Thursday, April 09, 2009

Where The Rubber Meets The Road (4/9/09)

As reported in last Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, here is how Philadelphia-area members of Congress were recorded on major roll-call votes last week (and I thought I'd provide extra reading material for the long weekend, seeing as how posting will be highly questionable from tomorrow into early next week - just that kind of a guy).


Tobacco regulation. Voting 298-112, the House on Thursday sent the Senate a bill (HR 1256) to begin federal regulation of tobacco products. The bill empowers the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarette content, require disclosure of product ingredients, ban cigarette marketing to children, and require more prominent health warnings. The bill would preempt state tobacco laws.

A yes vote was to pass the bill.

Voting yes: John Adler (D., N.J.), Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.) Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), and Christopher H. Smith (R., N.J.).

Voting no: Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.).
So, in addition to the other constituencies he supports and opposes, Joe Pitts is pro-carcinogen, pro-Joe Camel, anti-kids and anti-disclosure of cancer-causing cigarette additives. Peachy.

Executive compensation. Voting 247-171, the House on Wednesday sent the Senate a bill (HR 1664) limiting executive compensation at firms receiving the largest bailouts under the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The bill would repeal authority for AIG bonuses that Democrats put into this year's stimulus law.

A yes vote was to pass the bill.

Voting yes: Adler, Andrews, Brady, Fattah, Holden, Murphy, and Schwartz.

Voting no: Castle, Dent, Gerlach, LoBiondo, Sestak, Smith, and Pitts.
Kind of odd to see Democratic-sponsored legislation aimed at undoing the work of other Democrats (inasmuch as Geithner and Summers are “Democrats,” that is). And Admiral Joe ends up keeping rather unusual company on this one.

AmeriCorps expansion. Voting 275-149, the House on Tuesday sent President Obama a bill (HR 1388) that would more than triple the ranks of AmeriCorps, Volunteers in Service to America, and National Civilian Community Corps - to 225,000 participants by 2014 - while expanding their missions.

A yes vote was to pass the bill.

Voting yes: Adler, Andrews, Brady, Castle, Fattah, Holden, LoBiondo, Murphy, Schwartz, Sestak, and Smith.

Voting no: Dent, Gerlach, and Pitts.
This recent Murdoch Street Journal editorial tells us that AmeriCorps has received support from Senators Ted Kennedy (no surprise) and Orrin Hatch (yes surprise), as well as that noted “liberal” John McCain, all of whom have been instrumental in their support (of course, the Journal writer points out with pride that the latest reauthorization means that AmeriCorps volunteers won’t be able to engage in voter registration or union organizing activities - heaven forbid that one of Rupert The Pirate’s publications fails to point that out).

Still, despite the Repug “transfusion,” if you will, that does not leave AmeriCorps free from wingnut derision, as noted in the very last sentence here.

Federal budget. Voting 233-196, the House on Thursday approved a five-year Democratic budget (H Con Res 85) that for 2010 projects $3.55 trillion in spending, a $1.2 trillion deficit, $284 billion in interest payments on the national debt, and $130 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over five years, it embraces President Obama's major initiatives in areas such as health care, renewable energy, and education, and extends his middle-class tax cuts if means are found to pay for them. The budget allows Bush-era tax cuts for high-income payers to expire after 2010.

The budget sets "reconciliation" procedures under which Senate Democrats would need 51 rather than 60 votes to pass administration proposals such as overhauling health care and education programs. The Senate (below) excluded reconciliation from its budget plan.

A yes vote was to adopt the Democrats' budget.

Voting yes: Adler, Andrews, Brady, Fattah, Holden, Murphy, Schwartz, and Sestak.

Voting no: Castle, Dent, Gerlach, LoBiondo, Pitts, and Smith.
Just typical Repug obstruction, nothing else to see here…let’s move along (and I’ll have something to say about one of our Senators on this shortly).

GOP budget alternative. Voting 137-293, the House on Thursday defeated a Republican alternative to the Democratic budget plan (HJ Res 85, above) that differed, in part, by permanently extending the full range of Bush-era tax cuts, freezing most non-defense discretionary spending for five years, and repealing the stimulus bill except for its jobless benefits.

A yes vote backed the Republican budget.

