Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Commission Idea

First, the good news: New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, doesn't like it. Criticizing President Obama's plan to establish a bipartisan commission to tackle the national debt, Gregg stated in an interview

I don't think it accomplishes the goal.... Stop spending. Let's stop spending. Let's stop adding to the debt.

But any commission would serve little purpose. Robert Kuttner writes that The New York Times has found only 7% of the current deficit resulted from the stimulus package proposed by the President and enacted by Congress; only 3% from domestic spending. An increase in defense spending accounted for 20%, but the commission hardly would confront that. Obama's proposed budget provides for a 2% increase beyond inflation in defense spending aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps the only area the Republican opposition is happy to see an increase. While 37% of the deficit results from the recession, there is little a commission can do about that, except effect a reduction in spending, thereby worsening the recession and exploding the budget.

Gregg's bill, co-sponsored by moderate? neo-liberal? Kent Conrad (D-ND), would have mandated an up-and-down vote following the November elections, with debate limited and amendments requiring a supermajority for adoption. Needing 60 votes, the measure went down 53-46 with opposition from 23 Democrats and 23 Republicans, the latter most concerned about the possibility that tax increase(s) would have been imposed.

But that wasn't the objective of Senator Conrad, who irresponsibly implores his colleagues to "stop spending" in the midst of a recession marked, and exacerbated by, a sharp reduction in spending by the private sector and the public. Another Republican, if more ridiculous, is at least a little more straightforward. The "Roadmap for America's Future" proposed by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin would partially privatize Social Security, and privatize Medicare for individuals now under 55 years of age, while cutting benefits for relatively high-income individuals who are older.

Nonetheless, exasperated by the inability of a House with 255 Democrats and a Senate with 59-60 Democrats to enact health care (and other) legislation, there are many Democrats and liberals hankering for limiting the use of the filibuster. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow is one of those urging Democrats to enact reform of the dysfunctional legislature, which has become a popular cause among the progressive blogs.

In the same vein, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) is proposing adoption of what he terms "the constitutional option." Currently, he notes,

it is not possible to limit debate, or end a filibuster, without three-fifths, or 60, of all Senators voting to do so. In the past several years, the use -- and abuse -- of filibusters by both parties to obstruct the Senate from functioning has become the norm. But it hasn't always been this way. Such cloture votes used to occur perhaps seven or eight times during a congressional session, but last Congress there were 112 - most occasioned simply by the threat of a filibuster.

Accordingly, Udall plans to limit use of the filibuster by "call(ing) on the Senate to exercise its constitutional right to adopt its rules of procedure by a simple majority vote."

Clearly, the GOP has hamstrung the Senate by its promiscuous use of the filibuster, or the threat thereof. But Democrats and the left ought to remember: be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.

With deep and widespread dissatisfaction in the electorate for numerous (clear and ill-defined) reasons, the Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to be reduced to 53-54 seats next January. Even with reform of the filibuster rule, enactment of progressive legislation would be far from certain. With 60 Democrats (59 pre-Franken), Senate Democrats and President Obama were unable or unwilling to use their political capital- emerging from two election cycles disastrous to the GOP- to challenge corporate power to enact reforms strengthening the poor and the middle class. House Speaker Pelosi has appeared to be the only leader committed to the change Senator Obama promised to pursue if he became President Obama.

The Democratic majority in the Senate will be diminished by this fall's elections and may disappear four years hence. Senator Gregg and Representative Ryan have done at least this: they have laid out, if not a roadmap, at least a sketch of where their party intends to go when they eventually have the majority. They will have the example of the self-defeating obsession of the Democratic Party with bipartisanship as a lesson. They will not act timidly, but rashly, in pursuing their agenda- and go hard after Medicare and Social Security. The power of the filibuster may be the only thing standing between them and their plans for the elderly.

Meanwhile, President Obama has, as expected, pledged to sign an executive order creating a bipartisan commission to deal with the deficit. Having not been created by legislation, it will not be as powerful as the one envisioned by Senators Conrad and Gregg, the latter of whom hopefully will be proven psychic. He has predicted that the commission will produce "just another good report that ends up on a shelf somewhere."

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