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“Rejecting The 60-Vote Senate”: Vote Your Conscience On Merits Of Bills, Don’t Vote Against Allowing A Vote

In discussing the handful of senators—quite a few of them Democratic—who hold the fate of gun legislation in their hands, WaPo’s Greg Sargent makes a crucial point that is all too often forgotten:

it needs to be restated that these Senators have the option of voting Yes on breaking the filibuster, while voting No on the final vote. In that scenario, the proposal would likely pass with a simple majority. And so, if these Senators continue to hold out, they need to be pressed on whether they really think a proposal that has the support of eight in 10 Americans doesn’t deserve a straight up or down vote, at a time when the Newtown slayings have focused public attention on a problem that continues to claim the lives of thousands of Americans per year. Whatever their final vote, there’s no excuse for them to enable and participate in GOP obstructionism of a proposal with near universal public support.

Amen to that. But I’d go further, as I argued at The Democratic Strategist back in 2009

My personal feeling is that supporting a filibuster against your own party and your own party’s president should be treated as a serious and rare measure on major issues of conscience where the sacrifice of some of the prerogatives of seniority are a small price to pay. So maybe that price really should be paid. But at a minimum, the practice of thinking of cloture votes as identical to substantive votes, and tolerating defections on the former as just the same as the latter, needs to come to an end. There is no sixty-Senate-vote requirement for the enactment of regular legislation in the Constitution or in the Senate rules. We don’t need lockstep Democratic unity on policy initiatives. We just need unity on the simple matter of allowing the Senate to vote.

If we are not going to have genuine filibuster reform—and apparently we aren’t so long as Harry Reid is the Democratic leader in the Senate—then at least Reid and others, including the president, should begin making this distinction in every communication with or about senators on significant legislation: vote your conscience on the merits of bills, but don’t vote against allowing a vote, or there will be consequences.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Tyranny Of Small States”: Did Our Founders’ Lack Of Foresight Doom Gun Control?

When the Senate takes up the bill to expand background checks for gun purchases this week, we will hear plenty rationalizations for opposing it similar to the one offered recently by Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected Democrat from North Dakota: “In our part of the country, [gun control] isn’t an issue. This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents.” Heitkamp’s bottom line: “I’m going to represent my state.”

That state has a population that did not crack 700,000 as of last year. In other words, that state is smaller than cities like Columbus, Fort Worth and Charlotte, and is only slightly larger than El Paso, Memphis and Nashville. North Dakota is separate from South Dakota only because Republicans who dominated the Constitutional Convention in 1889 thought it better to carve two Republican-leaning states out of Dakota Territory (railroad politics also played a role). And yet, North Dakota will have as much say this week as California, Texas, New York and Florida—how those 699,000 people “feel” in towns like Minot and Williston and Fargo will matter as much as how 38 million people “feel” in towns like Los Angeles and San Francisco and San Jose. Small, rural states will not only make it much harder to expand background checks to the huge gun shows where a big share of firearms are purchased, they may succeed in passing an amendment that would allow states with lax regulations for concealed-carry to trump stricter rules elsewhere—that is, to allow someone who got a concealed-carry permit in Wyoming (population 576,000, smaller than Portland, Oregon) to carry a concealed weapon in New York, where it’s much tougher to get a permit.

The undemocratic nature of the upper chamber of our legislative branch of government has been noted many times—it is, as the New York Times observed in an in-depth piece just a few months ago, “in contention for the least democratic legislative chamber” in the world, with the 38 million people who live in the 22 smallest states represented by 44 senators, while 38 million Californians are represented by two. But it is worth dwelling on this feature of our government again this week, because there are few issues where it makes itself felt as strongly as on guns. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat, helped carry Obamacare to passage, but here he is on the background check bill: “I don’t support the bill, but I support open debate. Montanans are opposed to this bill—by a very large margin.” Montana’s population? Just over a million—a veritable giant by contrast with North Dakota, but also quite a bit smaller than Dallas, San Antonio and San Diego. And here’s Mark Begich shortly before he became one of two Democrats, along with Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, to decline to even allow the expanded background-check bill to come up for debate: In Alaska, he said, “We love our guns.” That’s nice! In Columbus, which has more people than Alaska’s 731,000, they love their Buckeyes, but that doesn’t mean they get to set national policy around them.

