Global Forced-Displacement Tops 50 Million

On June 20th, the United Nations refugee agency (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR) reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced (IDPs) people was 51.2 million in 2013. This is the first time after World War II that the number has topped 50 million. (Articles about this report may be found in the New York Times and the Guardian.)[1]

This represented an increase of 6 million over the prior year due largely to the war in Syria and conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Here is a graph showing the totals (with components), 1993-2013:

 

Refugee graph

Here is another graph showing the largest sources of refugees in 2013:

Source of refugees

Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. The top five host countries are Pakistan, 1.6 million; Iran, 0.9 million; Lebanon, 0.9 million; Jordan, 0.6 million; and Turkey, o.6 million. The U.S. ranks 10th as a host country with 0.3 million.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said,”We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.” He added, “The international community has to overcome its differences and find solutions to the conflicts of today in South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere. Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors.”

Serge Schmemann of the New York Times editorial board observed that the report indicates that half “the refugees are children; a growing number of these are on their own . . . . More than half of the 6.3 million refugees under the refugee agency’s care have been in exile for five years or more, testifying to conflicts that rage on and on.” Schmemann added that the “stunning figures offer a bitter counterpoint to the growing resistance in Europe and the United States to letting in immigrants and asylum seekers, and to the endless sterile blame-games about responsibility for the various conflicts.”

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[1] A brief history of the UNHCR was provided in a prior post while another post discussed its report for 2010. Another post reviewed the international law of refugees and asylum seekers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over-Reaction to Eric Cantor’s Electoral Defeat?

The big U.S. political news this week was the defeat of Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary in his U.S. House district in Virginia. Pundits and politicians say it means increased power for Tea Party/Republicans. The Republican Party will become more conservative and even less willing to negotiate with President Obama and congressional Democrats. Etc. Etc.

I have not read all of the newspaper articles about this election and have no desire to do so. But I was surprised by a column by New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow that emphasized the very small size of the vote in this election. Here are the key facts:

 

District population 760,000
Total votes in District: 2012 general election 381,000
Total votes in District: 2012 GOP primary   47,719
Total votes in District: 2014 GOP primary   65,008
Total votes in District: 2014 GOP primary– David Brat   36,110
Total votes in District: 2014 GOP primary– Eric Cantor   28,898

Ezra Klein of the Vox Conversations website believes that Cantor lost because of the low turnout in this week’s primary; Cantor failed to get his supporters to the polls.   Philip Bump in the Washington Post disagrees; he asserts that the GOP primary turnout in 2014 was larger than in 2012 and that the increased turnout was to vote against Cantor.

I am sure there are other interpretations of the result of this primary election, and I certainly am not able to wade in with my own opinion on the subject. Nor do I want to.

I merely point out that only 7,212 (36,110-28,898) more people voted for Brat than for Cantor. Are the many grandiose interpretations of this election merely over-reactions?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Carlos Brown’s New York Central Railroad Career

 

W. C. Brown
W. C. Brown

 

After his successful 19th century career with railroads in the Midwest, in 1902 my great-great-uncle, William Carlos (or W.C.) Brown, became the Vice President in charge of the transportation, engineering, mechanical and purchasing departments of the New York Central Railroad, which as described in a prior post was one of the most powerful corporations in the country.

Brown’s joining the Central in 1902 prompted a letter writer to the New York Times to state that W.C. “has made a careful study of [railroad] safety appliances, and he is in large part responsible for the adoption of the operating rules now in force on [U.S. railroads]. He was a member of the first Committee on Safety Appliances and Train Rules of the American Railway Association.” In addition, according to this writer, Brown had a “strong and vigorous personality and he has a faculty of making friends with all of his employees.”

Brown was a Vice President until 1906, when he was promoted to the position of the Senior Vice President. He held this position until 1909 when he was appointed to be the Central’s President, Director and member of its Executive Committee. Effective December 31, 1913, he retired from the Central.

