Cats on Hot Tin Roofs

July is an unpleasant month, and it’s just as well it has ended, as this one was exceptionally unpleasant, given this sort of thing:

“A comprehensive review of key climate indicators confirms the world is warming and the past decade was the warmest on record,” the annual State of the Climate report declares. Compiled by more than 300 scientists from 48 countries, the report said its analysis of 10 indicators that are “clearly and directly related to surface temperatures, all tell the same story: Global warming is undeniable.” …

Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch at the National Climatic Data Center, noted that the 1980s was the warmest decade up to that point, but each year in the 1990s was warmer than the ’80s average. That makes the ’90s the warmest decade, he said. But each year in the 2000s has been warmer than the ’90s average, so the first 10 years of the 2000s is now the warmest decade on record.

And this was the hottest July on record, except in Los Angeles, where we’re having one of the coolest summers in quite a while. Go figure. Perhaps we’re special out here.

And there is that business with phytoplankton – the worldwide supply of phytoplankton has been declining steadily for the past century and has dropped by about forty percent since 1950, as the surface temperatures of the oceans rise. That phytoplankton is the basis for the entire food chain, all of it. We’re screwed.

But as Matthew Yglesias points out here, the Washington Post’s George Will is on the case. None of this is true and everything is really getting cooler, as “foreigners hate America. And foreigners know that Obama’s death panels and general socialism will cripple the US economy. So in order to boost Obama’s fortunes, they’ve gotten forty-eight countries’ worth of scientists together to promote this lie.” His characterization of Will is not that far off the mark. People go a little crazy in the summer. It’s the heat.

And of course Washington is an extraordinarily unpleasant place in the summer, pretty much built in a swamp and, in the summer, hot and steamy – near one hundred by mid-afternoon most days, with the air thick with the high humidity, with the usual thunderstorm in late afternoon, followed by the steam rising from the streets. It’s really a Southern city, of course. People wilt, or these days hide in the air-conditioned House and Senate and argue with each other about taxes and the deficit and all the rest. After starting in New York, where George Washington was inaugurated, people suggested Philadelphia would make a pretty good national capital. But no, it had to be something new and more in the center of the new republic – so it was the mud flats down by the Potomac. That may have been a bad idea.

And as this unpleasant July ended you can see why. The last week in July was something like a baroque and nasty Tennessee Williams play – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or something. Folks were testy in that oppressive-hot-summer-in-the-Deep-South sort of way.

Consider the extravagant political drama of that last week in July. It was pure melodrama, and, in the House, the set-up was classic, starting with the premise that the emergency teams that responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11 long ago are American Heroes – you establish that, the premise of the drama. The nation’s support for these men and women is indisputable and everlasting, of course. So that’s a given, and then you add this:

House Republican leadership is advising its members to vote against a bipartisan bill that would, among other things, bolster medical support to Sept. 11 victims.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2009, sponsored by New York City Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D), provides medical monitoring to those exposed to toxins at Ground Zero, bolsters treatment at specialized centers for those afflicted by toxins on 9/11 and reopens a compensation fund to provide economic loss to New Yorkers.

And it’s all paid for by closing a tax loophole on foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries, Democrats say.

That was Act I – with a policy statement from the House Republican leadership saying they believe, to a man, the victims’ compensation fund is too large, and would remain open too long, which in turn creates a “massive new entitlement program” – and Republicans hate entitlement programs, as such things make people lazy and claim they’re victims of something or other, and entitlement programs bust the budget, taking money from the productive and just handing it to the useless. The Democrats tried to head them off at the pass – yeah, you guys care about the deficit, and that’s fine, but every penny of this proposal is paid for, and you guys said you wanted to close that tax loophole on foreign companies that were actually American companies moving stuff to Malta or some such place, to hide their profits, and getting a break on their taxes to do just that. No problem. But this outraged House Republicans, because tax increases, even on fake foreign companies, even to benefit 9/11 victims, were still tax increases, and that kills jobs, or even if they don’t, were still kind of evil. So they took a bold stand against funding for medical care for 9/11 heroes, as they’re called – some things are more important.

