Sunday, December 30, 2007

Something to Keep an Eye On...

This article caught my eye and I thought I would flag it for any of you that want to add even more complexity to the current Presidential race. If you are unsatisfied with the current candidates - or your favorite candidate's chances - this article might even provide a little hope.

Apparently there is a group of fairly prominent current and former politicians meeting in the near future to discuss a third party "Unity" candidate for the 2008 election....

It's entirely possible that this effort might not gain any notice or traction, but with the stature of some of the figures involved, I wouldn't immediately dismiss the possibility....crazier things have certainly happened...and much of the country certainly does seem desperate for a new approach...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bring Back the Real Filibuster

I have no doubt that some of my more politically savvy readers will tell me that I am crazy and/or foolish at the end of this post. Perhaps this is a bad idea, but I want to provoke a debate... so here goes:

In theory, it takes only 51 votes for a bill to pass the United States Senate.

However, Senate Rule 22 allows unlimited debate on any issue if one or more Senators are so inclined. And whereas it takes 51 votes to pass a bill, it takes 60 votes to end debate on a bill if Senators do not end it voluntarily. (This 60 vote process is called "cloture").

So without 60 votes of support, a Senator, or group of Senators can mount a filibuster - which literally means endlessly talking about a bill (or any other topic) until the speaker(s) yields or until the Senate Majority Leader gives up and withdraws it.

The U.S. Senate has seen some memorable filibusters in the past including a physically impressive but morally shameful 24 hour 18 minute effort from Senator Strom Thurmond to block Civil Rights legislation in 1957.

But the Senate has evolved in recent years and it is now no longer necessary to speak when filibustering a bill. All an individual Senator or party must do is declare their intention to filibuster. If the Senate Majority Leader cannot get 60 votes for cloture, he withdraws the bill.

On the one hand, I can see some value in this approach. By cutting right to the chase in counting cloture votes, the Majority Leader can save time and the collective face of the Senate.

On the other hand, one could argue (as I am about to) that this filibuster, now that it is painless, has been abused. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than seven filibusters. In the first decade of the 21st century, no Senate term had fewer than 49 filibusters. In the fall of 2007, the 110th Congress' broke the record for filibuster cloture votes with more than 70.

The most recent use of this tactic was seen last week. Republican Senators filibustered an energy bill because it repealed subsidies for oil companies. The Republican Senators explained their action as "opposing a tax increase". The cloture vote failed, obtaining 59 of the 60 votes it needed to pass.

The Senate Majority Leader, bowing to the minority, decided to strip the measures in dispute and pass the first increase in automobile efficiency in 32 years. This is good progress, but more must be done and I am not convinced that all options have been exhausted.

The President had threatened to veto any attempt to deprive Exxon of the government funds it receives each year. Therefore, one could argue that the Majority Leader would be wasting time if he had less than the 66 votes he would need to override the veto.

I disagree. There is a time for collaboration and/or compromise and there is a time to fight for what is unambiguously right for the country.

I would encourage the Majority Leader to consider reintroducing the failed measures while reinstating the real filibuster at some point in 2008.

I seriously doubt that even the infinite debate allowed by the filibuster will be enough for Republicans to justify why the government is giving Exxon, the most profitable company in American history, your money.

Of course, this issue may be more complicated than it seems and I could be wrong. I invite the Senate Republicans to take all the time in the world to explain their position.

In my judgement their position was indefensible when oil was $30 a barrel. It is a disgusting and blatant display of pure political corruption at $90 a barrel.

If the Democrats cannot win this debate, which ones can they win? The truth is they are scared of being called tax raisers and accused of stimulating higher gas prices. Both of these claims are entirely bogus. At some point they owe it to the country to take the political risk of standing up and making the case for their position.

A glut of media attention surrounding a series of real filibusters, coupled with a capable (and courageous?) Democratic Presidential nominee might give them just the platform they need to do so...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Oil First, The Nation Second

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the most meaningful piece of energy legislation in decades. Based on a previous post, I am obliged to give credit to Speaker Nancy Pelosi for passing this bill. Well done!

Today, however, that effort was stalled in the U.S. Senate thanks to a filibuster and the promise of a veto from President Bush.

I have long prided myself on being a political Independent, but in evaluating the actions of the Republicans on this bill (and energy policy in general) I risk sounding like the most partisan of Democrats.

So be it. The Republicans are dead wrong on this issue. I welcome arguments to the contrary.

Anyway, on to the bill.

If it became law, this bill would do the following:

1. Increase automobile fuel efficiency 40% by 2020.
2. Require electricity companies to produce 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
3. Repeal tax breaks to oil companies passed in the 2005 "energy bill" to fund research in alternative energy.

