Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Supreme Court Has Been Eating Congress's Lunch" - Senator Arlen Specter's Exit Interview

Brief Overview:

   I've tried to organize this speech by main topic areas and have highlighted key points.  In doing so I don't keep the order of Specter's speech.  I begin with a brief intro to the idea of exit interviews and then identify highlights of Spector's speech.  Here's the link to Sen. Specter's speech on his website.

Here are what I see as the main points:

End of Senate as Forum of Great Debate 
  • Nobody on Senate Floor 
  • Cooperation Across Party Lines has Ended 
    • Party Loyalty and Retribution  
    • Compromise Becomes a Bad Word 
    • Polarization and Campaign Attacks Based On Single Vote 
    • Murkowski's Write-In Win is Sign of Hope  
  • Senators' Right to Make Amendments Limited While Filibuster Threats Stop Debate 
Recommendations on Senate Rules

Recommendations on Supreme Court,  National Institute of Health and Senate Travel

Start of Post:

Exit Interviews:  Why we should pay attention to Sen. Specter

The most successful organizations have exit interviews with employees who are leaving to take advantage of the employee's inside knowledge of the organization, especially when they have nothing to lose by being honest.

[NOTE: Don't believe everything you read. That might sound good, but I have no idea whether 'the most successful organizations" do that or not. And people leaving organizations who have not been forthcoming previously, probably do not change that behavior overnight. But exit interviews can be a source of useful information but here's a contrarian view.]

Senator Arlen Specter gave his version of an exit interview on the floor of the US Senate yesterday (Tuesday). Apparently these are traditionally called something like Farewell Addresses.

[NOTE AGAIN: I'm not sure this is true. The US Senate's Page on Senate Traditions identifies a Senator's Maiden Speech. It does not mention final speeches, though a link does say:
Members deliver floor speeches to honor colleagues who will not be returning for the next Congress. For senior members, those remarks extend through many pages of the Congressional Record and in some instances are subsequently published as Senate documents.]

In any case, Sen. Specter called his address to the Senate not a Farewell Address, but
a closing argument to a jury of my colleagues and the American people outlining my views on how the Senate and, with it, the Federal Government arrived at its current condition of partisan gridlock, and my suggestions on where we go from here on that pressing problem and the key issues of national and international importance.  [from Specter's speech]

There are reasons to listen to Specter.  He's had 30 years in the US Senate, 28 of which were as a Republican.  In 2009 he switched to a Democrat saying, "he did not leave the Republican party, the party left [him]."  Ironically, the Democrats of Pennsylvania left him too, in the 2010 primary, and he will be replaced in the US Senate by Republican Pat Toomey in January.

In today's channel surfing world, Specter's speech, and his accumulated experience and wisdom,  are likely to be missed altogether by most, and forgotten by those who actually heard or saw it.

So I'd like to hightlight some of his key points and suggest readers take ten minutes from reading Palin blogs or other celebrity distractions and read Specter's 'closing arguments' and then discuss them with your US Senators. (Here's a list of Senate contact info.)

End of Senate as Forum of Great Debate 
  • Nobody on Senate Floor

    The Washington Post noted the poor attendance at my colleagues' farewell speeches earlier this month. That is really not surprising since there is hardly anyone ever on the Senate floor. The days of lively debate with many Members on the floor are long gone.

    [When we visited the Senate in April, there was almost no one listening to the floor.  Sen. Begich was the acting chair.  When I asked how a junior senator got that honor, I was told it wasn't an honor, but a chore.  But Begich and the Senator who took his place used their time well on their Blackberries and reading. ]

    • Cooperation Across Party Lines has Ended
    Senator Chris Dodd and I were privileged to enter the world's greatest deliberative body 30 years ago. Senators on both sides of the aisle engaged in collegial debate and found ways to find common ground on the Nation's pressing problems.
    He lists all the centrists Senators on both sides of the aisles then.  Later he raises:

