President Obama’s Strategic Timing of Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

With God’s leading or nudging the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation, the timing of the announcement of that historic change on December 17th was due to more prosaic factors from the U.S. perspective.

Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible were several. The health of U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. As we now know, the U.S. and Cuba had been engaged in secret negotiations for 18 months, and delaying the announcement ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.

In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.

All of these considerations suggest why the President on December 16th (the day before the announcement about Cuba) quietly signed the $1.1 trillion appropriation bill even though it contained a repeal of an important provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act regulating financial institutions that Senator Elizabeth Warren passionately resisted.  The President did not want a lack of funding to interfere with or torpedo the reconciliation.

Within a week of the announcement we learned that the U.S. GDP for the third quarter had increased 5.0%, the strongest quarterly performance in a decade, and the U.S. stock market reacted with a record close on December 23 with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 18024.17, registering its 36th record close this year. Unemployment is below 6.0%. The FY 2014 deficit is below its 40-year average. The Affordable Care Act has reduced uninsured Americans by 25%, and overall health-care spending has slowed significantly. The U.S. Dollar is stronger against other world currencies. The federal government’s bailouts of banks and the auto industry that rescued the economy from a total collapse at the start of the Obama presidency were closed out with a net profit to the taxpayers of $15.4 billion. Low world oil prices help the American consumer and weaken regimes hostile to the U.S., especially Russia, Iran and Venezuela. An amazing economic performance! (Packer, A Pretty Good Year for Government, New Yorker (Dec. 23, 2014); Higgins, Oil’s Swift Fall Raises Fortunes of U.S. Abroad, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2014).)

President Obama, using the “fourth quarter” analogy of his favorite sport of basketball, obviously has concluded that he would be engaged in a vigorous “fourth quarter” (the last two years of his eight years in office) to do as much as possible of what he believes to be in the national interest of our country. Indeed, at the first Cabinet meeting after the huge Republican victories in this year’s midterm election, Obama gave every Cabinet member a white card that said, “We are entering the fourth quarter, and really important things happen in the fourth quarter.” Timothy Egan, a New York Times’ columnist, says Obama has “been liberated by defeat” and “in finally learning how to use the tools of his office, Obama unbound is a president primed to make his mark.” He is “marching ahead of politicians fighting yesterday’s wars,” who are forced “to defend old-century policies, and rely on an aging base to do it.” Moreover, Obama now “has Pope Francis as a diplomatic co-conspirator,” leaving Republican opponents of Cuban reconciliation to try to lecture “the most popular man on the planet.”  (Osnos, In the Land of the Possible, New Yorker (Dec. 22 & 29, 2014); Eagan, Obama Unbound, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)

Finally the merits of reconciliation and these reflections on the timing of the announcement resurrect my personal support of the President. Given the Administration’s problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and other administrative issues, I was beginning to think that Obama’s lack of prior administrative experience was a reason why he would not be the great President I expected him to be. Now, however, his achieving reconciliation with Cuba is a masterful demonstration of his intellectual, administrative and political skills.

Congratulations, Mr. President!

U.S. Senate Democrats Unwisely Re-elect Harry Reid as Leader

Senator Harry Reid
Senator Harry Reid

Today, November 13th, the Senate Democrats re-elected Senator Harry Reid as their leader, now Minority Leader, for the next Session of Congress starting in January. [1]

Although the voting was by secret ballot, it was not unanimous. At least four of the Senators rejecting Reid have been identified: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. McCaskill said, “When you have an election like this, common sense says we need to change things. The voice was very loud and unmistakable. To me that means changing leadership, and it was just that simple.” Heitkamp added, “This was a change election. I think that we needed to demonstrate that we heard the American public.”

Over the last several months, these four were part of a group of about 10 more junior Democratic senators have begun more openly registering their dissatisfaction with Mr. Reid’s approach. Others include Senator Angus King of Maine and Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

The leadership votes went ahead after several in the caucus asked for a delay to give them an opportunity to consider others for the leadership posts.

