The Regrets of Mitch McConnell

“I am amused with their comments about obstructionism,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview over the weekend with the New York Times. “I wish we had been able to obstruct more. They were able to get the health care bill through. They were able to get the stimulus through. They were able to get the financial reform through. These were all major pieces of legislation, and if I would have had enough votes to stop them, I would have.”

Don't fret Mitch come January you'll have the opportunity to obstruct to your heart's content and to the benefit of the narrow wealthy elite you serve. And let's be frank, obstruct is all you are capable of because a new idea to call your own you have not a single one.

But just for the record let's stroll down memory lane and recall some of Mitch's accomplishments this session. As of July 31st, only 42.8 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees had been confirmed. No other President in recent memory even comes close to such a dismal number. The next lowest confirmation rate was that of George Herbert Walker Bush who 79.3 percent of his judicial nominees confirmed at 18 month mark of his Presidency.

In the Senate, the GOP has waged a war on any and all Democratic intiatives that makes Sherman's march through Georgia look like a walk in the park. In this Congress, we were treated to Senator Shelby record-setting blanket hold on all executive appointments. At that time Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic wrote that Shelby's move represented "a seminal moment in the evolution of Republican obstructionism." He might have also called it what it really was: hostage taking and extortion. Outside the Senate, those are felonious acts; inside the Senate, it is how the GOP operates.

Worth recalling is the three-page memo that New Hampshire's Judd Gregg penned and circulated to his Republican colleagues, reminding them of various procedural tactics they can utilize to obstruct, delay, and undermine the debate on health care. Sam Stein of the Huffington Post called it "the equivalent of an obstruction manual -- a how-to for holding up health care reform."

The lengths to which the GOP resorted in their aim to derail the President's health care agenda has been extraordinary. Never mind the rhetoric, which was beyond the pale, consider that in December 2009, Republican Senators attempted to block the renewal of all military funding in an effort to halt the passage of the health care reform bill. What can one say when Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are willing to play politics with the welfare of those serving in uniform.

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GOP Obstructionism Continues to Plague Obama's Judicial Nominees

As of July 31st, only 42.8 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees had been confirmed. No other President in recent memory even comes close to such a dismal number. Filibusters, anonymous holds, and other obstructionary tactics have become the norm. It is all part of the strategy employed by the GOP to derail the Obama Administration. It is an unrelenting war against the President and his Administration but the President seems incapable of taking the Republicans to task. This isn't Harry Reid's job, it is the President's obligation to defend his nominees and to shame the Republicans publicly. 

President Obama did get "a bit annoyed" with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during meeting with Congressional leaders on July 27th. According to Roll Call, President Obama used the private closed door meeting to urge McConnell to “work with us” to confirm judicial nominees instead of using parliamentary procedures “time and time again to deny them.” He lamented that some have been waiting for eight months for confirmation, despite many being “voted out of committee unanimously.” Taking the GOP to task private is worthless. The President needs to roll up his sleeves and get down in the mud and fight.

Uncontroversial nominees are waiting months upon months for a floor vote, and even district court nominees—low-ranking judges whose confirmations have never been controversial in the past—are now routinely filibustered. Nominations grind to a halt in many cases even after the Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously endorsed a nominee. As of the end of July, there were 23 nominations that had cleared the Judiciary Committee but were still awaiting Senate action because a Senator had place an anonymous hold on the nomination. These are shameful tactics but the President by not calling the GOP out on them only further encourages the Republicans to further stall the Administration.

From the Center for American Progress:

There is a simple explanation for the sudden drop-off in confirmation rates—obstructionists in the Senate are using filibusters and holds at an unprecedented rate. And it is nearly impossible to break the filibusters and holds on Obama’s nominees.

Although a supermajority of senators can break a filibuster, once a filibuster is broken Senate rules still permit up to 30 hours of floor debate before taking a vote. Presently, 48 of President Obama’s judicial nominees await confirmation. At 30 hours per nominee, the Senate would have to spend 1,440 hours—60 entire days—to act on each of these nominations.

If Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) were to cancel all recesses on August 1 and require the Senate to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doing nothing but considering judicial nominees, the last nominee would not be confirmed until well into autumn—and that’s assuming that the Senate passed no bills, confirmed no other nominees, and took up no other matters for this entire period!

The picture is even worse when you factor in executive branch nominees. According to the White House, President Obama presently has 240 unconfirmed nominees. Confirming each of these nominees would require a massive 300 days—10 entire months—of 24 hour work days doing nothing but confirmations.

It is easy to manipulate the Senate rules to create a crisis. If a minority of senators broadly object to the Senate’s entire agenda, then it is literally impossible to confirm more than a fraction of the hundreds of judges, executive branch officials, ambassadors, and other nominees that each president has a responsibility to appoint, even if the Senate shuts down all other legislative business to do so.

If anything, the real surprise is not that President Obama is experiencing unprecedented obstructionism. It’s that, given such dysfunctional Senate rules, it has taken so long for such a confirmation crisis to emerge.

On Friday, the Senate adjourned for a month and sent back to the White House the nominations of UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu and San Francisco Magistrate Edward M. Chen. President Obama nominated Liu to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in February. Chen was a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union before becoming a federal magistrate. Obama nominated him last year to be a U.S. district judge in San Francisco.

Under a rarely invoked rule, the Senate must agree to carry over pending nominations when it goes on a 30-day recess. But Republican leaders objected to carrying over several disputed nominees, including Liu and Chen. So now the President must renominate them when Senate returns in September.

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July Jobs Report: Unemployment Unchanged, Anemic Job Growth

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported its July Employment data.

Total nonfarm payroll employment declined by 131,000 in July, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.5 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Federal government employment fell, as 143,000 temporary workers hired for the decennial census completed their work. Private-sector payroll employment edged up by 71,000.

Both the number of unemployed persons, at 14.6 million, and the unemployment rate, at 9.5 percent, were unchanged in July.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for adult men (9.7 percent), adult women (7.9 percent), teenagers (26.1 percent), whites (8.6 percent), blacks (15.6 percent), and Hispanics (12.1 percent) showed little or no change in July. The jobless rate for Asians was 8.2 percent, not seasonally adjusted.

While the overall unemployment rate remained unchanged, private sector job growth was anemic and fell short of the consensus number of 90,000 jobs forecasted by economists. Furthermore, the 71,000 private sector jobs created fell far short of the 127,000 new jobs required monthly just to keep up with population growth. In short, the US economy is falling farther behind in its capacity to provide employment.

The BLS also dramatically revised its number for June down to a loss of 221,000 jobs. The agency originally reported that 125,000 jobs were lost in June. Private sector hiring in June, originally reported at 83,000, was revised downward to 31,000. The US economy has shed 7.7 million jobs since the recession started in December 2007.

 

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The Dysfunctional US Senate

This week it is the turn of George Packer, the noted journalist, columnist for Mother Jones, author and playwright, to write on the United States Senate. Taking to the pages of the New Yorker to pen this latest installment of what has become an all too regular occurrence among observers of our body politic, Packard asks the now oft-repeated question of just how broken is the Senate?

The answer is very. His twelve page masterful essay, full of insightful anecdotes and telling quotes, traces the descent of the Senate. Once a "cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals," the Senate has become a dysfunctional, fractious chamber populated by “ideologues and charlatans” - to quote the oft-used characterization made by the Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein - who are governed by arcane, byzantine, and frankly absurd procedures and incapable of producing the necessary legislation or confirming the necessary appointments to keep the country moving forward. 

Packer's essay is a must read. I've opted to pull some of the anecdotes and quotes and offer some thoughts as well as add some supplementary evidence.

Michael Bennet, a freshman Democrat from Colorado, said, “Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?”

