BEN EIDELSON ON THE FILIBUSTER

Read my brother’s new piece up on Slate about the filibuster:

When Republicans have been in the majority, the filibustering minority has actually represented the majority of Americans 64 percent of the time. When Democrats have been in the majority, that figure plummets to 3 percent. So the charge that it is somehow hypocritical for Democrats to decry Republican filibusters as affronts to majority rule—if they also stand by their past decisions to filibuster the Republicans—is easily answered. When Democrats have filibustered Republicans in recent years, they have very often represented more Americans than the Republican majority; the same is almost never true in reverse.

Hopefully, responding to the responses will force Ben to start blogging again.

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THE WEEK IN FEARING FEAR ITSELF

Big week on the not-trampling-over-all-of-our-values-and-freedoms-in-the-same-of-security front. I’m skeptical of how much difference the McCain ammendment committing us not to torture will make on the ground, but it’s a good sign that even after sending Dick Cheney out of his undisclosed location and onto Capitol Hill, Bush wasn’t able to keep Congressional Republicans on the reservation (the anti-anti-torture reservation, that is). The ultimate result, in which Bush met McCain much further than halfway from his original “waterboarding is freedom” position, shows him to be a weakened President and puts this nation back on record against willfully inflicting abusive pain on prisoners. The urgency of the issue, and the limitations of legal language like McCain’s in addressing it, are reinforced in Human Rights Watch’s announcement today on pervasive torture in secret US-operated foreign prisons:

Eight detainees now held at Guantánamo described to their attorneys how they were held at a facility near Kabul at various times between 2002 and 2004. The detainees, who called the facility the “dark prison” or “prison of darkness,” said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud rap, heavy metal music, or other sounds blared for weeks at a time. The detainees offer consistent accounts about the facility, saying that U.S. and Afghan guards were not in uniform and that U.S. interrogators did not wear military attire, which suggests that the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency…Some detainees said they were shackled in a manner that made it impossible to lie down or sleep, with restraints that caused their hands and wrists to swell up or bruise. The detainees said they were deprived of food for days at a time, and given only filthy water to drink. The detainees also said that they were held incommunicado and never visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent officials.

This “dark prison” report follows Friday’s New York Times revelation that President Bush has been authorizing the NSA to spy on Americans without even going through the secret courts designed for the purpose, which should shake any confidence one might have that better laws will fully set this administration straight. Bush apparently believes that he is authorized to personally designate Americans as surveillance targets based on the congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war in Afghanistan.

That Congress showed much less deference on Friday, when Bill Frist could only muster 52 votes for cloture on the Conference Committee’s version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, which took out all the civil liberties protections that Russ Feingold and others managed to get into the version passed unanimously by the Senate. In a striking victory for sensible privacy protections over fear-mongering, Feingold, Leahy, and company have kept the Senate from approving the Conference Committee Draft. It’s also a huge victory for Feingold personally, who has gone from being the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act to leading a charge to continue debate on the bill which saw more Republicans cross over to oppose cloture than Democrats crossing over to support it. Looks like the Democratic leadership, rather than marginalizing him, is now trying to pull him into the party establishment, handing him a seat on the Intelligence Commission.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, made the news for her own sorry contribution to the discourse on patriotism and freedom: a proposal to ban flag-burning. Hers is ostensibly a compromise position in that it’s a bill rather than a constitutional amendment, and it only applies on public property or when someone is intimidated. But legitimating speech restrictions based on how uncomfortable the speech makes other people feel makes a mockery of free speech. She should know better.

So it turns out to be a compromise on judges after all. Hard to know just how to read it, given that with freedom for Democrats to filibuster under “extraordinary circumstances” and for Republicans to nuke if “continuing commitments made in this agreement” are abridged, all it resolves for good is that Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryer, and Priscilla Owen will soon be Circuit Court Judges and William Myers and Henry Saad won’t be. But given that the Democrats’ position on this has, for better or worse (you can guess where I come down on that one), all along been one of extreme willingness to compromise (“We gave you the judge who thinks men should dominate their wives, but do you really need the one who thinks God has veto power over the constitution”), almost any compromise would have been a political victory for the Democrats. Not as big a victory as the one I suspect we could have had tomorrow (in part because I trust John McCain’s political instincts more than, say, Joe Lieberman’s). As compromises go, the word a few days ago was that the major sticking point was GOP resistance to language like this:

We believe that, under Article II, Section 2, of the United States Constitution, the word “Advice” speaks to consultation between the Senate and the President with regard to the use of the President’s power to make nominations. We encourage the Executive branch of government to consult with members of the Senate, both Democratic and Republican, prior to submitting a judicial nomination to the Senate for consideration.

So the Dems at least got something out of the negotiations. Today we saw a few Republican Senators buck the Senate leadership and the Senate buck the unilateral impulses of the White House. That counts for something. And the reason it happened is because public opinion has turned rather sharply against the Bush team and their exercise of their ostensible mandate. That’s a trend which should have implications which last much longer than this agreement. But only if the Democrats capitalize on it with a robust and aggressive vision. I’d say cutting this deal was a poor move, but those saying that the party had been taking a firm and principled stand which it undercut tonight forget that when it comes to steadfast refusal to let through extremist unqualified judges, the ship had sailed on that one – and driving it were Randians, theocrats, and Randian-theocrats who have now safely arrived in a court near you. The Democrats’ repreated invocation of outrageous nominees they’d let though, rather than making them seem eminently reasonable, just made them look sort of silly.