Bring this up, and the guardians of the wide-open spaces throw the Constitution in your face. But it’s worth recalling just how haphazardly this feature of our government came about, that it was not handed down from the mountaintop by James Madison. In fact, Madison, the father of the Constitution, vehemently opposed this design for the Senate when it was being debated at the Constitutional Convention. As a representative of one of the big states, Virginia, he was in favor of—gasp—apportioning votes in both legislative chambers by population. This fact is often lost on the small-state defenders, as I learned in the onslaught I received when I brought this matter up in 2009: They assume that because Madison supported one of the Senate’s initial undemocratic features—having its members selected indirectly, by state legislatures, in order to keep the Senate at a remove from the tempestuous masses—he must have supported undemocratic apportionment. He did not. He drafted the “Virginia Plan,” which called for two chambers, with members allotted by state population. Countering this was the “New Jersey Plan,” which called for only a single chamber with equal representation for each state (remember, this was pre-Short Hills Mall, and New Jersey was at the time a relatively small state.)

The solution, as any good civics student knows, was the Connecticut Compromise, which, as proposed by Connecticut’s delegates to the convention, created two chambers, the lower one apportioned by population, the upper one not. It was also hailed as the “Great Compromise,” which in hindsight makes it look like the first shining example of our political culture’s tendency to hail as achievements any deal that represents a middle point, no matter how shoddy its logic or deleterious its consequences. It’s also awfully ironic that it should be the Connecticut Compromise that may well keep the Senate from responding seriously to the worst act of mass violence ever perpetrated in Connecticut.

What to do? When, some time ago, I put this whole issue to Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat whose retirement led to Heitkamp’s ascension, he was taken aback: “This was the grand bargain that was struck when the Founding Fathers determined the structure and form of the United States Congress… Are you proposing changing the Constitution?”

Maybe I am. At the time of the not-so-Great Compromise, the largest state, Virginia, was 11 times bigger than the smallest, Delaware. The ratio between California and Wyoming is now 66 to 1, yet they have the same sway in the Senate. Could the Founders have envisioned that? And are we OK with that? If so, just don’t be surprised if the gun bill is blocked or seriously weakened this week despite polls showing overwhelming support for expanded background checks. Undemocratic institutions produce undemocratic results. Mr. Madison could tell you that.


By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, April 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Democracy | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Trouble With News Scoops”: If You’re Obsessed With Getting It First, You End Up Not Getting It Right

It seems that every time there’s a dramatic breaking story like yesterday’s bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, The Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?

I’d argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they don’t care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what happened. I don’t think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.

Let’s take an example. The New York Post insisted for most of yesterday that 12 people had died in the explosions, for no apparent reason (they’re not claiming it anymore, but today their web site prominently features Mark Wahlberg’s reaction to the bombings, so they’ve still got the story covered). I don’t know what reporter came up with that information, but the fact that they disseminated it despite being wrong shows how useless the search for “scoops” becomes at a time like this. There were lots of other pieces of information circulating that turned out to be untrue (like the story repeated everywhere that the police had found more unexploded devices) as well.

There are two kinds of scoops, the real and the ephemeral. A real scoop is a story that would not have come to light, either at all or at least for a considerable amount of time, had it not been for your reporting. When a reporter exposes corruption, or details the unforeseen consequences of official policy, or even just offers a compelling portrait of people whose story wouldn’t have otherwise been told, she has gotten a genuine scoop. Then there’s the far more common kind, what many in the media consider a scoop but is no scoop at all. That’s when you discover and publish some piece of information that everyone is going to learn very soon, but you happen to be the one who got it out ten minutes or ten seconds before your competitors.

Media organizations, particularly television news operations, are obsessed with this second kind of scoop, despite the fact that not only does it offer nothing of value to their audience, it doesn’t even give them any advantage in the hyper-competitive arena in which they operate. Nobody ever said, “I used to watch MSNBC, but then I heard that CNN went on the air with the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial a full 30 seconds before any other network, so I’m watching CNN from now on.” When everybody is going to have a piece of news in seconds, getting it first doesn’t help you at all. Nobody remembers and nobody cares, nor should they.

But if you’re obsessed with getting it first, you end up not getting it right. That goes beyond reporting things that are false (which happens often enough) to offering second-rate coverage because your reporters are running around trying to find out something, anything, that none of their competitors know, instead of trying to assemble a complete and informative picture for the audience.

