Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Rocky Start to the New GOP House, A Dangerous Game with the Filibuster

Ugly Week 1 for the GOP
The good news if you are a Republican rooting for John Boehner and the new GOP majority to succeed in the coming two years is that the public attention span is short. To the extent that the average voter is paying attention at all these days (which is, in and of itself, fairly questionable), they will likely forget most of this month's misgivings long before November 2012.

Having said that, the new GOP House is off to a fairly embarrassing start. It's been less than a week since they assumed power and there have already been major snafus.

(1) The Non-Swearing In
Two new members of the GOP majority, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (PA) and Rep. Pete Sessions (TX) missed the House swearing-in ceremony and where therefore not properly sworn in as members of the House. In spite of this, they cast several votes in the first week, although they were not yet legally congressmen.

The worst part of this story is the reason that they missed the swearing in. They missed it -- they were attending a fundraiser at the capital. Not a great start in standing up to special interests that you are too busy cozying up to them to attend your own swearing-in. Also, House rules prohibit fundraisers at the capital.

The GOP majority elected to pass a resolution invalidating their votes until they were properly sworn in, but letting any bills submitted or speeches given to stand as part of the record. This is an imperfect (if they weren't legal members of the House, they shouldn't be allowed to perform any of the duties) but probably acceptable solution (invalidating bills submitted or speeches given would be largely symbolic, since they could simply resubmit these materials after being sworn in.)

Oh by the way, Sessions participated in the reading of the constitution on the House floor. Maybe he should've paid attention to what he was reading.

(2) Transparency? We Don't Need No Stinking Transparency!
One of the primary complaints of the GOP minority in the House this past congress was the lack of transparency of the operations of the House. In one way, this charge seemed absurd, since all House proceedings are readily viewable by everyone on CSPAN. On the other hand, there were legitimate criticisms...insufficient time for members to read long, complex pieces of legislation, a lack of opportunity for the minority to amend bills and the lack of a mechanism requiring that bills be paid for, rather than simply piling on the deficit.

In order to combat this, the GOP had proposed new rules...a 72-hour requirement between the post of final legislation and a vote, a minimum requirement for the number of amendments that would be allowed and a requirement that bills be paid for with offsetting spending reductions. These were all solid proposals that would improve the operation of the House.

Yet, on the first significant vote of the new House, a bill to repeal the health care bill passed last year, the GOP chose to waive all three of these new rules. Amendments were not allowed. The vote took place less than 24 hours after posting of the final bill. The bill, according to CBO estimate would increase the deficit by over $200B over the next decade.

So much for openness and transparency.

(3) $100B? Who said $100B?
Perhaps the most central issue on which the GOP ran their national campaign this past year was reducing government spending. Over and over, the promise was repeated that the GOP would reduce spending by $100B in the first year, as part of their effort to bring spending back to "pre-stimulus, pre-bailout" levels.

Now, the GOP is already hedging. Boehner says cuts will likely be at only half of that level. He says that this is due to the fact that the actual spending enacted by the previous congress was less than the original proposed Obama budget.

Putting aside for a second the fact that $100B in spending cuts scarcely puts a dent in the federal deficit, backing off even that very modest level of spending reductions is a flaring indication of what I have been saying all along...that if you exclude entitlements, defense, veterans affairs and any new taxes, there is simply no way to balance the federal budget.

If the GOP can't present a credible path to reduce the deficit, then the whole getting the out of control government spending line of logic falls apart. What does the GOP stand for if they intend to continue spending at elevated levels and not pay for it?

On one positive note, the GOP did cut pay for key leadership posts by 5%. This is a good move, although largely symbolic, since the money involved is fairly inconsequential.

Be Careful with the Filibuster
In the 111th Congress, the GOP used the filibuster to a far greater extent than had ever been seen in the history of the Senate. So filibuster reform is an understandable cause that the now-weakened Democratic majority would want to take up.

To borrow a phrase from the South, as with eating catfish off the bone, the Democrats should chew carefully.

There is room to reform the filibuster from its present state to make the Senate more functional. But moves to effectively eliminate it entirely would be extremely dangerous for minority rights in the Senate.

I think proposals that eliminate the capability to filibuster STARTING debate on a bill probably makes sense. I think requiring Senators who wish to filibuster to actually take to the floor of the Senate and speak makes sense. But anything that would weaken the vote requirements to break a filibuster or to eliminate the capability to filibuster a Presidential appointment would be dangerous.

Democrats should remember that they could well be in the minority in two years and apply a little golden rule logic. Having some checks and balances on majority power is not a bad thing.

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