Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The hypocrites go to the mattresses

It’s time, once again, to dine out at the U.S. Senate’s hypocrisy smorgasbord.

What a veritable feast of double-talk. The senators are currently engaged in a marathon spin war over Iraq – they were in session all last night, complete with sleeping cots – and not much of substance was accomplished. But they did manage to show how adept they are at bending their so-called principles to the exigencies of the moment. This is a bipartisan talent, by the way.

The minority Republicans have been working hard to prevent the majority Democrats from bringing their various antiwar bills to a vote in the chamber. Their chief tactic has been that time-honored Senate parliamentary maneuver, the filibuster. The Republicans have been saying, in effect, “You Democrats can’t cut off debate and force us to vote on these bills unless you first round up 60 votes. And since you’ll never get 60 votes, there ain’t no way you can cut off debate and force us to vote. Sorry, guys, but under Senate rules, we are within our rights to play it that way.” In response, the Democrats, led by Harry Reid, have been saying, in effect, “These antiwar bills deserve an up-and-down vote. You Republicans are obstructionists who are thwarting the will of the American people.”

But what’s noteworthy is that the Democrats were saying exactly the opposite back in 2003 and 2005, when, as members of the Senate minority, they were filibustering President Bush’s conservative judicial nominees, and insisting that they were in their rights to gum up the chamber machinery. And the majority Republicans were talking the other way, claiming at the time that the filibuster was an unforgivable act of obstruction.

In recent days, as the GOP has stymied the antiwar bills, Senate Republicans have been talking about the honorable traditions of the filibuster, about how it has long been a device designed to safeguard the rights of the chamber’s minority party. Virginia Sen. John Warner (one of the growing number of Republicans who merely talks big about opposing Bush on the war) said the other day, with reference to the filibuster, that “these are old rules that date back, I might say with some sense of pride, to Thomas Jefferson.”

But, just two years ago, when the minority Democrats sought to wax Jeffersonian in their bid to stymie Bush’s judicial picks, the ruling Republicans sputtered in outrage. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (did you doubt it?) insisted that the Democrats’ filibuster tactic was “an infection that has entered the bloodstream.” His colleague from Louisana, David Vitter, complained that the use of a filibuster was “not fair, in the minds of ordinary Americans.” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch complained that Democratic filibusters were “unprecedented, unfair, and partisan.”

Senate Democrat Harry Reid, back when he was in the minority, thought that the filibuster tactic was fair indeed. On Sept. 18, 2002, he argued that no issue of major importance should voted upon in the Senate chamber unless the majority party could first muster 60 votes to cut off debate. In his words, “Matters that are in controversy take 60 votes.” One year later, as Senate minority leader, he personally filibustered Bush’s judicial nominees for nine hours, in a bid to deny those nominees an up-or-down vote on the floor. Reid also spoke up for minority rights: “Don’t think we can be pushed around…We have a say in here.” And two years later, in 2005, Reid was still big on minority rights; when the majority Republicans threatened to change Senate rules and erase the 60-vote hurdle, Reid warned that such a move would be “a dark day in the history of the American constitutional form of government.”

Yesterday, however, majority leader Reid complained on the Senate floor that “Republicans are using a filibuster to block us…They are denying us an up-or-down, yes-or-no, vote.” He also sent out an email to supporters, assailing the Republicans for using “technical maneuvers,” and calling on the Republicans to “stop obstructing.”

The Republicans, extolling the filibuster principle, said yesterday that they would not stop. (Late this morning, they succeeded in thwarting an up-or-down vote on the main Democratic troop withdrawal bill.) The Republicans also thought it was outrageous that Reid staged an all-night session, complete with sleeping cots, just to highlight the GOP’s filibuster intransigence. Minority leader Mitch McConnell assailed the Democratic move as “bad theatre” and a “publicity stunt” – which is somewhat amusing, since it was just two years ago when the Republicans staged an all-night session, complete with sleeping cots, just to highlight the Democrats’ filibuster intransigence.

It’s a pity that senatorial hot air cannot be harnessed as a fuel source. We would be well on the road to energy independence.


Heckuva job, Jimmy...

I have to cop to a glaring omission. Last week, I attempted to list all the federal departments and agencies that have suffered serious performance failures, thanks to partisan meddling from the Bush administration: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Justice Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense…

Yet somehow, I forgot the Department of Veterans Affairs, headed by GOP apparatchik Jim Nicholson – yet another Bush appointee with no previous substantive experience for the task at hand. My memory was jolted yesterday, by the news that Nicholson, the ex-GOP national chairman, was leaving his job and returning to the more lucrative private sector. All the more reason to quickly note some of his contributions to the Bush track record of incompetence:

In the spring of 2005, Nicholson publicly admitted that the VA had underestimated the number of Iraq war vets who were expected to seek medical treatment that year – by nearly 80,000, because somehow his agency hadn't taken the growing Iraq caseload into account. Records show that the VA was slow to react when casualties mounted far beyond their initial expectations; the disability claims backlog reportedly exceeds 400,000. Meanwhile, for fiscal 2006, Nicholson approved bonuses to top VA executives, totaling $3.8 million. This spring, he dismissed reports of widespread vet treatment shortfalls, calling them “anecdotal.” In his words, “when you are treating so many people there is always going to be a linen towel left somewhere.”

Nicholson, a former real estate developer, said yesterday that “my yearn to get back into the business world is strong.”

Ya think?