05/14/2010 09:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Friday Talking Points [123] -- A Working Senate

This just in -- the Senate is working.

Now, you can take this as a joke in one of two ways. The first, of course, pokes fun at the fact that the Senate takes an absolutely gargantuan amount of vacation time every year, when they are instead supposed to be doing "The People's Business." The second, of course, refers to the fact that the Senate is somewhat of a broken mechanism these days, notorious for not getting much done, ever, on anything. Compare, for instance, the amount of bills the House passes to the glacial pace of "work" in the Senate, of late.

But a rather unusual thing is happening in the Senate these days. They're doing their job. No, really! Even the Republicans. But very few people (and virtually no media) have realized what is going on. This is due to the simple fact that the mainstream media loves to cover a political fracas, but just are not that interested in covering the much-more-boring stories about politicians doing what they're supposed to do, instead of screaming at each other. Hence, the public misses out on the story. This is pathetic, because the Senate is dealing with issues that -- by just about anyone's definition -- count as "news" or "newsworthy."

For instance, they just voted to force banks to lower their "check card" fees. This will have a positive effect on just about anyone who has a checking account. And yet the media can't be bothered to talk about it. (Or maybe I'm just sampling the wrong media, to be scrupulously fair here.)

The Senate has actually been dealing with many financial issues which will directly effect American consumers, and they have been doing so in an orderly way. A bill has been introduced, and amendments are being offered by both parties. Some of these amendments have been getting not just bipartisan, but unanimous support. You'd think it'd be news, wouldn't you?

Compare how the debate on Wall Street reform has been covered so far with the coverage of the health reform debate. The only time the media got excited in any way over the story was when the chance of a successful filibuster attempt appeared. Since the bill moved to the Senate floor, and during the whole amendment process, the media has gone back to sleep.

The only story I have read that really points out how astonishingly well the Senate is working these days was from the Washington Post, which ran a week ago. Since this story ran, Republican amendments offered to weaken and gut the financial reforms being proposed have been consistently voted down. But not even the GOP blatantly carrying the banking industry's water has been deemed newsworthy -- even in these populist times. An idea which was not too long ago considered a radical-fringe idea from Ron Paul -- auditing the Federal Reserve -- just passed the Senate on a 96-0 vote. Former "fringe" ideas passing unanimously in the Senate? You'd think this would be news. Especially since the White House reportedly fought hard to water the idea down, somewhat successfully. President Obama fighting for the Big Banks while making political hay attacking them? Again, you'd think it'd be news.

Anyway, I suppose that (as happened with the health reform bill) the media will wake up from its slumber and inform the American people what is actually going to be in the Wall Street reform bill about ten minutes after the bill passes through Congress, since at that time they'll have no more "Look at the conflict! Partisan fight! Everybody check it out!" type of stories to do (which, in the case of the financial reform bill, they haven't even bothered to do, for the most part).

Bipartisan success in Congress simply does not fit in with the media's perpetual fascination with their narrative: "Washington is more polarized and more partisan than it has ever been at any time!" (Which are patently absurd, when you consider, I don't know, the Civil War, just to pick an easy example.) Things getting done is more boring than politicians screaming like loons at each other. And, sadly, in today's world "more boring" equals "not newsworthy," since it's all about the ratings, baby.

OK, enough ranting. The mainstream media is such an easy target, I realize. I encourage everyone to keep up on what the Senate is doing for the next few weeks. You may have to dig for it a little bit, but it's worth paying attention to. Whether the news media wants you to or not.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Representative Joe Sestak is getting more impressive by the minute in his race to unseat "Democratic" Senator Arlen Specter in Tuesday's upcoming primary. Specter was promised support from the White House, the national Democratic Party, and his own governor when he jumped the aisle to become a Democrat (giving the party, briefly, a 60-vote sort-of majority). None of this has helped Specter much, as Sestak is surging in popularity among Keystone State voters. Polls released in the past week show Sestak not only leading, but actually opening up his lead against Specter. And since it's a Democratic primary, Specter won't be helped by independent or Republican voters at all.

Of course, it all depends on who turns out at the polls next week. Specter could still eke out a win. But the news just keeps getting worse for him in the meantime, as President Obama has reportedly declined to make a last-minute appearance on Specter's behalf in the state, and as just announced they are endorsing Sestak (no real surprise there).

But whether Sestak wins or not, his challenge is a worthy one. Senate seats are not an entitlement. They are not fiefdoms. Pennsylvania Democrats have every right to compare a turncoat -- who is well-known to them, admittedly -- to an upstart challenger offering new blood to the party. Sestak has run a brilliant advertising campaign the past few weeks, pointing out exactly that. And these ads seem to be working. So, while we will withhold the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award from him until the polls close next week, we have to at least award Sestak an Honorable Mention for making it this far.

This week, instead, the MIDOTW is not even a Democrat. We bend the rules on such things whenever we feel it is appropriate here, and while Senator Bernie Sanders is free to be an Independent (or Socialist, even) in the Senate, we know he's never going to vote with the Republicans (unlike, say, Joe Lieberman), so we consider him fair game.

Bernie Sanders was the sponsor of the amendment to audit the Federal Reserve, which passed in the Senate last week by a whopping 96-0 vote. Two caveats are necessary, though. The first is that the bill was indeed watered down to get that vote. Originally, it called for ongoing and widespread audits of the Fed. What passed was a one-time audit, and only on very specific money (all that bailout money). But even this is an enormous victory for transparency.

The second asterisk to this week's award is that the true father of this issue was none other than Ron Paul, who is not eligible at all for any award with "Democrat" in the title. Paul joined with Representative Alan Grayson, who is definitely a Democrat, to get a much beefier Fed audit bill through the House. So I'm not saying Sanders came up with the idea on his own, and must indeed give credit where it is due.

But the action this week was in the Senate, and Sanders showed how using popular pressure is supposed to work in Congress. Put the fear of voters' wrath into your opponents! Scare them into doing the right thing!

Senator Sanders' effort would normally have won him a MIDOTW award, just on the strength of his amendment. But the real clincher was that vote count. Ninety-six to zero. Can you say "unanimous," kiddies? I knew you could!

Well done, Bernie, well done.

[Congratulate Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

The sad thing about Bernie Sanders' victory was how it got watered down, though.

From a Talking Points Memo article on the passage of the amendment:

Though the measure was always popular, it faced extraordinary opposition from the White House, Wall Street and the Fed itself. Late last week, in a move that defused the opposition, and may have saved Wall Street reform legislation, Sanders agreed to limit the scope of the audit to emergency lending only, exempting other Fed activities.

In other words, the big bad Republicans weren't the ones doing Wall Street's bidding and leading the fight to water the amendment down; instead, it was the White House. It's rather extraordinary that they obviously haven't learned their lesson from the health reform fiasco -- you cannot publicly seem to be fighting for strong reform and then privately fight to water down those reforms, and still appear credible. You just can't.

That first sentence really sums it all up: "Though the measure was always popular, it faced extraordinary opposition from the White House, Wall Street and the Fed itself."

And since we can't give the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award to a mere building, instead we are handing it to the person responsible -- President Barack Obama. Going out in front of the cameras and getting angry is fine and good, Mister President, but you've got to back it up with actions.

Suggested reading for the White House this week, in an effort to make this crystal clear: The Boy Who Cried Wolf. You see, if your words don't match your actions, eventually people are just going to stop listening to what you have to say altogether. You lost a lot of your base voters over this problem during health reform, and you're just starting to get some of them to come back into the fold. But you are putting all of that at risk, by appearing in a sentence in the news linked together with "Wall Street" in opposition to what you yourselves called for doing -- popular and strong reform. And you simply don't have a lot of "benefit of the doubt" left at this point, I'm sad to say.

[Contact President Barack Obama on the White House's contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 123 (5/14/10)

To the president's credit, I suppose, some portion of the female demographic is still solidly behind him. As Louann Haley put it, when she met Obama in a drop-in photo-op in Buffalo, New York, "You're a hottie with a smokin' little body." But while this will obviously be quoted by many in the next few days, we are going to refrain from including this as one of this week's Friday Talking Points, for obvious reasons.

But no matter what you think of the president's physique (or what he just did to earn his MDDOTW award, for that matter), you've got to admit the man knows how to give a speech. So we're going to start with a few excerpts, as our first two talking points this week, and then move on to the rest of the weekly list, provided (as always) for the benefit of Democrats everywhere -- especially politicians being interviewed by what passes for journalists these days.



   Obama shows Democrats how to campaign

Everybody's talking today about an address President Obama gave where he beat up on the oil industry a bit, but I'd rather point out two other extraordinary speeches the president made this week. The first is a real rip-snorting partisan speech he gave to House Democrats, where he showed them how they really should be shaping their re-election campaigns. The full text of this speech is refreshing as all get out, and I highly encourage anyone who has been missing Obama's campaigning spirit in the past year or so. Here's a short excerpt, but reading the whole speech is truly worth the effort.

Democrats can only win people over if they make the case to people why they're the better choice. To do this, you need to beat your own drum as well as beat the opposition like a drum. Obama shows House Democrats how to do both, beautifully:

So I want everyone in this room to be clear -- I'm glad I got pictures with you, it was nice to smooze [sic] with you a little bit, but the bottom line is, is that I could not have gotten done any of the things we got done had it not been for this team right here. And they did it despite all the gridlock, despite all the partisanship. This has been one of the most productive legislative sessions in history -- in the midst of crisis.

If we just stopped now -- in fact, if we had stopped last year -- it would have already been one of the most productive legislative sessions in history. And that's tempting, stopping. (Laughter.) Everybody is kind of pooped, but -- particularly because it would have been nice to get a little help from the other side of the aisle, just once in a while. You would have thought at a time of historic crisis that Republican leaders would have been more willing to help us find a way out of this mess -- particularly since they created the mess. (Laughter and applause.)

We all have a stake in cleaning it up. We're not Democrats or Republicans first -- we're Americans first. I tell the story about -- you know sometimes you got a feeling Nancy and I are -- Charlie and Steve, everybody -- Jerry, we're -- we got our mops and our brooms out, we're cleaning stuff out, and they're sitting there saying, "Hold the broom better." (Laughter.) "That's not how you mop." (Laughter.) Don't tell me how to mop. Pick up a mop! (Laughter.) Do some work on behalf of the American people to solve some of these problems. (Laughter and applause.)

But that wasn't their strategy; it was not their strategy from day one. And I'm not making this up. This is public record. They've said in interviews: We made a political decision. We stood nothing to gain from cooperating. We knew things were going to be bad. And we figured, if we didn't do anything and if it didn't work out so well, maybe the other side would take the blame.

They've done their best to gum up the works; to make things look broken; to say no to every single thing. That was the attitude they had when it came to pulling our economy out of a crisis. That was the attitude they had when it came to making sure that families and businesses finally got the security of health care in this country. That's been the attitude on any number of challenges that we faced. Their basic attitude has been: "If the Democrats lose, we win."

So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. (Laughter.) No! (Laughter and applause.) You can't drive! (Applause.) We don't want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! (Applause.) We just got the car out! (Laughter.)



   Obama on the economy

The second Obama speech excerpt is from an event he held in Buffalo, where he was mostly focused on the economy. Once again, you've got to make the case for your position, and make it as strongly as possible. The full text of this event is worth reading as well, especially the question-and-answer section at the end. Obama strikes a nice balance through the whole thing between being positive about the future without entering into some rosy-glasses isolation from the pain people are experiencing.

I read too many letters each night from folks who are still hurting, they're still out of work, so I know things are still tough out there for a lot of folks. And, you know, economists have all kinds of fancy formulas and mathematical equations to measure the exact moment that the recession ended. And it's great that the stock market has bounced back, but if you're still looking for a job out there, it's still a recession. If you can't pay your bills or your mortgage, it's still a recession. No matter what the economists say, it's not a real recovery until people feel it in their own lives, until Americans who want work can find it, and until families can afford to pay their bills and send their kids to college.

So that's what we're working for. That's our goal. But I want to just say to Buffalo -- I want to say to all of you and I want to say to America, we can say beyond a shadow of a doubt, today we are headed in the right direction. We are headed in the right direction. (Applause.)

All those tough steps we took, they're working. Despite all the naysayers who were predicting failure a year ago, our economy is growing again. Last month we had the strongest job growth that we'd seen in years. And by the way, almost all of it was in the private sector, and a bunch of it was manufacturing. So this month was better than last month. Next month is going to be stronger than this month. And next year is going to be better than this year. Last month we gained 290,000 jobs -- that was the largest increase in four years. We've now gained jobs four months in a row right here in the United States. (Applause.) Last month brought the largest increase in manufacturing employment since 1998 -- the strongest growth in manufacturing in 12 years -- and that's a good sign for companies like this one.



   So much for "personal responsibility," eh?