Senator Reid apparently responded to these negative views of his leadership by appointing Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as the Caucus’ Strategic Policy Advisor, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to chair a caucus committee that handles outreach to outside allies and activists and Senator Tester as Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As a Democrat, I think the re-election of Reid is a horribly unwise. I have cringed every time Reid appears on television as the voice of the Senate Democrats. He comes across as tired, old, cranky, dull, weak and unpersuasive. When he appears on television with the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, soon to be the Majority Leader, the personal animosity between the two often is apparent. The Democrats and the country do not want to see a continuation of this outworn drama.

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

As a Minnesotan, I believe our Senator Amy Klobuchar would be an excellent new Minority Leader. She would be a fresh face, younger (age 54) and female in sharp contrast to McConnell. She also has a record of being able to get along with Republicans in the Chamber. In the final debate this year for Minnesota’s other U.S. Senate seat, the unsuccessful Republican candidate, Mike McFadden, frequently praised Klobuchar and said “I’m here to say Amy Klobuchar sets the bar for work ethic and authenticity.”

Scott Lehigh, a Boston Globe columnist, said the 74-year old Reid “should announce that when this session of Congress ends, [he] will relinquish [his] role as leader of [the] . . . Democratic [caucus].” Reid is a “tired face, stale voice, entrenched presence in Washington. . . . After a certain period, congressional leaders’ caricatured images get so ingrained that they become electoral liabilities for their parties.” (Lehigh makes the same argument about why Nancy Pelosi should not be the Democratic leader of the House in the new Congress, but that is an argument for another day.)

Another columnist in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib, posed a similar question, “Where are the [Democrat] party’s fresh young leaders?” But he assumed that Reid would be the new Minority Leader, and instead mentioned Senator Elizabeth Warren as a potential national leader of the party along with “highly capable younger Democrat [Senators]:” Mark Warner, . . . a 59-year-old moderate from a key swing state, as is Colorado’s 49-year-old Michael Bennet. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 47, is a rising star.”

I have no quarrel with any of these prominent Democratic Senators, and any of them would change the public persona of the Senate Democrats, but I point out that they have less experience in the Senate than Senator Klobuchar’s eight years: Warner (six years), Gillibrand (six years), Bennet (four years) and Warren (two years).

Here is a personal plea to Senator Reid. Wake up. Give someone else the opportunity to lead. Do not be a liability to your party. Stand down.

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[1] This account of the re-election of Senator Reid is based upon articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Politico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Citizen’s Response to Washington Skirmishing Over Changing the U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

The U.S. Senate, in my opinion, is dysfunctional. One of the major sources of this failing is its filibuster rule that at least since 2009 has made it necessary to have the votes of at least 60 of the 100 Senators in order to do almost anything. I have railed against this rule and the way it has been used in many prior posts.

In anticipation of the new Congress’ convening in early January 2013, a group of Democratic Senators is developing support for modest changes to the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is supportive of this effort. The exact nature of the proposed changes apparently has not been set, but would at least include banning the filibuster on motions to take up proposed legislation for debate on the Senate floor and motions to take Senate-approved legislation to conference with the House of Representatives’ negotiators plus requiring those invoking the filibuster rule in other instances to stand up and speak on the Senate floor.[1]

Under the standing Senate rules, any amendment to the rules requires a two-thirds (67) votes. In the next session of Congress in January this would mean that all 53 Democratic Senators plus the 2 Independent  Senators plus 12 Republican Senators would have to vote in favor of any amendment.  All Washington observers agree that such a vote could not be attained for the proposed change to the filibuster rule.

Therefore, the supporters of changing the filibuster rule argue that at the start of a new session of Congress the Senate may change or adopt new rules by a simple majority vote (51).

