Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Hatch's Hypocrisy

If you've been listening to the Republican Senate leadership for the past few months, you've by now gotten the message that every presidential judicial nominee has a fundamental right to an "up or down" vote before the full Senate.

And if you listened to a brief interview Thursday with Senator Orrin Hatch on NPR's All Things Considered, you'd have had to be pretty dense to not pick up on an important qualifier to this fundamental right. That's because Hatch laid it out four times in a four minute interview:

  • "What's wrong with having majority supported, bipartisan majority supported people, who come to the floor having a vote up and down? And I think both parties should be bound that once a person reaches the floor they get a vote up and down."
  • "I think we should bind both Democrats and Republicans that presidential nominees for the judiciary deserve an up and down vote once they reach the floor."
  • "I believe we ought to have the constitutional option which would bind both Democrats and Republicans to treat judicial nominations and to treat Presidents with respect by having a vote up and down once they reach the floor."
  • "I'd like to have this resolved so that not only Democrats are bound to give a vote once they hit the floor, up and down, but Republicans are bound too."

Through sheer repetition Hatch made painfully explicit a qualifier which has been implicit but mostly omitted from the Republican side of the debate on the fate of judicial nominees. It is this: a nominee's right to an "up or down"vote before the full Senate does not take effect until that nominee reaches the Senate floor. That is, there is no such right until the nominee's disposition has been determined by the Judiciary Committee and, after that, until floor debate on the nominee has commenced.

Hatch should know. He spent about half of his recently-concluded eight year term as the Republican Judiciary Committee chair blocking Bill Clinton's judicial nominees. In all, Republicans blocked dozens of Clinton's nominees (you most often hear numbers from 60 to 70; 65 seems about right). Contrast that with the ten first term Bush nominees blocked by Democrats.

The difference is that Democrats used the Senate rules to filibuster nominees during floor debate, whereas the Clinton nominees never made it out of committee. Hence Hatch's "once they reach the floor" qualifier. Apparently nominee rights, and the respect accorded to them and to the President who nominated them, do have some limits after all.

How did the Republicans manage to stick it to Clinton so many times? With embarrassing ease. The majority party (even if it is a scant majority) controls the Senate calendar and all the committee chairmanships. There are oh-so-many ways to block a judicial nominee when you control the levers of power in the body that must vote. The easiest way, the one most favored by Republicans, is to never get around to scheduling committee hearings in the first place. The nominee just languishes in limbo, never to be heard of or from again. No committee hearings means no committee vote, which means no floor debate, and therefore no "up or down" vote. So much for the Senate's sacred constitutional obligation to advise and consent.

In many ways the filibuster is more pure, because it gets the debate out into the open for everybody to see.

Hatch could hardly claim the "up or down" right is absolute, because his own prominent record would indict him as a most outrageous hypocrite. But he's a hypocrite nonetheless, as are all Republicans who whine about Democratic filibusters as if there is something unseemly and ultimately different about that tactic compared to the methods employed by Republicans under Clinton.

Now the Republican leadership would like to remove the right of judicial filibuster from the Senate's rules--a dubious move because they would do it via a back-door maneuver invoking precedent of the Senate instead of through the normal rule change process. That would still leave intact the ways the Republicans previously blocked judicial nominees under Clinton. Despite all their pained and indignant rhetoric about nominee rights, apparently, in the end, that's ok.

(In a late-breaking development as I was finishing up this post, word came of a compromise in the Senate put together by a centrist group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats. The compromise agreement would presumably retain the right of judicial filibuster in principle in return for Democrats not filibustering certain nominees already in the pipeline. Without the votes of those centrist Republicans, the Senate leadership will not be able to push through the no-filibuster rule change--at least for now. The tenuous compromise was not supported by the leadership or, as indicated in the interview, by Orrin Hatch.)

