Al Franken: Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

This is the third of Al Franken’s books I’ve read. The first two were Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The titles reflect Senator Franken’s first career as a comedian and writer. The sarcastic title of his new book reflects his current career as the junior senator from Minnesota.

This book isn’t as funny as his earlier ones. That’s because, as he points out several times, a senator has to be more careful about what he says. This is more like a standard politician’s autobiography than I expected. He spends a lot of time telling his life story and how he got into politics, and how much he enjoys serving the people of Minnesota. There is a lot about his accomplishments as a senator. There are also serious discussions of important issues (his discussion of the Affordable Care Act is especially good).

I learned about the day-to-day life of a U.S. senator and how frustrating it can be to get things done now that one of our major political parties has become dangerously dysfunctional. I also had to relive some horrible recent history, for example, how one of the worst people in America became president. Fortunately, he still has his sense of humor and allows himself to use it fairly often.

It should be noted that Sen. Franken has shown himself to be quite a good senator. He’s especially done an excellent job during committee hearings on the president’s terrible nominees to cabinet positions. Now some people (for example, in this article from a couple days ago) are talking about Franken as a presidential candidate in 2020. I doubt if he’ll run, but we could do much, much worse. We already have (twice in this century).

Random Roundup, or We Did Pretty Well for 230 Years

Reader alert:

You can read what I’ve written below or look at Will Bunch’s column “America’s Democracy Doomsday Clock Just Hit 11:58” at Philly.com instead. I read his column after I was almost done writing this post. To borrow a phrase from a President who doesn’t seem so bad these days: “I could refer to Bunch’s column only after you read what I wrote – I could do that – but it would be wrong”.

Or you could read both, since they don’t overlap completely!

So to begin:

The U.S. Senate, which some observers used to seriously call the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body”, is desperately trying to find 50 Republican votes to pass something, anything, to use as a vehicle to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act. If that happens this week, members of the Senate and House will then get together and discuss how best to cut taxes for the wealthy and health insurance for the non-wealthy. If they can agree on something, both houses of Congress will vote again. You can see the latest developments at The Washington Post and ThinkProgress (the latter is a “latest news first” page).

For a summary of the current healthcare “state of play”, see Paul Waldman’s excellent column: “Trump and Republicans Treat Their Voters Like Morons”. The main point he makes: 

In other words, their current position is, “We know how catastrophic this bill would be. But we got here by lying to these knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers for years, and if we don’t follow through, they’ll punish us”.

… There’s one other path open to them, which is to pass “skinny repeal” [which would only repeal a few parts of the ACA], then go to a conference committee with the House, in which an entirely new bill would be written incorporating the other things Republicans want to do. That bill could then be presented to both houses as a last chance to repeal the hated Obamacare, in the hopes that members would vote for it despite its inevitable unpopularity and cataclysmic consequences for Americans’ health care.

If and when that happens, Republicans will make that same calculation again: This thing is terrible and most everyone hates it, but we have to pass something because we fooled our base into thinking this would all be simple and we could give them everything they want. Or as Trump said during the campaign, “You’re going to have such great healthcare at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it is going to be so easy.”

That was just one of the many lies they were told, and they ate it up. 

I believe their attempt to repeal/replace the ACA is doomed, but I’m not a member of Congress. By the way, we are still being encouraged to contact Republican legislators on this issue. That’s because most members of the House and Senate are toddlers with extremely short attention spans. They need constant reinforcement in order to behave properly.

On Monday, DT (if only his middle name had been “Dennis” or “Darren”) tried to turn the Boy Scout Jamboree into a Hitler, excuse me, Drumpf Youth rally. New York Magazine has the story, including their “14 most inappropriate moments”. Digby comments:

It makes me feel like crying. The celebration of rank stupidity, the crude brutality, the incessant bragging, the whining and the lying in front of a bunch of cheering and jeering boy scouts is almost physically painful to watch. 

That’s being imprinted on this next generation as leadership. 

