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The Platform, Week 2: Unraveling the Mess That is CongressPosted by Nathan S. on 10/11/12 | Filed under Opinion, Politics, The Platform
Over the next few weeks, Refined Hype and political-economic analysis blog Nitro Citizen will host The Platform, a series in which contributors from RH, Nitro, and the music industry comment on the structure of politics and how we are affected by what's on the ballot.
Starting with the president, and moving into how we might take the conditions created by federal policy to act at the local level, we will look at all levels of government and social activism from the ground-up. So if you feel nauseous about voting, you might be looking too high up on the ballot or you might find other avenues to help create progress through The Platform.
This week, Dharmic X for Refined Hype and BroadNMarket for Nitro Citizen hip hop artist/RefinedHype contributor Jason James discuss the state of Washington's polarized sons in Congress.
Jason James (Hip-Hop Artist/RefinedHype):
When discussing the Senate and House of Representatives it's important to actually define who and what they are, since most of us hear a lot about them and don't have much of an idea how they function.
In 1776, the founding fathers of the United States of America created a country that was intended to be the antithesis to the monarchy. Having recently left Europe for the "free world", these men sought after a system which was ruled by and for the people, without kings or queens, where the citizens maintained control over their governments and had the loudest voice in the decision making process. This republic was broken into 3 branches- executive (president), legislative (congress) and judiciary (supreme court)- and were separate bodies installed in order to safeguard the country against the future possibility of tyrannical rulers like kings and dictators. To further complicate the control of power, the founders also segregated these institutions into smaller bodies like the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress so that every issue would be thoroughly debated before being passed into law. Basically, the founders intentionally confused their governing body to ensure that it could not be corrupted.
Today the United States Congress is a stark contrast to what was originally designed all those years ago. As my co-writers will outline in detail, the Senate and House are still just as chaotic as they've ever been, but corporate interest has infiltrated this head of government and exploded like malignant tumors eating away at fresh meat. Currently there are over 25 lobbyists per congressman in Washington, D.C., all representing special interest groups and paid by them specifically to influence congress to vote in their favor. Since lobbying is a legal practice, millions of dollars flow in and out of congress every year and bills are passed not with the people's best interest in mind, but with the concerns of the special interests considered.
This is the root of political corruption and why the citizenry of the United States is not represented by their elected officials. We can argue back and forth about who has majority control and what is causing some of the blatant misuse of power we've witnessed as of late, but as long as bribery is involved in politics these congressmen will only vote in line with who is paying them. There are a few exceptions, men who do not bow down to the corporate gods (at least publicly) like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, but for the most part, the United States Congress is an extension of the corporations and banks that own them. Republican or Democrat- it doesn't make a difference. They all answer to the almighty dollar.
BroadNMarket (Nitro Citizen):
There are very few fans of Congress these days. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) demonstrated soundly last fall that the combined popularity of the Senate and House were then less popular than the idea of the US going communist.
(Via The WashingtonPost)
Real Clear Politics has their approval rating up by a very weak 4-5% a year later. This Congress is facing January's fiscal cliff, long-term structural debt problems, and the rollback of middle-class payroll tax relief with the same tenacity Riff Raff applies to actual music. Whether or not you agree with the debt accrual on the president's watch, it's common knowledge that Congress has been so stranded in ideological fervor on the conservative side and hold-the-line campaigning on the liberal side that its approval was even lapped by the travel-gaffing, 47%-bashing pre-debate version of Mitt Romney. Compromise can't survive when entrenched Democratic leadership play tired Beltway games as a response to Tea Party candidates who declare that "bipartisanship means [the Democrats] have to come our way" (to be fair, Indiana's Richard Mourdock has been forced back somewhat from that ridiculous position). Congress looks like a distant cage match where the concerns of ground-level Americans go to die.
Except when moderates pop their heads up from the middle of the chaos. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), in many ways, embodies a bubbling push for independence from the Norquist-patented stiffness of the legislative branch. Right after winning Ted Kennedy's old seat in early 2010 and busting the Democratic supermajority, Brown joined the Senate and immediately broke ranks with the Republicans to support a Democratic-sponsored jobs bill. He voted for Dodd-Frank, though that play to the left may have forced him to push to the right as the rules continue to be finalized. Still, he's one of the very few members with any demonstrable bipartisan efforts on his record. He was 2011's second-most bipartisan Senator, voting with his party only 54% of the time. He supported the extension of that payroll tax relief last year. He even voted to confirm the current head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, essentially a non-starter among conservatives and the brainchild of his opponent, Elizabeth Warren.
