End the Filibuster and Pass a Lot of Stuff

What the 59-seat Democratic majority in the United States Senate needs is a 6-foot 4-inch grotesque S.O.B. who pulls on your lapels and sticks his nostrils right into your face until you relinquish your vote. If Lyndon Baines Johnson were the Senate Majority Leader today he would have found a secluded spot to grab Ben Nelson by the neck like a schoolyard bully and make it clear that if he ever wanted see another farm subsidy in his lifetime for the state of Nebraska he better damn well vote for the health care bill. (Read Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate.) Our current Majority Leader, Harry Reid, the mild-mannered Mormon from the only state with a “Bunny Ranch,” is getting rolled by a pugnacious Republican minority so bereft of ideas it has no choice but to filibuster every piece of legislation the Democrats put on the table.

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union Address of January 27th, proposed giving $30 billion of the TARP money to community banks, eliminate the capital gains tax on small businesses, invest in high-speed rail, and roll back tax breaks that reward corporations for outsourcing American jobs. Obama even presented a list of tantalizing goodies that Republicans should snap up into their greedy little mouths like seals nabbing fish: “Clean Coal.” “Ethanol.” “Nuclear Power.” But, alas, the Republicans won’t bite. It’s long past time to end the filibuster.

The Democrats must pass a lot of legislation before the midterms or they’re going to be very sorry. Soon enough, given the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, we’re going to see campaigns where our choice for U.S. Senator will be between the “Doritos Nacho Cheese Tortilla Chips” candidate and the “Pepsi/Pizza Hut/KFC/Frito Lay/Taco Bell” candidate. Former President George W. Bush is raking in the bucks speaking at the National Grocers’ Association. First he defiled the presidency by getting John Yoo to turn the Justice Department into a law factory for monarchical presidential powers, now he shares the stage as an inspirational speaker with Terry Bradshaw. Our elections are about to become a satirical skit that Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report did a long time ago.

Obama is trying to “elevate” the political discourse. But in our postmodern-Drudge-FOX-Limbaugh-Beck media world — words don’t mean anything. Frank Luntz has already shown that words mean whatever the powerful want them to mean. And the Supreme Court has just made his job a lot easier. After 2010 the Democrats might not have the chance to pass anything meaningful in a long time.

A lot of people are angry out there because they’ve learned that the limit of what’s politically possible in this country is not President Obama’s call but whatever Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, and Joe Lieberman say it is. David Gregory on Meet the Press and the rest of the Beltway pundits say Obama must “move to the center.” But what does being a “moderate” or a “centrist” mean in the current context? There are no “moderates” among Washington Republicans and the right-wing radicalism of the Supreme Court was on full display when it recently granted corporations even more “freedom” to buy our elected representatives.

Even after George W. Bush and the Republicans doubled the national debt, lied us into war, and brought on the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression — and Obama decisively won the presidency — we might not even get the opportunity to try out progressive policies.

The anger is building out there among a huge cohort of baby boomers who believed they had secure retirements before the $8 trillion housing bubble blew up in their faces. People are pissed off about losing their jobs, their homes, and their health care while their government does nothing about it. And the party of FDR, ironically, finds itself on the wrong side of this anger. Assuaging this fury will require a lot more from Democrats than a few anti-Wall Street applause lines. It will require something real and so far we haven’t gotten it.

Driving this anger is also the fact that nobody has been held accountable in Washington or on Wall Street for the suffering they’ve caused. What about the issuers of those time-bomb mortgages who got rich quick passing on the wreckage to suckers down the line? Or the ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, that gave their seal of approval to mortgage-backed securities knowing all along they were selling shit? Or Goldman Sachs and other investment banks hawking “Triple-A” securities while betting against them? Or the bankers and Treasury and Fed officials (including Timothy Geithner) who rigged the bailout of A.I.G. to pay out 100 cents on the dollar to their buddies at Goldman Sachs? Or the federal “regulators” who were duplicitous in pumping up the housing bubble in the first place? Now these same banks that came begging to the government for a $700 billion handout are spending lavishly on lobbyists to block any attempt to impose new regulations on their activities. And five right-wing Supreme Court Justices decide it’s a perfect time to give disgraced Wall Street corporations even greater political power through unlimited campaign spending?

Where’s the accountability? Fed Chair Ben Bernanke is a perfect example. Time’s “Man of the Year” did nothing to stop the housing bubble disaster. Yet he remains a darling of Congress, approved for another term. And where’s our “Iraq War Inquiry?”

In California, college students and their parents are angry at the tuition fee hikes and the demolishing of the higher education system. State workers and their families are angry because of the budget cuts and “furloughs” that have lowered their living standard. It’s become painfully clear that you cannot turn over the finances of a state of 38 million people to the Grover Norquist-type nihilists who do not believe in governmental institutions in the first place. Nor can you turn over the county to them either.

Either the Democrats get on the right side of the anger brewing out there or the anger is going to bring them down in November. The party is going to need its progressive base more than ever to move through what promises to be a volatile political environment. They better have something to show for themselves not only legislatively but also in holding some of the crooks that destroyed the economy accountable.

The Senate filibuster has become a national “two thirds” rule like the one that has crippled California’s state government. Unless some legislation moves quickly through the Congress that makes a real difference in ordinary people’s lives the Washington Democrats will be seen as failures, just like our Democrats here in Sacramento. How does a 13 percent approval rating sound? It’s time to get serious, get rid of the filibuster, and pass some legislation quickly, like the 89th Congress did, which gave us PBS, the Department of Education, Consumer Protection, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid. It’s time to go for it like LBJ did between 1965 and 1967. “Landslide Lyndon” knew that soon enough he would be “Lame Duck Lyndon,” so he pushed hard for two years and the country was the better for it. Democrats have about eight months.

Joseph Palermo

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author

Published by the LA Progressive on February 4, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).