Meanwhile, DT is trying to get the Attorney General, old-style racist Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (aka “the nation’s top law enforcement officer”) to resign because Sessions hasn’t lied and obstructed justice enough on DT’s behalf. In itself, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Back to Paul Waldman for a summary of the AG’s first six months in office:

Jeff Sessions is a uniquely odious figure, perhaps the most malevolent force within the Trump administration. His most visible actions as head of the Justice Department have included shutting down oversight of local police departments accused of misconduct; renewing an ’80s-style “war on drugs”; advocating for asset forfeiture programs that literally steal money and property from people who are not even accused of a crime, let alone convicted; promoting mandatory minimum sentencing that members of both parties have come to see as cruel, unjust, and counterproductive; and rolling back civil rights protections for transgender children. While some Trump appointees have been most notable for their incompetence, if he gets his way Sessions will have a profoundly malignant impact on the nation.

DT wants Sessions to fire the Special Counsel who’s investigating DT’s criminal activities. Ideally, if Sessions were to go (hooray!), Congress would keep the Special Counsel’s investigation on track, which would be easy for them to do. But again, I’m not a member of Congress. (Don’t worry: To quote a true American hero, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected”. And he really could have been president if he’d wanted the job.)

Finally, the author of The Washington Post‘s “Right Turn” blog (“Jennifer Rubin’s take from a conservative perspective”) has a good suggestion:

A large segment of Republican voters should try turning off Fox News and allowing reality to permeate the shell they’ve constructed to keep out ideas that interfere with their prejudices and abject ignorance. Unfair? Take a look at the latest poll to suggest that Trump voters like their cult hero feel compelled to label inconvenient facts “fake news.” Morning Consult reports: “A plurality of Republicans say President Donald Trump received more of the popular vote in 2016 than his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton….

The report continues: “Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, said … Tuesday that Trump has “perfected the technique of the Big Lie” — which, as he wrote in an op-ed last fall, is to “repeat a lie loudly, over and over until people come to believe it. These results show that again that like ‘Birtherism,’ which launched Trump’s political career, the Big Lie continues to work, at least among those who want to believe it’.”

If these voters do not know or cannot accept something as simple as vote totals, do we really expect they will be amenable to reason on immigration (sorry, but illegal immigrants aren’t causing a crime wave), global warning (sorry, it’s not a hoax) or uncontroverted evidence of Russian meddling in the election? I’m sure all this makes the Trump staff and surrogates laugh uproariously as they admire their handiwork in bamboozling the angry mob. But they and the network of right-wing enablers have done real damage to our society and politics, making differences impossible to bridge and reasoned debate nearly impossible….

Democracy presupposes a minimally informed, responsible adult electorate. Right now it is clear the GOP is dominated by fact-deniers and willfully ignorant folk…

But here’s the thing: The rest of the country should empathize with their economic plight and sense of alienation, but that does not mean we should coddle them in their ignorance nor defer to judgments based on fabrication. They feel “disrespected” when fellow Americans point to reality? Trumpkins think elites are condescending when they call them “low information” voters? (It should be non-information voters.) Sorry, economic hardship does not bestow moral authority to lie, invent facts, smear opponents, blame foreigners or support lawlessness. And for elected Republicans to defer to the ignorant, beguiled voters is an abdication of their role and oaths.

However many years it’s been, 230 or 240 or some other number depending on how you count, we had a pretty good run. (Oh, sure, it can all turn around if people get out and vote, but, oh brother, this is bad.)

Update:

Brian Beutler predicts that Senate Republican will simply vote to remove the “individual mandate” portion of the Affordable Care Act, the rule that says people must buy health insurance or pay a penalty, and that the House will accept that change without further negotiation. Doing this would throw the health insurance market into chaos. Millions of relatively young or healthy Americans would decide not to pay for insurance until they needed it. As a result, millions of relatively old or sick Americans wouldn’t be able to afford coverage because of rising premiums.

