Here On Earth

History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

— Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address

This week everybody was talking about the inauguration and the second term

I cover President Obama’s speech itself — the best of his presidency — in President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America. Short version: There are two ways, fundamentalist and progressive, to turn history into myth. We’re used to hearing the Tea Party tell the story of America as a fundamentalist myth. In the 2nd Inaugural, Obama told it as a progressive myth.

Naturally, conservatives were offended.

… and filibuster reform

which didn’t happen. Or rather, it sort of happened, but not so you’d notice.

There are several problems with the filibuster as it existed in the last Congress.

  • 41 senators could keep 59 senators from accomplishing anything. That hasn’t been changed and wouldn’t have changed even under the Udall/Merkley reform proposals that Reid watered down.
  • Far less than 41 senators could stop 60+ senators from accomplishing things that aren’t worth making a big deal over. The process for ending a filibuster was so cumbersome that (even if the votes were there), the majority leader might decide that it wasn’t worth the Senate’s time. The Reid/McConnell compromise (which passed overwhelmingly), streamlines this process. So the monkey-wrenching power of a handful of senators has gone down.
  • Filibustering had very little political price. Udall/Merkley would have changed this, but Reid/McConnell doesn’t. In the very old-fashioned “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster, senators had to take the floor and keep speaking. It was an endurance test, but more than that it gave the press something to cover. The majority of the electorate (who often agree with the majority of the Senate being thwarted by the filibuster) could see exactly who was standing in their way. But the more recent version of the filibuster was largely procedural and hence invisible. The press often covered filibusters in the passive voice; bills “were blocked”. Sometimes even the fact of the filibuster wasn’t covered; the press just took for granted that 60 votes were needed to pass anything in the Senate, as if that were in the Constitution.

So we got only the reforms that make the majority leader’s life easier. Harry Reid described the old system this way:

I want to go to it on a Monday, they make me file cloture, that takes till Tuesday. Then it takes two days for the cloture vote to ‘ripen,’ so now it’s Thursday, and even if I get 60 votes, they still have 30 hours to twiddle their thumbs, pick their nose, do whatever they want. So, I’m not on the bill by the weekend, and in reality, that means next Monday or Tuesday.

That’s the part that he thinks he’s fixed.

As if in a political novel, a federal appeals court immediately made it clear why filibuster reform is necessary by throwing out President Obama’s recess appointments of officials whose nominations had been filibustered. In particular, everything the National Labor Relations Board did in 2012 is now suspect, because without the recess appointments it didn’t have a quorum to act.

If the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court ruling, President Obama (and future presidents) will have no recourse if 41 senators decide to obstruct the normal functioning of government using an strategy that had no precedent before the Republicans began using it against Obama.

Throughout American history, the Senate’s constitutional power to “advise and consent” to presidential nominations had been applied individually: On the rare occasions when a nominee was rejected, it was because of a scandal or some other reason unique to that particular person. But Obama’s nominations have been blocked strategically. He can’t get new members appointed to the NRLB or put someone in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because Republicans don’t want those bodies to function. It’s nothing personal; Jesus Christ could not be confirmed as head of the CFPB.

So if you are trying to form a union right now and your company fights you in illegal ways, you don’t have much recourse because we don’t have a valid NLRB you can appeal to. Republicans haven’t and couldn’t raise the votes to repeal our labor laws, but they can monkey-wrench the parts of government that enforce those laws.

This is a tactic that the American people would recognize as illegitimate if it came to their attention, as it would if Republicans had to mount an old-fashioned Mr. Smith filibuster. In that case, some group of senators would have to be the faces of the filibuster, appearing on TV as the people who are making our government not work. Democracy would have a chance to correct the problem.

But even that reform was too much to ask for.

… and Hillary Clinton’s testimony about Benghazi

from which we learned essentially nothing. Neither Republicans nor Democrats showed any interest in figuring out how to prevent future Benghazis. Republicans played to their conspiracy-theory-loving base, and Democrats buttered up a possible future president. Jon Stewart covered the hearing with an appropriate level of disgust.

