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Progressive Hardball

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If Democrats can start sounding like Democrats again, they'll have a better shot at holding onto their majority in Congress next November. And if they do keep their majority, they should do two things to turn themselves into a legislative party that can actually do the people's business.

First, scrap the filibuster rule. It isn't written into the Constitution, and in its modern form it only dates to 1975, when the Senate changed the rules to permit a single senator to require a supermajority of 60 votes on a given measure simply by threatening to hold the floor indefinitely, even if the senator couldn't be bothered to show up.

Before that rule change, you actually had to keep talking and tie up the Senate in order to filibuster. Today, you need only to declare your intent to filibuster, and any measure can be made to require 60 votes. As a consequence, the number of filibustered bills every session has risen from around 7 before 1975 to about 100.

And second, dump committee chairmen who are laws unto themselves. One good candidate would be Max Baucus, who just did it again, with a pitiful bipartisan $85 billion "jobs" bill, which is mainly a tax cut bill that will produce scarcely any new jobs. Its proposed $15 billion payroll tax holiday for newly created positions would create precious few new jobs because the incentive is too small. Employers would mainly get a tax break for jobs they planned to fill anyway.

Baucus had asserted his prerogative that the Senate Finance Committee should take the lead in the Senate's response to the House, which narrowly passed a $154 billion jobs bill in December. But so feeble was Baucus's handiwork that last week Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid refused to accept most of it, and turned the project of fashioning an actual jobs bill (as opposed to tax cuts) back to senators Dick Durban and Byron Dorgan.

In the next Congress, unless the Democrats lose their majority, somebody other than Baucus should chair the Finance Committee. And what's in store at the Banking Committee if the usual seniority rules apply is even worse.

There, Banking Committee Chair Chris Dodd is retiring. There is a lot to criticize in Dodd's leadership -- in fashioning a financial reform package, he goes back and forth between sounding like a Democrat and trying to work out a bipartisan reform bill with the committee's ranking Republican, Dick Shelby of Alabama, a fool's errand if ever there was one. But Dodd is Franklin Roosevelt compared to his likely successor, Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

Johnson is often known as the senator from Citigroup. That's because his state, back in the late 1970s, relaxed its usury laws in order to attract back-office jobs from large banks, starting with Citi. It was a sweetheart deal made by a Republican governor. Citigroup is now the fourth largest employer in South Dakota, with some 3,200 mostly clerical jobs.

In the Marquette decision of 1978, the Supreme Court held that state anti-usury laws cannot be enforced against banks based in other states. So a bank can sell and service credit cards nationwide, relying on the laws of the state in which it is incorporated and violating the consumer laws of the states where the cardholder resides. South Dakota became to credit card companies what Delaware was to corporations generally. It led the race to the bottom, making sure that it remained the nation's worst when it comes to protecting consumers.

Johnson, in toadying to Citi and other banks, has outdone even the usual South Dakota standard. When Congress passed the rare bipartisan bill to crack down on credit card abuses last May, Johnson was one of just five senators, and the only Democrat, to vote against it. He was also one of 12 Senate Democrats to oppose giving bankruptcy judges the authority to modify the terms of mortgages threatened with foreclosure. He is flatly opposed to even the somewhat weakened Consumer Financial Protection Act which passed the house. If he becomes Banking Committee chairman, forget any serious version of financial reform.

For more detail on Johnson's long record of defending payday lenders, credit card usurers, and rapacious bankers, see Ryan Grim's definitive post from January 2009.

Unlike the more delicate case of Baucus, the Senate Democrats don't need to dump Tim Johnson because he's not chairman yet. The just need to make sure someone else gets the job next January.

But isn't this a little utopian? Not at all. Back in 1975, I was once involved in a similar progressive coup. In those years, racist southern Democratic committee chairmen still dominated House committees. The incoming "Watergate" class of Democrats was committed to small-D democratic process reforms. As part of the coup, I was hired to write a report co-sponsored by Common Cause and Public Citizen scoring how committee chairmen voted on major legislation -- how often they voted against the Democratic majority position. We worked closely with the legendary Dick Conlon, then the director of the Democratic Study Group, which functioned as the progressive caucus in the House in those years.

That year, the Democrats changed the rules to provide that committee chairs should be named by a majority vote of the House Democratic caucus. Armed with the study's results, they promptly dethroned and replaced three of the leading faithless House committee chairs. If the House can elect committee chairs by majority vote, so can the Senate.

House Blue Dogs and pro-Wall Street "New Democrats" in the House, as well as individual turncoats in the Senate like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Max Baucus, and Tim Johnson, have demonstrated that they can play hardball. Progressive Democrats are actually a majority of the Democratic caucus in both houses. It's time they played a little hardball, too.

Robert Kuttner's forthcoming book on the Obama Administration is A Presidency in Peril (Chelsea Green publishers, March 2010). He is founding co-editor of The American Prospect, and a senior fellow at Demos.

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