Gun Control Background Check Legislation Defeated…Blame the Filibuster

On Wednesday, April 17, the Senate voted down gun background check legislation. This was defeated with 54 ayes and 46 nays. What? Defeated with a majority? You bet, thanks to the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority before legislation can move forward.

Slate.com’s Dave Weigel put the blame directly on the Democrats’ shoulders for a variety of reasons.  He makes a good case, but the filibuster remains the major culprit. Even if the Democrats who voted no had voted yes, they would’ve still been one vote shy of the 60-vote threshold.

The filibuster has been a handy little procedure for senators of both parties to use when in the minority. However, the GOP senators have escalated its use to a whole new level of obstruction. Here is a little history:

  • 107th Congress (2001 – 2002, Dem minority)— 71 cloture motions filed:
  • 108th Congress (2003 – 2004, Dem minority)—62
  • 109th Congress (2005 – 2006, Dem minority)—68
  • 110th Congress (2007 – 2008, GOP minority)—139
  • 111th Congress (2009 – 2010, GOP minority)—137
  • 112th Congress (2011 – 2012, GOP minority)—115
  • 113th Congress (2013 – 2014, GOP minority)—11

A filibuster is an attempt to extend debate on a proposal in order to delay or completely prevent a vote on its passage. If cloture (a 60-vote supermajority) is not attained, the legislation will not receive an up or down vote. Historically, the filibuster was used in limited circumstances such as to override a presidential veto, expel a member from the Senate, or convict a federal officer of a federal offense.

Furthermore, the filibuster was a talking one. Jimmy Stewart’s character filibustered, quite dramatically, in the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In March, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) held a talking filibuster, which hadn’t happened since Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took to the floor in December 2010 to protest a tax law. Today, talking filibusters are rare.

If legislation is going to be held up, then the senator(s) doing the blocking should stand before their colleagues and the American public to argue their point rather than merely stating their intent to filibuster. No pain is associated with obstruction nowadays; it is far too easy.

The Brennan Center for Justice’s 2010 Filibuster Abuse report provides a thorough accounting of how this procedure contributes to Senate dysfunction, compromises the system of checks and balances, and degrades transparency and accountability in government. The report highlights the fact that “Senate procedures have increasingly been used to prevent decision-making rather than to promote deliberation and debate.”

cloture_size

In 2012, the Brennan Center for Justice released a follow-up report, Curbing Filibuster Abuse. The authors found as of October 2012:

  • The 112th Congress had enacted 196 public laws, the lowest output of any Congress since at least World War II;
  • Senate passed a record-low 2.8 percent of bills in that chamber;
  • Cloture motions have skyrocketed since 2006;
  • On average, it took 188 days to confirm a judicial nominee, creating 33 “judicial emergencies.”

The authors state that rules reform is a must and suggest some “minimal, commonsense reforms:”

  • There should be only one opportunity to filibuster any given measure or nomination;
  • Senate rules should require at least 40 votes to sustain a filibuster as opposed to requiring a supermajority to break a filibuster, and senators should be required to remain on the floor and debate, as in the past;
  • Safeguards should be put in place to ensure members of the minority can offer amendments.

There have been attempts to reform, if not eliminate, the filibuster, even as recently as January. Reform is difficult. One reason is that the filibuster allows the minority in the Senate to have some say over and to slow down legislation. Therefore, even though Democrats have had a majority in that chamber, seven years now, many of them don’t want to change or eliminate it because they fear finding themselves in the minority again and when that happens, will want the option to filibuster.

The filibuster serves a purpose, and should be maintained on a limited basis, used for very specific circumstances as enumerated previously. However, filibustering has become a means for the minority to override or disrupt any legislation the majority tries to pass and hold up political appointments. This is wrong. Elections matter and when the minority dictates what the majority does, that is a problem for our democracy, especially when those filibustering have no desire to compromise and negotiate. It’s their way or no way. They become obstructionists and policymaking in this country grinds to a halt. Any legislation or political appointment, no matter how benign, is nearly impossible to enact or approve.

The filibuster’s accomplice is often the secret hold. The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act should’ve halted the secrecy component of holds. However, since no enforcement mechanism was included, it has largely been ignored. There is no reason a legislator should not be held to account for why she/he is holding up legislation. Transparency is crucial to democracy. If a senator is going to stop a bill or political appointment, we the people have every right to know who it is and why they are doing it, whether we agree with them or not.

Capitol 2

Until our legislators have the guts to make some simple changes to Senate rules, government impotence at the federal level will continue. That does not bode well for the health, security, and growth of our country. Filibuster reform is a must.

Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal

 

Read the Brennan Center for Justice reports:

Evergreen Up Late: Wide World of Dopes!

Tonight we are spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of knuckleheads. The thrill of notoriety and the agony of internet infamy. The human drama of bad decisions and ill conceived actions that we call….The Wide World of Dopes!

We’re back and not quite as good as we used to be. However, we’re still more than adequate to the task of exposing the unseemly underbelly of the internet. Don’t think of it as a downer though because it should remind you of how great your life is…

Let’s begin with this huuuuuuuge story. I feel for the guy. I’ve had similar problems of an opposite nature myself…

Our next story take us to Hong Kong where….Holy Crap!!!

Now I can see how Nessie could mess up your boat but what this story really reminds me is that it’s almost time to re-up my Godzilla coverage.

Meanwhile back here in the States, kids are going to learn about sex one way or the other.

Someone should have pulled this guy aside and asked him from which petting zoo taught him this trick.

All of which leads us to our final story of the evening. Gotta say I’m glad because we sure aren’t as cool or civilized as we think we are.

If you need me I’ll be in the backyard with my flashlight trying to flag down a ride.

The Affordable Care Act…where is the campaign to promote it?

On April 25, Politico reported: “Congressional leaders in both parties are engaged in high-level, confidential talks about exempting lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from the insurance exchanges they are mandated to join as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.”

An exemption request like this is totally expected from Republicans who are determined to undermine the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but from Democrats it is absolutely appalling because they are supposed to be proponents of the ACA. They worked diligently to pass it, though sadly and to the law’s detriment, many distanced themselves from it once implementation commenced.

After some commiserating with like-minded people and searching for further information, I stumbled upon Ezra Klein’s piece in the Washington Post, basically stating that this is much ado about nothing. Then later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office made the following statement:

“Senator Reid is committed to ensuring that all members of Congress and Congressional staff experience the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in exactly the same way as every other American. He believes that this is the effect of the legislation as written, and that therefore no legislative fix is necessary. There are not now, have never been, nor will there ever be any discussions about exempting members of Congress or Congressional staff from Affordable Care Act provisions that apply to any employees of any other public or private employer offering health care.”

Much of the initial political firestorm has been extinguished. However, this is a perfect example of the outrage people feel when those in power exempt themselves from programs in which the rest of us are required to participate. It sends the wrong message: They are above adhering to the same standards as their constituents. It not only looks bad but also further erodes the public’s faith in government and democracy.

Furthermore, it is always the negative side of this legislation that makes headlines. Where is the campaign to promote the ACA’s benefits as well as provide information about the upcoming enrollment period, starting October 1? If someone like me, who pays close attention to happenings in the political world, doesn’t possess a good understanding of how the ACA will be rolled out, how is someone less informed expected to know about it?

The Obama administration, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelious, and democratic legislators have been dismal communicators of the ACA’s benefits and enrollment procedures. The high-risk health insurance plan, PCIP (Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan), is a perfect example of why it is so important to employ a nationwide educational campaign about health care reform. Enrollment peaked at 110,088 people, far below the 375,000 expected participation number. This is mainly due to a general lack of knowledge of PCIP’s existence, as of July 1, 2010.

In February PCIP enrollment halted because of a funding shortage. These insureds will be rolled into the state health exchanges open to all citizens starting January 1, 2014, when there will no longer be pre-existing exclusion clauses in medical insurance plans.

There is growing concern that the state exchanges won’t be ready in time. Many states, mostly GOP-led, have refused to establish insurance exchanges, leaving implementation up to the federal government. If exchanges are not established and systems are not in place by October, confusion and chaos will reign, as enrollees try to figure out how to maneuver through the application process.

New Jersey, where I reside, has approximately 1.3 million uninsured residents and is a state where the federal government will operate the exchanges. In addition to refusing to establish a health care exchange, Governor Chris Christie originally turned down funds for Medicaid expansion; he eventually had a change of heart on that matter. Only 20 states and DC have agreed to Medicaid expansion, which covers everyone below 133% of the federal poverty line.

There is much contention surrounding the ACA and it is not without its flaws. It is, more accurately, health insurance reform as opposed to health care reform. Despite its limitations, it is a much-needed first step in the right direction toward achieving affordable, quality health care for all Americans.  However, to benefit from the ACA, Americans must know what provisions are included, how and where to sign up, what it will cost, and have their concerns addressed and questions answered quickly.