When something like the Boston bombing happens, the chaos pushes journalists toward those we-got-it-first scoops, when in fact there’s no time when those scoops are less important. Almost all the big critical facts are going to end up being given to journalists by the authorities, whether it’s about the casualties or the nature of the devices used or the suspects, once they have them. No reporter is going to catch the bomber before the FBI does. Given that, they’d do much better to slow down and worry less about what piece of information they can get a minute or two before their competitors do than about how they can give their audiences something closer to true understanding.

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April, 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Media, Press | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Before A Rooster Crows, Will They Be Denied?”: Newtown Families Ask For Meeting With Mitch McConnell

A representative for families of the Newtown shooting victims has asked Senator Mitch McConnell to hold a meeting with them, according to sources familiar with the request. McConnell’s office initially declined the request on the basis of scheduling, a source says — and now family members are set to call McConnell and reiterate the request personally.

How will McConnell respond?

The request – if granted — would allow the families to come face to face with the primary architect of the GOP’s strategy of blocking everything Dems propose to slow the tide of gun violence. If it is denied, it would be a big story, and could lend support to the argument that Republicans are callously rebuffing the families — and prioritizing the gun lobby over them – in the wake of a massacre that claimed the lives of 20 Newtown children.

The request — which was made by a representative of Sandy Hook Promise, a group that includes around a dozen family members who are lobbying Washington lawmakers – represents something of a shift in strategy by the families, and carries interesting implications for later stages in this battle. Previously, the families, who had met with many Democratic and Republican Senators, had shied away from asking for a meeting with McConnell, on the theory that they should focus their energy on Senators they deemed persuadable. This irritated Democrats who wanted to see more public pressure put on their GOP counterparts.

But now the families are asking McConnell for a meeting. The families are not optimistic that the meeting will move McConnell, a source familiar with their thinking says, but this will placate Dems who want public pressure put on the leader of Senate Republicans. What’s more, if the legislation fails, the families don’t want to be in the position of retrospectively wondering if they had done all they could to get it passed, particularly since a round of bitter finger-pointing would be all but inevitable. And finally, the source says, the families are hoping to initiate a longer term conversation — one beyond the current battle – with even hostile lawmakers about other ways of combatting gun violence, such as school safety and addressing mental illness.

Asked for comment, McConnell spokesman John Ashbrook emailed me this:

Our office recently sat down with folks from Newtown for a lengthy discussion and we’re certainly open to doing it again. We actually offered another meeting and are waiting to hear back.

It’s unclear which Newtown residents this refers to or whether McConnell is willing to meet personally with families.

There’s another angle worth considering here, too. While McConnell obviously wants to sink the Manchin-Toomey background check proposal via procedural means — whether by filibuster or by voting it down as an amendment, which would require 60 votes to pass – Democrats and gun control advocates believe he wants a few red state Dems to oppose it in the procedural vote, too. That would mean that the proposal was blocked by a bipartisan group of Senators — insulating the GOP from some blame — as opposed to meaning it was defeated solely by Republicans who were determined to avoid allowing it come to a simple majority vote.

If the families put more pressure on McConnell, it won’t move him, but it could perhaps make it tougher politically for the GOP alone to sink the proposal. And so, if the remaining hold out red state Dems ultimately do support moving the bill forward past the next supermajority procedural vote, it would then become harder for the remaining Republican holdouts — Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller — to vote No, because then the blame for killing the whole proposal by procedural means would fall on the GOP.

By: Greg Sargent, The Plum Line, The Washington Post,April 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Let’s Not Be Terrorized”: Let’s Honor Boston By Returning To Normal

Tragedies amplify the human tendencies toward both selflessness and assholishness. From a distance, watching horrible things happen (and happen, and happen) on TV, it can be much easier to see the assholishness. Yesterday an asshole planted bombs at the Boston Marathon — the Boston Marathon, for chrissakes — and today three people are confirmed dead with many, many more injured, in some cases horrifically.

That horrible situation, though, led to a great deal of examples of how Boston, and much of the U.S., is a pretty damn nice place full of impressive and great people. There was amazing journalism from Boston journalists, and a heroic response from Boston first responders, paramedics, doctors and surgeons. Boston blood banks filled up immediately and the Red Cross and Google both helped people find their loved ones. The Internet and the press even acquitted themselves reasonably well. It was amazing to see, within hours of the attack, eyewitness video from amateurs and professionals. The live stream of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, was compelling, restrained and informative. Fox News’ Shepard Smith was incredibly composed and also very careful not to speculate irresponsibly. The Boston Globe dropped its pay wall and put its heartbreaking and useful liveblog on the front page.

It wasn’t all good. There was no reason for Neil Cavuto to interview Joe Arpaio, at any point yesterday, and yet that happened. This was a particularly obnoxious reminder that Fox News can only turn off its shtick when a grown-up, like Shepard Smith, is running the show. (Smith returned to anchor coverage later, thankfully.) CNN’s political reporters were similarly unable to break out of their self-created shell of inanity and just react like human beings, with Wolf Blitzer and company fixated on the semantics of the president’s brief statement. The New York Post, always happy to out-ghoul the competition, was running poorly sourced bullshit all day.

That poorly sourced bullshit tends to stick around, too. The “Saudi national” “person of interest,” the New York Post’s “law enforcement source” and the “explosion” at the John F. Kennedy library. These are the random bits of information, usually false, that circulate during disasters and, inevitably, lead to conspiracy theories. This isn’t a brand-new, Internet-created problem. Morsels of misinformation broadcast on TV or the radio in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and even the Kennedy assassination survive forever.

We still know next to nothing about what happened yesterday. The “ball bearings” that doctors are finding in victims might just be shrapnel. It seems now that there weren’t any additional unexploded devices in the area. People should probably be clearer, in the future, about the unreliability of information from emergency services scanners. Now we’ll see if the press jumps on every law enforcement lead and manages to convict innocent people in the court of public opinion, as has happened way too many times in the past following bombings and terroristic violence. Basically, be skeptical of what you see and read over the next few months.

Weirdly and probably inappropriately, I kept thinking yesterday of the 2007 incident in which Boston police closed the trains and the Charles River because a guerrilla marketing firm placed a series of LED ads for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” around the city. It seemed at the time like the height of ridiculous post-9/11 paranoid hysterical overreaction. These were effectively LITE-BRITEs with cute cartoon aliens on them, but because they matched some idiotic police description of the characteristics of IEDs they were treated as a threat. I did not hold back in mocking them. Now, following an actual IED attack on Boston, it’s an embarrassing memory.

But here’s the thing: In terms of “sophistication,” the bombs that went off yesterday could hardly have been any more powerful than the bomb that exploded on Wall Street in 1920, which killed 38 people and injured 143. More people, many more, could die or be confirmed dead in this attack, but right now tornadoes in Mississippi and Missouri last week were just as deadly, and MBTA trains are deadlier. Whoever it turns out did this and whatever their motive, he or they sucked at being a terrorist. That is something that should be made clear, loudly and forcefully, this week. This guy was an embarrassment to terrorists and as a result we will not be terrorized.

Here is what I’m hoping happens, next: I hope Americans as a whole do nothing, besides find and punish the person responsible. As Bruce Schneier says, if we acknowledge that terrorism isn’t an existential threat to the American way of life, or to our freedom, or anything else, we can take reasonable steps to mitigate the threat without freaking out and, say, getting every flight with people who look Middle Eastern grounded, banning backpacks from public spaces or launching any wars. There is no way of stopping dedicated assholes from putting crappy little bombs in trash bins on street corners. Thankfully, it barely ever happens in the United States.

So while I feel a great deal of affection for the city of Boston and its residents today, and while I might be listening to the Modern Lovers and remembering how great the whole Mark Wahlberg arc in “The Departed” is, and while we all have every reason to be incredibly pissed off at the asshole that killed at least one child and hurt so many more innocent people, it is our responsibility to that fine American city to help it get back, as soon as possible, to normal.

Which is why as an American, and a resident of New York, I am most looking forward to when Boston returns to despising us and our stupid city and the goddamn overpaid, ancient Yankees, and we return the sentiment. That will be a return to normalcy and a message that this asshole didn’t accomplish a damn thing. In the first round of the NBA playoffs, beginning this weekend, the Boston Celtics will face the New York Knicks. There will be patriotism and solidarity on display, and certainly a tribute to the victims of yesterday’s attack. That’s understandable. Let’s also hope there is a healthy amount of booing, vulgar heckling and signs referencing Cheerios sneaked into the arena. Let the cops catch the asshole that did this; we have lives to live.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, April 16, 2013

April 17, 2013 Posted by | Terrorism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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