Senate Restoring Democracy to End Filibusters Over Appointments

I have been running a series over time of how the American political system differs from the naive conception of Democracy that we are taught in high school. They have all been negative. Finally we have one partial restoration of Democracy in the Senate with respect to ending filibusters over affirming the Presidential nomination of judges and administration appointments. Previous to Obama, the senate has rarely allowed a single Senator to block such an appointment. However, since Obama this has been used regularly against his nominations and appointments. The latest was Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell stating that he would not approve any appointments until he got his way on many issues. This is not the usual objection to something in the appointees’ qualifications. The courts are usually balanced by both parties being able to fill judgeships during alternating administrations. This was stopped for Obama’s appointees. The Democrats really had no option but to use the poorly named “nuclear option” and restore a democratic vote of 51 to end a filibuster for appointments.

Note that this does not apply to the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice, which still has the rule of requiring 60 votes. It also does not apply to the hundreds of bills that are blocked by the 60 vote filibuster rule also. Remember, it only takes one Senator to use the filibuster to block a vote on a bill, and they do not have to even actually filibuster, they just have to state that they want to do it. The 60 votes are then needed to override the filibuster. In the very old days, they actually had to filibuster, and after a few hours it would be all over. Now days, the request for a filibuster lasts forever.

The amazing count by the Washington Post is that there are 50 judicial nominees and 186 executive nominees awaiting appointment. The executive nominees have been pending an average of 140 days. 85 of these are for cabinet level agencies. 34 are Ambassadors!  Is there any doubt that the government will run better with these positions filled?

The first vote after the rule was set aside for appointments, the vote was 55 to 43 for, a spread of 12%, not a mere majority of 51.

There is nowhere in the Constitution that this rule is mentioned, or the number 60 is set. It just falls under the clause in the Constitution that the Senate can set its own rules.

The threats by Sen. Mitch McConnell to retaliate in force sort of indicate that when the Republicans take power some day he would have probably abolished the rule of 60 for all votes to end filibusters anyway. If he doesn’t like the democratic simple majority rule, he could simply restore the rule of 60 next time the Republicans rule the Senate. The fact that the House no longer automatically votes to keep the government running or to raise the debt ceiling, but holds them hostage to force unrelated policies, shows that no holds are barred by the Republicans.

The Washington Post also points out that many appointments can still be halted by the approving committees not meeting and voting with a quorum. A large number can be delayed for a day by a long debate on the floor. Such a visible tactic for well qualified judges and appointees won’t stand well with the general public, who already sees the Congress as ineffective and dominated by political squabbling.

There was no need to return the vote to end filibusters on bills to a simple majority, since the Republican House would not approve them anyway. Even bills that are approved by the Senate with more than 60 votes often do not end up being submitted to a House vote, or being passed by the House. The Hastert rule of requiring a majority of only Republican support is often invoked before submitting a bill to a House vote.  Again, this is not in the Constitution.

“The Future of Nuclear Technology … After Fukushima” Talk by Alan Waltar

This is my report on the talk by Alan Waltar to the Distinctive Voices series.  The title was:

“The Future of Nuclear Technology … After Fukushima”

given on Nov. 13, 2013.  This is one of the series of Distinctive Voices at the Beckman Center.

The talk will appear on YouTube at

Alan Waltar, Ph. D., is past President of the American Nuclear Society.  He is a consultant to the IAEA and the Department of Energy.

Among other positions, he was Director of Nuclear Energy at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, and the Department Head of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M. He is the author of “America the Powerless: Facing Our Nuclear Energy Dilemma” in 1995, and “Radiation and Modern Life” in 2004.

He is participating in the Keck Futures Initiative on Advanced Nuclear Technologies at the Beckman Center of the National Academies of Science and Engineering in Irvine, California.

Dr. Waltar was a fast and enthusiastic speaker who covered many areas of nuclear power and applications of nuclear radiation. His talk was well illustrated and detailed, and I can mostly only outline it here. My advice is to view it on the Distinctive Voices YouTube when it becomes available in a few weeks from this date. (Parenthetical remarks are mine.)

On Fukushima, he cited someone who said “This Was Nuclear’s Finest Hour”.
The plant was designed for an 8.2 magnitude earthquake, and it survived the 9.0 earthquake. The containment stayed intact and the reactors shut down. (What failed was that the external power failed and the diesel generators could not be started to provide emergency cooling. I didn’t get time to copy the slide here.)

A few workers got over 100 mSv (milli Sievert). (This value is the lifetime limit in the US for nuclear workers. Background radiation is 3 mSv a year for average locales. Some medical tests hit 15 mSv.) Sickness occurs at 1 Sv. There were zero fatalities. Radiation sickness was zero. Latent cancers were zero.

The advantage of nuclear power is that the energy density is a million times that of fossil fuels. There is a supply of several millennia.

An advantage is energy security since most of the world’s oil is abroad. Nuclear energy also does not have much carbon emissions. The development of reactors plateaued around 1985 due to Chernobyl.