It’s Getting Worse, But A Few Republicans Could Make a Big Difference

The Washington Post reported last night that the President and his henchmen have been discussing his authority to grant pardons for members of his administration, his associates, his family members and even for himself, should any of them be at risk of criminal prosecution for a Federal crime. They are also discussing ways to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation into the President’s Russian connection. The President is especially concerned that Mueller is reportedly examining DT’s tangled finances.

In a bizarre interview with The New York Times, the President left open the possibility that he might fire the special counsel if Mueller’s investigation goes too far, even though Mueller is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” (remember how an investigation into an Arkansas land deal led to questions about sex in the Oval Office?). 

Two observers drew the same scary conclusion from these reports. Brian Beutler of The New Republic writes:

The loud hum of chaos and spectacle engulfing the Trump administration is drowning out a creeping reality: We are on the brink of an authoritarian crisis that will make the firing of FBI Director James Comey seem quaint in hindsight.

In a more rule-bound environment, Mueller’s interest in opening Trump’s books would probably be checkmate for the president. Quite apart from the question of whether his campaign conspired with Russian intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it is widely suspected that a peek under the hood of the Trump organization will reveal serious financial crimes. Assuming that informed speculation is correct, and assuming our system of checks hasn’t broken down, Mueller would uncover the wrongdoing and bring down a president, or Trump would fire Mueller and Congress would step in to edge Trump out.

But at the moment there are no reliable sources of accountability. None.

Republicans have given every indication over the course of the past several months that no malfeasance, no matter how naked and severe, will impel them to rein in Trump or impeach him….

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the [Department of Justice] leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a [Republican] House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.

Prof. Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University writes for CNN that:

Just before Donald Trump took office, I argued that our new President would likely follow the “authoritarian playbook,” an approach toward governance that privileges executive power and makes the leader’s personal goals and needs the focus of his public office. Now, six months later, those predictions have come true….

warned that President Trump would escalate his attacks on the media, disregard political customs and democratic norms, and single out judges or other government employees who might challenge the legality or ethics of his actions.

He is on his way to accomplishing the most important things an authoritarian leader must do to survive over the long term. The strategies that he’s already used effectively will also guide his next phase of rule….

The most important item of the authoritarian’s playbook is this: He is in office not to serve the nation but to protect his own position of power, often enriching himself along the way….

Studies show that once political elites [such as Congressional Republicans] have concluded their deals with authoritarians and signed on publicly, they usually stick with those leaders to the bitter end.

The inauguration was six months ago today. Since then, the issue of creeping authoritarianism hasn’t been talked about much – there have been other, more immediate problems to worry about. In addition, seeing the President in action for six months has confirmed that he’s too stupid, ignorant and lazy to “seize power” in a truly authoritarian way. It seems more likely that the Trump administration will keep reversing progress and generating pain for the next 3 1/2 years, without achieving iron rule. 

But the failure of Congressional Republicans to hold the President accountable in any way is still shocking. There’s polling evidence that the Democrats could take back the House of Representatives in next year’s election, and maybe the Senate, but after reading these articles last night, I began to wonder if there could be a quicker solution. 

In fact, there is. If three Republican senators were to switch parties or declare themselves independents and vote with the Democrats, they could replace the odious Senator Turtle Face (aka Mitchell McConnell), who rules the Senate with a semi-iron hand, with a sensible Democrat. Likewise, although less likely, if 24 Republican members of the House (one-tenth of their total of 240) were to do the same, they could replace the dead-eyed granny-starver, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, with a Democratic colleague.

In fact, the Speaker of the House doesn’t even have to be a member of Congress. They could elect Joe Biden! Or The Rock! Or you! Or me! There’s no need to wait for another national election, since the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can be replaced at any time by a simple majority vote in their respective houses of Congress.

Just to show I’m not completely off the wall, respected journalist James Fallows posted “Everything Now Hinges on Three Republicans in the Senate” this morning:

By midnight on July 20, 2017, it seemed increasingly likely that Donald Trump will fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Mueller embodies what is admirable in U.S. public service … Donald Trump embodies the reverse.

Yet for now Trump has the legal power, directly or indirectly, to dismiss Mueller, if the investigation gets too close to Trump’s obviously sensitive financial concerns. And Trump himself, unaware of history and oblivious to rules, norms, and constraints, has given every indication that this will be his next step.