When Brown assumed the Central’s presidency in 1909, a trade journal said W.C. was “a studious man, clear-headed, with retentive memory” and “an accurate judge of men and subjects.”

The New York Times added that Brown was “one of the most popular railroad officials” in the U.S. and had “an extraordinary forcefulness and energy. He has a faculty of disposing of things in the shortest possible span of time, and an equally strong one for analyzing propositions down to the backbone. He talks quickly, energetically, and very clearly. Among his subordinates and associates he is immensely popular, and the joy over his promotion is heartfelt and unaffected.” He also was described as “courteous and modest . . . [a] moderate disciplinarian . . . kind-hearted and considerate . . . [and] not as uncompromising as many of his contemporaries [toward labor unions].”

Another journalist in 1909 said Brown “knows what the duty is of every one of his 150,000 men in the system.” The National Cyclopedia of American Biography in its 1910 edition stated that Brown was then “probably one of the best posted and most able and efficient railroad men in the [U.S.] He is firm and determined . . . . His career affords a splendid example of accomplishments due to untiring industry, perseverance, and fidelity to one’s duties.”

Brown himself was quoted in the New York Times at the time of his promotion to President of the Central. He said, “ In the United States, it is the workingman who, even though he starts at the bottom, ends in the important posts at the top of our railroads and our great industrial enterprises. The day of favoritism and family has departed. I believe that plain sticking to it is a good rule for every workingman who is earnest in his ambition. I believe, too, it may not be for his best welfare for any worker to set for himself . . . a definite goal.”

For another publication, Brown continued on this theme. He said the most important factor his advancement was, “Just sticking to it and making a business of my business, filling every job I got as well as I knew how. . . . [I]t is more or less a mistake to preach to young men that they should fix for themselves a specific goal, and strive toward it . . . . If a fellow sets out with that idea, he is apt to become an office politician, and he wastes more time figuring out how he is going to get the step over somebody else than he expends in attending to the business in hand. The thing he has to do is bend every energy . . . to doing today, as well as it can be done, what he has to do. The man who does that does not need to worry about promotion . . . . Promotion will look for him.”

Here are some of the significant events at the Railroad in which he was involved during his 12 years at the Central and which have been or will be covered in other posts:

  • the demolition of the old Grand Central Terminal and the construction of the new Terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan;[1]
  • the related electrification of the trains coming into and going out of that Terminal;
  • the Woodlawn Crash, February 16, 1907, when a Central train with a new electric engine flew off the tracks, instantly killing 20 people and injuring more than 150, some seriously;
  • the financial panic of 1907;
  • the national political issue of whether and how the federal government should regulate railroads, especially their freight rates; and
  • other public issues, including promotion of agriculture.

In these and other issues over those 12 years, Brown, of course, was not a sole actor. Just look at the members of the Railroad’s Board of Directors, 1909-1913, whom we reviewed in an earlier post and with whom Brown worked.

During this time at the Central, Brown and his family lived in Manhattan at 135 Central Park West overlooking Central Park. But every summer he and his family returned to Iowa to visit his parents and friends and his farms. These visits along with other ways he honored his parents will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] A prior post discussed the Terminal on its centennial in 2013 with other details provided in another post.

 

Mortality

Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):

  • “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.”

The New Testament text was from Chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 15: 15-20, 35-38, 42-44, 50-55 (New Revised Standard Version:

  • “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
  • But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
  • So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
  • What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

 The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”

Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”

[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]

“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”

“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”

“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”

“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”

“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”

“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”

“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”

Reflections

Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.

The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.

In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.

Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.

My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.

I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.

In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.

Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.

As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.

As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.

I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.

This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.

This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Times column entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”

Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”

Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”

I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children.  The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”

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[1] Prior posts have discussed this year’s other Lenten themes of mindfulness, humility, mercy and repentance.