      • Party Loyalty and Retribution
        Senators have gone into other States to campaign against incumbents of the other party. Senators have even opposed their own party colleagues in primary challenges. That conduct was beyond contemplation in the Senate I joined 30 years ago. Collegiality can obviously not be maintained when negotiating with someone simultaneously out to defeat you, especially within your own party.
      • Compromise Becomes a Bad Word
    . . .``compromise'' has become a dirty word. Senators insist on ideological purity as a precondition. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine had it right when she said we need to distinguish between the compromise of principle and the principle of compromise. This great body itself was created by the so-called Great Compromise, in which the Framers decreed that States would be represented equally in the Senate and proportionate to their populations in the House. As Senate Historian Richard Baker noted: ``Without that compromise, there would likely have been no Constitution, no Senate, and no United States as we know it today.''
      • Polarization and Campaign Attacks Based On Single Vote
    Politics is no longer the art of the possible when Senators are intransigent in their positions. Polarization of the political parties has followed.
    A single vote out of thousands cast can cost an incumbent his seat. Senator Bob Bennett was rejected by the far right in his Utah primary because of his vote for TARP. It did not matter that Vice President Cheney had pleaded with the Republican caucus to support TARP or President Bush would become a modern Herbert Hoover. It did not matter that 24 other Republican Senators, besides Bob Bennett, out of the 49 Republican Senators voted for TARP. Senator Bennett's 93 percent conservative rating was insufficient.
      • Murkowski's Write-In Win is Sign of Hope
        The spectacular reelection of Senator Lisa Murkowski on a write-in vote in the Alaska general election and the defeat of other Tea Party candidates in the 2010 general elections may show the way to counter right-wing extremists. Arguably, Republicans left three seats on the table in 2010--beyond Delaware, Nevada, and perhaps Colorado--because of unacceptable general election candidates. By bouncing back and winning, Senator Murkowski demonstrated that a moderate centrist can win by informing and arousing the general electorate. Her victory proves that America still wants to be and can be governed by the center.
      • Senators' Right to Make Amendments Limited While Filibuster Threats Stop Debate

      The Senate rules allow the majority leader, through the right of his first recognition, to offer a series of amendments to prevent any other Senator from offering an amendment.

      That had been done infrequently up until about a decade ago and lately has become a common practice, and, again, by both parties.
      By precluding other Senators from offering amendments, the majority leader protects his party colleagues from taking tough votes. Never mind that we were sent here and are paid to make tough votes. The inevitable and understandable consequence of that practice has been the filibuster. If a Senator cannot offer an amendment, why vote to cut off debate and go to final passage? Senators were willing--and are willing--to accept the will of the majority in rejecting their amendments but unwilling to accept being railroaded to concluding a bill without being provided an opportunity to modify it. That practice has led to an indignant, determined minority to filibuster and to deny 60 votes necessary to cut off debate. Two years ago on this Senate floor, I called the practice tyrannical.
      The decade from 1995 to 2005 saw the nominees of President Clinton and President Bush stymied by the refusal of the other party to have a hearing or floor vote on many judicial and executive nominees. Then, in 2005, serious consideration was given by the Republican caucus to changing the longstanding Senate rule by invoking the so-called nuclear or constitutional option. The plan called for Vice President Cheney to rule that 51 votes were sufficient to impose cloture for confirmation of a judge or executive nominee. His ruling, then to be challenged by Democrats, would be upheld by the traditional 51 votes to uphold the Chair's ruling.
      As I argued on the Senate floor at that time, if Democratic Senators had voted their consciences without regard to party loyalty, most filibusters would have failed. Similarly, I argued that had Republican Senators voted their consciences without regard to party loyalty, there would not have been 51 of the 55 Republican Senators to support the nuclear option.

