Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How We Enable Jim Bunning

Right now Senator Jim Bunning is on the floor of the Senate, filibustering a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, including health insurance, for laid off Americans. He's hurting millions of people to make a small point about budget deficits. The fact that Republicans are trying to make budget deficits of all things seem like the major issue facing the country is a conversation for another post. But seeing this guy's face all over the news has got me thinking about some of the other issues that put this crazy conservative from Kentucky where he is right now--in the national spotlight.

1. America continues to tolerate high levels of unemployment. We could expand the public sector with WPA-style job creation. We could make truly huge infrastructure investments for a green economy and create private sector jobs in the process. (While we're at it, we could make the minimum wage a living wage.) We could pick our favorite combination of ideas. The point is, we are not facing a mystery of how to create jobs. We know how to create jobs. We just decide not to do it. We decide that it's basically OK that 15 million Americans need a job and another 10 million people need more hours in the job they have. The country lacks the political will to solve the problem. Or at least the political will to solve the problem is diluted and misdirected through our politics and our government. But we should not forget that the big, green FULL EMPLOYMENT button is right in front of us if we ever decide to push it. Until we do, there will always be a Jim Bunning standing between millions of Americans and economic security.

2. The Senate is specifically designed to grind democratic momentum to a halt. It's specifically designed to throw a spotlight on Jim Bunnings. Current filibuster rules mean anyone elected to the Senate--in an election system that is already tilted heavily in favor of moneyed interests--can singlehandedly block the work of both houses of Congress. Only a supermajority--an arbitrarily selected number of 60 Senators--can stop him. And good luck finding 60 Senators who will do anything that might inconvenience the money kings. As if democratic rule and political equality weren't hard enough already in a society of such extreme economic inequality, it turns out majority rule isn't even good enough. You need supermajority rule. Oh wait, did we say supermajority? No, we meant you need a super-duper!-majority to do anything important.

It's encouraging that a growing number of Democrats in the Senate are calling for reform of filibuster rules. I don't know if they'll be able to do it soon. But progressives should continue calling for filibuster reform even when Republicans eventually take back the Senate. It's not simply an issue of how powerful the party in power is going to be. It's an issue of whether the Legislative Branch of government will be able to do anything important. In the long-run, a Senate subject to majority rule is a good thing for progressives and democracy, even if it will sometimes be a reactionary Republican Senate. (This question is definitely worthy of a lot more attention.)

3. The Senate overrepresents rural white people, which generally means conservative Republicans. We're looking at you Jim Bunning. Thanks to the political realities of 1787--big states vs. small states, slave states vs. free states--every state today, regardless of population, still gets equal power in the Senate. This means that a very small state like Wyoming, which is very rural, very white, and very conservative, has the same sway in the Senate as giant California, which is more urban, more diverse, and more liberal. Here's another way to put it, based on the populations of those two states: Wyomingites have 74 times the representation in the US Senate that Californians have. So until the makeup of the Senate is changed, the Senate will always be whiter, more rural, and therefore more conservative than the country. We ought to be able to talk about this without being accused of "reverse racism" against white Americans. The Great Compromise of 1787 and our geography dictate that a rural, white political worldview will have more influence in our government than it should for the foreseeable future. The Jim Bunnings of America are going to be with us for a long, long time.

Update: I just read that Jim Bunning gave up his filibuster. Gosh, thanks Jim Bunning for letting my Uncle Bobby's family continue to receive their health insurance! I'm glad you had a change of heart! And it's really, really cool that the fate of so many people hinges on the wild whims of some guy who has no connection to them whatsoever. What will he decide next month?! Yay! It's exciting!

Update 2: I just heard a knock at your door. It's Jim Bunning. He's turning your electricity off because you don't look very cold.


Becky said...

Simmer down in here! I'm kidding, don't. Great round up of points. The super duper majority stuff is making me crazy. I thought it was interesting, what Doris Kearnes Goodwin said about filibuster: let them do it, but hold them to the letter of the rules. And keep the cameras rolling while they talk and we continue to go bankrupt over healthcare.

delaine said...

Excellent post, Dave! Let's see if anyone out there remembers all these crazy, contrarian stunts and shameless hypocrisy when election day next comes around. In political ads for Dems ,I want to see a clip of Bunning talking about missing his basketball game because he was on the floor on the Senate again and again along with Sen.Shelby and oh so many others. They make one tired. Oh so tired.

Elizabeth said...

Another reason Mr Bunny can do whatever the heck he wants is because he's not running for re-election.

Just be thankful "we the people" even get to directly vote for our Senators. Before the 17th amendment, the former Governor Palins of the country would have been picking for us. Talk about representative democracy...

Jenni said...

Also worth noting that the reason Bunning is not running for reelection is that he was asked to resign by his own party.

Bunny's actions also furloughed my husband and 2,000 other DOT works, and countless state DOT workers and contracted construction workers for two days. And the house could have prevented this by passing the temporary extension of a bill that was already passed by the senate.

While part of me certainly feels angry and frustrated at Bunning, I also feel angry and frustrated with Democrats. What's going on that the Dems can't get a transportation and infrastructure bill passed in the House? That's really problematic.

Camp Papa said...

I get an average of 1.75 fund raising phone calls each week from various Democratic groups. I've decided to tell them that they'll get no more money from me until the Democratic Party grows a spine and starts giving me more return on my investment.

Dave said...

Yeah, the snark-o-meter was pretty high on this post.

Wow, Jenni, so you guys were directly affected by this. Good thing it didn't last long.

If the Dems are savvy enough, they ought to be able to use Bunning's actions to make filibusters harder to support in the future.