Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Democracy" In Action; Or "Why Washington Drives Me Crazy"

Even though I blog almost exclusively about workplace safety and labor issues, I follow all Washington politics very carefully. I manage to get most of my frustration out by writing Confined Space, but occasionally life in DC gets so overwhelming that I even have to write about general politics.

This is what's making me rip up the newspapers and throw things at the radio lately.

Example 1: You may have heard that the Republicans lost a vote today on approving oil drilling in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Now, if you're not following this issue carefully, you might assume this was a regular up and down vote. Not even close. First, most controversial legislation needs 60 votes to pass in the Senate because Senators can filibuster (talk indefinitely), and 60 votes are needed to shut it down for a vote. But the Republicans couldn't muster 60 votes, so they came up with something else: attach it to the budget bill whcih can't be filibustered. But they couldn't even get 50 votes for that, so they tried tactic number 3 (courtesy of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens): Put it on the Defense appropriations bill -- and add Katrina relief to that. No one would dare vote that down, leaving our boys defenseless and Katrina victims rotting in the mold, right?

Wrong again.
The Senate today failed to pass a major defense appropriations bill after a Democratic-led bloc stymied it with a filibuster in an effort to force removal of a controversial provision on oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

With 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster and cut off debate on the bill, its backers fell short by four votes. The tally on a motion to invoke cloture so the Senate could move to a vote on the bill itself was 56-44.


Voting to block the bill were 40 Democrats, one independent and three Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Bill Frist of Tennessee. Frist, the Senate majority leader, had supported passage, but once the voting numbers became clear, he cast a "no" vote for procedural reasons so that he could bring up the drilling issue for another vote.
I'll be interested to see what they come up with next....

Example 2: The Republicans did have one victory today. Vice PresidentDarth Vader Dick Cheney flew back from his trip abroad just in time to cast the deciding vote to give the Republicans victory by a nose on the budget bill. The bill included $40 billion in budget cuts that would
allow states to impose new fees on Medicaid recipients, cut federal child-support enforcement funds, impose new work requirements on state welfare programs and squeeze student lenders
President Bush hailed the vote as "a victory for taxpayers, fiscal restraint and responsible budgeting."

Responsible budgeting? Perhaps the President is so worried about getting impeached that he's forgotten about the $56 billion tax cut last week -- conveniently separated from the budget bill so that it would be harder to do the math.

But let's do the math anyway. Let's see. You cut $40 billion in spending, but then take away $56 billion in revenues -- according to my childrens' first grade math book -- that would put the budget $16 billion further in debt. I don't think even a first grader would call that "responsible budgeting."

And it wasn't just any budget-increasing tax cut, it was your characteristically typical Republican budget-increasing tax cut:
The Tax Policy Center, run jointly by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, has concluded that the bottom 80 percent of households would receive 15.8 percent of the House tax cuts' benefit. The top 20 percent would receive 84.2 percent of the benefit. Households earning more than $1 million a year would get 40 percent of the tax cuts, or an average reduction of nearly $51,000.
In other words, it's your basic take 'from the poor and give to the rich.'

Example 3: When both the House of Representatives and the Senate pass similar bills, they go to a "Conference" of leaders of both Houses to iron out the differences. Then the bill is sent back to the House and Senate for final votes. Republicans and Democrats sit on the Conference committees.

But the Republicans just invented something new. The pharmaceutical companies have been trying to pass a bill that protects vaccine manufacturers from product liability claims in the event of an Avian flu pandemic. But there wasn't enough support. So the Republicans added it to the fiscal year 2006 Defense Department spending conference report -- after after House and Senate negotiators had already signed the conference report and announced its details to the public (more here).

That's it for you "Democracy In Action" lesson for today.

And yes, this will all be on the final exam, November 7, 2006.