Evaluations of President Obama

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times on April 21st criticized President Barack Obama. She said “he still has not learned how to govern” and “doesn’t know how to work the system.” The next day a similar critique was made in the Times by two “reporters”–Michael Shear and Peter Baker–that used the bullying President Lyndon Johnson as a model of what a president should do in these circumstances.

I disagree with these criticisms, and my letter to that effect was published in the Times on April 24th. I said,

  • “Maureen Dowd asserts that President Obama ‘still has not learned how to govern.’ I disagree.
  • Last week the Senate, by a good majority, voted in favor of expanded background checks and making straw purchases and gun trafficking a federal crime. Those votes were attributable, in part, to strong advocacy by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
  • The true outrage lies in two places.
  • First is the Senate’s filibuster rule, which is being used by the Republicans to require a supermajority vote of 60.
  • Second is the Republican senators’ determination to prevent Mr. Obama from accomplishing anything. Remember Mitch McConnell’s statement in the last Congress that his top priority was to stop Mr. Obama’s re-election.”

This letter was a synopsis of my post, The Outrageous, Dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and my previous blog posts criticizing the Senate’s filibuster rule and the Republican Senators’ obstructionism.

Two columnists for the Washington Post–Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein–also have taken vigorous exception to the opinions of Maureen Dowd and Messrs. Shear and Baker.

Sargent sees this recent criticism of Obama as focusing on his alleged failure “to put enough pressure on red-state Democratic Senators like Mark Begich.” However, says Sargent, even if all four of the red-state Democrats [who voted against the measure instead] had voted for the measure, it still would not have passed because of the 60-vote requirement of the Senate’s filibuster rule. Moreover, if these four Democrats “were basing their vote in the calculation that they need to achieve distance from the president and signal cultural affinity with their red state constituents, as many have speculated, any open pressure [by Obama] would only make the vote harder for them.”

The plain conclusion for Sargent was “the Republican Party — and the 60 vote Senate — are the prime culprits in the killing of [the bi-partisan background-check bill].”

Bernstein has had enough of others comparing Obama to President Lyndon Johnson. Bernstein pointed out the following reasons why such a comparison is inappropriate:

  1. The situation for Johnson was very different. He had huge majorities in both chambers of Congress, and in the aftermath of a presidential assassination, there was a strong national desire for unity and action.
  2. In the mid-1960s, political parties were much weaker and not as polarized as today.
  3. Although Johnson faced filibusters on key civil rights legislation, he did not face filibusters on every single thing he proposed. Nor did he have to fight a dedicated partisan opposition over every judicial and executive branch nomination.
  4. Obama, on the other hand, to get anything through the Senate needs the votes of Republicans, every one of whom has strong partisan incentives to oppose him. Johnson really never faced anything like that.
  5. “Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.
  6. “Johnson wasn’t just any president; he was a president who had been a very effective Senate Majority Leader. He came to the White House with years of relationships with many senators; to the extent he was successful, it’s probably not something that’s easy for anyone else to duplicate.”
  7. “Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.”

I, therefore, continue to be a strong supporter of our President and a severe critic of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate (and the House of Representatives too).

 

GOP Senators Continue To Flirt with Filibusters

This past January U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to press for adoption on a simple majority vote (at least 51 of the 100 Senators) of significant, but still flawed, reforms of the body’s filibuster rule. Instead Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to much weaker changes to the rule. Past posts have expressed my dissatisfaction with this rule and the recent change.

As a result, the Senate and the U.S. are still facing threatened filibusters by Senate Republicans over confirmation of presidential nominations.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The most recent example is the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Yes, on February 26th the U.S. Senate did vote, 71 to 27, to invoke cloture and end debate on voting on confirmation of this nomination. The 71 votes came from 53 Democratic, 2 Independent and 18 Republican Senators, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who continued to be severe critics of Hagel. (Two Democratic Senators did not vote: Mark Udall and Frank Lautenberg.)

Later that same day the Senate voted, 58 to 41, to confirm Hagel for this position. For this vote, only four Republican Senators were in the majority: Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Johanns, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (Senator Lautenberg did not vote.)

While I am pleased that there was no prolonged filibuster of this nomination and that the  Senate did vote on confirmation, getting there, in my opinion, was needlessly prolonged and again demonstrated the dysfunctionality of the Senate. Here are some of the reasons for that opinion:

  • In early February Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delayed a committee vote on the nomination in an attempt to garner support for same from some of the Republican committee members.
  • On February 14th, the Senate failed by one vote to invoke cloture, 59 to 40 (Majority Leader Harry Reid later switched his “Yes” vote to “No” so he could later move to reconsider cloture).
  • Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Inhofe had put “holds”on the nomination and thereby prevented a vote on confirmation; Graham wanted more information from the Administration about the Benghazi attack (in which Hagel had no involvement) while Inhofe fomented that Hagel was anti-Israel.
  • Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, reported that Republicans were voting against cloture because there were no political risks from doing so; they said they had legitimate doubts about Hagel’s ability to lead the Pentagon; and resistance was a Republican rallying cry.
  • Another Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Bernstein, stated that Republican Senators are insisting on a 60 vote requirement for virtually everything because many of them see no difference on cloture and substantive voting and do not require extraordinary reasons to vote against cloture.
  • Senator McCain said that one of the reasons for Republican opposition to Hagel, their former Republican Senate colleague, was his very vocal criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
  • Some Republican Senators were opposed to Hagel for allegedly receiving money from a group called “Friends of Hamas” — a rumor that started with a joke about a nonexistent group.
  • On February 15th 15 Republican Senators wrote a joint letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
John Brennan
John Brennan

This dysunctionality is not over with the confirmation of Hagel. Senator McCain has threatened a similar GOP strategy with respect to confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA.

Jacob J. Lew
Jacob J. Lew

On the other hand, the Senate on February 27th confirmed, 71 (including 20 Republicans) to 26, the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Secretary of the Treasury.

And on February 25, 2013, the Senate confirmed, 93-0, Robert Bacharach to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He, however,  had been appointed to that position in January 2012, and in the last Congress, in July 2012, clouture was defeated, 56-34.

All of this silliness over Chuck Hagel and potentially over John Brennan would have been prevented if the Senate this past January had adopted more significant reform of its rules regarding filibuster.

 

Additional Support for Reform of U.S. Congress

NoLabels

 

Some members of Congress, governors, mayors and over 1,000 political activists have created a group called “No Labels” to mobilize support for efforts to reduce or eliminate the dysfuntionality of the federal government.

Led by former Republican Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, it is working to bring our political leaders and parties together to forge solutions to our nation’s problems.  No Labels promotes its politics of problem solving in three ways: by organizing citizens across America, providing a space for legislators who want to solve problems to convene and by pushing for common-sense reforms to make our government work.

make-congress-work-simple-banner

One of the action plans of No Labels is called Make Congress Work with the following 12 proposals:

  1. No Budget, No Pay. If Congress does not timely pass a budget and annual spending bills, then they should not get paid.
  2. Up or Down Votes on Presidential Appointments. All presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of submission to the Senate.
  3. Fix the Filibuster. Change the Senate rules to require real filibusters and eliminate them on motions to proceed to consider proposed legislation and other matters.
  4. Empower the Sensible Majority. Allow a bipartisan majority to override a leader or committee chair’s refusal to bring a bill to the floor.
  5. Make Members Come to Work. Make members work three five-day weeks in Washington per month with one week in their home districts.
  6. Question Time for the President. Provide for the President monthly to provide members an opportunity to question the President and to debate their ideas.
  7. Fiscal Report to Congress. A non-partisan leader should deliver an annual in-person televised fiscal report to a joint session of Congress to provide one set of facts relevant to fiscal policy.
  8. No Outside Pledges. Members of Congress should only take the Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Office.
  9. Monthly Bipartisan Gatherings. Each house should have monthly, off-the-record bipartisan gatherings to discuss current issues.
  10. Bipartisan Seating. At all joint sessions or meetings of Congress, every member should sit beside at least one person from the opposing party.
  11. Bipartisan Leadership Committee. Congressional party leaders should have a bipartisan committee to meet and discuss legislative agendas and solutions.
  12. No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents. Incumbents should not conduct negative campaigns against other incumbents.[1]

The group’s website provides interactive petitions to support these measures. I have signed them and urge you to do the same.

Points 2 and 3 of this action plan relate to reforming the Senate’s filibuster rule, which has been discussed in prior posts.

On January 22nd the Senate will turn to the filibuster issue.

This week three of the Senators pushing for such reform are reiterating their campaign for signing a petition supporting their efforts.

In addition, one of groups working for such reform, the Communications Workers of America labor union, is launching a cable television advertising campaign calling on the Senate to eliminate the silent filibuster and implement “common sense” rules reforms. The union also will have interactive  online advertising to highlight how the silent filibuster may block issues such as immigration reform, climate change and job creation. These ads will culminate in an online petition for such reform.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernstein, a political commentator, agrees with me that requiring a talking filibuster will not really solve much. Such a reform, he says, is addressed at improving the transparency and accountability for filibusters. The real problem is that filibusters or the threats of same are used at every possible opportunity, so that 60 votes are needed to do anything, and the talking filibuster proposal does not address that problem. Instead, supermajority voting is the problem that needs to be addressed by reform.

Skepticism about the merits of the current proposed reforms of the filibuster rule is also voiced by two former secretaries of the Senate. They argue that the real problem is the increasing inability of the minority party in the body to offer amendments to bills under consideration and their resulting use of the filibuster to protest such exclusion and to prevent consideration of the measures. Instead the former secretaries of the Senate suggest that it adopt a standing order for only this session of the Congress allowing the minority party the opportunity to offer one to three relevant amendments to a bill or other measure. This right would be controlled by the minority leader or his or her designee, with the subject matter of these proposed amendments be disclosed, in writing, as soon as the bill becomes the pending business. After the session is concluded the efficacy of this change could be evaluated before adopting it or something else as a standing rule of the Senate.

On Friday, January 11th, Majority Leader Harry Reid reportedly told a Nevada television station that the Senate was unlikely to pass a radical revision of its filibuster rule.


[1] Another action plan of No Labels is called Make the Presidency Work that will be the subject of a future post.