 

 

Ecuador Continues To Restrict Freedom of the Press

On June 14, 2013, Ecuador’s national legislature adopted the Organic Law on Communications with the following provisions that threaten freedom of the press:

  • Prohibition of “media lynching,” which is defined as “a concerted effort, coordinated by several media or carried out by just one, to destroy a person’s honor or prestige.”
  • Establishment of “everyone’s right that information of public interest received through the media should be verified, balanced, contextualized and opportune” without defining those terms.
  • Establishment of media’s responsibility to accept and promote obedience to the Constitution, the laws and the legitimate decisions of public authorities.
  • Creation of the office of Superintendent of Information and Communication with the power to regulate the news media, investigate possible violations and impose potentially large fines.
  • Creation of the Council for Media Regulation and Development headed by a representative of the President with the power to exact a public apology (and impose fines for repeat offenses) when media fail to accord someone the right to a correction or the right of reply.
  • Retention of the system of “cadenas,” or official messages which all over-the-air TV and radio stations have to broadcast that the President and the National Assembly speaker may use whenever they think it necessary and that other public office holders may use for five minutes per week.

Another provision on the surface may appear to be non-controversial: a requirement for allocation of broadcast frequencies (state, 34%; private, 33%; and community, 33%). Currently an estimated 60% are privately owned. Therefore, this requirement is seen as a means of the government’s closing privately owned media, presumably those critical of the government.

Other provisions of the new law are more benign. It prohibits any form of censorship by government officials or civil servants, guarantees the right of journalists to protect their sources and to maintain professional confidentiality.[1]

Ecuadorian legislators opposing the Communications Law
Ecuadorian legislators opposing the Communications Law

This new law was strenuously challenged by the Ecuadorian legislators opposing the law, who said it will allow the government to control media through loosely defined regulations. (To the right is a photo of the objecting legislators with signs and masks over their mouths.)

Over 50 Colombian newspapers published a joint editorial condemning the law. Some Ecuadorian newspapers     (Hoy and El Commercio) had similar criticisms. Human Rights Watch said the law “is yet another effort by President Correa to go after the independent media. The provisions for censorship and criminal prosecutions of journalists are clear attempts to silence criticism.” The law also was criticized by the Inter-American Press Association, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee To Protect Journalists.

The law was defended by its author who is a member of President Correa’s political party and who said it will “protect freedom of speech with a focus on everybody’s rights, not just for a group of privileged.” Another member of that party who is the president of the legislature predicted that the law would promote more balanced news coverage.

In his TV and radio speech to the country on June 15th President Correa said that law was a precedent that other Latin American countries would follow. Critics of the law, he said, were members of the “gallada” or club that opposes any regulation of the media.

This is not the first effort by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to restrict the media. Such prior attempts have been protested by the previously mentioned NGO’s, the U.S. Department of State in its annual human rights reports and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Commission’s criticisms have caused Ecuador to launch a full-scale attack on the Commission that was not successful this last past March, but that Ecuador promises to keep pursuing.


[1] This summary of the new law is based upon articles in an Ecuadorian newspaper (Hoy), the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and a commentary by Reporters Without Borders. As always, I invite others to provide comments to correct any errors of mine and to express other opinions about the new law.

 

 

 

Save the Minnesota Orchestra!

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska
Minnesota Orchestra @ Orchestra Hall
Minnesota Orchestra @ Orchestra Hall

 

Under the baton of Maestro Osmo Vanska in recent years, the Minnesota Orchestra has played beautifully. When they performed at Carnegie Hall in March 2010, a New Yorker reviewer said, “The Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” As Minnesotans, we loved the music produced by the Orchestra and the praise from New York City.

Alas, the Orchestra’s entire 2012-2013 season has been cancelled due to an unresolved dispute over the musicians’ compensation. As a result, some key members of the Orchestra have left for positions elsewhere.

Even more ominous, on April 30, 2013, Maestro Vanska in a letter to the Orchestra’s Board of Directors said, our “musical policy of excellence in symphonic music programming . . . is now under critical threat.” After noting the need to prepare for scheduled recording sessions in September and Carnegie Hall concerts in November (“one of the most significant goals of my entire Minnesota Orchestra tenure”), Vanska said that if those concerts were cancelled, “I will be forced to resign.”

