Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How Does a Lame Duck Walk?

 Yes, I know; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as are those acts that help overcome the past by adding something better.

In the early hours of December 24, 2009, the Senate passed the health care reform bill. In the eye of this beholder, it was a wonderful Christmas gift. Republicans, however, thought its passage meant that the Grinch had stolen Christmas; not one voted for it. Some liberal Democrats thought the same thing for entirely different reasons. There was much to dislike from both perspectives, including mine, but I believed that getting this much was a monumental achievement and portended adding something better to a past that had repeatedly failed to pass any kind of health care reform.

Three months later House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got the House to pass the bill on March 21 and two days after that President Obama signed it into law. In spite of that monumental victory, the year 2010 didn’t look like a banner year for the Democrats, one of which I am because their legislative vision for the country seems more in sync with mine. Even before the November election, I went into a blue funk and for the first time in years didn’t want to watch or read the news. The election confirmed my fears. Except for a few races where deep corporate pockets, conveniently out of public sight, couldn’t overcome a semblance of common sense, the electorate went on an anti-Democrat binge. Republicans didn’t see it that way; most of them thought it citizen retribution for Democratic spending and supporting wrong causes (anything the Chamber of Commerce didn’t like).

 And then came the six week lame duck session of Congress that was expected to reflect a weakened President and Democratic Party. I don’t purport to know how it happened. I’m hoping some of you will help me understand. Within a matter of weeks, significant legislation passed and was enacted into law. Perry Bacon of the Washington Post reported it this way:
On Wednesday [December 22], Obama signed into law the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members, and the Senate approved a new nuclear treaty with Russia that the president had declared a top priority.

Those accomplishments come after Obama successfully negotiated a free-trade agreement with South Korea, reached a deal with Republicans that extended unemployment benefits and prevented a tax hike for millions of Americans and signed a bill that will make school lunches healthier.

This blitz of bill signings completes a dramatic first two years for the nation's first black president that included the enactment of arguably the most major liberal policies since the Johnson administration but also the Democrats' biggest loss of House seats in 72 years…

"With the lame duck, the 111th Congress may even surpass the 89th [of President Lyndon Johnson] in terms of accomplishments," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. 
The conspiracist within me wondered if the log jam broke because of Obama’s deal with the Republicans on the tax bill. While I was more reconciled to its passage than its defeat and wanted to support my President, I cheered for the two Democratic senators from Oregon who voted against it. Especially in congressional actions, overcoming the past with something better is rarely an unambiguous good.

There was no ambivalence in my endorsement of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I had been disappointed that Obama had not found a way to end this antiquated policy so far in his first two years, and I had given up hope that this Congress would end it. But it happened, and we didn’t have to wait for the courts to decide the matter as we did with racial segregation and laws banning interracial marriage. President Truman’s executive action in 1948  ended racial segregation in the military. As Truman said “Get over it!” to a protesting military, so I would say to those who object today. And to the United Methodist Church whose laws still maintain that homosexual acts are sinful and that gays are unworthy to be ordained ministers, I say “Stop the hypocrisy and change the law!”

Looking at the list of the lame duck accomplishments, Ezra Klein said that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham didn’t have it quite right when he said, "Harry Reid has eaten our lunch."
It was the Republicans. DADT repeal passed because Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Scott Brown voted with the Democrats. The tax deal went through because a host of Republicans voted with the Democrats. Same for START, the food-safety bill and the DoD authorization. If the bill helping 9/11 responders get medical benefits passes, that too will be because of Republican support.
And after it seemed that all they could say was “No!” why did these Republicans help this lame duck walk? After ruminating, Klein said this:
The answer, I think, is that there are plenty of Senate Republicans who aren't too comfortable with the class of conservatives who got elected in 2010. These legislators knew they had to stick with McConnell before the election, as you can't win back the majority by handing the president lots of legislative accomplishments. But now that the election was over, the bills that had piled up were, in many cases, good bills, and if they didn't pass now, it wasn't clear that they'd be able to pass later.

The incumbent -- and the outgoing -- Republicans know that the fact that Republicans will have more power in 2011 doesn't necessarily mean that they'll use that power to pass sensible legislation. So those of them who wanted to pass sensible legislation decided to get it all done now, even if that meant handing Reid and Obama a slew of apparent victories in the lame-duck session.
I wonder! In the meantime, while disappointed that the Dream act didn’t get passed, I think the chances for adding something better to the present is greater because of the of these victories. What do you think?

- Milo


Jerry said...

Milo, I think Klein is almost right on this one. The bills that were passed needed to be passed; for example, the Republicans weren't going to let themselves be blamed for not extending unemployment benefits; and the lame duck session was the perfect place to do it, where the Dems could be blamed for high-pressure tactics. The only thing that went wrong was that the pundits mistakenly thought they were seeing a resurgence of Obama's power. Nope -- they let him do it.

Milo Thornberry said...

Jerry, see the remark I made in "Hope and Mushrooms" ("sometimes people found my messages floating on the electronic tides and responded with insights that made me wonder why they weren’t writing my blog.") Your's is just such an insight. You make sense. Thanks!

Jim said...

Like an Oregon rainstorm, the clouds of cynicism dominate the view. Jerry's comes close to assigning conspiracy as the reason for some Republican actions and that gives the Party of No too much credit for insights it is incapable of divining. The democrats did not, for once, a make a mess of things by attempting to do too much. I think Obama out smarted the opposition by his fairly temperate activity such as not going all out on immigration issues when in his view, apparently, there were higher priorities at the moment. Let's see how this moves on after Jan 1.

Jerry said...

Like the brilliant sunshine, hopefulness can be blinding. Jim believes that "Obama out smarted the opposition"; I would observe that in almost every case for the last two years, the Senate Republicans were able to block any legislation they chose; if they didn't, it was for their own reasons.

Let us hope that the upcoming Senate session adopts new rules that appropriately discipline the minority.