Today’s column will be my last in Roll Call. After more than 20 years of writing Congress Inside Out (my first piece was in 1989), I will be moving on to another venue, starting next month. (Trust me, I’m not going away!) For this column occasion, I thought back to how Congress has changed over the years since I first wrote for this paper.
It is very difficult to get a handle on the politics/policy dynamic going on right now. On the one hand, the green shoots I wrote about shortly after the election are showing some signs of sprouting. The progress on an immigration template coming from an informal bipartisan “gang” in the Senate has been very encouraging, and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s announcement of support for a path to legalization — which does not endorse citizenship for the undocumented workers and family members here now but does not repudiate it — suggests that a very broad bipartisan supermajority is feasible on an issue where the chance for change has gone from zero to 60 in a matter of months. The possibility of a bill to require tough background checks for gun purchases has likewise gone from zero to at least 50 since the shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The story of Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster captivated the national media. In part because of its novelty; we have not seen a real, old-fashioned, pull-out-the-cots-and-go-round-the-clock filibuster in decades, save a few faux 24-hour filibusters staged by Majority Leaders Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., that were more dramatization than anything else.
The first fan letter I ever wrote was at age 7 to Wernher von Braun, the legendary rocket scientist. I dreamt of being a rocket scientist myself (it didn’t work out), and he was the superstar, a man hyped by NASA as the genius who would take America to the moon and beyond. I got back a glossy photo of von Braun and a NASA patch, and I was, figuratively, over the moon.
This has not been a good month for the fabric of governance. First we have the ridiculous demands from a majority of Senate Republicans for information about finances of private groups that former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel has been affiliated with, including transcripts or notes from all speeches he has given since he left the Senate, even when off-the-record and even when he had no prepared speech.
The three-judge panel ruling of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on recess appointments in Canning v. NLRB was stunning.
We live in very strange times. The deep dysfunction that has gripped our political system for the past several years has not disappeared. If anything, it is even more pronounced in the House of Representatives and in many states. But at the same time, there are prospects, serious prospects, for major advances in a number of key policy areas that have stubbornly eluded commonsense solutions or breakthroughs. President Barack Obama has the usual challenges that face any second-term, lame-duck president, ones that make serious new policy advances unlikely — and with the additional hurdle of vicious, tribal politics — but there are serious possibilities that he could have a strikingly successful second term.
Let me begin by revisiting the “no budget, no pay” idea. It originated with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., one of the most thoughtful and conscientious members of the House, a man who came back for a second tour in the chamber determined to speak truth to power. He has had some very good ideas to overhaul Congress. This is not one of them.
I am a firm believer in the advise and consent role of the Senate on important executive confirmations. A careful look at the qualifications, temperament, moral character and background of key officials is a good thing. It makes a president more careful when he considers nominations, it provides for an airing of policy positions and differences, and it enables senators to give messages to an administration about their expectations for implementation of policies and legislation they have enacted or oversee.
I have been bemused over the past few weeks by the often breathless commentary and analysis on the ins and outs of the fiscal cliff negotiations.
First, a word about Sen. Warren B. Rudman.
Frustration over abuse of the filibuster reached a critical point last year, and changing the rules became a cause backed by a growing number of Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Now that Democrats have gained two seats, there is clearly majority support for an overhaul, and several new members have indicated it is a priority.