This possibility has caused some of the Republican Senators to go apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said adopting this proposed rule change by a simple majority vote would be like throwing “a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up, and have everybody mad as heck.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the incoming Republican whip, said, this would “shut down the Senate” and was an abuse of power. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma added that it would “destroy” the Senate and cause a severe backlash. Similar comments have been made by Republican Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Such remarks, in my opinion, are absurd.

There are even some Democratic Senators who have expressed opposition or skepticism about changing the rules by a simple majority vote. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he preferred “not to use a mechanism which I believe is dubious.” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said he did not like the simple majority-vote option.  Newly re-elected Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri stated that although she fully supported changing the rule, she was “not 100 percent in support” of the simple-majority-vote approach to doing do. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii merely said he was studying the proposal. In addition, Democratic Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he was concerned about not protecting the things that make the Senate unique.

Much of this Democratic opposition or skepticism is the concern that someday they will be in the minority and wanting to block Republican proposals. However, this concern implicitly endorses eternal stalemate and the current Republican agenda of opposing most federal government action.

What then can U.S. citizens do to support changing the filibuster rule? I propose the following:

  1. Sign the electronic petition supporting the change.
  2. Write an email or letter to the Senators and Senators-Elect who are the initiators of the petition thanking them for doing so: Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Harkin, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren.
  3. Write to other Senators and Senators-Elect (Angus King, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy) who have publicly stated the need for changing the rule and urge them to join the petition campaign.
  4. Write to Majority Leader Harry Reid and urge him to press forward with changing the rule by a simple majority vote.
  5. Write to Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Daniel Inouye) and Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly who have expressed opposition or skepticism about the simple-majority-vote approach and urge them to change their minds and support this approach for the filibuster rule.
  6. Write to the Senators from your State and urge them to support changing the filibuster rule by a simple majority vote.
  7. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and express your support for this effort.

Contact information, including email forms, for current Senators is available on the web. You will have to search for similar information for Senators-Elect.


[1] The recent developments discussed in this post are drawn from the following sources: Noah, Die, Filibuster, Die, New Republic (Nov. 16, 2012), http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/110215/die-filibuster-die;Weisman, The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/us/politics/new-senates-first-task-will-likely-be-trying-to-fix-itself.html?hp&_r=1&pagewanted=print&;Raju, GOP warns of shutdown over filibuster, Politico (Nov. 25, 2012), http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=ACE6831F-56E7-419A-8137-85D3D3E7BF5E; McAuliff, Mitch McConnell: Filibuster Fight Is An Unnecessary “Bomb” in the Senate, Huffington Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/mitch-mcconnell-filibuster_n_2200494.html?utm_hp_ref=politics; Bernstein, No, Republican obstruction isn’t because Harry Reid is mean to them,  Wash. Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/no-republican-obstruction-isnt-because-harry-reid-is-mean-to-them/2012/11/27/232d2276-38dc-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_blog.html; Collins, Happy Talking, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/opinion/collins-Happy-Talking.html?pagewanted=print; Steinhauer, Resistance on Method for Curbing Filibuster, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/us/politics/method-for-curbing-filibuster-faces-resistance.html?pagewanted=print.

Sign Petition for Reform of U.S. Senate Filibuster Rule!

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon is leading a campaign for a petition of public support for the Senate´s passing “meaningful filibuster reform as its first order of business when the new Congress begins” in early January 2013. He is joined in this campaign by  five other Senators—Tom Udall of New Mexico, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeanne  Shaheen of New Hampshire–and by Senator-Elect Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

I have signed this petition and urge all other U.S. citizens to do the same. All of us also should write to these Senators and Senator-Elect  and applaud them for proposing the change while urging other Senators to join them.

I do so even though I do not like the proposed reform they are advocating. It calls for a new “Talking Filibuster” rule. It would retain a rule allowing a filibuster that would prevent voting on the merits of proposed legislation or other action unless 60 Senators vote to close debate, but would require filibustering Senators “to stand on the floor and make their case to the American people with a real talking filibuster!” (Now Senators can filibuster without making any speeches, and this makes filibustering too easy to invoke and too easy to abuse.)