Russia plans to double its reactors by 2020. Germany is phasing out nuclear power, and their power cost is at 33 cents per kWh (compared with our starting rate of 13 cents per kWh including distribution charges). China has 29 reactors under construction.

The US has gained the equivalent of about 24 new plants by increasing their capacity (yearly time in service) and their power. (The US has 104 reactors, although some are retiring.) The US was planning a revival, but only currently building 5 reactors at Vogtle and VC Summer plants. Each reactor costs a large amount, $5 billion, but they are cash cows and last a long time. The new designs are Generation III+. In the future will be small modular reactors. They are cheaper. They are safer and can be build on a much faster schedule. The size being considered is around 225 mWe (mega Watt equivalent). Designs are sodium cooled and lead bismuth cooled (there may be others also). 32 are now proposed. The other half of the talk covers an enormous number of applications of radiation, which also generates a lot more money than just nuclear power, and employs more people. (I can only provide a partial outline here.) Agriculture Crops Animals Insect control by sterilizing them Food safety by radiation preservation Optimizing fertilizer and water use by tracing Modern industry Gauges for thickness, for example Materials development and testing Quality control Semiconductors implantation by decays Oil exploration Personal care Transportation Nuclear powered ships Cars Trucks Medical Sterilization of tools Imaging 12 million in US receive radiation tests a year Radioactive tracers CT scan SPECT PET PET/CT Therapies: proton radiation therapy Antiprotons Monoclonal antibodies target cancers Need neutrons from reactors to produce radioactive isotopes Space Heat generating reactors using Pu 238, such as in the Mars rover Curiosity Public safety Smoke detectors Crime fighting Terrorism detection Cargo inspection Arts and Sciences Carbon 14 dating Gemstone production by neutron radiation Environmental protection Pollution tracing Water tracing Nuclear plant heat for desalination Oceans: trace pollution Soil erosion trace The economic impact of radiation applications is 4.4 million jobs in the US in 1995, and the business is valued at$441 billion in the US.

We need a better public reception of nuclear power.

Audience questions followed. Here are his answers.

Waste from nuclear power is very small, and this is a major attribute for nuclear power.
Nobody has been killed in western world from nuclear power.
France extracts Plutonium for use in a breeder reactor. There is a lot of Uranium and Thorium available.

In Fukushima, they could dump the stored water as its radiation level has decreased in storage.

Thorium reactors will work, we just don’t have much of a development history with them.

We (the US) are not leaders any more, as in the development of small reactors.

(His talk reflected a lot of the areas and goals of the Keck Futures Initiative conference.)

Talk by Chemerinsky, Makdisi, and Nicholas Goldberg on the Op-Ed Articles in the LA Times

Talk by Irwin Chemerinsky, Sadee Makdisi, and Nicholas Goldberg on the Op-Ed Articles in the LA Times, on November 12, 2013.
Erwin Chemerinsky (C) is the Dean of the UC Irvine Law School
Nicholas Goldberg (N) was the Op-Ed Editor of the LA Times, 2003-2009, and is now the Editor of the Editorial Pages.
Saree Makdisi (S) is an Op-Ed contributor from UCLA

This talk at UC Irvine was put on by the Department of Literary Journalism of the School of the Humanities.
The announcement of the talk is at this link, as well as the introduction to the speakers.
I will use the shorthand C, N, and S for the speakers above.
After we moved to the larger Humanities Gateway lecture hall, the room was full.
(The parenthetical remarks are my own. So are any mistakes in paraphrasing, attribution, English, and spelling.)

N: The Op-Ed section presents ideas, not just news

This morning I caught Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, addressing the National Press Club on CSPAN 3.  Among other topics, he said that the Government was supplying $150 billion a year in educational grants and loans. He said both the government and the individual should be getting the most value for these investments and debts. This means giving these to students at institutions with high graduation rates, and from which graduates get well paying jobs. I have previously blogged about the graduation rates of Universities and of the results from a PayScale poll of starting and midlife salaries of students with bachelors degrees. It sounds like the administration is going to implement this, and that they have justification for it. When asked about for-profit universities, (where some do not deliver but exist on absorbing student grants and loans), he said some were good and some were not good values, and that the government shouldn’t be funding those that were bad. (I would comment that for-profit universities seem to have good lobbying.) Posted in Education, Politics, University Funding | Leave a comment Wealth 2013 Normally, I would resist commenting on wealth, but I love numbers, and there has just been a wealth of data released on wealth. We start with Forbes Magazine, which lists 1426 world-wide billionaires, with a net worth of$5.4 trillion dollars.  442 of the billionaires are in the US.

As an interlude, the LA Times cites a study that the average US CEO of a large company earns 350 times that of the average employee of that company.  In the 1980′s, the rule was that 20 times the average employees’ salary was considered ethical.  To see what this amounts to, the average wage in 2011 was about $43,000. Multiplying by 350 gives$15 million for the average CEO salary.  Although the LA Times doesn’t refer to what companies gave the 350 times figure, later it refers to a study of the top 250 out of S&P’s 500.

