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.

Failing the Constitution

I woke up this morning thinking about the United States Constitution, specifically about the Preamble, which I can recite from memory. (Thanks, Schoolhouse Rock.)

The Preamble sets out the goals of our democratic republic. It famously begins, We the People of the United States. This means everyone is part of this enterprise, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or political views. It was part of the wisdom of the Founders to frame this document in such an expansive way, even though, at the time, only free men, who were overwhelmingly white, could vote. Much of the history of the United States has been about expanding our understanding of who “we the people” are, a process that continues to this day.

in Order to form a more perfect Union – We the People are, at this moment, moving away from a more perfect Union. I take this Constitutional call seriously and am sad and frightened about the current state of affairs, which is causing so many divides in our country. There are millions of people who are embroiled in an “us versus them” mentality over religion, political party, race. gender, ethnicity, and/or viewpoint on a particular issue. There are millions of people who can’t have a civil discussion of an issue without petty name-calling and dismissiveness of the other’s viewpoint. That moves us away from “a more perfect Union”.

establish Justice – Our Constitution creates an entire co-equal branch dedicated to this goal. Sadly, the independence of the judiciary is under threat, most obviously this week by the executive branch interfering in the sentencing of a friend of the president’s who was tried and found guilty by a jury on all seven counts with which he was charged. The Attorney General, who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, is supposed to be the chief law officer for We the People; as such, most attornies-general have observed independence from the executive branch. AG Barr is not doing that. Chillingly, he has also ordered that no investigation into political campaigns can occur without him personally giving permission. This mean that the Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot follow leads, collect evidence, question witnesses, or take any action unless Barr authorizes it. He could order investigations of Democratic candidates while blocking those of Republican candidates. Given that twelve Russian operatives are under indictment for election interference to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, this raises the specter of similar efforts by Russians or other foreign actors not being investigated at all, as long as they benefit the current administration and other Republican candidates.

Meanwhile, the Senate has been interfering with the judicial branch, too. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not bring President Obama’s federal court nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Not only did Merrick Garland not get a vote to join the Supreme Court but also dozens of nominees to lower courts were denied votes. McConnell has spent a lot of the Senate’s time pushing through the current administration’s judicial nominees, even those rated as “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. Traditionally in the Senate, sixty of one hundred votes would have been needed to bring these to the floor, but that rule has been suspended, so even the not-qualified candidates receive lifetime appointments to the courts with only fifty votes.

insure domestic Tranquility – Our domestic life is anything but tranquil. The incivility noted in the “more perfect Union” section too often devolves into verbal abuse and threats to personal safety. There have been threats of violence, even death, to journalists, public officeholders, diplomats, members of the military, and people who either question the administration or come forward to give truthful testimony.  Even ordinary folks can be threatened over simple things like video games or expressing their opinion about books or topics of public interest.

Too many people are hurt or killed by violent acts, especially those involving firearms. Mass shootings and police shootings get the most media coverage, but every day people are shot by someone they know or are victims of accidental shootings. The majority of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. These are not marks of domestic tranquility.

Millions of people don’t have access to sufficient food, safe shelter, medical care, and other necessities of a dignified life. Most of them are employed, but not earning a living wage. Millions of people are suffering from addictions. Millions of people are exploited because of their gender, immigration status, age, or other factors that make them fearful to seek help. Millions of people face discrimination because of their race, gender, age, ethnicity, or beliefs. None of these things are tranquil for those suffering through them or for those who sympathize with them.

provide for the common defence – The United States military is the most powerful institution in the world. It should be used to defend the United States and our allies from aggression. Often, the presence of US military is enough to deter countries from attacking their neighbors. I am appalled by the way this administration has pulled back support for our allies, such as South Korea, Ukraine, NATO, and the Kurds. These actions make both the US and our allies less defended and less safe. The treatment of the Kurds is especially troubling. The Kurds did the bulk of the work in taking back land controlled by ISIS; the US withdrawal that the president declared after talking with the autocratic leader of Turkey left the Kurds with no protection from the Turks and the Russians who have taken over the Kurdish towns and driven the residents into exile. Meanwhile, ISIS, continues as a terrorist organization, which is a continuing threat to the US and our allies.

promote the general welfare – This is the phrase from the Preamble that I quote most often. The Constitution is calling us to care for one another. This is also sometimes called in our modern American English working for the common good. This is one of the purposes of our government, but too often government acts in the interests of those individuals, families, businesses, and organizations that are wealthy. This tiny fraction receives a lot of benefits that ordinary folks don’t. Case in point: the tax reform that gave permanent tax cuts to businesses and large tax cuts to the wealthy, while giving some short-term tax relief to some non-wealthy people and higher taxes to others.

