Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why re-elect Senate Democrats?

With Democratic control (53 – 47) of the Senate at risk, twenty-three Democratic Senate seats (including two Independents who caucus with the Dems) are on the 2012 ballot.  By contrast, with only ten Republicans running for re-election, the odds do not look good for Democrats.  Of those twenty-three Democratic seats, six Democratic Senators and two Republican Senators have announced their retirement, leaving eight Senate seats up for grabs without an incumbent candidate.  

With public support for Congress hovering at 10% and a perceived difference between the parties mostly along the edges of inflammatory social issues, Senate Democrats have given the American public little reason to fear a Republican takeover. 

So exactly why are those Democratic seats, held by mostly docile, ineffective officeholders, so important?  If all or any of those 23 Democrats are re-elected, how exactly will ‘We, the People” be better off?  Will any of those deadbeat Democrats be more responsive to the demands of democracy?  Is it too much to expect one Democrat to critically discuss Obama’s inclination for spreading US military around the globe including the truth about Iran’s nuclear capability, the unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act, adoption of a foreclosure moratorium, how ‘real’ health care reform can cut the deficit, restructure of the country’s economic institutions, prosecution of the banksters or the fatal errors of globalization?

As the Super Committee fails to agree on $1.2 Trillion cuts thereby kicking the can into the 2012 campaign for further budget cuts in 2013 and a pseudo-liberal media is uncertain whether to heap praise or scorn, are any of those incumbent Democratic Senators willing to abandon the herd mentality and step outside the box to solve the country’s problems?  

There was once a reasonable expectation that Democrats, considered the ‘conscience of the nation,’ would offer a bold vision as they better represented the 99%ers than Republicans who are still proud descendants of Calvin Coolidge.  Instead, 2012 incumbent Democratic Senators pretend to be what they are  not - spouting populist slogans as they cut $78 billion out of Social Security in 2009, unable to deliver enough Democratic votes for Obama’s anemic American Jobs Act and caving on the debt ceiling to allow $2.5 trillion cuts instead of going the 14th Amendment route.  When neo-liberal multi-bazillionaire Democratic Senator John Kerry unabashedly brags that it was Democrats on the Super Committee who put forward the President’s ‘grand bargain’ of $4 Trillion worth of cuts, with deep reductions to the country’s favorite Big Three social programs, as if it were a heroic gesture and expressed willingness to ‘expedite’ tax reform, it should come as no surprise that the suffering of the American public is far from over.

Never meant to be exclusively a legislative body like the House, the Senate, with its quasi-executive functions, has relinquished its claim to the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”  An incompetent institution, Senate Democrats offer no resistance as they blame Republican obstructionism for every failed vote, portraying themselves as powerless while the ‘tyranny of the minority’ is allowed to prevail as though no legislative remedy were available. 

Even as George W. Bush sought the formality of Congressional approval for the invasion of Iraq, it was clear that Senate Democrats had lost their Constitutional fervor as a ‘check and balance’ on the Executive Branch.  For example, one special advantage of holding the majority is its abiilty to conduct oversight hearings on issues like the aforementioned; if for no other reason than assurance that the Senate still understood its Constittuional preorgative.  Now, with a faux-liberal non-partisan Democrat in the White House, Senate Democrats have further acquiesced their statutory role as Obama’s foreign policy initiatives include combat troops in Africa and a new US ‘permanent’ base of marines in Australia.  Democrats in the Senate remain mute with the collapse of Constitutional democracy close at hand. 

In 2008, Democrats controlled the Senate by a 60 – 40 margin but without reliable party discipline, Republican demands for a ‘filibuster-proof’ majority of 60 votes thwarted public policy debates.  Inexplicably unable to convert a 20 vote spread into legislative victories, the Democratic Senate failed to act on hundreds of pieces of worthwhile legislation referred from the House for final action.  As the Democratic majority shrunk to 53 with the 2010 election, the party of Jefferson and Jackson remained as impotent as it was with its 2008 majority.  Yet, at the start of the 112th Session of Congress last January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid convinced Democratic Senators to stifle necessary ‘reform’ of the Senate’s subversive filibuster rule in defense of someday they will be the minority.    

Once ‘move the previous question’ language (in effect since 1789) was removed from Senate rules in 1806, lengthy, unlimited speeches degenerated into ‘talking (a bill) to death’ or sometimes to express passionate beliefs as Sen. Bernie Sanders did, standing alone during an 8.5 hour filibuster last December in opposition to tax cuts for the rich.  In 1917, the ‘cloture’ rule was adopted after twelve anti-war Senators successfully filibustered the Armed Ship Act, delaying US entry into WWI.  Since then, cloture was used (albeit rarely until 2008) to prevent a minority of 41 from thwarting the majority of 59 with unbridled speechifying as ‘reform’ centered on how many cloture votes were needed to shut down a filibuster. 

Pitting raw power politics against Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, the “Senate shall appoint judges of the Supreme al” should be the undisputed guiding language for all judicial nominees until Senate Rules reinterpreted the Constitution with filibuster and cloture procedures favoring a partisan adaptation.  As a result, there are an estimated 150 Obama judicial appointments awaiting Senate confirmation.  Article II contains no reference to a specific number of votes required (with the exception of two-thirds for approval of treaties), implying a simple one-vote majority for all other purposes.  Despite a brief precedent in the 1970’s when the one-vote majority for cloture was adopted, a two-thirds (67) vote required in 1917 was amended to a three-fifths (60) vote in 1975 which continues today.   