Credit Suisse has just released its 2013 Global Wealth Report, figuring World wealth at $241 trillion, and US wealth at$72 trillion.

They show adult wealth on a pyramid plot, where the left side is per capita wealth measured in factors of ten, from below $10,000 to over$1 million.  The areas of the pyramid are proportional to the number of people between each pair of levels.  Here is the plot containing all adults.

Starting from the bottom, over two thirds of world adults only own 3% of the world’s wealth.  Adding the bottom two segments, 90% of the world’s adults only own about a sixth of world wealth.  Adding the top two segments, 5/6 of the worlds wealth is owned by about 1/12 of the world’s adults.  The top segment shows that 1/143rd of the adults own 41% of the world’s wealth.  It’s good to be the Pharaoh! (apologies to Mel Brooks)

Since the top layer only contains millionaires, and we started discussing billionaires, we must peer further into the top layer.

Rather than compare percentages here, we just note that the top layer only gets us into $50 millionaires, of which there are almost 100,000. The 1426 billionaires would form a rock containing only 1.4% of the top yellow brick. There are 4.6 billion adults in the starting pyramid out of 7 billion total population. The above$50 million layer contains only 1/46,000th of the world’s adults.

Surprising Non-Democratic Examples of Redistricting

I wanted to present some simple cases of theoretical redistricting, to find out how undemocratic the results can be. The assumptions are that every voter is in one or the other of two political parties, red (R) or blue (B), and that red completely controls the state redistricting process. Later we will consider independents or different voting methods to try to resolve the lack of democracy in the results. By democratic results, I would mean that the resulting representation in the House would be the same ratio of voters into R and B parties. We start with a situation of many districts in the state.

The first case would be the most democratic one conceivable. Suppose that R and B voters are distributed uniformly throughout the state, but that there are more R voters. Suppose that the redistricting is done without any bias, say by a computer placing random rectangles in the state. Then each rectangle would contain the same percentage excess of R voters over B voters. Hence, only R representatives would be elected in every district across the state. Conclusion: a state with no socio-economic clumping and the most perfectly fair and unbiased districting ends up with the most undemocratic distribution of representatives, all from the dominant party.

The key to the most successful and undemocratic redistricting is not to protect the dominant state candidates’ (R say) district advantage, but the existence of local socio-economic clumping of the opposition B party. Let’s make this easy by a simple example, where the state is equally divided between R and B voters, with 50 districts in the state. Say that in 10 B districts containing 20% of the states’ voters, where B party members live in socio-economic clumped districts, that 100% of the district members are B partiers. That uses up 40% of the B voters and 0% of the R voters. In the remaining 40 districts, assuming uniform distributions of the remaining 60% of B voters and 100% of R voters, of which there are equal numbers to start, the Rs will have a 10:6 or 5:3 advantage, or 5 out of every 8 votes, or a 62.5% to 37.5% percent advantage. They will consistently win every election in the remaining 40 districts. So a state with 40% of one party clumping will split 4 districts for Red to every 1 district for Blue. It might not even appear that the boundaries will be jiggled around, or that the clumped population is disenfranchised. This is a highly undemocratic result from a state with equal red and blue voters. It shows that clumped one party districts have to be broken up in a fair amount to allow democratic representation.

I live in a part of Orange County where the opposition party regularly achieves two to one votes in Congressional House elections. Yet I have come to consider myself a sacrificial bunt in a district where the opposition party is clustered, and my party’s voters can be spread around more districts to dominate the state’s House agenda. I can’t influence my own House member, and since House forms on the web are prejudiced to members from their own district, I can’t influence my own party’s House members either. I do write to my states’ congressional Senators and some on my blog, though.

The corrections to these undemocratic examples are a growth of independents, or of a third centrist party. Also cross party voting in primaries can lead to more centrist candidates. Finally, selecting the top two candidates out of both primaries put together can lead to more centrist candidates.

According to NBC news, the middle now accounts for 51% of voters, more partisan Democrats are 21%, and more partisan Republicans are 28%.
The simple math models of course ignore personalities, general issues, local issues, funding, tennis shoes on the ground, voter restrictions, turnout rates, the draw of other issues or candidates on the ballot, and whether it is a midterm or presidential election year. Even in the first case with a red party excess and uniformity, if the excess is not too large, the blue party can get members elected based on many of the factors above. If the red party excess is too large, blue party residents can always adopt the sacrificial bunt rationalization, that they are holding excess red party members, allowing more blue party House members to be elected in other states. Not very comforting, but the national strategy of parties in presidential elections is to produce as close a balance as possible, without breaking their own parties’ support.

The NY Times has an article on states that are nearly balanced, but redistricted by one party, which has resulted in essentially a three to one split in representatives favoring that party, similar to the second mathematical case presented above. Redistricting was said to have changed 25 house seats. 40 members of the House departed, partly to redistricting. In California, redistricting changed the 7th , 26th, and 52nd districts to Democratic.

One website suggested that the packing was due to the voting rights act, although that may now be moot. I am in a district “packed” by suburban high cost housing, on the other end.