If the exchanges are rolled out amidst confusion and disorganization, its success will be jeopardized and every “Obamacare” hater will pounce with “I told you so.” Health and Human Services and the Obama administration better have a plan—and if they currently have one, it’s not apparent—to educate the public in order to attain the participation rates necessary for the ACA to succeed. Where is the high-profile campaign to inform Americans about the upcoming changes?

If these actions aren’t taken soon, they better have a strategy in place to stanch the political bleeding that will no doubt result from an angry, confused, and frustrated American public. They must get it right.

To learn more about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, visit Healthcare.gov

Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal

1,350.

1,350.  That’s how many more times the legally-allowable amount of ammonium nitrate was stored in the West Fertilizer Co. plant before it exploded.  From Reuters:

“Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.”

Do you know why the Department of Homeland Security requires such reporting?  Because ammonium nitrate, in addition to being fertilizer, is highly explosive.  You might remember it from this guy’s handiwork.

Yet this fine, upstanding corporate citizen in West, Texas didn’t see the need to comply with a variety of federal and state regulations.  They figured that was just Big Government’s way of holding down small business.  But they’re real sorry now that fourteen people are dead, 200 are injured and there’s a 100-foot crater where their business used to be. In fact, the owner, Donald Adair, is “devastated.”

Here are some other numbers:  4,609 and 17.  The first is the number of Americans who died in workplace accidents in 2011 alone.  That same year, 17 died from acts of terrorism.  Yet I’ll bet you’re about 1,350 times more concerned about terrorists than you are about the safety of your workplace, yes?

We had the rare opportunity the week of April 15, 2013 to get a good look at the two side-by-side.  Three people died – tragically – in Boston at the hands of two terrorists.  And that dominated the news.  Sure, there were headlines about the explosion in Texas, but that wasn’t the story.  After all, there were scary foreigners responsible for Boston!  In Texas the fault lies with a good American job creator.  Who, by placing profits over human lives, literally blew a hole in the community where he has spent his whole life.

One of the terrorists is dead, one in prison awaiting legal proceedings.  Mr. Adair?  He’s issuing statements to the press.  The Governor of Texas has his back, and is disgusted that anyone has the nerve to question how serious Texas – or any state – is about putting safety ahead of corporate profit.  In hopes that Governor Perry will be as disappointed with Everblog as he is with the Sacramento Bee, please see the image below.

Plant Explosion Cartoon

In fairness to Mr. Adair and Governor Perry, this sort of thing isn’t endemic only to Texas.  Again, thousands of Americans die in workplace accidents every year.

Still, why is Mr. Adair walking free, probably enjoying breakfast with his family as this post is published?  No one questions that the negligence and active disregard of safety regulations by his company have forever changed the town of West, Texas and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of lives.

Sure, they’ll pay a fine.  Maybe even a big one.  The surviving Boston bomber?  We all know his days are numbered.

If this were an isolated incident it might be understandable as a simple mistake.  It was not an isolated incident.  It happens over and over (normally on an infinitely smaller scale) and we chalk it up to the price of free enterprise, of employment.

More than a hundred years ago, in 1911, 146 Americans died in New York City when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company went up in flames.  That was enough to make New Yorkers stand up and take notice.

Is 146 the magic number?  Is that how many people need to die in one “accident” for America to decide it might be time to re-prioritize human life over profit again?


I have small children.  They cause a fair bit of household mayhem by their very existence.  Not a day goes by that, following a dropped plate of food, a tripped sister, a spilled glass of milk, I don’t explain that it doesn’t matter if it was an accident – if they were misbehaving and that misbehavior resulted in said mayhem, it’s their fault anyway.

That’s true of Mr. Adair’s West Fertilizer Company as well. No, he didn’t mean to kill all those people.  But he did  mean to make a few extra bucks by disregarding the law.  BP didn’t mean to blow a hole in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico that they still can’t figure out how to close.  But they did mean to maximize profits by playing fast and loose with the most basic requirements.

There is an endless supply of examples.  Isn’t it time we expect “corporate citizens” to behave by the same rules of decency we expect of our children?

No Fairness in Funding

Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty,”
– President Lyndon Johnson, 1965

As pointed out in an earlier blog (Education:  The Biggest Loser?), this country pays considerable lip service to the issue of education.  A politician, who does not say education is our greatest asset, is not very politically savvy.  Education is the topic that everyone agrees is extremely important.  Everyone agrees that it is not optimal for our children to be unprepared for post-secondary education, should they desire to attend.  Our children should be taught necessary skills, so that they are able to make a place for themselves in the world.  Having an education (be that a degree or training certificate) greatly improves earning potential.

