Posted by: David Offutt | March 2, 2010

Senate Rules and Supreme Court Decision Threaten Our Democracy

We have become the Can’t Do Nation of America. We can’t prevent 45,000 American citizens dying every year because they can’t afford health insurance. We can’t get a Consumer Financial Protection Agency or reform our broken financial system that brought on the Great Recession. We can’t prevent, or even slow, global climate change. We can’t pass a severely needed mega-infrastructure bill to improve highways and bridges that would create multiple jobs.

The Republicans, of course, are gambling that the voters will blame the Democrats for failing to get the job done and return the Republicans to power. If that happens in the November 2010 elections, none of the things that need to be done will even be considered. And we will be back where we were under Bush-Cheney, and – maybe worse – the viciousness the Republicans displayed against Bill Clinton will seem mild compared to what they will do to Barack Obama.

The abuse of the Senate filibuster by the Republican Party is certainly one of the greatest threats to the future of the United States. Even when the House of Representatives passes legislation to address our multiple crises, the bills die in the Senate because of Republican obstructionism. Since it requires 60 out of 100 votes to end a filibuster, majority rule has been replaced by minority rule so that the congressional branch of our government has ceased to function.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint put a hold on President Obama’s nominee to the Transportation Security Administration.

The Republicans have also tried to hamstring the executive branch. Did you know that any senator can place a hold on any presidential appointment just because he wants to? Why did we not have a director of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the time of the airline Christmas bomber? Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, had put a hold on President Obama’s nomination of Erroll Southers of the Los Angeles police department. Why? Mr. Southers wouldn’t promise DeMint that he would not allow TSA employees to engage in collective bargaining. Apparently, traditional Republican opposition to labor was more important than security.

Republican Senator Richard Shelby put a hold on 70 nominees to the executive branch.

Richard Shelby, a Republican senator from Alabama, recently put a hold on over 70 nominees for the executive branch. He wanted to hold them hostage until he could get the Obama administration to promise to earmark two spending programs for Alabama: (1) a $40 billion contract to build air-to-air refueling tankers in Mobile and (2) a $45 million explosive-device testing lab for the FBI at the Army’s Alabama Redstone Arsenal. The irony is this: both projects are worthwhile and both will create needed jobs, but they are being exploited by a hypocritical politician who publicly criticizes spending programs that will create jobs! Only 3 of 221 congressional Republicans voted for the stimulus bill (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and Sen. Shelby was not one of them!

Normally, senators only place a hold on one to three nominees and the public never finds out – and sometimes it’s for an admirable reason. But a hold on more than 70 was impossible to keep secret or to justify. This raised such a stink that even Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was embarrassed and asked Shelby to rescind his holds. Shelby’s shameful stunt lasted only two days – and, fortunately, this time it didn’t take the required 60-40 vote to end the hold.

The Republicans have prevented President Obama from filling many of his appointments to the executive agencies for the same reason they gave Bill Clinton the same treatment for six years. Both the Clinton and Obama nominees were/are people expected to work for the public good and not undermine their agencies to benefit those they are supposed to be regulating. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush believed that the government was the problem, placed lobbyists and former corporate employees into regulatory positions, and guaranteed the inefficiency of our executive agencies. Don’t expect Obama’s appointees to be readily approved by the 41 Republican senators.

The current U. S. Supreme Court has four radical-reactionary justices who push the court’s decisions toward the extreme right. As conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy votes, so goes the nation – with more and more 5 to 4 decisions.

Another great threat to the future of American democracy is the recent Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This notorious 5 to 4 decision will open the floodgates for domestic and foreign corporations to spend unlimited funds for the candidates or parties of their choice in our elections – as long as they don’t specify which candidate or party their choice is. Of course, their ads are supposed to be only issue-oriented. The ruling applies to labor unions as well, but everyone knows the difference between the money a union has compared to that of a corporation – the difference between night and day.

One retired gentleman was appalled that the U. S. Supreme Court would do such a thing and asked me why the court did it. I thought the answer was obvious. It was to restore the Republican Party’s natural right to receive the most campaign contributions and to always outspend any opponents. After all, it is the party of the wealthy and big business and historically always has raised more money than the Democrats.

The problem, off and on over the past 20 years, has been that the universe has been out of kilter. Democrat Bill Clinton was able to outspend Republican Bob Dole in the Election of 1996. The Republicans at the time were led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who couldn’t understand why anyone would contribute to Clinton and the Democrats. After all, if you contributed to the Republicans, you could send your lobbyists and/or lawyers to the Republican Congress and write or rewrite the laws to suit yourself. If you contributed to the Democrats, you might get a coffee or tea and cookies at the White House. If you contributed enough to Clinton, you might get a sleepover in what is known as the Lincoln Bedroom – which Lincoln never set foot in.

However, the recent Supreme Court ruling is more in reaction to 2008-candidate Barack Obama’s ability to amass huge sums from the Internet and the common people. The four right-wing extremists on the Court – the radical-reactionaries – ( Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito) and the one conservative (Anthony Kennedy) voted to nullify the Tillman Act of 1907, which banned corporate political spending, and virtually all other campaign-finance reform laws on the national and state levels. They probably believe that this will set the universe back in sync so that the Republican Party will get its rightful majority of contributions as The Good Lord intended.

For the sake of reestablishing a functioning Congress, the Senate rules need to be revised to prevent further abuses of the filibuster and holds on presidential nominees. That’s unlikely until the next Congress convenes in January 2011. (The Constitution provides that each House establish its rules of procedure.) As to correcting the catastrophic 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that can lead to a corporate takeover of our electoral offices,  a constitutional amendment may very well be required. None of this will be easy, but our democratic system depends on it.

by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 27, 2010, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.

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