Monday, December 13, 2010

Vermont's Finest

In the spring of 1978, during my freshman year of college at the University of Vermont, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened an ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington.  There was no Chunky Monkey in those days but the ice cream was incredible, and it wasn't long before Ben & Jerry's became a national sensation.  Ben & Jerry's not only made great ice cream, but they capitalized, so to speak, on their success to give back to the community and fund many charitable works.

In my senior year, Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, another progressive, socially conscious local phenomenon that has since gone national.  In 1990, after four successful terms as mayor, Sanders -- a self-described Democratic-Socialist -- won election to the House of Representatives as an independent.  In 2006, he was elected to the Senate.

Bernie Sanders has been a tireless defender of social and economic justice since well before he or Vermont's finest ice cream became household names.  He has argued strenuously for stringent environmental regulations to combat global warming, has been an ardent advocate for gay rights, and has pushed for more progressive health care reform.  And, on December 10th, for more than 8-1/2 hours, this 69-year old man with his classic Brooklyn accent took to the Senate floor and heroically proceeded to filibuster the deal President Obama cut with the Republican leadership on extending the Bush tax cuts. 

Bernie's crusade began earlier, on November 30th, when he gave a remarkable speech in the Senate.  He opened by declaring that "a war [was] being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country" against working families and against "the disappearing and shrinking middle class."  After detailing the growing income disparity between rich and poor, he belittled Republicans for expressing deep concern for the deficit while insisting on extending the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% and eliminating the estate tax.  And he went further.  Sanders made clear that many Republicans will not stop at tax cuts but "want to bring the United States back to where we were in the 1920s, and they want to do their best to eliminate all traces of social legislation which working families fought tooth and nail to develop to bring a modicum of stability and security to their lives," including Social Security and Medicare.  He concluded with a plea to his colleagues to "stand together and start representing those [middle class] families [or] there will not be a middle class in this country."

On Friday, in an effort to stall Senate passage of the tax cut compromise, Bernie Sanders spoke virtually uninterruptedly for 8 hours and 37 minutes (with a little help from  Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)).  He promised "to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides."  Echoing the themes of his earlier speech, Bernie slammed the Republicans as hypocrites for evincing concern about the deficit, saying that if they voted on this deal, there should be "no more lectures" from them about spending.  He warned that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would likely be made permanent, contending that although Obama only agreed to a two-year extension of the tax cuts, if Obama "caves in now, who's going to believe that he's not going to do the same thing in two years." 

Sanders' epic performance was not technically a filibuster because there was no vote pending, but it received an enormous amount of notoriety, hopefully reaching people who might not otherwise be paying attention and serving to energize the left.  It remains to be seen whether it will create a tipping point and spur enough other members of Congress to stand up to the President.

Perhaps most importantly, Bernie Sanders has shown what it means to use the tools of the Senate to take a principled stand.  It is outrageous that the Democratic majority has allowed Republicans to bottle up important legislation by doing no more than demonstrating they have the 41 votes to filibuster.  When, despite having a majority of votes to repeal DADT or pass the DREAM Act or the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act or confirm qualified judges or provide strong climate change legislation, Republicans indicate a refusal to allow an up-or-down vote, Democrats must insist on making them do what Bernie Sanders did -- stand up and defend their position for as long as they can.  My guess is that it will invariably take a whole lot less time than 8 hours and 37 minutes.

[Related posts:  Anger Management, No Se Puede, Lame and Lamer]

6 comments:

Maria said...

Absolutely! To block a vote Senators should be required to conduct a true filibuster and not simply indicate that they will not allow a vote.

Hobbie said...

To call Harry Reid a putz is an insult to shvantz everywhere.

lonbud said...

My point exactly, made in a note to Pres. Obama telling him why i could not support his Tax compromise deal. If Republicans had been forced to filibuster on the two pieces of legislation that would have extended the Bush tax cuts to all but the most wealthy only, this "deal" would never have had to come to the table.

I'm disgusted by almost everything I see these days out of Washington; Bernie's speech being a rare exception.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman said...

Brilliant post, Andy! You inspired me to search for some news about any kind of (shame-faced) resurgence of Senate progressives (as much out of desperation at the thought that all those Democrats sat through Bernie's heroics without lifting a finger, Landrieu & Brown excepted). I found out about Udall, Harkin & Merkeley's attempt last week to reform the Senate with new rules on filibustering: http://romanticpoet.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/progressive-power-play-coalition-urges-filibuster-reforms-in-new-senate-session/

Lovechilde said...

MIE: This is like a treasure hunt. Now, go read my 12/28 post on filibuster reform, Better Late Than Never.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman said...

Here I go!

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