Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Democrats should - but won't - get rid of filibuster

By DeWayne Wickham

The thing that really bothers me about Republicans use of the filibuster to derail bills and stall the Senate s legislative process is not the tyrannical behavior of the GOP minority; it is the complicity of the Democratic majority.

While the Senate s 59-member Democratic caucus is one vote short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster, it has eight more votes than is required to stop the body's 41 Republicans from using the tactic to effectively block the will of the majority.

For much of its history, the Senate permitted unlimited debate on an issue. But in 1917, it enacted a rule that allowed a two-thirds majority of the body's members to cut off debate. That was reduced to a three-fifths vote in 1975. Since then, the Senate has been required to get the backing of 60 of the body s 100 senators to end a filibuster a supermajority that flouts the basic idea of a majority-rule democracy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has effectively dismissed some of his fellow Democrats efforts to change Senate rules so that, eventually, 51 votes would be enough to eliminate the filibuster.

Five years ago when Republicans controlled the Senate, they threatened to do just that when Democrats used the filibuster to block 10 of President Bush s?judicial appointments. They called it a nuclear option and for good reason. The thing Senate Democrats and Republicans fear more than being in the minority is being out of power. The filibuster allows the body s minority party to stop the majority from acting if it can rally to its side 41 of the Senate's votes.

Until recently, the filibuster was used sparingly. But as party lines have come to mark this nation s ideological divide, the filibuster has become the roadside bomb of the Senate s minority party.

But as frustrated as each party has been by the other's heavy-handed use of the filibuster, neither has been willing to detonate the nuclear option out of fear that such action would harm them, too.

As he spoke in support of ending the filibuster last week on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean seemed to wish it wouldn t come to that. "Even though having a filibuster would help us in the long run if we get back into the minority, which statistically someday we re likely to do...I think for the good of the country, we probably have to go forward (and) eliminate the filibuster."

The filibuster is a Faustian bargain that undermines the will of voters. The promise of change that swept Barack Obama into the presidency and padded Democratic majorities in the House and Senate last year has been largely derailed by the Senate s Republican minority, which has kept a broad array of legislation from coming to a vote.

More than outrageous, this legislative tyranny holds hostage our democracy to the whims of a political party that was on the losing end of an election cycle. The voters who gave Democrats control of Congress and the White House in the recent elections expect results, not inaction. They expect Congress to bring bills to a vote, not allow a mean-spirited minority to filibuster them to death.

If Democrats won't use the majority voters gave them to end this bad practice, then they deserve to suffer their wrath in November s elections.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Who gets jobs in a colorblind society?

By DeWayne Wickham

I hope this isn't what people mean by a "colorblind society."

When the Department of Labor announced the unemployment rate fell from 10% to 9.7% in January, Democrats from the White House to Capitol Hill gushed like a school kid who'd just aced a test in a class he was struggling to pass.

"While unemployment remains a severe problem, today's employment report contains encouraging signs of gradual labor market healing," said Christina Romer, who heads the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Like Romer said last month in a report she issued, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi credits the $787 billion economic stimulus bill President Obama signed a year ago with helping to create or save nearly two million jobs.

"Today's jobs report marks a welcome step in the right direction for our economy and our families: the unemployment rate is going down," Pelosi said.

But overlooked by Romer and Pelosi is this troubling (at least for me) detail: While the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined in January for whites and Hispanics, it went up three-tenths of a percent for blacks.

Even more worrisome, the jobless rate for black men age 20 and older rose a full percentage point to 17.6%. That amount of joblessness is closer to the level of Americans who were unemployed at the height of the Great Depression (24.9%), than to the percentage of white men (9.1%) who were out of work in January.

This largely overlooked fact should do more than put a damper on last month's "good" employment news. It ought to cause the Obama administration and the Democrats who control Congress to worry aloud about whether the economic recovery they believe is underway is leaving their most loyal constituents behind. But so far Romer has made only a vague reference to the "unacceptably high" unemployment rate of "black or African American workers,” without acknowledging that it's moving in the wrong direction.

In November, the National Urban League urged the White House and House and Senate leaders to create a new $168 billion stimulus plan that would target job creation efforts in "communities with the highest rates of unemployment and the long-term unemployed who often face the greatest barriers to getting a job the longer they are without one."

Then in December Urban League President Marc Morial met with the Lawrence Summers, head of the president's National Economic Council to push that idea. "We're reviewing the president's proposed budget as well as both Senate and House jobs bills" to see if any of what his group suggested ended up in a piece of legislation, Morial told me. That's a subtle way of saying he hasn't heard from the White House or Congress since making that pitch.

That should make a lot of black folks want to holler. That it apparently hasn’t, ought to cause a trembling in James Weldon Johnson's grave. In 1924, when blacks were as tightly linked to Republicans as they are now to Democrats, Johnson, the NAACP's executive secretary, offered this assessment of their political standing: "The Negro demands less by his ballot, not only in actual results but even in mere respect for himself as a voter than any of all the groups that go to make up the American citizenry," he said.

The "colorblind society" that hoisted Obama into the White House threatens to make those words as haunting today as they must have been 86 years ago.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hillary Clinton is key to making Haiti's revival

By DeWayne Wickham

MONTREAL — When Hillary Clinton talks about Haiti, she chooses her words like distance runners set their stride. For the secretary of State, America’s commitment to the rebuilding of the earthquake-ravaged country is not a political sprint. It’s a marathon.

“We’re going to be there for the Haitian people and be very sensitive to their needs — and do the best job we can to help them,” Clinton told me last week, shortly after she and representatives of 13 other nations concluded talks here on a framework for long-term aid to that impoverished country.

To help Haiti recover, the U.S. has to help it rebuild Port-au-Prince, the capital city that was leveled by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The U.S. also has to help rebuild the country’s shattered economy. “In 30 seconds Haiti lost 60% of its GDP,” Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said during the day-long meeting. It’s estimated it will take at least 10 years and $3 billion to rebuild Haiti — and probably a lot more time and money to help shed its identity as the American hemisphere’s poorest country.

Long before the Jan. 12 earthquake, Clinton had Haiti on her mind. Soon after her marriage to Bill Clinton in 1975, the couple honeymooned in Haiti. The Clintons made several return trips, each time growing fonder of the island nation.

Within days of taking the State Department job, Clinton got President Obama’s approval to make Haiti a focus of her diplomatic efforts. “They had suffered. . . . They had really been knocked flat,” she said of the four tropical storms and hurricanes that wracked Haiti in 2008. Those natural disasters took about 800 lives and inflicted $1 billion in damage.

So Clinton had been working closely with Haitian President Rene Preval for a year before the earthquake struck and piled the crumbled remains of collapsed buildings atop the damage done by storms and decades of political upheaval and mismanagement.

In a news conference at the close of the Montreal meeting, Clinton said the U.S. and other countries that were rushing emergency aid to Haiti would be more deliberate in determining a long-term fix to the nation’s problems.

“So we’re trying to do this in the correct order. . . . We actually think it’s a novel idea to do the needs assessment first, and then the planning, and then the pledging (of financial aid),” Clinton said.

That makes sense. Haiti may never get another chance like this to remake itself. People around the world have been traumatized by awful scenes of suffering and desperation — and, for now at least, they are queuing up to offer help.

But Clinton knows this rebuilding job — if not Haiti’s very survival — depends on the willingness of wealthy nations to make a long-term financial commitment to a country that seems to have been on life support for generations. She understands that nothing short of a generation of sustained support will resuscitate Haiti. Clinton wants people to be able to look back at this difficult rebuilding work and say of this effort that “they took their time” and “did it right.” That’s the marathoner in her.

But you have to wonder whether even she has enough endurance to give Haiti the attention it needs — for as long as it needs it — to make it a viable state.