Speaking of the future, anyone who still thinks John McCain – in whose office the compromise was apparently signed – isn’t running for President has another think coming. Same goes for anyone arguing that he does whatever’s right regardless of politics. As for Bill Frist, I’m sure he’ll do well on the lecture circuit. Or at least, he has a better shot at it than at a serious run for the GOP nomination. Good news for him: washed up right-wing speakers, unlike sitting Senators, aren’t expected to go into inner cities where they have to worry about being stabbed to death by children of color with pencils. Now, back to spanish conjugations for me.

Trent Lott just livened up what’s been a not overly riveting series of Senate floor speeches on judicial nominations by accusing Democrats with concerns about extremists nominees of having turned the Senate “into a torture chamber.” Given the honorable Senator from Mississippi’s enthusiastic defense of the administration when it came to actual torture, one can only assume that he indeed means that the Senate has caused pain “of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure” to Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown.

Two things that were striking in reading local news in Puerto Rico while we were there:

One of the dominant stories was Rumsfeld’s much-anticipated list of base closings, which Puerto Rico’s Buchanan ultimately escaped. What generally goes unstated in news write-ups of the process by which base closing decisions are made is what all the major players – the Secretary of Defense and his commissi on, the President, the US House, and the US Senate – have in common: no one in Puerto Rico gets to vote for them, or for the people who appointed them. While it goes without saying in local papers, it’s striking from an outsider’s perspective, and deeply problematic from a Heldian perspective that understands democracy as a measure of control over the decisions which shape one’s life, though arguably no more so than the situation of groups like the poor in the continental US who – largely – have the formal franchise but face significant obstacles to political mobilization and to getting a hearing from economic elites, or of the people’s of other countries which while not US territories are drastically affected by policies of the US government and its delegates over which they have no form of democratic control.

The other dominant story was an intensifying showdown between the territory’s Popular Democratic Party Governor and its New Progressive Party-controlled legislature over the Governor’s Cabinet appointments, especially his appointee for Secretary of State, whom the legislature voted down but who began serving in the job anyway. What was really striking to me as an outsider to Puerto Rican politics, but almost as true of coverage of the struggle over judicial appointments in the US Congress, is the total suffocation of any kind of issue background by horse race coverage – that is, speculations about who’s winning. Over five days of reading articles about this fight, I was unable to find a single sentence discussing the ideologies of any of these appointees or the issues at the heart of the power struggle. I know that Governor Acevedo Vila thinks Pont would be an excellent Secretary of State, and that NPP leaders think she’d be terrible, but I honestly could only guess what the areas of contention are. Seriously, if you know, I’m pretty curious at this point. And I doubt I’m the only one. Meanwhile, pundits in the continental US complaining about how boring the filibuster fight is to the American public should consider why the very real ideological issues driving forward the collision – like the power of the American people to harness government to pursue racial and economic justice – have been sidelined in the presentation of that fight.

Watching the Gonzales Confirmation Hearing:

11:30: So far, the GOP Talking Points on the challenge to the vote count and the Gonzales nomination, respectively, seem to be “Don’t listen to them because they’re whining and you’ll just become confused,” and “He was just a lowly bureaucrat up against a Big Bad Justice Department.”

11:40 Gonzales: The abuses which we all object to, no one supports.

11:45 Gonzales: The Geneva Convention only works as a universal human rights standard if it only applies to some people.

11:54 Gonzales: At least we don’t cut people’s heads off. (Talk about defining deviancy down)

12:02 Gonzales: It’s not that I don’t offer my own opinions, it’s just that the Department of Justice is very persuasive.

12:07 Gonzales: If I didn’t mention in my memo to Bush on whether to execute this guy that his lawyer slept through the trial, it must be that we’d realized it was frivolous.

12:12: Senator Cornyn (R-TX): If people disagree with you on torture, it’s because they don’t want to win the war on terror as much as you.

12:13 Cornyn: They say you haven’t given you the documents you want, but they have given us these two file folders which seem to have lots of pages in them.

12:17 Gonzales: If there was a possibility of you all reading my candid advice, I might give different candid advice.

12:18 Senator Schumer (D-NY): Of course we need a little less liberty these days. Only, maybe not this much less. And could you at least talk to us about it?

12:27 Gonzales: The Executive Branch has no opinion on whether the Legislative Branch should be able to filibuster its nominees.

12:31 Senator Brownback (R-KS): We need to do more to lower recidivism rates by helping prisoners to function in society…with Jesus.

12:34 Brownback: Sure there’s a first amendment, but porn is really unpleasant. I’d like to recruit your wife to look into it.

12:37 Gonzales: I wasn’t calling my colleagues judicial activists for wanting to force minors to get parental permission for abortion, I was just saying their conclusions were judicial activism.

12:42 Gonzales: What do you mean did my redefinition of torture encourage abuse? The majority of prisoners have not been tortured.

12:44 Gonzales: I don’t think we’re ever allowed to commit war crimes, but I’ll keep you posted.

12:45 Gonzales: The President hasn’t used his authority to disobey the law, but he has it.