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December 21, 2009

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Paul Krugman: A Dangerous Dysfunction

Posted: 21 Dec 2009 12:27 AM PST

The rule of 60 needs to be changed:

A Dangerous Dysfunction, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NYTimes: Unless some legislator pulls off a last-minute double-cross, health care reform will pass the Senate this week. Count me among those who consider this an awesome achievement. It's a seriously flawed bill, we'll spend years if not decades fixing it, but it's nonetheless a huge step forward.
It was, however, a close-run thing. And the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.
After all, Democrats won big last year... In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to ... end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.
Now consider what lies ahead. We need fundamental financial reform. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit. What are the chances that we can do all that — or, I'm tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?
Some people will say that it has always been this way... But it wasn't... Yes, there were filibusters in the past — most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn't like, is a recent creation. ...
Some conservatives argue that the Senate's rules didn't stop former President George W. Bush from getting things done. But this is misleading, on two levels.
First, Bush-era Democrats weren't nearly as determined to frustrate the majority party, at any cost, as Obama-era Republicans. Certainly, Democrats never did anything like what Republicans did last week: G.O.P. senators held up spending for the Defense Department — which was on the verge of running out of money — in an attempt to delay action on health care.
More important, however, Mr. Bush was a buy-now-pay-later president. He pushed through big tax cuts, but never tried to pass spending cuts to make up for the revenue loss. He rushed the nation into war, but never asked Congress to pay for it. He added an expensive drug benefit to Medicare, but left it completely unfunded. Yes, he had legislative victories; but he didn't show that Congress can make hard choices and act responsibly, because he never asked it to.
So now that hard choices must be made, how can we ... make such choices possible?
Back in the mid-1990s two senators — Tom Harkin and, believe it or not, Joe Lieberman — introduced a bill to reform Senate procedures. ... Sixty votes would still be needed to end a filibuster at the beginning of debate, but if that vote failed,... eventually a simple majority could end debate. Mr. Harkin says that he's considering reintroducing that proposal, and he should. ...
Remember, the Constitution sets up the Senate as a body with majority — not supermajority — rule. So the rule of 60 can be changed. ...
Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option — not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.

links for 2009-12-20

Posted: 20 Dec 2009 11:01 PM PST

"Obama as Climate Change Villain"

Posted: 20 Dec 2009 09:09 AM PST

More unhappiness with Obama:

Obama as Climate Change Villain, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Two years of climate change negotiations have now ended in a farce in Copenhagen. ... Responsibility for this disaster reaches far and wide. Let us start with George W. Bush, who ignored climate change for the eight years of his presidency, wasting the world's precious time. Then comes the United Nations, for managing the negotiating process so miserably during a two-year period. Then comes the European Union for pushing relentlessly for a single-minded vision of a global emissions-trading system, even when such a system would not fit the rest of the world.
Then comes the United States Senate, which has ignored climate change for 15 consecutive years since ratifying the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Finally, there is Obama, who effectively abandoned a systematic course of action under the UN framework, because it was proving nettlesome to US power and domestic politics.
Obama's decision to declare a phony negotiating victory amounts to a declaration that rich countries will do what they want and must no longer listen to the "pesky" concerns of many smaller and poorer countries. Some will view this as pragmatic, reflecting the difficulty of getting agreement with 192 UN member states. But it is worse than that. International law, as complicated as it is, has been replaced by the insincere, inconsistent, and unconvincing word of a few powers, notably the US, which has never shown goodwill to the rest of the world on this issue, nor the ability or interest needed to take the lead on it.
From the standpoint of actual reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, this agreement is unlikely to accomplish anything real. ... The reality is that the world will now wait to see if the US accomplishes any serious emissions reduction. Grave doubts are in order... Obama does not have the votes in the Senate, has not displayed any willingness to expend political capital to reach a Senate agreement, and may not even see a Senate vote on the issue in 2010...
The Copenhagen summit also fell short on financial help from rich countries to poor countries. Plenty of numbers were thrown around, but ... the big news was a commitment of $100 billion per year for the developing countries by 2020. ... Experience with financial aid for development teaches us that announcements about money a decade from now are mostly empty words. ...
One of the most notable features of the US-led document is that it doesn't mention any intention to continue negotiations in 2010. This is almost surely deliberate..., in effect declaring that the US will ... not become further entangled in messy UN climate processes in 2010.
That stance might well reflect the upcoming 2010 mid-term Congressional elections... Obama does not want to be trapped in the middle of unpopular international negotiations when election season arrives. He may also feel that such negotiations would not achieve much. Right or wrong on that point, the intention seems to be to kill the negotiations. If so, Obama will prove to have been even more damaging to the international system of environmental law than George Bush was.
For me, the image that remains of Copenhagen is that of Obama appearing at a press conference to announce an agreement that only five countries had yet seen, and then rushing off to the airport to fly back to Washington, DC, to avoid a snowstorm... If ... the voluntary commitments of the US and others prove insufficient, it will have been Obama who single-handedly traded in international law for big-power politics on climate change.

Perhaps the UN will rally itself to get better organized. Perhaps Obama's gambit will work, the US Senate will pass legislation, and other countries will do their part as well. Or perhaps we have just witnessed a serious step towards global ruin...

Update: See also: What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord, by Robert Stavins (wonkish, relatively positive assessment).

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