Too often our elected officials ignore promoting the general welfare, instead focusing on their campaign donors, businesses in their district or state, and wealthy folks rather than what is good for the general population, both in their district/state and throughout the country. Votes are cast not in the interest of the whole populace but with an eye to what the voters in their party’s primary wants.  Even worse, some officeholders feel that they only represent people of their party or those that voted for them. That is not the framework laid out by the Constitution. We the People expect our government officials to cooperate in passing, executing, and adjudicating laws that promote the general welfare and protect our rights, not to block a proposal because it originated in the other party or was passed by the other house of Congress. Examples of this are the hundreds of (mostly bipartisan) House-passed bills this session that Leader McConnell has blocked in the Senate and the comprehensive immigration reform passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate in 2013 but not brought up for a vote in the House because it would have passed without a majority of the Republican members voting in favor.

and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity – While I feel fortunate to have these blessings, so many others do not. They face discrimination, poverty, abuse, hunger and other problems every day. I mourn the country and world we are leaving to the younger generations and those to come. We are leaving them with division and peril, with our world damaged so much that some of the ecological systems will not be able to recover fully even over centuries. Recognizing this, many young people have taken action to demand change. The Sunrise movement works on issues of climate change and environmental degradation. After a mass shooting at their school, the students of Parkland High mobilized young people across the country to demand protection from gun violence. It is incumbent on all of us to support our younger generations, already part of We the People, and future generations who one day will be.

do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – We the People established our government. It belongs to all of us, not just to a few of us. We need to hold government accountable for the purposes for which we established it. We need Congress to take responsibility for passing laws that are fair to everyone. We need them to exercise their Constitutional duty to declare war when necessary, rather than ceding that power to the commander-in-chief or military leaders. We need everyone to realize that Article II does not give presidents the power to do whatever they want. They are subject to Congressional oversight and judicial proceedings. The courts have to realize that they exist to interpret the Constitution and laws, not write them.

It is troubling that a large percentage of people in this country today tell pollsters that they believe Congress and the courts should get out of the president’s way so that he can do what he wants quickly. This is incredibly dangerous to our democratic republic. We the People must be informed on what the Constitution dictates and hold officeholders and other public servants to it. Those who commit serious breaches of the Constitution should resign. If they don’t, they should be removed by legal means or, at the very least, not re-elected or re-appointed.

I have not been silent on these issues but, given the troubling events of the last few weeks, I felt the need to write this lengthy post to be among those sounding the alarm that our country is in danger. Like me, most of us do not have a large megaphone to broadcast our voices far and wide, but if enough of us speak up in defense of our Constitution, our government will hear the voices of We the People.

Climate strike – part two

Friday, September 27th was the last day of the Climate Action Week that featured youth-led marches, rallies, and work/school strikes around the world. As happened around the world, there was an opening event last Friday in Binghamton, with a larger event scheduled for the closing day.

This event was held at the Peacemaker’s Stage near the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers. We began with a welcome from the University student-organizers, who recalled that we were on land of the Onondoga Nation, who have endured centuries of broken treaties and environmental assault. This continued the emphasis on social/environmental justice as an integral component of climate action.

The climate movement in the United States is being energized by youth and indigenous leadership. At the Binghamton rally on Friday, there were speakers from the local high school and university, as well as young adults from Citizen Action and local government, either as city council members or candidates. There were people on hand to register new voters or process address changes for those who have moved to be ready for the local elections coming up in November.

Some of the speakers were people of color. Amber, from Citizen Action, reminded us that we bring our personal and community heritage with us, as well as our efforts toward treating everyone with equal dignity. It reminded me of what Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato Si’ calls “integral ecology” and what I personally experience.

While I am following the science on climate change, I am also taking into account the ethics involved. Because of my Catholic faith, I see the situation in terms of social justice doctrine, which calls for care of creation and of others, especially the most vulnerable. People of color, people of lower socioeconomic standing, indigenous peoples, women, the elderly, babies and children, and people with illnesses are more affected by environmental degradation and climate change, so they merit special support in our efforts.

Amber and other speakers reminded us that all our efforts are connected. You don’t leave your efforts toward combating racism, sexism, poverty, violence, etc. when you are talking about climate and other environmental problems. All of these are justice issues; they are interconnected and the solutions need to take the whole spectrum of humanity and nature into account.

Besides the speakers, the event featured tables set up by different organizations. It was good to have a space for the youth organizations to meet up with the older, established local organizations. It will make it easier to coordinate efforts and initiatives. Next Sunday, there will be a planning meeting open to everyone to keep the momentum going.

There is a lot of work to do. Let’s get to it!

 

 

Does anybody really know what time it is?

No, seriously. Does anybody really know what time it is?