And then there was Act II:

Congress turned thumbs down on the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act on Thursday night, raising doubts it will ever pass.

Most Republicans refused to back the measure, calling it a “slush fund,” and saying it was another example of Democratic overreach and an “insatiable” appetite for taxpayers’ money.

The bill would spend $3.2 billion on health care over the next 10 years for people sickened from their exposure to the toxic smoke and debris of the shattered World Trade Center. It would spend another $4.2 billion to compensate victims over that span, and make another $4.2 billion in compensation available for the next 11 years.

Steve Benen comments:

So, as Republicans see it, we can afford tax breaks for billionaires. But care for 9/11 victims, not so much.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), perhaps best known for his apology to BP after the company’s oil spill, “said the rest of the country should not bear the brunt of helping New Yorkers cope with the aftermath of the terror attacks.” [Update: To clarify, this is a paraphrase from the New York Daily News, not a direct quote of Barton.]

But how could House Republicans kill the bill in a majority-rule chamber? Benen explains:

As it turns out, Dems brought the measure to the floor as a “suspension bill,” because they didn’t want the GOP to try to gut the legislation with poison-pill amendments. But this strategy meant the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass. The final vote was 255 to 159 – far short of the two-thirds threshold – with 155 Republicans in opposition, many of them saying they would consider supporting the bill, but only if the GOP were allowed to push unrelated amendments intended to embarrass the majority.

They wanted an amendment that no funds would go to illegal immigrants, and some words in support of the stop-everyone-and-demand-their-papers law in Arizona. The Democrats just wanted to pass the measure.

And then that congressman from New York, the city, Anthony Weiner, delivered his righteous rant – and that went viral. He was screaming. It was high drama.

There is more on that in this item – “If you believe that it’s right, you vote yes. You don’t hide behind procedure and give cover to your pals.”

And the ten minutes leading into Weiner’s rant were dramatic. As the time for the vote neared and it was clear the bill might not pass, Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to the floor and told everyone to do the right thing:

The American people are looking to us to do the right thing for the men and women who answered the call of duty and continue to suffer from ill health effects on their service.

It is my understanding that the people affected by this live in 433 of the 435 congressional districts, because people not only rushed in from New York and surrounding areas, they came and brought their expertise and their help from all over the country.

And therefore, the consequences of their bravery are felt all over the country and the impact on their health is an important part of the challenge that they face and that we owe them for.

This legislation fulfills our obligation to those Americans.

But Peter King, a Republican from New York, would have none of that:

What we are doing tonight is a cruel hoax and a charade. Everyone knows this bill won’t get the 2/3 majority required on the suspension calendar and everyone also knows that this bill would pass with a clear majority if the Democrat leadership would allow it to come to the floor under the regular procedures of the House.

The reason HR 847 is not being brought up under regular order is the majority party is petrified of having its members face a potential vote on illegal immigration.

You can blame the Republicans, and I’ve been strongly critical of the Republican position on this issue but the reality is, you could pass this bill if you wanted to. You are in control, you have the power and you have the responsibility.

It wasn’t his fault, or the Republicans’ fault – the Democrats were afraid to support the good folks in Arizona trying to rid themselves of Hispanics all over the damned place. But King voted for the bill anyway, one of the few Republicans who did. He has his constituents to consider. They don’t live in Arizona.

Yep, it was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof time – nasty, vindictive, and destructive folks having at each other, making matters worse, like in the play, for no good reason at all:

Brick: What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?

Maggie: Just staying on it I guess, long as she can.

It was like that. Somewhere Tennessee Williams was smiling.

