Sent: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 10:45 AM
Subject: The Broken System

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February 17, 2010

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, and Alex Seitz-Wald

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The Broken System

While running for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter said that America must have “a government as good as its people.” Today, our political system isn’t living up to that challenge. Sixty-two percent of the public thinks the country is headed on the wrong track, and 75 percent disapprove of the job Congress is doing. With political stalemate the norm in Washington — on health care legislation, terrorism issues, economic reform, and presidential nominees — Americans are looking for progress and hoping that politicians will break the gridlock. Center for American Progress President and CEO John Podesta gave one of the most blunt assessments of the current political climate recently, telling the Financial Times that the “health of American politics…sucks.” “It feels like a very frustrated country,” he added. This week’s shocking retirement announcement from Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) further brought the dysfunction into focus. Instead of offering the usual reasons for stepping down, Bayh cited “too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.” Bayh’s analysis is on the mark, even though he was often part of the problem. His decision to walk away from public service is, as Center for American Progress Action Fund Fellow Matt Yglesias has noted, “not a recipe for good conduct.” James Fallows of The Atlantic recently wrote that the “American tragedy of the early 21st century” is that it has “a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.” But if the country doesn’t fix what’s broken, “we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.”

BAYH’S OPPORTUNITY: Former President Teddy Roosevelt famously praised “the man who is actually in the arena,” who, “if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Bayh fell short of this standard. Instead of staying in the arena to help repair the political system and push for progress, he decided to step aside. Bayh said that he may join the private sector, citing his desire to help create jobs and perpetuating the dishonest right-wing myth that Congress is unable to do so. “If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months,” he said. Bayh is the son of the legendary former senator Birch Bayh, a man remembered “as a key architect of Title IX, a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, and a crusader for sensible political reform like electoral college abolition.” The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky noted that Bayh was “a darling of centrist Democrats,” but “[n]ever a profile in courage.” The Nation’s John Nichols added that “for the better part of a quarter century,” Bayh “worked to turn the Democratic Party into a kinder, gentler version of the GOP.” Instead of helping his Party pass popular progressive legislation, he was “taking the view that the best way to handle the country’s long-term budget situation was to cut taxes on multimillionaires.” Bayh, however, now has a chance to be remembered differently. Fallows suggests that now that Bayh is freed from re-election concerns, he should use his remaining time in the Senate to “apply all the power you can to advance causes you care about” and “call out people — by name…when you see them doing what they should be ashamed of.” One area where he could step up to the plate is by joining Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Kerry (D-MA), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and taking the historic opportunity to help write bipartisan, comprehensive clean energy jobs and global warming pollution reduction legislation that would help Indiana and the nation transition from a high carbon to a low carbon energy economy.

FIXING THE FILIBUSTER: A major part of the problem in the Senate is that it now takes a supermajority — 60 votes — to pass just about anything. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic notes that “Republicans threatened to filibuster at least 100 pieces of legislation this session, far more than any other since the procedural tactic was invented.” The filibuster gives a undue amount of power to individual senators and allows them to exploit the process for their narrow interests. For instance, Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-CT) threat to filibuster health care reform forced the removal of the public option and the Medicare buy-in, despite their tremendous popularity. Moreover, the filibuster removes electoral accountability by giving the losing party the ability to obstruct the winning party’s agenda. While the House passed health care reform bill with a robust public option, a clean energy and greenhouse gas pollution reduction bill to fight climate change, and a comprehensive financial regulatory reform bill, each bill languished in the Senate because of the filibuster threat. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has proposed legislation that would gradually lower the number of votes the Senate majority would need to block filibusters, and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) also has a petition to reduce the Senate’s cloture threshold to 55 senators. Changing the filibuster would not be without precedent, as was done in 1975. A recent poll also shows that more Americans are in favor of changing these Senate rules. In his remaining time, Bayh — if he’s truly frustrated by the inability to push progress in the Senate — could join his fellow lawmakers and help reform the rules. “I don’t understand how you make things better from the outside,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). “I share the frustration, but I would have hoped he would have stayed around and voted to change the filibuster rule.”

DESTRUCTIVE OBSTRUCTION: By listening to Republican lawmakers and many political pundits, the American public would get the impression that President Obama and the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress has been a complete failure. The facts are quite different though. American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein points to the $787 stimulus legislation, one of the largest tax cuts in history, funding to improve health-information technology, dramatic K-12 education reform, and a massive investment in energy and environmental programs. “Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive,” he writes. “Instead, this Congress did it in one bill.” Yet at the same time, Republicans continue to focus on the “short-term rewards of obstruction.” They reflexively oppose anything that Democrats support — even if they supported it at one time — and use the fact that Democrats have only a narrow majority in the Senate to block progress. The system has become so dysfunctional that one man — Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) — can set back the functioning of the federal government by placing a hold on every single one of Obama’s pending nominees, all in the interest of securing home state pork projects. “Washington, right now, is broken,” Vice President Biden, formerly a veteran senator, said in an interview this week with CBS News. “I’ve never seen it this dysfunctional.”


