Archive: January, 2010
Joe Sestak on Mass. election, health care, the filibuster, American democracy and the Democratic Party's loathesome leadership: "I won't sacrifice good policy at the altar of bipartisanship."
The thing about Rep. Joe Sestak is, he talks fast. Particularly when he gets worked up. And he was, in fact, worked up. And when he calls your office, without warning, and you have no chance to rig up some sort of recording contraption, you have to scribble down as much as you can, then go back and try to interpret your own chickenscratch/shorthand later. But anyway. I spent about 20 minutes this morning talking with the congressman/senate candidate "call me Joe" about, well, a bunch of things, but all centered around the idea of the Democrats' relative ineffectiveness to get things done, and what he thinks should be done, both short and long term, about the Senate's structural flaws namely, the idea that, despite an 18-seat majority in the upper house, and 78-seat majority in the lower house, and control of the White House, Democrats still have to bend over backwards to accommodate the likes of Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and now, Cosmo centerfold Scott Brown to get a universal health care package through is, for lack of a better word, preposterous.
This is probably the best visual representation of the ridiculousness of the current system I've seen:
But before we get to the interview, take a minute and go read this. I'll wait.
For those of you who don't have an hour or so to reading one of those 8,000-word essays The Atlantic is so famous for, here's the part Sestak wanted me to see when he cited the piece, repeatedly, during our conversation (I'm quoting in more length that I usually would for someone else's work, so please clink the link above and give James Fallows the page view; good journalism and writing should be rewarded):
Every system strives toward durability, but as with human aging, longevity has a cost. The late economist Mancur Olson laid out the consequences of institutional aging in his 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative "earmarks,â and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state. In 1994, Jonathan Rauch updated Olson's analysis and called this enfeebling pattern "demosclerosis,â in a book of that name. He defined the problem as "government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt,â a process "like hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years.â
We are now 200-plus years past Jefferson's wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olson's warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaque and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry. No one would propose such a system in a constitution written today, but without a revolution, it's unchangeable. Similarly, since it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. States that together hold about 12 percent of the U.S. population can provide that many Senate votes. This converts the Senate from the "saucerâ George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might "cool,â into a deep freeze and a dead weight.
The Senate's then-famous "Gang of Six,â which controlled crucial aspects of last year's proposed health-care legislation, came from states that together held about 3 percent of the total U.S. population; 97 percent of the public lives in states not included in that group. (Just to round this out, more than half of all Americans live in the 10 most populous states which together account for 20 of the Senate's 100 votes.) "The Senate is full of ârotten boroughs,'â said James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, referring to the underpopulated constituencies in Parliament before the British reforms of 1832. "We'd be better off with a House of Lords.â
The decades-long bipartisan conspiracy to gerrymander both state and federal electoral districts doesn't help. More and more legislative seats are "safeâ for one party or the other; fewer and fewer politicians have any reason to appeal to the center or to the other side. In a National Affairs article, "Who Killed California?,â Troy Senik pointed out that 153 state or federal positions in California were at stake in the 2004 election. Not a single one changed party. This was an early and extreme illustration of a national trend.
On rereading Mancur Olson's book now, I was struck by its relative innocence. Thinking as an economist, Olson regarded the worst outcome as an America that was poorer than it could otherwise be. But since the time of his book, the gospel of "adapt or dieâ has spread from West Point to the corporate world (by chance, Olson's Rise and Decline was published within weeks of the hugely influential business book In Search of Excellence ), with the idea that rigid institutions inevitably fail. "I don't think that America's political system is equal to the tasks before us,â Dick Lamm, a former three-term governor of Colorado, told me in Denver. "It is interesting that in 1900 there were very few democracies and now there are a lot, but they're nearly all parliamentary democracies. I'm not sure we picked the right form. Ours is great for distributing benefits but has become weak at facing problems. I know the power of American rejuvenation, but if I had to bet, it would be 60â40 that we're in a cycle of decline.â
What I have been calling "going to hellâ really means a failure to adapt: increasing difficulty in focusing on issues beyond the immediate news cycle, and an increasing gap between the real challenges and opportunities of the time and our attention, resources, and best efforts. Here are symptoms people have mentioned to me:
â¢ In their book on effective government, William Eggers and John O'Leary quote a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, Michael Keeley, on why the city is out of control. "Think of city government as a big bus,â he told them. "The bus is divided into different sections with different constituencies: labor, the city council, the mayor, interest groups, and contractors. Every seat is equipped with a brake, so lots of people can stop the bus anytime. The problem is that this makes the bus undrivable.â
For that same book, Eggers and O'Leary surveyed members of the National Academy of Public Administration, a counterpart of the National Academy of Sciences for public managers. Sixty-eight percent of those who responded said that the government was "less likely to successfully execute projects than at any time in the past.â
Essentially, the argument here is that the institutions of American polity have grown structurally deficient, as politicians cater to special interests and ignore the public good, a la Olson. You could add to it the increasing polarization and cleavages of the two major parties (one of the best, and newest explanations I've read is here), and the dysfunction and myriad of problems that often come alongside populist movements (this thought-provoking book, by former Chestnut Hill College historian John Lukacs, a self-described reactionary who although I fundamentally disagree with his take on rights and liberties lays out a strong case that populist movements are dangerous and short-sighted; it's certainly a view the Founding Fathers shared) and you've got a recipe for a slow, but uncontrollable, burn. Or maybe not. As the Fallows piece notes, predictions of doom and gloom are part and parcel of the American experience, and hey, we're still here.
But, on the other hand, there's the reality that health care reform, so desperately needed and a central plank of Obama's 2008 campaign you know, the one in which he won some 70 million votes is about to being watered down because the Democrats only control 59 percent of the Senate, and because of an anachronistic rule that has been used and abused by the Republican minority in an unprecedented manner, they know have to beg for scraps from the likes of Mitch McConnell.
Last night, I put my thoughts into an e-mail to Sestak's press office, asking for his take on health care strategy and cloture rules. This morning, the congressman gave me an (unexpected) call. Below, I'm going to reconstruct this conversation to the best of my ability. Sestak's not quite signing on to junking the old Senate rules, but, he says, he's thinking about it, in part because of the Fallows piece, and in part because of the inordinate power the current system allots to egomaniacal dickbags (my words, not his) like Lieberman.
"I've said for a long time, we don't need to reform America. We need to reform the Senate," he says.
The Massachusetts election, he continues, wasn't a rebuke to Democrats or an embrace of Republicans, but rather, "the same evidence that I saw in my 67-county tour [of Pennsylvania] in July. People don't trust Washington." Particularly, he suggests, it's not so-much about policies themselves so much as the nature of the place, an environment where Ben Nelson can secure goodies for his home state in exchange for his vote, or of course he brings this up Arlen Specter's past votes as a Republicans are ignored the second he switches jerseys.
There is, as Sestak sees it, no inherent faith in Congress; consequently, as legislation as necessarily complicated as health care reform becomes bogged down in a morass of giveaways and special favors, this distrust is exacerbated into a sea of populist (and perhaps deserved) anger at the powers that be. And then you get Massachusetts. (It's worth noting, as Sestak does, that the Mass. election was hardly a mandate for Democrats to go slower on health care. In fact, a large majority of Obama voters who pulled the lever for Scott Brown, polling shows, favors the public option.)
In Sestak's words, the problem is, "Washington didn't change." Asked about what he thinks the Dems should do to push HCR now, Sestak offers something of a non-answer: "I would have helped shape the bill at the beginning."
OK, fine. But how should they proceed now? I was talking to Sestak a few minutes after he walked out of the morning Democratic caucus meeting. The consensus? "We have to continue, for the good of working people, to get a health care bill through." That said, he continues in almost the same breath in an echo Obama's comments yesterday, "I don't think we should just jam this thing through."
And what does that mean, exactly? "We should put through a package [that can] get through, we should do that," he says.
To Sestak, that means putting forward the bill's most popular items, and basically daring the Republicans to oppose them: eliminating the insurance companies' anti-trust exemption; prohibiting denial of care based on pre-existing conditions; banning the recision of coverage when insurance companies find out you're sick and don't want to pay; mandating that insurance companies spent 80 percent of premiums on health care; giving small businesses a tax credit. "Principled compromise," he calls it.