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Notable Quotes, May 10, 2005

On Monday, May 9, National Public Radio's news program All Things Considered broadcast an interview between host Robert Siegel and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Robert Hutchings. Hutchings was responsible for coordinating American Intelligence Assessments in 2003 while U.N. ambassador nominee John Bolten was Undersecretary of State. Among other things, Bolten has been widely accused of pressuring intelligence officials to reach conclusions that supported his political positions, even resorting to retaliation against intelligence officials who displeased him. Siegel began the interview by saying that "the New York Times quotes an email from you accusing Mr. Bolten essentially of having fostered a climate of politicization and intimidation in intelligence analysis."

In the interview Hutchings commented on Bolten and also the wider problem of politicization of intelligence in the Bush administration. Notable quotes:

SIEGEL: "The Silberman Robb commission, that is, President Bush's commission that looked into the intelligence agencies, looked at what happened with discussions of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and concluded that they found in that case at least no evidence of political pressure to influence the intelligence community. Broadly speaking, are they being naive about what's been happening with policy makers and the intelligence agencies?"

HUTCHINGS: "Broadly and narrowly speaking they are being naive and I think they really missed the call on what constitutes politicization. Just because the intelligence community successfully resists pressures doesn't mean that there hasn't been an effect. And I worry about the effect on more junior analysts who are led to believe that there is an expected answer to an intelligence judgment, and there's a penalty to be paid for not reaching the predetermined answer. And I saw it at work when analysts were getting more timid about calling things as they saw it. Intelligence professionals always ought to be willing to tell truth to power, but political officials shouldn't make it so difficult on them to do so."

Monday, May 09, 2005

Stating The Obvious

It's interesting how sometimes a certain profundity follows from just stating the obvious. So it was with Paul Krugman's May 9 column in the New York Times.

Krugman is a frequent critic of George W. Bush's plan, such as it is, for saving Social Security. In his latest column he reminds us that Bush is pushing Americans to commit now to massive future benefit cuts. Why are these cuts necessary? Why, Krugman says, because if we don't agree to Bush's cuts, and the President's dire predictions for Social Security come to pass, then we'll be forced (in, oh, 35 years or so) to cut benefits.

Think about it.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Hoping For Higher Gas Prices

It is oh so fashionable for politicians of every stripe to decry the current high gas prices confronting Americans at the pump. The President wishes he could wave a magic wand and bring prices down, but ruefully admits that he cannot. In the meantime, what he offers is mostly a plan to suck the last remaining drops of U.S. oil from the ground, and he makes the silly claim that doing so is one way to help us become "less dependent" on foreign oil. Good lord.

Critics of the President say he's not twisting the Saudis' arm hard enough; that he should be pressuring them to increase their own production and thus drive prices back down. It's as if they think there's a spigot somewhere that can be continually opened wider to satisfy ever increasing world demand.

No politician appears intelligent enough to grasp the truth, or courageous enough to state it plainly to the American people: higher, not lower, gas prices are the only way out of this mess. But instead all they express is gratuitous chagrin, whining for a return to business as usual where Americans don't have to contemplate limits on their use of energy. This is leadership?

As I have explained elsewhere, we have reached, or have nearly reached, the beginning of a permanent structural supply shortage in the world oil markets. Trying to squeeze out additional production is unlikely to satisfy rising demand, and were it possible to increase production in the short term it would just delay necessary action that we should be taking now.

The hard truth is that we are entering a new phase of permanent scarcity in the oil economy. This will be a very different experience from what we've grown accustomed to. It is way past time to ask where we go from here.

The only way to find our way to some kind of sustainable energy future is for prices to rise so high that we are compelled to work toward viable alternatives. We've done a dismal job of that so far.

In the time ahead, the main beneficiary of rising oil prices will be the oil producers. They are poised to get very rich because of our tragic shortsightedness. It needn't have been so.