Voting yes: Dent and Pitts.

Voting no: Adler, Andrews, Brady, Castle, Fattah, Gerlach, Holden, LoBiondo, Murphy, Schwartz, Sestak, and Smith.
Pretty funny when most of the Repugs don’t even vote for their own crock of a budget “alternative” – ha, ha, ha…


Federal budget. Voting 55-43, the Senate on Friday approved a five-year Democratic budget (S Con Res 13) that, for 2010, projects $3.5 trillion in spending and a $1.2 trillion deficit. In a key difference with the House Democrats' plan (above), it rules out the use of "reconciliation" for advancing key administration proposals.

Voting yes: Thomas Carper (D., Del.), Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Ted Kaufman (D., Del.), Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.).

Voting no: Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).
As always, screw you, Arlen (maybe you’ll overcome this primary lead by Pat Toomey, and maybe you won’t – we’ll see).

By the way, speaking of our state’s Repug U.S. senator, this column from Specter appeared today in Philadelphia’s newspaper conservative house organ of record, and in it he offers the “(creation of) a National Criminal Justice Commission to undertake a comprehensive 18-month review of the criminal justice system” as a cosponsor to a bill sponsored by Dem Senator Jim Webb of Virginia (curious for Specter to pursue a “moderate” course like this, particularly given his 14-point deficit to Toomey).

I doubt if Specter has read this fine recent article in The New Yorker about solitary confinement (maybe Webb has) by correspondent Atul Gawande, but I think it is food for thought since we’re talking about the Webb/Specter bill here; extended excerpts follow…

Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison’s supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose “a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness.” In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn’t make everyone crazy. The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinement units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all. At the same time, other states had just a tiny fraction of their inmates in solitary confinement. In 1999, for example, Indiana had eighty-five supermax beds; Georgia had only ten. Neither of these two states can be described as being soft on crime.

Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach.

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
If nothing else, I hope Gawande’s article serves as a starting point for a serious discussion on the merits of solitary confinement and whether or not it serves any rehabilitative purpose whatsoever.

Reconciliation ban. The Senate on Wednesday voted, 67-31, to prohibit the use of "reconciliation" in S Con Res 13 (above) to advance Obama's cap-and-trade proposal for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Republicans said reconciliation would deny them a chance to filibuster a proposal they see as a crippling tax on key industries.

A yes vote backed the amendment.

Voting yes: Casey and Specter.

Voting no: Carper, Kaufman, Lautenberg and Menendez.
As Ezra Klein tells us here…

The reconciliation process…limits debate to 20 hours and bypasses the filibuster altogether (only 50 votes are needed for bill passage, whereas 60 are needed to break the filibuster). It was instituted to ensure that minority obstruction couldn't block important business like passing a budget or reducing the deficit. But it was misused. At least, Robert Byrd thought so. He saw all manner of "extraneous" amendments and legislation sneaking beneath the radar of the reconciliation process.

…the reconciliation process has been used for plenty that did not reduce deficits. Both of President Bush's tax-cut plans traveled through the process. And the very senators who speak reverentially of the filibuster now, voted for reconciliation then. Judd Gregg, in fact, voted for reconciliation every time it was used in the Bush era.

And even if reconciliation had only ever been used to cut the deficit, an observer might wonder what renders deficit reduction so much more pressing than, say, ending the punishing human cost of the health-care crisis, or saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. Why should cutting programs be exempt from the Senate rules but not saving lives?
So (echoing Klein a bit), by voting against “reconciliation” here as an option, Specter and Bob Casey are saying that it’s more important to observe the sometimes-absurdly-arcane rules of Senate governance than it is to do something about the fact that our planet is melting due to global warming.

And gee, Bob, if you’re going to oppose reconciliation on the climate crisis today, what’s to prevent you from opposing it again tomorrow on the Employee Free Choice Act or the Obama/Sebelius health care initiative?

At this moment, I really can’t find the words to communicate my disgust with Bob Casey. He has become every bit the centrist/corporatist/DLC-Third Way/accommodationist flunky I feared he would be when he defeated Chuck Pennacchio in the Democratic Senatorial primary three years ago.

Note: As of last Sunday, Congress is in recess until the week of April 20.

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