But in the other theater in the building, the Senate, there was the other production of the same play. Everyone thought that the Senate would make progress on a package to aid small businesses, including tax breaks, new incentives, and an attempt to expand credit through a lending program that would use local banks. But that all fell apart when Republicans, throwing a bit of what could be called a heat-induced hissy fit over the number of amendments they were allowed to consider, voted unanimously to block the chamber from voting on the bill.

And it wasn’t pretty:

Senate Republicans on Thursday rejected a bill to aid small businesses with expanded loan programs and tax breaks, in a procedural blockade that underscored how fiercely determined the party’s leaders are to deny Democrats any further legislative accomplishments ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The measure, championed by Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, had the backing of some of the Republican Party’s most reliable business allies, including the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. Several Republican lawmakers also helped write it.

But Republican leaders filibustered after fighting for days with Democrats over the number of amendments they would be able to offer.

Steve Benen explains:

At issue are Republican demands that they be able to offer amendments to the small-business package that have nothing to do with small businesses – including border security and Bush tax cuts. They don’t really expect the amendments to pass, but GOP leaders hope (a) that the votes put Dems in an awkward spot; and (b) the process of considering them will take up more floor time, and make it impossible to consider other legislation this year.

So that was it – we helped write this bill, and we love it, but we’ll destroy it unless it includes making the Bush tax cuts permanent and includes shutting the borders and getting rid of the damned Mexicans everywhere, or anyone who looks like one. And they know they won’t get that, at least in this bill. But they’ll burn the house down, just to see it burn – out of seething resentment of Obama, that black man, and a sense of their own powerlessness. The powerless burn things down, just to watch them burn – like in a Southern Gothic novel or a Tennessee Williams play.

And as Steve Benen discusses here, Senate Democrats tried to win confirmation for twenty pending judicial nominees, who all had bipartisan support at the committee level. But that didn’t work. None of them were approved. Senator Jeff Sessions – the Republican from Alabama – blocked all of them. It must be a Southern thing, but Benen sees it this way:

“President Obama’s nominees are moving considerably faster … than President Bush’s nominees,” the right-wing Alabaman said on the floor. Senate Dems put together this fact-checking video, which makes plain that Sessions either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s deliberately trying to deceive, hoping those listening don’t know the difference between fact and fiction.

The White House has faced some criticism, much of it deserved, for not being more aggressive in sending judicial nominees for consideration. But it’s certainly not the administration’s fault that the Senate confirmation process is effectively broken, with Republicans using filibusters and holds to block votes on qualified would-be jurists.

And Benen cites Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress reporting here – even district court nominees, whose confirmations used to be routine, are being blocked in record numbers. And what they are doing has never even been tried in the Senate before:

Such tactics are completely unprecedented, and so are their results. Fewer than 43 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees have so far been confirmed, while past presidents have enjoyed confirmation rates as high as 93 percent. And President Obama’s nominees have been confirmed at a much slower rate than those of his predecessor — nearly 87 percent of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees were confirmed.”

And there is this:

It is easy to manipulate the Senate rules to create a crisis. If a minority of senators broadly object to the Senate’s entire agenda, then it is literally impossible to confirm more than a fraction of the hundreds of judges, executive branch officials, ambassadors, and other nominees that each president has a responsibility to appoint, even if the Senate shuts down all other legislative business to do so.”

Benen adds this:

This political paralysis is unsustainable, and it’s going to get even worse if the Senate Republican caucus grows in the next Congress, as seems extremely likely.

It’s ridiculous to think of a judiciary filled with recess appointments, but it may come to that.

It was more of the same – and there Millhiser was clear:

Judicial confirmations slowed to a trickle on the day President Barack Obama took office. Filibusters, anonymous holds, and other obstructionary tactics have become the rule. Uncontroversial nominees wait months for a floor vote, and even district court nominees – low-ranking judges whose confirmations have never been controversial in the past – are routinely filibustered into oblivion. Nominations grind to a halt in many cases even after the Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously endorsed a nominee. …

There is a simple explanation for the sudden drop-off in confirmation rates – obstructionists in the Senate are using filibusters and holds at an unprecedented rate. And it is nearly impossible to break the filibusters and holds on Obama’s nominees.