ECONOMY — OIL GIANT PROVIDES EVIDENCE THAT ‘SAY ON PAY’ REINS IN OUTRAGEOUS BONUSES:  In an interview with Bloomberg last week, President Obama responded to outsize bank bonuses by pushing for “say on pay,” which would institutionalize shareholder votes on employee compensation packages. “I guess the main principle we want to promote is a simple principle of ‘say on pay,’ that shareholders have a chance to actually scrutinize what CEOs are getting paid,” Obama said. “And I think that serves as a restraint and helps align performance with pay.” Royal Dutch Shell provides some evidence that this approach might work. After the oil giant missed performance targets in 2008, the company’s shareholders rejected its existing compensation plan in a “stunning rebuke.” Shell’s 2009 compensation plan has some major structural changes, including a bigger emphasis on long-term incentives. While overall pay levels may not change, the emphasis on a longer-term window for determining success will put employee incentives in “greater alignment with shareholders’ interests,” as the chairman of Shell’s remuneration committee said. And bonuses can now be clawed back, even after they’ve been awarded. The Wall Street Journal characterized the new program as “a significant step toward greater pay restraint.” Meanwhile, in Great Britain and Australia — which both mandate say on pay — CEO compensation “grew 2.4 percent and 25.3 percent, respectively, from 2002 through 2006, while pay in the United States soared 59.9 percent in the same period.” Indeed, shareholders have a keen interest in reining in outrageous bonuses because some Wall Street banks are paying 80 or 90 cents out of every dollar they earn in employee compensation. Citigroup literally paid so much to its employees in 2009 that it “wiped out every penny of profit.”


Four Democratic Senators — Michael Bennet (CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Sherrod Brown (OH), and Jeff Merkley (OR) — have signed on to a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) asking him to use the reconciliation process to pass a public health insurance option. “Including a strong public option is one of the best, most fiscally responsible ways to reform our health insurance system,” they wrote.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) suggested yesterday that “his fellow Republicans should question what the White House plans to do at its health care summit before deciding whether to attend.” In order to work with Republicans, Bond said President Obama should “start from scratch and not go back to tweaking” the health care bills that passed both chambers of Congress last year.

President Obama plans to sign an executive order this week that will create a bipartisan commission “to recommend ways to rein in the nation’s escalating federal debt.” The panel will be lead by University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former Republican senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson.

After a four-hour long meeting with RNC Chairman Michael Steele last night, tea party leaders asked if they could use the Republican Party’s facilities for a news conference. The Republican leaders, “probably wary of TV footage showing a tea party takeover” of RNC headquarters, “wouldn’t allow it.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters at a press event Monday that the “White House is considering endorsing a law that would allow the indefinite detention of some alleged terrorists without trial.” “If they are in fact considering preventive detention legislation today, I think it would be a mistake both substantively and politically,” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

Historians and Kennedy loyalists are criticizing “a new mini-series about John F. Kennedy’s presidency that is being prepared by the History channel” and is being produced by 24 creator Joel Surnow. “Every single conversation with the president in the Oval Office or elsewhere in which I, according to the script, participated, never happened,” Kennedy adviser Ted Sorenson told filmmaker Robert Greenwald.

“The size of the US force in Iraq has dropped below 100,000 troops for the first time since the invasion of the country in 2003.” There are now “approximately” 98,000 soldiers in the country, down from a peak of 170,000 during the surge in 2007.

The Committee to Protect Journalists announced yesterday that at least 71 journalists were killed around the globe last year, “the largest annual toll in the 30 years the group has been keeping track.” China and Iran, countries that have the most journalists in jail, “were particularly harsh in taking aim at bloggers and others using the Internet.”

Yesterday, the White House appointed America’s first ambassador to Syria since 2005. “If confirmed by the Senate, Ambassador [Robert] Ford will engage the Syrian government on how we can enhance relations, while addressing areas of ongoing concern,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

And finally: At a town hall meeting in Saudi Arabia, a student asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton whether the prospect of a President Sarah Palin terrified her. “And if so, would you consider emigrating to Canada or possibly even Russia in the event of this happening?” the student asked. Cracking up, Clinton responded, “Well, the short answer is, no. I will not be emigrating.” But she added, “I will be visiting, as often as I can.”

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“[Sarah Palin] recently slammed… radio talk host Rush Limbaugh for using the word ‘retard.'”
—, 2/16/10


Q: Rush Limbaugh weighed in this week, and he said this: “Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards.”
PALIN: He was satirical in that.
— Palin, 2/07/10
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