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December 13, 2007

Show me the deliberation...please!

After surfacing for some air in the last two weeks, the elusive energy bill has again disappeared into the murky depths of Senatorial politics. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate has not become the deliberative institution it was designed to be. We see hearings on C-SPAN with lots of questions being asked, and a few being answered. We see flip charts and bar graphs and fancy posters being presented. We see Senators come to the floor with their aides (and sometimes with the help of their aides) to deliver policy speeches to an audience that consists mostly of administrative staff, security guards, pages, and sometimes even some lucky tourists. Real deliberation does not happen on the Senate floor, although bargaining might. And that usually happens when the C-SPAN mics are off.

The right for Senators to filibuster was designed so that debate could continue until a consensus was reached. Usually, now that does not mean debate and deliberation, that means deal-making, mutual back-scratching and overt bargaining. The filibuster is now used as a threat, rather than as an opportunity for substantive back-and-forth. Basically the filibuster now translates as: "I refuse to debate about this and there is nothing that can get me to change my mind." Once again, we can thank James Madison for the institutional incrementalism that pervades and can sometimes cripple American lawmaking.

I appreciate people having conviction about their principles, but why is it that flexibility, contingency and pragmatism are not considered principles worthy of conviction? Regardless of those structural flaws in the system, right now it's the only one we got.

After the Senate voted against cloture on the motion to agree to the House amendments last Friday, we have been seeing a very calculated game of political 'chicken.' The President all along has said he would veto any bill that singles out the oil industry and revokes substantial tax credits to big oil. But does he mean it? Probably yes. Despite the threat, Senate Democrats decided to push ahead with the bill, however, as many guessed would happen, the renewable energy standard was trimmed off to improve the bill's hopes of passage. At this point, it is unclear whether Democrats have the necessary 60 votes to prevent a filibuster and move forward with a vote on the bill.

My concern is that this is one of those instances where President Bush will show his 'conviction' by not passing any bill that repeals the billions of dollars to big oil subsidies. Maybe the President will surprise, in fact I hope he will surprise me. So I will hope that the President will show the rest of the world what a democracy in action looks like by passing the laws that a bicameral legislature has clearly determined as the will of the people. But the one thing that I have found about George W. Bush over the last 7 years is that he has lots of opportunities to surprise me, and hasn't done so once. With that said, I have carefully selected a few quotes that show the kind of real 'quality' communication that have emanated from our leadership in the last few days concerning the energy legislation.

It's a bill that's not going to become law. - Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)

[The House passed a bill] they knew was unacceptable to the president and had no chance being signed into law. - White House Spokesperson Dana Perino

This is not a good bill, but it can be turned into a great bill. - Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM)

If it goes to the White House, we would hope that common sense would prevail and the president would sign that. – Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

I guess they're trying to guarantee a veto.” – Donald
Stewart, spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

He is impossible, and has been for seven years, to deal with. – Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

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