We could have started working on this problem long ago, but we lacked the political will to do it. Remember the "BTU tax" proposed by Bill Clinton in his first term? That went over (as my mother might put it) like a turd in a punch bowl. Clinton's proposal was a solid step in the right direction, but it was squashed by politicians on all sides. (Shame on you David Boren, former Democratic senator from Oklahoma.)

The BTU tax would have raised the price of energy by taxing energy. But it could have done so in a "revenue neutral" manner by including offseting tax reductions in other areas. Higher energy costs would have nudged the economy in a healthier and more sustainable direction, and encouraged investment in renewable energy alternatives and higher efficiency. The net increase in the cost of energy would have gone into American pockets instead of to the Middle East.

Over a decade has passed since Clinton's proposal, and all we've learned since then is how to make bigger SUVs. We still need higher gas prices--much higher. And we'll get them: market forces will see to that. This will cause great suffering and substantial economic decline. To a large extent, it's our own damn fault.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, May 06, 2005

Notable Quotes, May 6, 2005

On the economics of nuclear power:
"The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of N.R.C.-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes." --Peter Bradford, former NRC member, quoted in The New York Times, May 2, 2005
On the problem of nuclear waste:
"It takes equal parts science and fantasy to envision what would be needed to guard substances that remain deadly beyond collective memory. Radionuclides such as plutonium, produced only in the last 50 years, will pose a threat to life for the next 12,000 human generations through periods of dramatic climatic and geologic changes and social and political upheaval. The level of witness and responsibility needed to safeguard these poisons through time requires a commitment unprecedented in human history." --Philip M. Klasky, "The Eagle's View of Ward Valley", Wild Earth, Spring 1994

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

My Stupid Truck

I lose track of time. Was it really so long ago that TV commercials proclaimed that "you're in the Pepsi generation"? Yes. Yes it was.

So I'm not precisely sure about the timeframe occupied by Ford's "quality is job one" and "have you driven a Ford lately" ad slogans. But I know they both occurred within the lifetime of my rotten, no-good F150.

I bought my 1988 F150 new, seventeen years ago. I still drive it. Why? Because it still runs. Because there are currently no major problems with any of its major systems. Because new trucks are a very expensive and rapidly depreciating asset. And finally, because it reminds me never to buy another Ford. If quality is "job one", that job was never completed. Not with my truck.

With this vehicle, the litany of problems, large and small, is almost unending. It has been a perpetual maintenance nightmare, an unending irritant, a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe, a burr under my saddle, salt in my wound, insult and injury.

This truck has been nothing if not consistent. Consistently bad. The problems began immediately. At 500 miles, with the new car smell still lingering, the windshield wipers began to misbehave. This on again off again (literally) malfunction has come and gone throughout the truck's entire miserable lifetime. It is with me as I write this.

Basically, the intermittent and slow settings work only occasionally, when they feel like it. (Perhaps this is Ford's idea of intermittent.) The high speed wiper setting almost always works, but there have been times when the wipers refuse to move at all. Sometimes the intermittent and slow speeds are fine for months at a time. But then they've also been broken for over a year straight. There have been other periods where they'd cycle through working and not working on an almost daily basis. There is no discernible pattern to why they do or do not work.

No mechanic has been able to understand or permanently fix this problem, though not for lack of trying. Trips to the dealer for warranty service on the wipers were commonplace early in this truck's life. Every time the truck returned home I would open the hood and look for signs of repair activity, each time extracting a new tool that the hapless mechanic had left in the engine compartment. They were mostly screwdrivers and thus a small loss to him, but since these screwdrivers were the long-shafted variety they were a welcome addition to my toolbox. You take consolation wherever you can find it.

Later, with the warranty long since expired, I paid good money to have this problem addressed yet again. The truck was returned to me with the wipers working, but later on they reverted back to their old ways. Out of frustration I even tried my own hand at a fix and replaced the wiper switch, but to no avail.