What happens then? [Fallows then refers to Brian Beutler’s scary article above.]

There are 52 Americans who have it within their power to prove that dark assessment wrong. Really, it would take a subset of just three of those 52. With the 52-48 current party lineup in the U.S. Senate, a switch of three votes of conscience is all it would take to have this branch of government fulfill its checks-and-balances function.

With three votes, a Senate majority could issue subpoenas and compel sworn testimony from Administration officials. It could empower its own thorough investigation, even re-hiring Robert Mueller to lead it. It could compel Donald Trump to release the tax returns about which he is so evidently nervous. It could act as if America in fact possessed a system of rule-of-law, rather than whim-of-one-man.

[Fallows then lists several Republican senators who might do the right thing, since, for example, some of them won’t run for reelection again.]

It would take only three. Some—Grassley? Heller? McCain if he is able to vote?—might think: What do they have to lose? They might as well wind up with dignity. Others … are so far away from re-election that a lot will happen in the meantime. And all of them are senators, part of a body self-consciously proud of its independence, its individual judgment, its role in defending the long-term principles of governance.

A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people. But the United States may soon be in that situation. These names will go down in history, depending on the choices they make.  

What a Concerned Person Might Do

It’s Monday afternoon and the resistance is heating up. There’s going to be a big demonstration in Washington on Wednesday. A human chain around the Capitol Building has been mentioned.

Meanwhile:

legumspiro

calls

Senators love hearing from people who live in their states. They also love hearing from nice people who claim to live in their states. Such people could try calling Senators through the main Senate switchboard at (202) 224-2131. But it’s often easier to get through to a Senator’s local office, in states like, for instance, Maine, Arkansas and Ohio (see list above).

Emails don’t have as much impact, but Senators also love getting them, especially from people who live in their states (or claim to). You can tell because their contact pages usually refer to the Senators by their first names. So it’s “Contact Jeff” or “Contact Susan”.

If a person wanted to send a nice but not quite accurate email to a Senator, despite not living in the Senator’s state, a person could:

Find a city in that state.

Bring up the map for that city.

Look for a part of town where affluent people probably live (usually somewhere on the outskirts where the streets are curvy or there are lakes or a country club nearby).

Identify a pleasant street name.

Use Zillow to find a nice house on that street. (Zillow will provide the Zip Code too!)

Look for a local business, school or church and save the phone number.

Find the Senator’s contact page. (They all look like Jeff’s.)

Then a person could enter some personal data, specifying a name of their choice, an address on that nice street with a street number of their choice, the Zip Code that Zillow provided, and maybe a phone number with the relevant area code and prefix.

Unfortunately, a person would also have to enter an email address, possibly twice, so it’s good if a person has  an innocuous email address that can be used to receive garbage emails. (I have one; maybe a person should have one too.)

After that, all a person would have to do is maybe select a topic (something like “Health”), possibly type in a subject (like “Senate Health Care Bill”) and then enter a polite plea to vote No on an upcoming piece of abominable legislation that relates to health insurance.

Perhaps something like this, but using a person’s own words: 

Dear Sen. XXX: Please vote No on the Senate Health Care Bill. You know in your heart that it’s a bad bill. It will harm the people of <XXX’s state>. Reporters say that moderate Republicans always give in to the GOP leadership at the last moment. Don’t let that happen, no matter what they promise. We are counting on you. Sincerely yours, <the name that a person chose to use>

I’m not recommending this, of course, because, as President Nixon famously pointed out, “it would be wrong”. But given the stakes (many people will unnecessarily suffer and die if this legislation passes), a concerned person might do it anyway.

 

What People Need to Know About Medicaid

Please share this 20-minute video, even with Americans who hate politics. It might reach people in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, Ohio or West Virginia who will call their relatively sane Republican Senators and demand that they vote No on the Better Healthcare Reconciliation Act, also known as the Senate healthcare bill or Trumpcare. We need to stop this abomination now.