Fire Sale | Lobbyists Rule | Minority Rules

Fire Sale—Seventy-two million, seven hundred fifty-three thousand, six hundred forty-seven? That’s the dollar amount the “FIRE” sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) has contributed to the 24 members of the Senate Banking Committee since 1989. The 14 Democrats on the committee took in $50,294,559. Committee Chair Chris Dodd received $13,985,872, but was surpassed by New York Senator Charles Schumer, who received $15,105,046. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh was third with $4,410,497 in contributions. An anomaly on the committee is Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, with $73,950 in total contributions, the only member of the committee collecting less than a six-figure sum. Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet, appointed to the Senate in 2009 and yet to face an opponent, has $634,920, an indication of how quickly financial sector money flows toward power. The 10 minority members of the committee have collected $22,459,088 since 1989 (which is as far back as OpenSecrets.org’s contribution analysis goes.)

These sums of money provide access that most constituents will never know, and it’s hard to imagine members casting votes that matter to the finance lobby without looking over their shoulders. Voting becomes more challenging as we move into the 2010 election cycle, with corporations unleashed by the Supreme Court to spend unlimited sums of money to elect or defeat candidates. Look for specific sectors, such as banking or energy, to shape the Congressional committees that write legislation that regulates their business practices.

Lobbyists Rule—The 10-year bankers’ deregulatory bacchanal didn’t come cheap. Finance sector contributions divided between the two parties between 1998 and 2008 totaled $1.7 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Another $3 billion was spent on 3,000 lobbyists focused on banking issues.

Minority Rules—How excessive is the minority’s use (or abuse) of the filibuster in the Senate? UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the numbers (actually she’s been doing them for decades) and found an unprecedented increase in obstruction of majority legislation and presidential appointments. According to Sinclair, 8 percent of major bills were subject to filibuster in the 1960s. That number has climbed to an unprecedented 70 percent today, with Republicans who became the Senate majority in 2006 setting a filibuster record in the two years leading up to Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Talking Points Memo‘s Josh Marshall followed Sinclair, reporting that when Democrats were the minority in the Senate in 2005-2006 the filibuster was used 68 times. With Republicans in the minority in 2007-2008, filibusters spiked to an unprecedented 139—the “record” cited by Sinclair. (There are no actual filibusters, but simply the release of a list of 41 senators committed to keeping a bill off the floor.) Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions referred to his party’s unwritten rule when he defended a filibuster against Obama’s first judicial appointment: “I believe this side cannot acquiesce in a philosophy that says that Democratic presidents can get their judges confirmed with 50 votes.”

With health-care reform and climate legislation blocked by the 60-vote rule that Senate Republicans use to nullify the majority, there is a move in both the House and Senate to rewrite the rules and end the roadblock. Florida Democratic Representative Alan Grayson is circulating a petition that supports rewriting the rules by which the minority currently dominates the majority. Oregon freshman Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley has proposed a bipartisan rules change to do away with the filibuster—six or eight years from now. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin has filed a bill that would create a voting diminuendo: 60 votes to block cloture on the first attempt, 57 votes two days later, proceeding down the scale to a simple majority of 51 to bring a bill or nomination to the floor. But a bill would require a super-majority to pass, because even a bill to limit filibusters would be subject to a filibuster.

New Mexico Democratic Senator Tom Udall has a better idea—a proposal that could have the Senate working under a new set of rules after January 2011. Assuming a Democratic majority after the 2010 elections, 51 senators—or 50 senators and the vice president to break the tie—can end the minority’s veto power over all legislation, when the Senate adopts its new rules in January. It is a drastic revision, but at no time in the history of the Congress has the minority in the Senate imposed its will on the majority.