When this truck was middle aged, an entirely different wiper problem emerged. There commenced a woeful moaning and groaning as the wiper arms struggled sluggishly in their burdened sweep across the windshield. The mechanic said the wiper motor was tearing itself apart, and needed to be replaced. So we replaced it. I'm very used to replacing things on this truck.

But enough of wipers. At around 12,000 miles, just as the warranty was about to expire, the manual transmission refused to shift into reverse. I sometimes need reverse, so I took the truck to the shop, where it languished for three weeks waiting for parts. According to the service manager, F150 transmissions were dropping like flies around the country, and so parts were in short supply. The problem was eventually fixed, but the fix resulted in a permanently leaky top cover seal, and so I've had to keep a close eye on the transmission oil level ever since.

Sometimes it's the little things that get you. The tailgate latch has been replaced a couple of times, as has the shifter knob. The sliding rear window latch broke, even though I hardly ever use it.

Much as I despise this truck, I must admit that it has been good for some real excitement. I was descending a steep grade at fairly high speed in the mountains west of Denver when the truck decided, all on its own, to accelerate down the slope. The engine screamed, wrapped in high RPM ecstasy, even though I had removed my foot from the accelerator. This insane machine seemed hell bent on launching the two of us--me and it--on a short ride through space into the rocky mountainside below the next curve. I frantically turned off the engine and braked to a stop. (Dangerous! The steering column can lock when you turn off the ignition.) The experience was repeated several more times that evening before I reached the safety of the flatlands. Around Burlington, I peered under the hood and noticed that an air conditioning hose had worked its way up under the throttle cover. Tying the hose back out of the way permanently fixed this little glitch that could have cost me my life.

What else? The flasher unit had to be replaced. The emergency flashers had to be fixed. The headlight switch failed. The fan clutch had to be replaced. Twice. The seedometer cable had to be lubed. I'm on my third heater core, but I suppose we can only blame the first one on Ford. The parking brake cable broke. A big gust of wind from a passing semi-truck unseated the windshield. The oil pressure gauge usually reads dangerously low, but the service manager thinks the problem is in the sending unit. I think it's in the gauge, because giving the dash a good thump sometimes causes the needle to come back up.

The first alternator (I'm currently on number three) only lasted 70,000 miles, but in its defense a T-junction in some cooling system hoses hangs immediately above it, and coolant leaked into the alternator. Seems to me that when quality is "job one", you should anticipate little things like that.

The power steering pump started leaking. But no worries: a new seal and touching up the pitted shaft with fine sandpaper helped considerably. (The shop manual actually describes this sandpaper treatment, so the problem must be common.)

One of the horn elements had to be replaced. The ignition switch had a safety recall. A leaking spindle seal in the differential case had to be replaced. The U-joints have been replaced more than once, but I do pull a trailer from time to time. And I'll grant that the worn out tie rod ends can plausibly be chalked up to normal wear and tear.

Did I mention the paint job? It seems that in '88 Ford tried a new technique and eliminated the primer coat. So said the dealer, anyway. The consequence of this shortcut was that the finish began to peel badly when the truck was a little over three years old. Apparently the problem was widespread in F-series trucks, and Ford had no choice but to correct it. They paid to have my truck re-painted, even though it was technically out of warranty.

This truck has two gas tanks. A switch on the dash lets you select the tank you want to use. The redundancy struck me as a nice idea, and each tank has its own fuel pump. But lately there's been a problem in the switch: you never know for sure which tank you're using, regardless of the switch position. That would be less of a problem if the fuel gauge worked, but it failed long ago for both tanks. The gauge quit working first for one tank, and then the other. The dealer quoted me $350 per tank to fix the problem, so I get by without a fuel gauge.

There's more, of course, but I'm worn out. You probably are too.

Some day this truck will really die, and when it does I'll have to replace it. I'm considering a Toyota Tundra. But in the meantime, when they ask if I've "driven a Ford lately", I can reply that yes, I have. And it's all the Ford I'll ever need.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved