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How to Make Lieberman and Baucus Irrelevant

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After Joe Lieberman and 40 Republicans forced Senate Democrats to abandon real health reform, insurance company stocks jumped on Wall Street.

After the Copenhagen talks collapsed with no binding agreement to lower carbon pollution, the price of carbon contracts in Europe fell sharply.

Insurance stocks up and carbon contracts down - this is unmitigated bad news. Financial markets are far from perfect, but they got right what many pundits and elected leaders are getting totally wrong.

At the center of each disastrous case is the United States Senate, whose rules magnify corporate power to resist progressive change even when polling makes clear that change is clearly popular with the American people.

Three rules in particular stand out.

Senate rules, adopted on the first day of each session by majority vote, provide for successful filibusters if 41 senators stand firm. From a progressive point of view, this means that the 59th and 60th votes - senators like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh - all firmly controlled by corporate interests - decide policy if the minority party is disciplined.

Small states are substantially overrepresented. The Constitution provides for two senators from each state. The 640,000 citizens of North Dakota have as much representation as the more than 36 million citizens of California.

Committee chairs are selected based on seniority. This allows senators like Max Baucus to rule the Finance Committee in the interests of insurance companies for decades. In the House, where the rules are different, environmental leader Henry Waxman could challenge General Motors' representative John Dingell to a vote to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee and make climate change legislation at least possible.

It is beyond difficult to change the Constitution, but it is both possible and essential to eliminate the filibuster and elect, rather than perpetuate, committee chairs. No significant progressive change that requires Congressional action will happen without these changes. Period. Both changes will be easiest to adopt when the Senate organizes itself after the 2010 elections.

And if progressive change is not sufficient motivation, just imagine a day where Joe Lieberman and Max Baucus are irrelevant and off the front page of the newspapers and have no place on the Sunday morning talk show circuit. That is change worth fighting for.