And Millhiser adds historical perspective:

American presidents for more than three decades have enjoyed judicial confirmation rates near or above 80 percent. This pattern persists across both Democratic and Republican administrations, and it includes presidents who presided over a period of unified government (Jimmy Carter), presidents whose party did not at any point control the Senate during their presidency (George Bush I), and presidents who saw the Senate change hands during their presidency (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush II).

President Obama’s 42.8 percent confirmation rate is only slightly more than half of President George H. W. Bush’s 79.3 percent, even though President Bush presided over a period of divided government while Obama has thus far enjoyed unified governance.

And see Kevin Drum on Republican Temper Tantrums, Part 873:

For all practical purposes, holds and filibusters are the same thing. The Senate runs on unanimous consent, which means that a single person can bring things to a halt if he or she wants to. A filibuster in the modern era is basically just a threat to withhold unanimous consent if the majority attempts to hold a vote, and the same is true of a hold. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Obama has come under a lot of criticism from the left for his slow pace in nominating judges. And he deserves it. But honestly, how much does it matter given the obstructionism from Republicans that’s now become routine?

But Matthew Yglesias is more direct:

The filibuster stands today as the single most important impediment to the significant reforms needed in America’s climate/energy policies, its immigration policies, its labor law policies, and its need for a functioning judiciary. But beyond that, the filibuster has become a critical force undermining the workings of democratic accountability.

And here’s the gist of it:

Democracy shouldn’t be identified strictly with majority rule. Indeed, in a past era the filibuster arguably played a role in facilitating democracy. It allowed legislators with unusually strong preferences to sometimes get their way in blocking majorities (in practice, this often meant allowing white supremacists to block equal rights for their black constituents).

The relatively recent arrival of the routine filibuster, however, simply turns on its head the basic idea that voters should reward success and punish failure. Relatively few people follow the procedural wrangling on Capitol Hill in detail or have a particularly impressive knowledge of the issues. What people do know is their own lives and their own communities, and they have a tendency to re-elect incumbents who are making things better and throw out those who are making things worse.

Ah, that is a plot twist worthy of a Tennessee Williams play. The burn-down-the-house character says things have to get better, and you’re trying to make things better, but he’ll make sure everything you try fails – undermining everything that you do, making your doing anything at all impossible – and then he’ll point at you and scream that you didn’t make things better, and people will hate you and love him. You could build a pretty good play on that sort of thing, and many a Southern playwright has. That’s a good hook, but it’s only for the stage. In real life a lot of real people get hurt, for real.

And that is what Yglesias is getting at:

What we have today, however, is a situation in which the lines of responsibility are completely obscured. Voters are angry at the Obama administration for failing to deliver a robust economic recovery – and rightly so – but relatively few of them realize that the administration’s efforts to deliver additional economic boosts have been repeatedly stymied by a minority of senators. Similarly, the environmental community has been thrown into a maelstrom of recriminations and finger pointing, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has become the object of anger, over the failure of a climate bill that seems to have been supported by a majority of legislators in both houses.

And it comes down to this:

Economic performance is the main determinant of election outcomes. If political parties recognize that the smart play for the minority party at any given moment is to use its powers of obstructionism to attempt to deliberately spike economic performance, the implications for forward-looking growth are quite bleak.

Ultimately, a country governed in that manner won’t survive very long…

But maybe that’s the Republicans’ new Southern Strategy. Make it all an overwrought all-is-lost Tennessee Williams play where sad and powerless people wilt in the heat and self-destruct, and just for the hell of it take everyone else down with them – Big Daddy and Blanche Dubois and Stella and all the rest, muttering things like how they’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Do we have to be in that play? Did they have to build Washington where they did?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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