Why we need the filibuster

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Last night on Keith Olbermann, Olbermann asked Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas what he would do to end “political gridlock” in Washington. Moulitsas replied “kill the filibuster”:

KEITH OLBERMANN: In 30 seconds, what do we do to fix it [our political system]?

MARKOS MOULITSAS: Well, our system is broken. Mostly the Senate. In 30 seconds I can do it quicker: kill the filibuster. And that’s something I hope Democrats start looking into.

Oh, has it only been a five years since Democrats were decrying the Republican threat of invoking the “nuclear option” in response to Bush’s Supreme Court nominations? Now, all of a sudden, Democratic pundits are the ones criticizing the use of the filibuster.

Daily Kos afficionados might applaud Moulitsas’ comment. And yes, I support healthcare reform, and am frustrated by the slow lingering death of the various healthcare reform proposals in Congress — many of them being stymied by Republicans. And yes, it seems unfair that 40 committed senators (or 41, as the case may be) can stop 60 senators in their tracks with one well-placed filibuster.

But, it’s incredibly short-sided for Moulitsas and other left-wingers to blame the failure of healthcare reform on the mere existence of the filibuster rule.

The filibuster has always existed as a desperate measure intended to help avoid a simple “majority rules” mentality in the Senate. Having a majority of votes in the Senate grants the ruling party a significant advantage over the minority party, yet the purpose of the Senate — more so than the House — is to ensure careful debate over any and all pieces of legislation. Without the filibuster, the party that holds the most votes could simply force through whatever piece of legislation they would like, and the representatives of the minority party are little more than seat-warmers. The filbuster exists in case the members of the majority party lose their mind, and want to push through a bill without any adequate debate from the members of the minority party; in other words, the filibuster exists to ensure that the little guy can be heard.

Yet, a cloture vote — which requires 60 votes to end a filibuster — is not the only way to end a filibuster. Indeed, some of the most famous filibusters in history ended because the guy talking for 22 hours straight got sleepy or needed to pee — a person simply can’t stand and talk in one place for more than 24 hours.

If we want to pass healthcare reform (or any piece of critical legislation), we need only look to history. Strom Thurmond’s filibuster of the Civil Rights Act didn’t prevent its passage in 1965. Senator Huey Long’s 15 hour filibuster of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act didn’t stop banking reform.

So, I say this: if Republicans want to filibuster healthcare reform, let them. Let the Republicans draw straws to pick a representative amongst them to pee in Gatorade bottles and down throat lozenges to speak for 20 hours on why Americans don’t need healthcare. If they have a point — which they don’t — than voters across the country will be able to hear it for themselves.

But when it’s clear that the Republicans don’t have a point, let’s see whether voters will vote in favour of the party that wants to ensure that the sick get the live-saving treatment they deserve, or whether they will vote back into office the guys who actually gridlocked Washington for 24 hours trying to stop doctors from treating patients. 

But let’s end this dumb talk over getting rid of the filibuster. It comes off as petty and myopic. Moulitsas’ comment comes from the same partisan bickering that has characterized the last two decades in Washington. I guarantee that if a Republican majority were elected to Congress tomorrow, we would find Moulitsas on Rachel Maddow tomorrow night defending the filibuster as a noble and time-honoured political tradition.

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Study linking autism to vaccination retracted

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the study's primary author

I just caught this on CNN: a 1998 study “showing” a link between measles vaccinations and autism has been retracted by The Lancet. The 1998 Wakefield et al. paper reported that in a study of 12 children, GI abnormalities and onset of autism was associated with a measles vaccination were found in 8 of the patients, leading the authors of the paper to conclude that the measles vaccination led to failure of the GI tract, causing waste to enter the blood and producing autism.

As you can see from the Pubmed abstract, the 1998 Wakefield et al. paper attracted heavy criticism and comment, sparking a heated debate in the published literature. Walker-Smith’s lab (out of which the original 1998 paper was published) issued a partial retraction in 2004, clarifying that the original paper was not intended to demonstrate a causal link between measles vaccine and autism. Furthermore, many papers published by other investigators subsequent to Wakefield et al. demonstrated findings contradicting Wakefield’s initial causal conclusion — yet, in the popular media, Wakefield et al’s paper became a fundamental piece of “evidence” in the growing anti-vaccination hysteria that has taken the country by storm over the last decade.

Well, score one for the scientists: this morning, The Lancet issued a historic retraction of the entire Wakefield et al. 1998 paper. The retraction read only three sentences long, yet I think it’s implications are profound: 

Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al1 are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation.2 In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.

Basically, here’s what happened — recently, the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel met to discuss and review the investigative and ethical practices of the original 1998 Wakefield et al. paper. The panel found that, contrary to earlier reports, the study used shady and unethical practices for recruiting patients and collecting data, including Wakefield paying children for their blood samples at his son’s birthday party.

For those of you who don’t know, all human studies (like all animal studies) undergo a rigorous review prior to implementation to ensure that patient safety and scientific rigor are maintained. Very rarely does an investigator implement such poor scientific method that they invalidate their own findings, yet it turns out that Wakefield was one of these scientists.

Hopefully, this full retraction will begin to dismantle the rampant anti-vaccination hysteria we’ve seen in association with flu vaccines, chicken pox vaccines, and the latest H1N1 vaccine. I find parents’ fear of vaccination to be anti-intellectual at its core; they fear what they don’t understand.

But let’s get it straight: vaccines don’t hurt you, they help you. Vaccines can save your child’s life, and they sure as heck won’t give your kid autism. Go get your kid vaccinated already; when your kid gets sick, it’s already too late.

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Categories Categories Health and Fitness, Science


$10 Million Raised for Red Cross

I’m a huge believer of mass action. One of the major purposes of this blog was to try and encourage myself, and my readers, to stay involved — to be more than just an armchair activist. I’m one of those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed true believers who thinks we’re here on this planet to make a difference (yeah, I know, cue the beads, braids, and Beatles music). Writing, for me, is a daily act of raising awareness, stimulating discussion, and (hopefully) changing minds, but nothing beats hitting the streets, participating in a letter-writing or phone-banking campaign, or donating money.

Sure, each individual action seems tiny and pointless, but if a whole bunch of people do just a little bit… whoa!

A couple of days ago, I encouraged readers to help in the relief efforts in Haiti in the wake of a massive earthquake that demolished Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. One of the primary options was to donate via text message — sending the word “HAITI” to 90999 on your cellphone would send a $10 donation to the Red Cross International Relief Fund (appearing on your next monthly phone bill).

This campaign started on the Red Cross Twitter feed and was publicized on the White House blog. It was quickly picked up on Facebook (where I first heard about it). Word spread quicker than a zombie infection (yeah, I’m playing Fallout 3 right now so zombies are on the mind) — this morning, CNN reported that over $8 million dollars had been donated to the Red Cross, and as of three hours ago, the Red Cross twittered that the sum had now reached $10 million dollars.

$10. Million. Dollars.more money than many foreign governments in Europe and Asia are individually committing — and most of it donated $10 at a time by people all over America. $10 million dollars from hundreds of thousands of people each spending less than thirty seconds of their day and giving up the cost of a meal for two at McDonald’s.

$10 million dollars. Pardon my French, but holy fuckin’ shit.

Or, put another way — naive romantic idealists: 1, skeptics and cynics: 0.

Here’s my re-post of how you can help raise the next $10 million:

  • Donate $10 to the American Red Cross International Relief Fund. You can donate online, or specify your donation to the disaster relief in Haiti by texting “HAITI” to 90999 on your cell phone. If you choose the texting option, you are making a one-time donation via mGive.com, which directs 100% of your donation to the American Red Cross. The amount will appear on your next cellphone bill. If you would like to publicize this option on your blog, feel free to use this button I made for my site.

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More Donation Options for the Haiti Earthquake

More options to donate:

  • I’ve heard through Facebook that Partners in Health has less overhead than the American Red Cross, so donating to their organization might mean extra relief work on the ground.
  • The New York Times has also compiled a list of organizations participating in relief efforts in Haiti.
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Disaster Relief in Haiti

Yesterday morning, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti just 14 miles outside of Port-au-Prince. Today, Haitian officials estimate that the number of dead could be in the several hundred thousand. To put that into perspective, it would be as if Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region more than fifty times over. It would be as if the tsunami that ravaged fourteen countries in Southeast Asia in December 2004 landed less than 700 miles off the coast of Florida. It would be as if roughly one-third to one-half the population of Tucson vanished in a single moment.

But really, there’s no way to truly grasp the loss of life on that scale.

Apparently, Obama’s committed to giving “aggressively” to relief efforts in Haiti, although I’m not sure how one exactly gives “aggressively”. But, you can do your part to help disaster efforts:

  • Donate $10 to the American Red Cross International Relief Fund. You can donate online, or specify your donation to the disaster relief in Haiti by texting “HAITI” to 90999 on your cell phone. If you choose the texting option, you are making a one-time donation via mGive.com, which directs 100% of your donation to the American Red Cross. The amount will appear on your next cellphone bill. If you would like to publicize this option on your blog, feel free to use this button I made for my site.

I chose the texting option because it seems to be the most direct way to specify my donation for disaster relief in Haiti. Please post a comment here if you donate to receive good karma from … well… me.

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