Senator Merkley recently elaborated on this proposal. He said under “the proposed rules, if a cloture vote[to end debate failed to win a simple majority, the bill would be killed and the Senate would move to new business. But if it won a majority — though less than a supermajority of 60 — the bill would remain on the floor for any senator who wished to opine on it. If at some point no senator rose to speak, after given several chances to do so, a new vote would be called — and only a simple majority would be needed to pass it.” Merkley also said the not yet completed proposed change might also include eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed to debate and restrictions on filibustering efforts to send a bill to conference.

Making any change to the Senate rules at the start of a new session of the Congress permits, they will argue, adoption of new rules by a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds requirement (67 votes) under the current rules for their amendment. (We can anticipate that some Senators will oppose the proposed change and will argue that a two-thirds vote is still required under a long-standing Senate practice that the Senate is a continuing body and that its rules continue from one Congress to the next.) I strongly favor the argument that only a simple majority vote is necessary for these changes when the new Congress meets for the first time.

Perhaps this group of reformers believes that their modest change is the only one that stands a chance of obtaining at least 51 votes for adoption. If so, then this political judgment must be respected by the citizenry even though, in my opinion, it is not sufficient to stop abuse of the filibuster. Indeed, as discussed in prior posts, I believe this rule should be eliminated in its entirety.

The seven organizers of the petition apparently have the important backing of the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who  said at a November 7th press conference that filibuster reform will happen in the new Congress. Reid is proposing some modifications to the filibuster rule — most notably to eliminate the possibility of filibustering efforts to begin debate on legislation. “I think that the rules have been abused and that we’re going to work to change them,” Reid said. “We’re not going to do away with the filibuster, but we’re going to make the Senate a more meaningful place, we’re going to make it so that we can get things done.”

Changing the filibuster rule also has the support of seven other Senators-Elect: Angus King of Maine, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Tom Kaine of Virginia and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Earlier posts have discussed my criticism of the filibuster as well as the pending federal court lawsuit by Common Cause challenging the constitutionality of the rule.

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Open Letter to Members of the U.S. Senate in the Upcoming 113th U.S. Congress

As a Christian and a citizen of the United States and Minnesota and a Democrat, I address these comments to all members of the U.S. Senate in the upcoming 113th U.S. Congress.

First, congratulations to everyone who was elected or re-elected on November 6, 2012! And congratulations and thank you to those who will continue to be members of the Senate. You all know that you have serious obligations to “We the People” of the U.S. as well as to the citizens of your own states.

Second, when you convene in early January 2013, I plead with you to adopt new rules by a simple majority vote and shake off the “dead hand of history” practice that the Senate is a continuing body with continuing rules and that those rules (XXII (2)) require a two-thirds vote to amend the rules, including the rule on cloture or filibuster. Those new rules should abolish the filibuster.[1]

In this regard, I am pleased that at least the following Senators-elect have made statements favoring some kind of changes to the filibuster rule:

    • Angus King (I) Maine – “The Senate’s recent overuse of the filibuster has stalled progress on practically every issue of importance in America. The 60-vote requirement that it creates is not in the Constitution.”
    • Maria Cantwell (D) Washington – “I’m not going back to the United States Senate to salute stalemate.”
    • Tammy Baldwin (D) Wisconsin – “There have been a number of proposals that say you start with a 60-vote threshold, and maybe after a month, it is lowered — until a point that after a matter has been pending in the Senate for a very long time — where everyone has had adequate opportunity for input — the threshold needed to move forward would be a simple majority.”
    • Martin Heinrich (D) New Mexico – co-sponsored house measure to force reform in the Senate in 2010.
    • Mazie Hirono (D) Hawaii – “Washington is indeed broken and part of the problem is the misuse and abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Senator Tom Udall has proposed several ways in which the filibuster could be reformed that I believe warrant further discussion including: eliminating secret holds and requiring Senators that use the filibuster to stay on the Senate floor during a filibuster. These proposals could potentially bring transparency and efficiency to the Senate and help increase the public’s confidence in Congress”
    • Tom Kaine (D) Virginia – “A filibuster has had a venerable historical purpose, and the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, I would leave that where it is. But I would make anybody who filibusters anything to have to stand on the floor of the Senate, and stand up and say, ‘This is why I’m acting to block … whatever’s going on.’ Because at the end of the day, the American public ought to be entitled to know whether the filibusterer is like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ or just an SOB who wants to stand in the way of progress, you know?”
    • Chris Murphy (D) Connecticut – “The filibuster is in dire need of reform. Whether or not it needs to go away, we need to reform the way the filibuster is used, so it is not used in the order of everyday policy, but is only used in exceptional circumstances.”
    • Elizabeth Warren (D) Massachusetts – “We need to reform the filibuster, beginning with a requirement that anyone who wants to stop the people’s business must go out onto the Senate floor and actually filibuster, live and in person, so that the American people see precisely who is creating gridlock.”

In addition, Senator Harry Reid, the current Majority Leader, said at a November 7th press conference that filibuster reform will happen in the new Congress. Reid is not proposing to eliminate the delaying tactic — which requires 60 votes and days to overcome. But he is proposing some modifications — most notably to eliminate the possibility of filibustering efforts to begin debate on legislation. “I think that the rules have been abused and that we’re going to work to change them,” Reid said. “We’re not going to do away with the filibuster, but we’re going to make the Senate a more meaningful place, we’re going to make it so that we can get things done.”

Third, I urge the Democrats and the Republicans to elect new leaders. Senators Reid and McConnell should be congratulated for their service in this capacity, but new leaders perhaps would make it easier to effectuate better bipartisan cooperation. It might also be useful in this regard if two of the 20 female Senators in the next session became leaders of their parties.

Fourth, all Senators should remember that power and fame are fleeting. Don’t overplay your hand!

[1] I have written many posts about the filibuster and the need for its abolition or severe restriction.

Gratitude III

In “Gratitude I” I expressed gratitude for my educational and professional mentors. In “Gratitude II” the subject was gratitude for my wife, children and grandchildren, my spiritual journey and my financial ability to retire at age 62. Here are some other things to add to my list for thankfulness.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers emphasizes the importance of an individual’s family and place and date of birth as determinants of success. Warren Buffett, the great investor from Omaha, frequently says how fortunate he is to have won the ovarian lottery by having been born born in the U.S. in the 1920’s. They remind me to be grateful for having been born in the U.S.A. It is indeed a great country and provided me with opportunity after opportunity.

I am also grateful that I was born at the end of the Great Depression-era and as a result am a member of a relatively small age-cohort. This has meant that I faced less competition for many of the opportunities I have had. This also meant that I entered the labor force, after all of my university-level education, in 1966 when there was strong demand in the U.S. for new law graduates with good records. Today I read the many stories in the press about the difficulties of contemporary law graduates in finding good jobs, and this is confirmed by the law students I know at the University of Minnesota Law School. I am grateful I was not in that predicament when I was starting out.

Contemporary law graduates and other young people today often finish their student days with large student debts, further exasperating their situation in this difficult job market. Because of the full-tuition scholarships I had over nine years at Grinnell College and the Universities of Oxford and Chicago, I did not have any student debt and did not face this problem. For this I am also grateful.

This last point also uncovers another reason for gratitude. The three scholarships I had were the result of businessmen (George F. Baker and Cecil Rhodes) and lawyers who were financially successful in capitalist systems and who had philanthropic motivations to give back and encourage others.

Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School Professor and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, is absolutely correct when she says:

  • “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that   marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”
  • “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk   of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

The same thought is expressed many times and many ways in the Bible. Here is what the letter to the Hebrews says. “[S]ince we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2.) “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13: 1-3.)

For all of these blessings, I give thanks to God and to those named and unnamed individuals who helped me along the way.