperation as a senator and as vice president and has been speaking for months about restoring unity to our deeply fractured country.

Republican members of Congress, how do you respond to this call? You swear an oath to the Constitution which proclaims that our government is to “form a more perfect union” and to “promote the general welfare”.

Are you willing to act for the good of all people or only that segment that voted for you?

Update: A few minutes after I posted this, Joe Biden was projected the winner and is now President-elect. This will mean Vice-President Kamala Harris will preside over the Senate and have the power to break tie votes.

Votes for Women!

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, recognizing women’s right to vote. It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

It had taken many decades to pass the amendment. Generations of women who had worked toward it died before they were able to legally cast a ballot. Many black women continued to be denied voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shamefully, part of the Congressional enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and some states have enacted discriminatory practices. The House of Representatives has passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to address these issues, but Sen. Mitch McConnell has not brought it up to a vote in the Senate. A brief overview of the bill can be found here.

Because of the centennial, there have been a number of documentaries and news features about women’s suffrage in the United States, as well as articles and editorials. We have seen striking visual reminders of the struggle, such as the women in Congress wearing white for the State of the Union address, because white was the color that many suffragists wore during their marches and demonstrations. [A side note on wearing white: When I was a member of the Smith College Glee Club, we wore white when we performed. I don’t know if this tradition sprang from the suffrage movement or not. After I graduated in 1982, the Glee Club moved to wearing all black, but I admit that I still miss the striking sight of a group of young women blazing onto the stage wearing white.]

Because of the pandemic and the current civil and voting rights struggles, the commemorations of the ratification of the 19th amendment will be somewhat muted. I’m remembering, though, the 75th anniversary, which was a special event for me.

I live in upstate New York, a couple of hours drive from Seneca Falls, home of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Twenty-five years ago, I was a member of a mostly female, mostly Catholic group called Sarah’s Circle. We met for prayer and discussion on a regular basis and occasionally took part in public events. We decided to take part in the parade and other events in Seneca Falls. We marched wearing matching shirts with our logo, designed by one of our members, on the front:

The back read “Can We Talk” because, at that time, an instruction had come down from the Vatican forbidding even the discussion of women’s ordination.

This did not deter the members of Sarah’s Circle from still speaking up about women’s ordination, but we were trying to appeal to members of the hierarchy to speak with us about it. A number of the our members who felt called to ordination wore Roman collars with their shirts. At the time, I did not feel that call personally so I did not add the collar. As we marched, we sang women’s suffrage verses that one of our members had written to familiar hymn tunes.

It was an inspiring day, filled with joy, hope, and thanksgiving. We had no idea that, twenty-five years later, there would still be such a struggle for fair voting and for equal rights and opportunity. May this centennial commemoration energize us to continue to speak out and vote for those who will uphold the voting and civil rights and the dignity of every person. May we also defend vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris from sexist and racist attacks.

We’ve come a long way in one hundred years, but not nearly as far as we should have.

And the hits just keep on comin’…

Our wonderful family news has been a welcome distraction from the ever-evolving disaster of living in the United States right now.

We now have had over 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, which is appalling and could and should have been averted. (For perspective, the US has about 4% of the world’s population but about 23% of the world’s cases.) I live in New York State and have posted a number of times how Governor Cuomo and his team followed the science and data to bring our once highest in the world levels down to about a 1% positive test rate. The daily fatalities once in the hundreds, is down to single digits. Businesses and services have been re-opening carefully and slowly, so our transmission rate has stayed very low for weeks. In September, schools will be allowed to re-open, with most choosing a hybrid model with a small subset of students in physical attendance on any given day with the bulk of instruction still happening online. As with everything else the state has done, data will determine if adjustments or temporary closures are needed to keep students, staff, and their families as safe as possible.

Many other states are having large numbers of cases, overwhelmed hospitals, and deaths, but are still opening schools, bars, gyms, and other businesses as though there wasn’t a pandemic going on. It’s as though they live in an alternate reality promoted by the president where coronavirus is just “sniffles” and the virus will “just disappear.”

Meanwhile, people are sick and dying.