The most over-the-top statement came from Rand Paul, who called Benghazi “the worst tragedy since 9-11“. Apparently he slept through the entire Iraq War.

Clinton came out untouched. Feministing says her performance was a model of how to deal with mansplaining.

and you also might be interested in …

Here’s where we’ve gotten in the same-sex marriage argument: The lawyers in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8 are arguing that opposite-sex couples pose a unique threat to society, because they can produce “unplanned and unintended offspring”. According to the LA Times:

they argue that it is reasonable for the law to steer opposite-sex couples toward marriage, including by giving them extra benefits. “It was rational for Congress to draw the line where it did,” Clement said, “because the institution of marriage arose in large measure in response to the unique social difficulty that opposite-sex couples, but not same-sex couples, posed.”

Got that, gays and lesbians? You can’t get the benefits of marriage because your potential promiscuity is less socially disruptive than when straights sleep around. By June we’ll find out whether the Supreme Court finds this argument persuasive.

It looks like the debt ceiling won’t be an issue until the middle of May. Obama stood firm and Boehner blinked.

In last summer’s post “I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To“, points 5 and 6 were “Ryan’s reputation as a deficit hawk is undeserved” and “He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.” Well, his interview with Ezra Klein Wednesday proved both.

Slate’s Richard Hasen thinks the Republican plan to gerrymander the Electoral College won’t come to anything. I want to believe his argument, but it depends on Republicans either (i) deciding that they believe in democracy, or (ii) realizing that the American people do. If they turn out to be both evil and clueless, they’ll go through with it. (At least in Virginia, they’re backing down.)

But they’re bragging about having held onto the House in spite of the voting public. A Republican memo crows about the Party’s gerrymandering prowess:

Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House seated yesterday in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.

I do agree with one of Hasen’s points: That Republicans are considering this plan at all shows that they realize conservatism is unpopular. They wouldn’t need to plot how to win with a minority if they believed the majority of the American people agree with them.

At his confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State nominee John Kerry didn’t dodge on climate change.

You want to do business and do well in America? We’ve got to get into the energy race. Other countries are in it… This is a place for us to recognize what other countries are doing and what our states that are growing are doing, which is there’s an extraordinary amount of opportunity in modernizing America’s energy grid.

“Other countries are doing it.” Solar panels over irrigation canals generate power, conserve water (by reducing evaporation), don’t occupy crop land, and create jobs. America could do stuff like this, if we were an advanced country like India.

Occasionally we do stuff here: My wife’s home town is pioneering the smart grid.

Grist thanks Donald Trump for saying such stupid things about global warming that straw men are not necessary.

You know why the climate-denier movement won’t die? Dark money.

TPM founder Josh Marshall doesn’t like the way almost every anti-gun-violence article starts “I’m a gun owner, but …” He doesn’t own a gun, doesn’t want to own a gun, has never shot a gun, and figures that makes him representative of about half the country. Why should that point of view be left out of the discussion?

Last week I talked about how Republicans in Congress turned against their own ideas as soon as Obama proposed them. Now that trend may be reversing in a strange way: Republicans may reclaim their ideas and just refuse to recognize that Obama ever proposed them. If Obama plays along, something might get done.

The test case is immigration reform, where Marco Rubio is proposing something remarkably similar to the plan Obama borrowed from George W. Bush.

Last week I also called your attention to the idea of a “false flag operation”, which is a staple of paranoid conspiracy theories, particularly the ones where the government is conspiring to take our guns.

Well, occasionally liberals believe in false flag operations too: Here’s Rachel Maddow speculating that an anti-Chuck-Hagel ad by anonymous “liberals” is actually a conservative ad in disguise.

I had to get this in before football is over for the year.

And finally, this mystical city appears out of the fog once every hundred years. No, wait, it’s Vancouver.

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