If you're a Democratic Senator floundering in the polls and about to lose a reliably blue seat, what's the best way to boost your image? Call up the Associated Press and spout clichés about reforming politics.
It worked pretty well for one Michael Bennet, freshman Senator from Colorado.
On Thursday, AP writer Jim Abrams interviewed him about a host of suggestions to change the rules in the Senate, allowing him to call the system "out of whack" and "broken." Abrams then spoke with Senators Claire McCaskill and Tom Udall, from Missouri and New Mexico respectively - both states conveniently being places where the Democratic party is losing its edge.
Abrams mentioned their reform proposals with very little background and failed to challenge their selective outrage. Get ready for 16 paragraphs of Democrat campaign talk dressed up as a news report:
Those who hold the Senate in low esteem can get a sympathetic ear from some of the chamber's newer members. These lawmakers also are fed up with the Senate's ways and would like to change them.
"A graveyard of good ideas" is how freshman Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico sees the Senate. "Out of whack with the way the rest of the world is," says another freshman, Michael Bennet, D-Colo. "Just defies common sense" is the impression of Claire McCaskill, a first-term Democrat from Missouri, in describing the filibuster-plagued institution.
You see, everyday Americans are not fed up with Christmas Eve voting antics, efforts to stall the swearing-in of newcomers, or voting on bills that no one reads. Those ways won't change. Just the part about Republicans blocking liberal agendas.
What actual changes are being proposed? Abrams helpfully lists them:
Bennet, the Denver school superintendent appointed to his post after former Sen. Ken Salazar became interior secretary, has put forth an elaborate plan to make the Senate more workable. It includes eliminating the practice known as a "hold" in which a single senator can secretly prevent action on legislation or nominees; ending the ability to filibuster motions to bring a bill up for debate; banning earmarks for private, for-profit companies; imposing a lifetime ban on members becoming lobbyists; and restricting congressional pay raises.
"It was immediately apparent to me that the system was broken," said Bennet, who won a hotly contested primary and faces a tough election this fall.
Ah, no one knows more about the broken system than a public school administrator given a Senate seat.
Party bosses were not thrilled with Bennet in 2009, claiming that his lack of experience and unpopularity with voters would inevitably give the seat to Republicans in 2010. The party went all-out to protect him from a primary challenger, securing Obama's endorsement and spending millions on his campaign. It was mere days ago, on August 10, that Bennet won the primary, but since then he's been trailing Republican Ken Buck.
So he trots out familiar reform ideas on earmarks and lobbyists. Every time a political party is facing massive defeat, these things come up but are never imposed.
The move to change filibuster requirements is a well-known mission among the far left - a cynical scheme to make slim majorities more powerful. As for anonymous holds, anyone who witnessed the public crucifixion of Rep. Bart Stupak (D - Mich.) immediately understands why Senators would want objections to remain private.
Bennet's reform plan would not allow holdout Senators to stall a vote discreetly. If anyone delayed a vote long enough to read the entire bill or consult with constitutional lawyers, the Senate would publicize their objection and wait for the media to Stupak them. The end result would be more hurried votes from Senators going along to get along.
While some of Bennet's suggestions are good, others will simply discourage dissent and weaken the minority. Yet the AP didn't bother to examine any unintended consequences. Nothing negative was said about Bennet's proposal. And in the case of Senator McCaskill's ideas, Abrams used the vaguest wording possible:
McCaskill also has worked with a Republican, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, to bring more transparency to bills passed by "unanimous consent," meaning they are approved without debate or roll call votes.
Bringing more transparency! Who wouldn't want that?
But what exactly does McCaskill have in mind? This NBer had to search for an explanation elsewhere.
Turns out that McCaskill doesn't want to actually end the practice of passing bills without a vote - she even uses unanimous consent to forward things herself - but she joined Coburn on one superficial request. Coburn's idea is that if his colleagues allow passage of a bill with no vote, they should at least sign a statement confirming they physically looked at it.
That's what McCaskill is trumpeting as brave new reforms. But without any actual details of the proposal, readers would have no idea how tedious it really was.
If Abrams wanted to highlight reform efforts, it might have made sense to speak with Coburn and include his take on the "broken" system, perhaps even allowing him to explain the transparency thing. But Abrams didn't quote anything positive from a single Republican.
Up next was the reform plan from Senator Udall. Turns out Abrams saved the best for last:
Udall has what might be the simplest but most radical proposal. He says that when the new session opens next January, he will offer a motion that the Senate adopt rules by a simple majority. That would make it vastly easier for the majority to modify filibuster rules with proposals.
Doesn't this sound great? Not only could the Senate pass controversial bills with 50 plus 1, they could change long-established rules, remove procedural hurdles, or rig the process to favor the majority's whims. Each new session of the Senate could theoretically operate on a different playing field regarding everything from cabinet nominations to spending bills. The process to censure a senator or impeach a president could also be watered down.
Toward the end, Abrams did at least acknowledge a certain amount of hypocrisy from Democrats who suddenly have no interest in protecting the minority:
Udall calls his approach the constitutional option. Five years ago, Democrats called it by the more ominous name of the "nuclear option" when then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., threatened to push through a simple majority rule for overcoming minority Democrats' opposition to President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.
In the end, nothing happened. Udall's idea has been put forward several times in the past, Senate historian Don Ritchie said. But "the Senate has always gotten up to the cliff and decided to step back."
"Some of the people advocating these changes might be very glad they didn't succeed if they end up in the minority," he said.
That's as close as Abrams got to discussing the negative possibilities. Four paragraphs from the end, he finally got around to quoting one Republican:
"I submit that the effort to change the rules is not about democracy," Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said at a recent hearing on the history of the filibuster. "It is not about doing what a majority of the American people want. It is about power."
Supporters of the 60-vote supermajority say it helped prevent Democrats from attaching a government-run public option - an idea unpopular with many Americans - to the health care law. And growing national sentiment that Congress should quit adding to federal deficits was reflected when Democrats needing Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold were forced to cut future food stamp benefits and an energy program to pay for a $26 billion jobs bill this month.
Just when it looks like Abrams was being fair, wait for the handy little nugget in the very last sentence:
Both times, the changes grew out of considerable agitation for reform, in 1917 during World War I and in 1975 after years of civil rights advocates being stymied by filibusters, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.
That's right, folks. The Senate successfully broke a filibuster to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and that's why they changed the rules 11 years later.
But the internet is such a great thing. Turns out Time magazine has online archives from 1975, allowing NBers to see what contemporary accounts actually said.
Turns out that liberal Democrats like Walter Mondale were trying to lower hurdles to pass - wait for it - national health insurance. In a news report that sounds eerily like 2010, Democrats back then were complaining that in "a period of economic crisis" the do-nothing Republicans were blocking them from creating more government programs.
There was a side note that dealt with "civil rights," but only because Democrats wanted voting ballots printed in multiple languages.
So the last time these ideas were enthusiastically pushed in the Senate, liberal Democrats were angry because their pet agendas couldn't pass through. Yet Abrams found a professor who white-washed it as heroic efforts to provide civil rights, and that's the final sentence left ringing for readers in 2010.
It's nice to know that a prestigious news wire like the Associated Press is doing such hard-hitting investigations.