Earlier this week, daughter E and now five-month-old ABC returned from visiting spouse/daddy L and his family and friends in London. They were there for three weeks and had lots of good times and adventures and firsts, but crossing five time zones and having daylight savings time shift was a bit steep for a child who had barely been learning that night is supposed to be mostly for sleeping. The flight back was particularly disorienting, as it involved getting up at 4 AM London time and arriving here at 5 PM Eastern Standard Time, which feels like 9 PM in London. ABC decided to only take two one-hour naps in all that time, so both she and E were exhausted. That evening, they did both sleep for a six hour stretch, which was helpful, but one of our goals in the coming weeks will be see if we can get ABC to consistently sleep a long stretch at night and take a couple of daytime naps so there will be some semblance of schedule. There should be no more time zone travel for a while, so here’s hoping.

As we were preparing to change our clocks back to standard time last weekend, which, confusingly, happens in the US on a different weekend than in most of the rest of the Northern hemisphere, there were numerous media stories about proposals for the state of Massachusetts to switch to the Atlantic time zone, which would essentially be like being on Eastern Daylight Savings Time year-round, helpful for them as they are on eastern edge of the zone now, so have early sunsets. However, because they are a small state with five bordering states, they will have to convince the other northeastern states to change time zones along with them, joining the parts of Quebec that are on Atlantic Standard Time year-round. I am not a fan of daylight savings time shifts, so I would favor the change to Atlantic time, even though, being father west, it would extend the time that we have to wake up in the dark.

This week, I also mowed the front lawn and there were a couple of dandelions blossoming. Neither of these things are normal for November in our geography. It’s possible that it is a local sign of being in the Anthropocene, the proposed name for the current epoch of geologic time in which humans have significantly impacted our geologic/atmospheric systems. It does seem, though, that our colder fall temperatures have finally arrived. There had been a heavy frost, so I didn’t mow until late afternoon; still, there was a bit of frost close to the house where the sun hadn’t reached. Maybe now the grass will go dormant and we won’t have to mow again until spring.

This week also saw Election Day. Here in New York, we had only local races and some state-wide referenda, but we are observing an important milestone, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the state, three years before the national amendment was adopted. To celebrate, we had special commemorative “I voted” stickers. A few states had more extensive state votes. The Democrats fared better than expected with exit polls suggesting that some of the voters were motivated by displeasure with how the Republicans are handling government on the federal level. Next year’s midterm elections will be very interesting.

I submitted my poems for the Binghamton Poetry Project’s fall anthology this week. Our reading will be on November 18th and the anthology will be available to us. I will post the poems here that weekend. All three were written from prompts during our sessions and all three deal with issues from the past, including one about my friend Angie. You can read a prior poem about Angie here.

All of these events have had me pondering time and the meaning of time, but none as poignantly as having my mom, known here as Nana, under hospice care. While I know intellectually that the future is not promised to any of us, dealing with end-of-life care issues makes the finite nature of our lives more concrete. It helps me to appreciate more the little joys that we can still share – bringing her a fresh batch of lemon pizzelles –  enjoying hot soup at lunchtime or Sunday dinners together – visits with my sisters, my daughters, and especially ABC, her first great-grandchild.

Watching Nana and ABC together sharpens my sense that there really is, as the adage says, no time like the present.

 

Lessons from Selma, Ferguson, and Seneca Lake

This morning I watched coverage on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the first attempt at the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. I am re-blogging my post from January after I saw the film “Selma” which draws together the story of the march with recent events.
– JC

Top of JC's Mind

When the events depicted in the film Selma occurred, I was a four-year-old girl in rural New England.  I do remember seeing Dr. King on the news when I was a bit older and definitely remember his assassination in 1968 in the midst of the Memphis strike by black public works employees who were facing discrimination.  It was incomprehensible – then and now – that a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of such an important social movement could have been only 39 when he died. Because he was such a force and martyred so young, his legacy became a legend, masking his complexity as a human being. While the public life of some of those around King, such as Ambassador Andrew Young and Rep. John Lewis, was decades long and vital to keeping the civil rights movement going forward while remembered its momentous, if painful, past, King’s life has…

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I voted for myself

 
I got back from my polling place, which had a steady stream of citizens coming in to vote. Yay, Democracy!
Well, sort of yay…
Because of the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, there was only one candidate on the ballot for Congress, an incumbent who is part of the problem of Washington gridlock and with whom I fundamentally disagree on a host of important issues.
Despite his being the only name on the ballot, I could not bring myself to vote for him. I also did not want to leave that column of the ballot blank, so I decided to vote for myself.
I shared this plan with my Facebook friends yesterday, so I may get a few other write-in votes, too.
Here’s hoping that in two years I will have more choices on the ballot.

One-Liner Wednesday: Voting

“Voting is a civic sacrament.”
– Father Ted Hesburgh

(Apologies for being US-centric in the timing of this, but, given that the vast majority of people reading this live in democracies, voting will be pertinent at some point in the year.)

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! http://lindaghill.com/2014/10/29/one-liner-wednesday-eh/