The dispute started last September when the Board proposed a new contract with the musicians that called for an average annual salary of $89,000 with a minimum of a 10-weeks annual paid vacation, a comprehensive medical plan and defined benefit pension plan. This represented a huge decrease from their compensation under the prior contract and was necessitated, according to the Board, by the immediate need to stop additional significant draws on the Orchestra’s endowment.

According to public information, the Musicians rejected this proposal, but have never made a counteroffer on compensation. Instead, they have proposed a review of the Orchestra’s finances and binding arbitration. Such a financial review has been undertaken, but not without apparent disputes regarding some of its details. The Board rejected binding arbitration as inconsistent with their fiduciary duty to guard the endowment.

Most recently the Board proposed submitting the dispute to mediation next week (the week of May 20th), but the Musicians apparently have not yet responded to this proposal.

We are obviously saddened by the ongoing dispute between the Orchestra’s Board and the Musicians. We also have empathy with the Musicians on being presented with a proposal last Fall for a large reduction in compensation. No one wants to be subjected to such a jolt.

Early last December I sent an email to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton saying the “Orchestra’s cancellation of many concerts has left a major void in the cultural life of the Twin Cities and thus has caused a major negative impact on the quality of life here and in the State as a whole.” After noting that “over the years Dayton family members have been strong supporters of the Orchestra . . . [and] the cancellations have to be particularly sad for you and your family,” I implored the Governor “to become involved in this matter. Publicly invite both sides to meet with you at your office to explore how this dispute could be resolved. If there are any mediation services the State can offer, perhaps that could be offered as well. I also wonder whether there is any State funds that could be provided to help pay for the renovation of Orchestra Hall so that the gifts for same could be re-directed to the endowment to help pay the musicians.”

I received no response from the Governor, and there have been no public reports of his being involved in any way to try to resolve this dispute. I, therefore, reiterate my plea for his help.

On May 5th the Musicians had a full-page ad in the StarTribune that, among other things, called for the Board leaders “to step aside so that truly civic-minded and globally aspirational leadership can step forward” to resolve the dispute. This was a totally unfounded and unwise move by the Musicians, in my opinion. The Board members, some of whom are friends of mine, are all honorable citizen unpaid volunteers who have given of their own time and financial resources to help the Orchestra. Therefore, on May 10th I sent an email to the Musicians that said the following:

  1. “As we understand, the Musicians have never made a counteroffer on compensation. As a retired lawyer, I have been involved in many negotiations to settle legal disputes. The normal process in such negotiations is offer and counteroffer, often with many iterations. A similar phenomenon often occurs in buying a house. Wake up. Engage in the process.
  2. The Musicians must recognize that the national financial collapse of several years ago has caused damage to the finances of many corporations, organizations and individuals and made it more difficult for non-profit organizations to raise charitable contributions. In addition, the low interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve System have made it very difficult for all persons to obtain significant income on their endowments and savings. As a retiree, I am very aware of this phenomenon. So too the Musicians have to be aware of these facts.
  3. The financial problems of our Orchestra are not unique in the U.S. The Musicians obviously are aware of this.
  4. To respond to these facts, as the Musicians have done, with calls for binding arbitration, financial studies, no further negotiations unless the lock-out is ended and resignation of the honorable, unpaid volunteers on the Orchestra’s Board is unreasonable and irresponsible.
  5. In our opinion, the Musicians have known enough from the first day of this dispute to make a counteroffer of reduced compensation, undoubtedly as an initial position by the Musicians the reduction would be modest. But it would facilitate the negotiation process.”

The Orchestra’s website has information about the dispute as does the website for the musicians. The dispute has received extensive coverage in the Minnesota media along with full-page ads by the Board and the Musicians. And the New York Times had an extensive article about the dispute.

End the dispute! Save the Minnesota Orchestra!

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).