But you can't compromise with a brick wall, I reply. They decided long ago to make HCR Obama's "waterloo," thank you Jim DeMint, teabagger emeritus. At this point, I'm not sure what he could propose, short of another round of tax cuts for millionaires, that would garner a single Republican vote. (An anonymous Democratic Senate aide agrees with me: "Imagine we introduce a bill that says health insurance companies can't discriminate based on pre-existing conditions. All that would happen is the insurance industry would pay some firm to do a study that concludes that would cause insurance companies to go out of business, and some GOP senator will go to the floor and say 'See? This is all about forcing single payer.' Throw in some douchebag on TV with a tri-cornered hat and a chalkboard, and you have a unified GOP caucus against any bill that remotely attempts to deal with the health care issue.")
"I would lose my job in a heartbeat to get a health care bill through, in a heartbeat. â¦ If there were just some leaders. A Ted Kennedy could work with a Bush on immigration reform â¦ ."
That means the White House, as well as Congress, Sestak says. And in any event, wishing for bygone eras of cooperation and sanity and strong leadership doesn't make it real, and to be frank, it doesn't really get at my underlying question: How do you pass anything as complex as HCR in a body as dysfunctional as the United States Senate, where you basically need 60 votes to take a bathroom break?
One option, of course, is for the House to pass the Senate's version word for word. If the leadership calls for that, Sestak says, "I will look at it and make a determination. â¦ There are some good things in that bill." This doesn't seem too likely. The liberal blogosphere is, as I write, buzzing with news that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will push portions of HCR through via the budget reconciliation process, which means they can't be filibustered. Republicans would raise holy hell, and David Broder would bitch about bipartisanship, but HCR would pass, easily and strongly and it's not like W. never used reconciliation to pass trillion-dollar tax cuts that exploded the deficit so tough cookies. And, as Sestak points out, this is too important to fail: "I don't think you come to a full stop," he says, though he doesn't think Democrats need to rush, either. In the Philadelphia area, he says, 66 percent of the uninsured are working. "Premiums have doubled. I believe we have to get something through. I will support what we can get through."
In other words, if the Dems go for the Senate bill, he's probably in. If they go for reconciliation, he's in. If they go for his preferred method, the more incremental steps outlined above that have a slight hope for bipartisan votes, he's in. But then he adds, "I won't sacrifice good policy at the altar of bipartisanship. But I do support bipartisanship."
So which is it, I ask. The Dems have, since the Tuesday vote, basically divided themselves into two camps: The damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead camp, and the let's-slow-down-and-try-for-Republican-votes camp. To which did he belong?
His answer, as fine a point as I can put on it, is whatever works.
But this brings me to the larger point: Americans are disenchanted with Washington because there's the perception that nothing is being done, and what's being done isn't good, and that special interests have all of us over the barrel, and that they're all corrupt and self-absorbed and out of touch. All valid observations, but the big one is this: Americans wanted to change the way DC works, and instead, they get Ben Nelson's favors and Bart Stupak's antiabortion zealotry and Lieberman's seemingly endless ability to string Dems along and Max Baucus' lobbyist girlfriend and the excise tax and no public option and compromise to the point of near-meaninglessness. How would a Senator Sestak go about fixing that?
Much of the American system, he ruminates, is set up to protect minorities. (This is sort of true; although, according to a fascinating history I'm now reading, it was actually set up to protect southern slave plantations at the expense of everyone else.) "I don't want to change it right now," he says. "I want to get over there, and see about it. We need some leadership."
Here he points me to The Atlantic piece above. "Honest to gosh, I thought of you," he says."Maybe, I'm thinking seriously you know the Democrats will [one day] be in the minority I am taken with [Fallow's notion that] the institution of the Senate is the only place that hasn't changed [in 200 years]. I don't think you can just go from 60 to 51. There has to be some balance. Maybe some changes are needed, right? We could be sacrificing good policy for an arcane rule."
The flip side, he says, is that in the House, an abundance of power in vested in the party leaders the Speaker, Majority and Minority leaders, specifically. "I don't want the Senate to be that way. It's less democratic. What's the right mix? That's what I'm going to try to work out."
And before I could ask him if the constant refrain about needing leadership meant that he would support someone other than Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader assuming Reid survives his re-election bid, which is by no means a given he excused himself for a meeting. Next time.
Oh, and just so you don't think we're biased, I asked one of our correspondents who's in with the Specter campaign to put these same questions to his staff. We'll let you know what he comes back with.
This is an interesting little story, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it just yet. On the one hand, hell yeah, it's about time somebody challenged these Wall Street bastards. On the other, isn't suing Goldman for greed a bit like suing the sun for shining?
I'm going to dig around today, time permitting, but I wonder if these sorts of suits have gone anywhere. I mean, from a strictly legal perspective, I would imagine that this case is an uphill climb for the transit authority. If they don't like the way their money is managed, they do have remedies their stockholders' vote, namely. Or they could pull their money out of Goldman and allocate it elsewhere.
Curious if there are any lawyers out there who could give me a sense of what SEPTA's chances are with this thing. If you are, or known someone who is, please e-mail me at email@example.com, or just hit up the comments.
You may have seen a lot of references to Askadelphia on this site as of late, and you may be wondering what it is.
Simply enough, Askadelphia is a community forum for asking questions and getting answers. Questions can be about any topic, but tend to focus on things happening in and around Philadelphia.
That's it! Anyone can ask, anyone can answer.
We've received some feedback, so here are some replies to frequently asked questions:
Is it difficult to sign up?
Not at all; you can even use your Facebook account if you prefer.
Why do I have to log in to ask or answer questions?
So that the system can keep track of what you've done. Feel free to use an alias.
I'm on Twitter and can receive answers to my questions there. Why use Askadelphia?
Twitter is great for fast info, but tweets tend to fade into Internet history rather quickly. Askadelphia can serve as an archive for questions and answers. Plus, it can be seen by many more people than just those on Twitter.
What am I waiting for?
I don't know! Find out answers to your questions. Teach people what you know. Get on it!
Those of you still commuting by car take heart (and then wise up) : The Schuylkill Expressway, aka the Sure-Kill Distressway, aka Sucker Expressway, aka Seventy-Sucks, aka Home of the gaper delay, etc., etc., blah blah blah, was only ranked 20th among the country's worst commutes by The Daily Beast yesterday. To wit:
Weekly hours of bottleneck congestion: 205
Worst bottleneck: Eastbound, Montgomery Dr/Exit 341
Length of worst bottleneck: 1.53 mi
Weekly hours of congestion on worst bottleneck: 34
Speed of worst bottleneck when congested: 22.9 mph
Commuter Buzz: "Frankly, we don't need any more rain," Gary Szatkowski told the Philadelphia Inquirer, after a 2009 that saw a rain-induced mudslide close part of the Schuylkill.
Sure, those 205 hours of bottleneck congestion per week are a bummer, and mudslides are a bitch, but it could have been so much worse. The No. 1 worst commute, LA's Hollywood Freeway checked in at 686 weekly hours of bottleneck congestion.
Kinda makes you want to get a trailpass, eh 'burbies?
So here we are, the day after: liberals desperately seeking an answer for how they lost Ted Kennedy's seat to a tea-bagging, waterboard-loving, American Idol-fathering, former Cosmo centerfold, no less and conservatives touting this as a wholesale national rejection of everything Barack Obama has ever done. And everyone seems to think the health care bill is finished.
The latter first: It's not.
The former is a more complex thing to understand. It's not so simple to say that everyone hates Barack and took it out on Martha Coakley. Nor is it correct, as is permeating its way through the liberal blogosphere, to say that the whole of the blame rests on Coakley's absolutely terrible campaign, though some of it surely does. Special elections are strange things. Special elections, fueled by populist outrage, although often mis- or un-directed but focused on the party of power anyway, in an atmosphere of 10 percent unemployment and a two-year recession, are incredibly strange things that produce strange results.
My guess, to take up the proverbial sports metaphor: It's not so much that the Democrats got outplayed. It's more like they decided to not put their starters on the field until there were two minutes left in the fourth quarter and they were already down by a couple touchdowns.
But we'll need a better answer than that. So, I've asked resident SmartyPants David Faris to dig into the numbers, and come up for an explanation for Scott Brown's inprobable victory. It's set to appear in our Jan. 28 issue (by which time it will be old-ish, but hey, deadline cycles). In the meantime, feel free to prognosticate below.
Oh, and by the way: Brown will be up for re-election in 2012. I've got $20 that says he gets less than 45 percent of the vote. I've got another $20 that says Obama will be re-elected with a larger share of the popular vote than he got in 2008 (that's 53 percent, for the record. Any takers?
The headline pretty much says it all. From CNN:
The Supreme Court has tossed out a lower court ruling that nullified the death sentence for former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of gunning down a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police officer more than 28 years ago.
So, there you have it. Or not:
The justices made their announcement Monday, ordering a federal appeals court to revisit its earlier ruling granting a new sentencing hearing. The high court last year denied Abu-Jamal's separate petition for a new trial. The appeals court now has the option of reimposing the death sentence or ordering a new federal trial to hear other claims of injustice raised by Abu-Jamal.
I'm not all that invested in this case, one way or another. I am, however, curious to see what the Cloggers think.
We saw, briefly in two games before the first concussion, that a sharp, nonrusty Westbrook could still function very effectively. His left knee did not prevent that.
Also, I'm pretty sure this didn't come from Westbrook directly, because there is no one in the local media he is really tight with. That's just the way he is; I've never quite understood it, and at this point, I doubt I ever will. But if Brian Westbrook is thinking about hanging it up, he is the most unlikely player on the team to blab that around to anybody.
The report sounded to me like maybe what Eagles management HOPES will happen -- though an Eagles spokesman told me Monday that he is unaware of Westbrook seeking medical opinions on his knee, or contemplating retirement. If the Eagles have a role for Westbrook in 2010, it is as a complement to an emerging LeSean McCoy.
There are commenters on the article suggesting that Eskin's a mouthpiece for the Eagles (and Bowen certainly leaves the door to that interpretaion wide open). And it's reasonable to think that after last year's Brian Dawkins debacle, if the Birds again plan on unceremoniously parting ways with their most popular player in the off season, they would do well to plant a few seeds of doubt early (which would be, yes, duplicitous, but also not un-smart from a strategy standpoint).
Then again, Westbrook's very fair ponderings about his future health after sustaining two concussions do at least give this report the air of believability, though, as Bowen rightly points out, Westbrook had no specific complaints about his knee this season.
|The staff at 2B Groomed
The spread includes a piece on straight razors, a rogues gallery of famous mustaches (Billy Dee, Sam Elliott, Daniel Plainview), the history of the dopp kit, a defense of the man-spa and a piece on the barbershop revival: "In these economically addled times â¦ with men looking for ways to cut back, hot towels, straight-razor shaves and classic cuts (with a complimentary Guinness or scotch) are increasingly in demand."
The barbershop piece runs with a list of Playboy's top-10 barbershops in America, and checking in at No. 5 is Philly's own 2B Groomed Studios (270 S. 11th Street, 215-925-3505, 2bgroomed.com, appointments encouraged), run by the super-dapper Jahmal Rhaney (above), who stopped by this morning to drop off a copy of his tonsorial star turn.
A couple years back, Trey Popp chronicled his straight-edge conversion in CP's pages:
The straight-edge specialists I used to frequent in India didn't sport twirling poles either, but considering what they charged for their services, such adornment was a cost better avoided. The going price for a smooth face ten years ago ranged from two American dimes to a quarter. After getting past high-strung nerves and an overdeveloped fainting reflex my first time in the chair, I was hooked. Why hunt for imported disposable cartridges when a man with 30 or 40 years of experience would shave me for a song? I threw away my lathering gel.
Given the scraggly state of my now-traditional winter beard, I may follow suit and pop down to 2B Groomed for one of their spruce ups and beard trims. Stay tuned.
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