Even President George W. Bush believed a filibuster of judicial nominees to be inconsistent with the Senate’s Constitutional responsibilities as outlined in Article II pointing out that “The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to hold an up-or-down vote on every judicial nominee, and throughout its 216-year history, the Senate has held an up-or-down vote on every Supreme Court nominee with majority Senate support." 

Always aware of their options, Democrats remain unwilling to challenge Republican running rough-shod over the Constitution.  To call the Republican bluff and ‘bring in the cots,’ Democrats have the choice to show a willingness to fight for the Rule of Law as they maintain an on-going all-night debate.   Yet, in deference to their own corporate masters, Democrats have chosen to capitulate as the country’s most urgent problems continue to fester. 

The American public understands that neither party has shown the capacity to govern and that both have failed to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities.  The net effect leaves both parties complicit in Congressional gridlock with the Democrat majority arrogant in their willingness to squander the Obama Administration’s first two years of opportunity.         

The age-old question of why Senate Democrats deserve to be re-elected frequently boils down to fear of Supreme Court nominations falling into Republican hands yet the record shows that Democratic votes are equally responsible with Republicans for the appointment of Justices to the Court who have done their best to shred the Constitution as they undermine democracy.  Here is a summary:  

*   In 1986, Antonin Scalia’s nomination was approved on a 98-0 Senate vote including all Democratic Senators despite Scalia’s well-known aggressive right wing views.  

*   Clarence Thomas was confirmed in 1991 on a 52 – 48 vote including 11 Democratic votes in support and eight votes short of the 60 vote threshold.    

*   In 2005, John Roberts was confirmed to become Chief Justice with a 78 – 22 vote including 22 Democrats in support.

*  In 2006, Samuel Alito was confirmed on a 58 – 42 vote, two votes shy of the 60 vote threshold. Like Thomas, Roberts and Scalia, Alito’s right wing politics were well known and led to an abbreviated Democratic filibuster to block his appointment.  A cloture vote to shut off debate was adopted on a 75-25 with 19 Democrats providing the margin.  

*  Obama’s two Supreme Count nominations, Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were both held to the 60 vote standard garnering 68 – 31 and 63- 37 votes, respectively.

The impact of the Senate’s filibuster policy goes far beyond the appointment of Supreme Court Justices as it has become a standard legislative ploy to manipulate all public business scheduled for the Senate floor allowing a more vocal, more aggressive minority to derail a progressive legislative agenda.  The Democratic Senate majority continues to sing their ‘sorry, we just don’t have the votes’ song while millions of Americans continue to lose their homes, their jobs, their health care, their life savings and their peace of mind.

Reliance on a hypothetical filibuster has had the effect of rescinding the ‘one vote majority’ principle implicit in the Constitution that has guided American democracy for more than 200 years as today’s Senate continues to operate in an illegitimate manner, unacceptable for a democratically-elected body.  A universal basis for every parliamentary democracy, the ‘one vote majority’ represents a stabilizing element that provides a strong incentive for minority Members to participate in the legislative process – currently not a factor in today’s Senate.  Without a firm ‘one vote majority’ threshold, elections become meaningless and erosion of the Rule of Law translates into the deterioration of a Constitutional government. 

Despite the lack of strong, clear progressive voices in the Senate, the luxury of giving up on electoral politics because of past disappointments is no longer an alternative.  Our teetering democracy is in urgent need of a new crop of courageous, independent, tough-minded, progressive Senators with an inner grit unafraid to speak out against corruption, who care more about the future of democracy than the future of Wall Street and are willing to turn the Senate on its head. Republicans have Senators like that.  Why don’t Progressives?  

With a modern day Democratic Party so far removed from what Jefferson and Madison envisioned as to be indistinguishable and unworthy of trust with real political power, the country’s ruling bi-partisan establishment has rigged the electoral system against any third party effort in favor of their own interests. And as dissatisfaction with the existing political structure spreads, the image of a new political paradigm appears on the horizon, a new political strategy not beholden to the old partisan structure.  As an insurgent force against the status quo, the Democratic party offers the best existing political structure to begin the process of reclaiming democracy and the transformational work of rebuilding a newly aligned national government devoted to People’s needs.

The bottom line is that electoral politics is the most immediate vehicle available for a powerful progressive political movement to bring about meaningful structural change.  Elections matter.  Elections have consequences.  Elections are where life-changing decisions are made – and this country is worth fighting for.

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The eight States with open Senate seats are Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Virginia, Wisconsin, Hawaii, North Dakota and Texas.  Democratic incumbents seeking re-election in 2012 are  Sens. Menendez

of NJ, Feinstein of Calif., both Nelsons one from Florida other Nebraska, Stabenow of Michigan, Klobuchar of Minnesota, McCaskill of Missouri, Sherood Brown of Ohio, Whitehouse of RI, Cardin of Maryland, Gillibrand

of NY, Cantwell of Washington, Casey of PA, Carper of Del, Tester of Montana,  Manchin of WVa and Sanders who caucuses with the Democrats.  

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