This bill would make a significant dent in our oil consumption, thereby lowering our gasoline costs and weakening our dependence on the Saudi Royal Family, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and whatever governmental entity ultimately prevails in Iraq.

It would constitute our nation's first meaningful steps to lower greenhouse gas emissions .

In addition, it would fund an increased investment in alternative energy (an industry certain to be one of the most important of this century) by repealing tax breaks for oil companies enacted by a Republican Congress in 2005.

Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has hinted that the bill could pass the Senate if items #2 and #3 were eliminated.

Let's look at #2.

The only respectable argument that I have heard against this item is that it could raise energy prices for consumers. But there is no reason substantial and/or abrupt price increases should be necessary in the near term because the utility companies would have 12 years to achieve this standard.

Given the plummeting prices for solar and (especially) wind power, there is no reason significant price increases should be necessary in the long term either. And even if it DID raise electricity prices, they would be offset by savings from the dramatically increased efficiency of our automobiles.

As for #3, here is where I really get angry.

In 2000, when oil was less than $30 a barrel, Exxon Mobil made $8 BILLION in profit. Today, with oil at $90 a barrel, Exxon holds the record for the largest profit ever by an American company - $39.5 billion. Yet the President and the Republican leadership maintain that we should continue to give tax breaks to these cash machines.

The Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low, which makes them easier for the President to ignore. Yet in this case, the Democratic majority has crafted a policy that would be tremendously beneficial for our national security, the health of our environment and, over the longer term, our economic well-being.

Any politician that values these things more than the oil company financing of his/her next reelection campaign should be supporting this bill. Those that don't should do us all a favor and find another profession.

This President, who will never stand for reelection again, has no excuse. Unfortunately, at this point, he has no accountability either.

The article that sparked my thinking on this matter is here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mr. President, Talk to Iran

A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released yesterday that claims Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This is report represents the collective opinion of U.S. intelligence services.

Iran must still be viewed with a great deal of skepticism and we should retain a defensive posture. This can and should be done in a respectful way.

Nevertheless, this report is extremely encouraging to me for two reasons .

First, it demonstrates that Iran is not necessarily 100% determined to obtain nuclear weapons.

The belief that the Iranian leadership is fully committed to building 'the Bomb' was not merely the opinion of the Bush Administration. In the last few years, I have heard several panels of American and international experts (across the political spectrum) speak on this topic and almost all of them believed Tehran was moving ahead to develop nuclear weapons (after 2003 when they apparently stopped).

Second, it suggests that the leadership in Iran (and I am talking about the Supreme Ayatollah and his inner circle, not the provocative but relatively powerless President Ahmadinejad) does rationally respond to external pressure, at least to some degree.

This is an important point that could not previously be assumed because of the theocratic and highly mysterious nature of the Iranian regime. This made their acquisition of nuclear weapons especially scary (as opposed to the Soviet leaders who we KNEW valued their own survival).

President Bush responded today with the following statement:

"Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge
necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

"What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program?
Nothing's changed in this NIE that says, okay, why don't we just stop worrying
about it. Quite the contrary."

I would agree that no one should consider the matter closed or take our eye off of Tehran and their nuclear operations.

But this report undeniably changes the dynamic in two ways... and the President should respond accordingly.

Change 1. The urgency for decisive action has dramatically declined.

In my opinion, short of a reversal of these findings (or some provocative action by Iran in Iraq), there is nothing that could justify an attack on Iran before Bush leaves office. The NIE says that Iran could not have a nuclear weapon before 2010 (and that it may take until 2015) assuming they restarted their program today.

Therefore, we now have more time to engage diplomatically and consolidate a coalition to pressure Iran to allow for more transparency in their nuclear program.

Change 2. There is now undeniable evidence that some agreement to permanently cease Iran's nuclear weapons program is possible.

If Iranian leaders were determined to get a bomb, why would they suspend their program for four years - particularly when the United States has 150,000 soldiers right next door?

We have not had formal diplomatic relations with this country in almost 30 years. We have no idea what we could accomplish today if we engaged them face to face. It is entirely possible that the answer is...nothing.

But at this point, we have some newly discovered time to spare - so what else do we have to lose?

Mr President, there is new evidence that counters your assumptions about Iranian intentions and capabilities. I therefore ask you to do what you did with North Korea and Libya.

If you can sit down with Kim Jong Il's and Gadhafi's regime, you should have no qualms about doing so with Iran's.

Refusal to talk is not an admirable demonstration of principle. It is only a sign of fear or stubbornness.

Perhaps most importantly, we must realize that to those in the world who do not understand the sincerity of American values, not talking may actually look like a move to increase tension and the likelihood of conflict.

Have the courage to talk.

You will lose nothing if you do... but you will jeopardize our safety if you do not.