In Leaving Children Behind, the NCLB legislation was discussed.  While it seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, we have learned that it may hinder educational advancement rather than helping it.  Our schools went from institutions of learning to memorization machines.  Standardized testing became the all important component in public schools.  “Teaching to the test” was found to be a poor way to educate and a useless measure of skills learned.

No Child Left Behind, while doing our children a horrible disservice, is not the only problem our educational system faces.  It is not even the most important one.  The most pressing issue, in my estimation, is funding.  Does that mean we need to pour more money into education?

According to the Center for Public Education, we find that blaming the federal government is not wise.  The federal government’s contribution to public education is quite minimal.  It makes up, on average, approximately 9% of a school district’s budget.  Federal funds are distributed through programs such as Title I, Reading First, IDEA, and school lunches.  Local and state funding is tasked with the majority of K-12 educational revenue (ranging from 32%-89%).  Each school district supplements their budget through various fundraisers.

At this point, it is easy to see where Johnson’s quote above becomes relevant.

Children who can afford access to excellent education will receive excellent education.  No mystery there.  However, impoverished children live in impoverished communities.  What of them?  Are all of our nation’s children being “highly educated”?  Unfortunately, the answer is no.  Read this article to understand how state and local budgets maintain and preserve inequality.

“The sad reality is that gross funding inequities continue to exist in this country, and too often the schools serving students with the greatest needs receive the fewest resources.”  Children who grow up in low-income homes are less likely to be afforded a high quality education.  Where local funding is concerned, it seems understandable.  Taxable wealth (property, income)  is lower in high poverty districts, thus fewer education dollars will be raised.  However, the report also shows “nonproperty sources of revenues—such as income taxes, fees, and revenues from intermediate sources—are typically higher in low-poverty districts than high-poverty ones and are rarely equalized through the state aid formula.”

From the report: “Typically, we have blamed local property tax variation as the sole, or at least primary, cause of inequalities and called for greater state funding as the solution. In practice, however, we see that states providing a large share of state aid are not necessarily more equitable in their distribution of school funding.”  States are funneling billions of tax payer dollars to low poverty school districts, where they are less needed.  Would it not make more sense to subsidize those districts, within a state, that are low-income and poverty ridden?

“Throwing more money” at the problem will not solve it.  Equal and fair distribution of money already thrown…just might.

Our nation’s problems are many.  Truly ensuring that our children, all of them, have access to a high quality education; would go a long way towards solving a multitude of them.  How many poor children might be capable of curing cancer, or advancing scientific discovery, or educating the youth that follow them. We could produce more citizens capable of filling jobs that require higher education.  We could decrease generational welfare statistics, and quite possibly lower the percentage of Americans who need EBT (food stamp) assistance, or medical assistance.  We could reduce crime.  We could equalize  income and wealth distribution in the system, which is sorely needed.  Most importantly, we could create a more intelligent citizenry.  A people able to understand complex issues.  A people able to hold their government accountable.

Is there a down side to a more educated populace?  I think not.

Tenement Immigrants

“If one attitude can be said to characterize America’s regard for immigration over the past two-hundred years it is the belief that while immigration was a wise and prescient thing in the case of one’s parents or grandparents, it really ought to stop now.”

– Bill Bryson, Made in America

Meandering about in SoHo, we happened across a place I’d never heard of before. I knew that New York has a lot of museums, but I didn’t know a Tenement Museum was one of them.

My familiarity with the word “tenement” has been limited to what I’ve heard in MoTown songs, so we decided to stop in. I was expecting a place devoted to the history of low-income African-American housing.

The word “tenement” actually has an official definition. It’s a single home housing more than three different families, each doing their own cooking. Not that an official definition matters that much to families and children living in sub-standard, overcrowded, poverty-stricken environs.

The museum actually is devoted to the history of immigrants. Since America’s earliest days, many newcomers to the country came through New York City. Many stayed in the City as they got accustomed to their new country, made some money, and got their bearings. Many stayed for a long time. Some are still here.

In the mid-1800s, it was mostly Germans, crowding in where ever they could find room, usually in neighborhoods of other Germans, sometimes with several families living on a single floor of what once was a single-family home.

Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, different waves of immigrants from different countries followed, usually as economic prospects in other countries rose and fell. Irish, Italians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, each group taking turns supplying workers to America’s factories, throngs of foreigners flocking to their own ethnic neighborhoods, all looking for opportunity. Somewhere in there my own grandparents came over from Europe, checking in at Ellis Island before moving on.