Millions more are unemployed and/or impoverished. Most of the previously passed federal relief measures expired at the end of July. The House had passed the HEROES Act in May, which would have extended and expanded them, but the Senate didn’t take up the bill or craft a comprehensive plan of their own, despite the fact that the vast majority of economists, even conservative ones, say that a large-scale plan is needed to keep the economy from sinking into a depression.

Strangely, negotiations were going on between the Democratic Congressional leadership and White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary; you would think that the Congressional Republican leadership would have been there as well, but they left town instead. Yesterday, the president announced some executive orders to address some of the issues, but they will almost certainly by found unconstitutional because Congress controls federal taxes and spending. We are dealing with not only the pain of the pandemic and its consequences but also with the shredding of our Constitutional federal government.

On top of this, the intelligence community has announced that several foreign powers are interfering in our upcoming election, partly be spreading and amplifying misinformation. Meanwhile, the president is casting doubt on the validity of our voting process, undermining confidence in voting by mailing in ballots (except in states with Republican governors, some of whom have purged large numbers of minority, student, and potentially Democratic voters from the rolls), and, through a crony as Postmaster General, slowing down the mail service. The president even floated the idea of delaying the election, something that is not at all in his power.

With both domestic and foreign interference at play, it may be difficult to mount a fair election. (By the way, the HEROES Act allocates money for both the postal service and for state election boards.) I am hoping that the vast majority of people will behave in a responsible, ethical, and legal way, so that the election really does reflect the will of all the citizens.

I don’t want to imagine what will happen if the election is unfair or disputed.

Sad stats

The horror show that is the United States and coronavirus continues.

My state, New York, was the world epicenter in the early spring. Through good leadership informed by science and metrics and residents who took the policies seriously, we were able to get the pandemic under control. Through a careful, phased, and data-driven process, we have also been able to keep our transmission rate low as we have opened more of our economy.

Still, when the map of case numbers would be released every day, New York, the fourth most populous state, showed the highest number of total cases, over 400,000, because our initial outbreak had been so severe.

Until this week.

California, which is the most populous state, passed New York this week on confirmed COVID case numbers. (All the public health experts agree that the actual case numbers are much higher, but the official count uses only testing results and death certificates.) While California had had early success in containing the virus, it re-opened businesses too quickly and many people abandoned needed precautions like masks. Hence, their caseload is soaring. I’m hoping that New York will continue to keep the virus from resurging so that we never again reach the top number of cases, but Texas and Florida, second and third most populous states, are also in the midst of major outbreaks and might surpass California’s numbers in the coming weeks.

It’s appalling.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to happen this way. New York and some of our partner states in the Northeast learned a lot of lessons through our experiences this spring and, in the absence of a national program, have been offering to help other states deal with the virus and the economic/social fallout. This has resulted in some positive news in the states being hard-hit now, for example, the mortality rate is lower, in part because of improved treatments for the severely ill. Most of the news, though, is bad: overwhelmed hospitals, people not wearing masks and attending large gatherings, bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks because mortuaries are backlogged, more and more states where the number of cases is rising.

Meanwhile, there is still no national plan. The House of Representatives, led by the Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or the HEROES Act in mid-May, which would address some of the current problems with testing, contact tracing, and treatment of COVID, as well as a host of economic and social impacts on individuals, families, businesses, agencies, and state and local governments. The Senate, under the leadership of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t act on the bill this spring and just returned from a three-week break without their own version of a bill and, after a week’s work, they still don’t have a Republican proposal, much less a bill that has been negotiated with the Democratic and Independent senators so that it is ready for debate and vote.

Meanwhile, people are sick and dying, out of work, not knowing how they are going to be able to pay their bills, scared, and bewildered about their country’s dysfunctional state. The United States has become an object of pity around the world.

I’m disappointed that, even when the crisis is monumental, the Republican leadership can’t muster the will and/or competence to do their job and govern for the good of the people. If they had integrity, they would resign to make way for leaders who can and will serve the people and the Constitution. Resignations would be less disruptive than the current inaction.

One-Liner Wednesday: John Lewis

“A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few. Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option — for peace cannot exist where justice is not served.”

Rep. John Lewis (1940-2020)

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