This one annoys me, because it is such an easy, philosophical argument to make. But so few Democrats even bother making the point, right when it might actually gain some traction.

"You know, when you let an industry write its own regulations, the way Republicans have whenever they're in power, what it leads to is very weak regulations with gigantic loopholes. The Republican philosophy of 'de-regulation' and 'tort reform' is just another way of saying 'let's let industry do whatever it wants and not even be liable in court for what happens if things go wrong.' We can see the result of this floating around the Gulf of Mexico right now. BP's liability for this spill is a laughably-low 75 million dollars. Democrats are trying to raise this liability limit to ten billion dollars, which would certainly make the oil companies think a little harder about safe practices. Sadly, this effort was just blocked by a Republican senator. I'm not sure why the Republican mantra of 'personal responsibility' never seems to extend to corporations. We're trying to make sure corporations are held responsible for the damage they cause, and Republicans who should be fighting for such responsibility with us are instead fighting for the oil companies' right to pollute without paying for it."



   GOP fractures on Wall Street reform

Pointing out the fact that Republicans in the Senate are peeling off from their voting bloc to join Democrats on key votes on Wall Street reform should be handled a little delicately. After all, this is the sort of behavior we want to encourage from Republicans, so resist the urge to totally rub it in their faces. I know, this urge will be overwhelming at times, but it's better to be nice. Flies, honey, vinegar... that sort of thing.

"I notice that the Republican leaders in the Senate have come up with several plans on how to water down the Wall Street reform bill currently being debated. Time after time, they attempt to eviscerate the strong reforms Democrats are fighting for. But you know what? Even some Republicans are starting to realize that this isn't really the smart thing to do, either politically or for the American people. Republicans are finally starting to break out of the 'Party of No' straitjacket their leadership has kept them bound up in, and are finally starting to vote their conscience on good ideas to rein in the giant banks in this country and put some commonsense rules in place to protect both the American economy and the American consumer. We welcome these Republicans with open arms, who are putting their country ahead of their party, and we encourage all Republicans to consider doing the same."



   One trillion dollars and counting...

This just in: the "War on (some) Drugs" is an abysmal failure. This from the Associated Press, no less, in an absolutely stunning article which I encourage everyone to read, in full.

"You know, when you talk about governmental programs that are completely ineffectual and a gigantic waste of money that we don't have to spend, I think it behooves us to take a look at what the AP just had to say about the utter failure of the War on Drugs to achieve any of its goals. Since President Nixon began this so-called 'war,' we have spent one trillion dollars on a program that has not met a single one of its goals. We keep shoveling federal money at the problem year after year without question, because no politician wants to be seen as 'weak on crime' or 'weak on drugs.' This perpetuates programs which do no good whatsoever, and indeed become nothing more than corporate welfare for television stations, paid for by taxpayers, in the form of television ads that teens laugh at. The whole thing should be treated as a medical problem, the way they do in other countries where drug use is much lower than it is in America. You want to talk about government waste? Let's talk about the trillion-with-a-T dollars we've wasted on the Drug War. Here is a direct quote from the official Drug Czar himself on the progress of the War on Drugs: 'In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.' Got that? For all that money spent, the problem has gotten worse, not better."



   Some coincidence...

OK, somebody's got to bring this up at some point. It's an obvious question that really needs asking. I have nothing to base this feeling on, I should point out, other than the extraordinary timing of the two events.

"I noticed that on the same day that the Senate was voting on the strongest banking regulations in over a generation -- which would have broken up the "too big to fail" banks -- that the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced a mysterious 1,000-point drop that still has yet to be explained in any rational way. I find this to be an extraordinary coincidence, personally, and would support Congress taking a look at exactly what went on during that day's trading. I don't have any proof that anything untoward happened, but I still find the timing of this whole thing very odd. Coincidences of this magnitude sometimes have a reason, and I think it's worth looking at for this very reason."



   GOP joins the Arizona boycott

I've written about the situation in Arizona twice in the past few days, once on the implications of the GOP's city choice for their next national nominating convention, and then yesterday on the entire immigration issue in Arizona itself. But my first theme is worth repeating here, just because.

"I noticed that the national Republican Party just chose Tampa over Phoenix to hold their 2012 convention, reportedly because they didn't want the image of their party to be tied to what's going on currently in Arizona. In other words, the GOP's tourism dollars just, in effect, joined the boycott of Arizona."


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