And as long as there’s been immigration, there’s been opposition. Those already here have tried to prevent others from having the same opportunities they had. I got mine. Why should I let someone else do the same?

____

And so it continues. The countries they come from and the languages they speak change, as do the places they settle and their living accommodations. But the conflict – and the selfishness – continue to plague the political discussions.

People forget that we’re all aboriginals. Every single one of us – even Native Americans – is the descendent of someone who came from somewhere else, looking for something better. Our ancestors all caused trouble for someone else who was already here.

And yet they all also brought something with them. A hope for a better life, and something to contribute towards building a better country.

It’s important to remember that as we debate and decide how to treat people coming to America today.

Adoption: Addiction?

About 24 years ago, it became fairly obvious that I was a member of an infertile couple. Problematic, as one of our main objectives was having a family. Since I was enlisted at the time, there wasn’t a lot of money to undergo expensive fertility treatments, so we decided to look into adoption.

Adoption is a complicated thing. Public adoption is generally the most affordable and safest. Safest because the birth parents relinquish their parental rights to the government; a disinterested party. Once the papers are accepted, there is no turning back, without protracted legal proceedings and really good reasons. It’s also a good option if you are looking for a special needs child, which includes not only children with disabilities, but minority children and sibling groups. But for the couple looking for a healthy, Caucasian infant, private adoption is about the only option, and even this can involve years of waiting … and a lot of money.

So I understand why some couples choose international adoption. My friend adopted from China, where female infanticide and abandonment remain fairly common. What I don’t understand, and what has kept my blood pressure pinging the higher end of the meter all week, is the situation Kathryn Joyce describes in the  MotherJones article, “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.”

I won’t deny you the dubious pleasure of reading the article (or the book), but it is a case study in “When Transracial Adoptions Go Wrong.” During the middle of the last decade, Ecumenicals went on a wholesale adoption spree in Liberia. Families with children were adopting three or more Liberian children at one time. I emphasized “with” because anyone who has more than one child (not multiples) knows how difficult it is to bring a new child into an existing home. So imagine if you have – say – three children at home already, and one day you show up with four more children, of different ages, from a different country, who cannot speak English. Certainly, ethical adoption agencies would evaluate these situations carefully, but as these adoptions were termed by the arranging agencies as religious “missions,” the adage of  “the more souls saved, the better” came quickly into play. Families would go to Africa with wads of cash and basically commence playing “Let’s Make a Deal” without the benefit of Monty Hall as mediator. As is the main objection to domestic transracial adoptions, everything was fine for a while, but once the novelty wore off, well … suffice it to say: African children. In the rural South. Yeah. Not good.

According to Joyce, while the “fever” seems to have subsided and Liberian adoptions have returned to close to 2004 (pre-fever) levels,  2011 adoption rates for Ethiopia and Uganda were 510% and 1,194% of 2004 rates, respectively. The only non-African nations in the top ten “sending” nations were Taiwan (90%) and the Philippines (15%). And even if the numbers have leveled off across the board, that does nothing to address the thousands of lives shattered by this inhumane practice.

It absolutely boggles the mind how – in the 21st century – Americans can sit back and allow this to happen. How adoption agencies identified as engaging in dubious practices can continue to operate. How the government facilitates the process by allowing these children into the country. It is unknown if all or most of the children adopted out by these agencies were even legitimately orphaned. And the lives of many of the children adopted during the “Rush” continue to be complicated by unclear immigration status.

I am livid. As the mother of two adopted children, this story alarms me because it makes it more difficult to change traditionally-held views about adoption in communities of color.  As an African American, this story infuriates me because it smacks far too much of the horrors of slavery. As a Christian, this story dismays me because – once again – we find self-proclaimed “Christians” acting in very un-Christian ways. Ecumenicals are very vocally pro-life, yet it appears – by this account – they have little concern about the spirits of these children. Ecumenicals are very vocally anti-immigration, yet here they have established and engaged in a system that flaunts the established system.

Hopefully, Joyce’s work will shine a light on this issue and force both adoption and immigration officials to address it in some meaningful way. Children are not puppies. They are not rare birds to be brought home and trotted out for the amazement and amusement of friends and family. They are not political statements. They are not missions. Children are people. People with psyches and souls that can be bruised when handled roughly.

Perhaps we need a twelve step program for adoption. Or at least a twelve step plan to properly regulate it.