While academics and even Chinese officials are divided over whether there is such a thing as a "China model," the debate is more over whether the China model can be copied and transferred to other developing nations rather than over whether a Chinese path to development exists. Clearly, one does. The main advantage of the Chinese model is that being highly centralized decisions are made quickly and the resources committed.

To take one example, just look at the Chinese development of its rail and high speed rail transportation infrastructure. Beginning in 2005, China embarked on the second largest public works program in history, surpassed only by the Eisenhower-era Interstate Highway System in size. China plans to spend more than $1 trillion (or more than our $787 billion fiscal stimulus and as measure of comparison the Obama Administration has committed $8 billion in ARRA funds for high speed rail plus another $5 billion over 5 years) on expanding its railway network from 78,000 km today to 110,000 km in 2012 and 120,000 km in 2020 with 13,000 km being high speed rail. The Beijing-Hong Kong line would be the largest single element of the system, at more than 1,000 miles long. A comparable line in the US would run from Boston to Miami. And as our transportation infrastructure crumbles, Republican Senators would prefer to give tax cuts to the wealthy and than to reinvest in America. The monies are there but the will is lacking.

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START Vote Postponed by Senator Kerry

Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed a vote on the new START arms control treaty (pdf) with Russia today after Republican Senators requested more time to review documents and hear comments from the Armed Services Committee.

The treaty was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. Both the US Senate and Russian parliament must approve the treaty before it enters into force. There have been nearly 20 hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees but getting the 67 votes required to ratify the treaty has proved elusive. The Democrats need the 59 members of their caucus plus 8 Republicans to assure passage. To date, only one Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, is on the record in favor of the new START agreement.

Since the original START treaty expired in December 2009, no treaty and no verification mechanisms are in place to manage the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. This fact alone should spark haste but in today's partisan ad absurdum Senate, most of the GOP would rather play political games than to work on issues of compelling strategic importance.

Under the new START treaty, the United States and Russia will be limited to significantly fewer strategic arms within seven years from the date the treaty enters into force. Each party has the flexibility to determine for itself the structure of its strategic forces within the aggregate limits set by the treaty.

These limits were established on the American side by a rigorous analysis conducted by Department of Defense planners in support of the Obama-mandated 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (pdf).   
 
Aggregate limits:

  • 1,550 warheads. Warheads on deployed ICBMs and deployed SLBMs count toward this limit and each deployed heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments counts as one warhead toward this limit. This limit is 74% lower than the limit of the 1991 START Treaty and 30% lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

  • A combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

  • A separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. This limit is less than half the corresponding strategic nuclear delivery vehicle limit of the START Treaty. 

Verification and Transparency: The START treaty has a verification regime that combines the appropriate elements of the 1991 START Treaty negotiated by the first Bush Administration with new elements tailored to the limitations of the treaty. Measures under the new START include on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring. To increase confidence and transparency, the treaty also provides for the exchange of telemetry, a technology that allows remote measurement and reporting of information.
 
Treaty Terms: The treaty’s duration will be ten years, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement. The Parties may agree to extend the treaty for a period of no more than five years. The treaty includes a withdrawal clause that is standard in arms control agreements. The 2002 Moscow Treaty terminates upon entry into force of the new START Treaty.

No Constraints on Missile Defense and Conventional Strike: The new START does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs or current or planned United States long-range conventional strike capabilities.

The New York Times notes what the delay means:

The delay means that the Senate will not consider the treaty until the fall, during a hotly contested campaign season. The timing distresses the treaty’s supporters, who worry that it will get caught up in the partisan crossfire. Unlike other elements of Mr. Obama’s legislative priority, he cannot push it through with just one Republican vote; because a treaty requires a two-thirds vote, he needs at least eight Republicans.

Mr. Kerry plans to call a vote in mid-September, but even if that vote occurs on time, it remains uncertain whether it will be considered by the full Senate before the November election. Democrats could bring it to the floor after that, but doing so would entails risks. If Republicans pick up a sizable number of seats, they may argue that a lame-duck Senate should not approve something of such magnitude.

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