Unfortunately for all of us, he's up against one of the liberals' new breed of folk heroes. Warren basically built up cult status through Daily Show apprearances, work with President Obama, and passionate defense of liberal principles like acknowledging the value of public investments. She would throw weight behind a Senate that is willing to take a balanced approach to debt reduction (for which Brown has attacked her as a tax hiker), support healthcare reform over the status quo or a shift to vouchers, and push buttons on Wall Street in a way that Brown doesn't seem to consider necessary. Here's where the vote becomes strategic on a much broader level. There are only a handful of races close enough to determine the balance of the Senate this year. Republicans hold 42 "safe" seats to the Democrats' 37. Bill Clinton deemed the Brown/Warren race as the one that is likely to determine the balance of power in the Senate. And if that balance shifts to the right, along with the House, as Ezra Klein's points out, even a moderate President Romney (it could happen, people) might revert farther to the right to keep his base in his camp.
Incidentally, the current President of the Senate will try to salvage the Democrats' post-debate hopes for a second term in the White House tonight.
Dharmic X (RefinedHype):
Every political pundit you’ve ever read or listened to spends time hammering home the battle between the parties for control of Congress and emphasizing the importance of their party winning the power struggle, depending on their bias. But before I go there, let’s start with the basics. How does Congress work?
In both the House and the Senate, the elected officials are broken down into various Committees (Appropriations, Foreign Relations, Energy, etc.). The House has 21 Committees and the Senate has 20 Committees, and each of these Committees are further broken down into Subcommittees. Each Committee and Subcommittee is led by a chairman from the majority party and the “ranking member” from the minority party (A simple example is the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; the chairman is John Kerry (D-MA) and the ranking member is Richard Lugar (R-IN)). A piece of legislation starts at the Subcommittee level, and moves into the Committee level. If the Committee votes in its favor it then moves into the full House or Senate for a vote.
What everyone is oblivious too is the tangled web of procedures and amendments that lead up to an eventual vote. Before a bill can be voted on by either the House or Senate, members from both sides of the aisle tack on hundreds of amendments to the bill. Some of these amendments are useful, but most are simply put to a vote to create a storyline for the media. The process of deciding when amendments can be added and which amendments will be voted on is an arbitrary process, largely determined by the Majority Leader of the Senate or Speaker of the House, who sets the agenda for the week.
So while partisan lines are at stake (less so in the House, which seems like it’ll stay in Republican hands) and can be best viewed here, the most important problem that must be addressed is the trench warfare that prevents compromise from taking place, especially in the Senate, where a vote is cast to determine whether a bill will even come to a vote. This makes the race in Massachusetts between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren an important one.
Yes, Brown represents a Republican Party known more for its hyperbolic nutcase characters such as Todd Akin. And yes, Warren’s stances on certain issues such as Paycheck Fairness are likely more just and more commendable than Brown. But at the end of the day, forceful posturing from either party is disastrous to a country that needs Congress to work together to pass budgets and deal with crises such as the debt ceiling. Scott Brown has molded himself into a moderate Republican on par with Maine’s two Republican Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and his voting record speaks for itself.
One issue with Brown is that as a Republican, he could help give the party control of the Senate (essentially controlling Congress entirely). While this is definitely dangerous for the country, especially if Mitt Romney were to be elected, the American people can trust that the state of Massachusetts, with its liberal backbone, will hold Senator Brown accountable for his votes. And if he was to stray too far right in his second stint in the Senate, we can all be rest assured that it will be his last stint on Capitol Hill.
While much hype is bestowed upon the president as our nation's figurehead, we've seen that Congress can stop any leader's agenda dead in its tracks. We've also seen that the country will render judgement on a presidential record through Congressional votes, as was the case in 2010.
When considering the collective group that passes the nation's laws, we must be wary of what assemblage we put together nation-wide, and hope that this group will work together better than the previous one. But most importantly, we need to realize that there are still more important votes taking place in November; votes that will have more direct consequences on our lives than the political showmanship that often dominates Washington, D.C.
See Also: The Platform, Week 1: Obama vs. Romney, Electing a President