      Recommendations on Senate Rules
      There is a way out of this procedural gridlock by changing the rule on the power of the majority leader to exclude other Senators' amendments. I proposed such a rule change in the 110th and 111th Congresses. I would retain the 60-vote requirement for cloture on legislation, with a condition that Senators would have to have a talking filibuster, not merely presenting a notice of intent to filibuster. By allowing Senators to offer amendments and a requirement for debate, not just notice, I think filibusters could be effectively managed, as they had been in the past, and still retain, where necessary, the opportunity to have adequate debate on controversial issues.
         I would change the rule to cut off debate on judicial and executive branch nominees to 51 votes, as I formally proposed in the 109th Congress. Important positions are left open for months, and the Senate agenda today is filled with unacted-upon judicial and executive nominees, and many of those judicial nominees are in areas where there is an emergency backlog. Since Judge Bork and Justice Thomas did not provoke filibusters, I think the Senate can do without them on judges and executive officeholders. There is a sufficient safeguard of the public interest by requiring a simple majority on an up-down vote. I would also change the rule requiring 30 hours of postcloture debate and the rule allowing the secret hold, which requires cloture to bring the matter to the floor. Requiring a Senator to disclose his or her hold to the light of day would greatly curtail this abuse.

      Recommendations on Supreme Court,  National Institute of Health and Senate Travel
      • Supreme Court
      The Next Congress should try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the constitutional mandate of separation of powers. The Supreme Court has been eating Congress's lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmation proceedings to respect congressional factfinding and precedents. That is stare decisis. The recent decision in Citizens United is illustrative. Ignoring a massive congressional record and reversing recent decisions, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito repudiated their confirmation testimony given under oath and provided the key votes to permit corporations and unions to secretly pay for political advertising, thus effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person, one vote. Chief Justice Roberts promised to just call balls and strikes. Then he moved the bases.
         Congress's response is necessarily limited in recognition of the importance of judicial independence as the foundation of the rule of law, but Congress could at least require televising the Court proceedings to provide some transparency to inform the public about what the Court is doing since it has the final word on the cutting issues of the day. Brandeis was right when he said that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
         The Court does follow the election returns, and the Court does judicially notice societal values as expressed by public opinion. Polls show that 85 percent of the American people favor televising the Court when told that a citizen can only attend an oral argument for 3 minutes in a chamber holding only 300 people. Great Britain, Canada, and State supreme courts permit television.
         Congress has the authority to legislate on this subject, just as Congress decides other administrative matters such as what cases the Court must hear, time limits for decisions, number of Justices, the day the Court convenes, and the number required for a quorum. While television cannot provide a definitive answer, it could be significant and may be the most that can be done consistent with life tenure and judicial independence.

      • National Institutes of Health
       I urge Congress to substantially increase funding for the National Institutes of Health. When NIH funding was increased from $12 to $30 billion annually and $10 billion added to the stimulus package, significant advances were made on medical research. It is scandalous--absolutely scandalous--that a nation with our wealth and research capabilities has not done more. Forty years ago, the President of the United States declared war on cancer. Had that war been pursued with the diligence of other wars, most forms of cancer might have been conquered.<

      • Foreign Travel for Senators  
      I also urge colleagues to increase their activity on foreign travel. Regrettably, we have earned the title of ugly Americans by not treating other nations with proper respect and dignity.
      He goes on to discuss how his own foreign travel enabled him to understand the world we live in by talking to world leaders and seeing the impacts of US policies in the world.

      These are just highlights (and I've added emphasis here and there.) Here's the link to the whole speech.  And here's a list of Senate contact info so you can discuss his suggestions with your own Senators.

      1 comment:

      1. I used to be concerned about party politics in America. Then I moved to the UK where parties can and do dismiss elected members of parliament without popular vote.

        Too, the very speed by which a majority-seated government can move legislation here is stunning. From our last election here, current government is devolving programs that have been on the books for over 50 years -- in the course of one or two months. So much for compromise in the 'mother of parliaments'.

        Mr. Spector's analysis considers the flaws within a political system. I have come to know that what is 'workable' lies quite outside one political culture's thinking and practice.

        As one Chinese student in London was recently quoted saying, "Is your government as stable as ours?"

        That, dear student, is a question of just what stability offers to whom. Mr. Spector and the American order have chosen (and each generation, inherit) its system: its evolution is always contested, difficult and uncertain.

        But that is true in any political order.

        Best of luck!


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