GOP TO MINERS: DROP DEAD: In April, after an explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine left twenty-nine miners dead, there was strong talk from Washington about accountability. Outrage grew when reporters discovered that the Massey Energy–owned mine had been cited thousands of times for safety violations, while CEO Don Blankenship postponed a comeuppance by miring nearly every violation in a broken appeals process.
All that tough talk has been forgotten now. On December 8, House labor committee chair George Miller made a last-ditch effort to pass mine safety legislation before the Republican takeover, using an expedited procedure that requires two-thirds support. The bill, named after the late Senator Robert Byrd, would have raised penalties for scofflaw mine operators, eased the process for shutting down the most dangerous mines and offered new protections for whistleblowers. If the law had been in place last spring, there’s a decent chance the explosion would not have taken place; at Upper Big Branch, workers had complained of unsafe conditions for months.
Passage of the bill once seemed inevitable, but the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers warned Congress against voting for it. At one hearing, a Chamber representative, a former Bush Labor Department official, deplored the “adversarial relationship” it would create between regulators and mine operators and its “unduly punitive” penalties. Even though a majority in the House supported the measure, Republicans (all but one), joined by twenty-seven Democrats, had the numbers to kill the bill. The New York Times called the vote an insult to the memory of the fallen miners—and it was. It was also likely a death sentence for many more miners.
Meanwhile, West Virginia mining officials continue to investigate the Massey disaster. Blankenship, so talkative in opposing new mine safety legislation, has taken the Fifth. ESTHER KAPLAN
A REAL FILIBUSTER: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders‘s eight-and-a-half-hour floor speech on December 10—in which he challenged the deal to extend tax cuts for the rich—illustrated the positive power of the filibuster. But this tool has been abused in recent years. Sanders engaged in a traditional filibuster, going to the floor and holding forth. But most “filibusters” these days are acts of what the Brennan Center for Justice calls “procedural obstructionism.” Instead of speeches—like Jimmy Stewart’s in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—today’s filibusters merely exploit the rules to block debate, and they do it often. Historically it was rare to see even a handful of cloture votes during a Senate session—there was only one during Lyndon Johnson‘s six years as Senate majority leader—but we now see dozens of them a year.
A new campaign, Fix the Senate Now, seeks to address the “back room deals, secret holds, and filibuster rules that allow a handful of senators to stop the rest from making any progress.” Following a proposal by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, the campaign suggests changing filibuster rules in two specific ways. First, “Make the filibuster real. If one or more Senators want to filibuster a bill, they should be required to hold the floor and fight for what they believe in.” Second, “Don’t give Senators multiple chances to filibuster the same bill. In recent years, Republicans have regularly filibustered routine parliamentary steps, even on measures that virtually everyone agrees on.” Merkley plans to propose these and other reforms when the new Senate is organized—and establishes its rules—in January. Follow the campaign at fixthesenatenow.org. JOHN NICHOLS
BRITISH CRACKDOWN: Student protests reached a crescendo in London on December 9 as members of Parliament voted to triple university tuition despite opposition from students, teachers and unions. Regrettably, most of the mainstream press chose to cover the demonstrations as an affront to power. The New York Times splashed Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, on the front page, unhurt in their paint-bombed Rolls-Royce, and the accompanying article related the story of police officers injured in the violence, which provided a “disturbing backdrop to the day’s political events.”
The article neglected to mention the police brutality against a 20-year-old man, Alfie Meadows, who is fighting for his life after alleged truncheon blows to the head caused bleeding in the brain, and Shiv Malik, a freelance journalist who needed five stitches after similar mistreatment. A disabled protester, Jody McIntyre, was also pulled from his wheelchair and later thrown to the ground by police.
In the House of Commons, six Conservative MPs voted against their own party’s bill, including Julian Lewis, who told the House, “I grew up in Swansea [in Wales] and went to the same [state] school as my father, Sam. The difference was that he had to leave at 14 to help his father as a tailor…. I can hear people talk about percentages until they are blue in the face…but they will not convince me that young people from poor backgrounds will not be deterred…. I would have been deterred, and I do not want others to be deterred.” JENNIFER O’MAHONY
MILLENNIALS ON THE MARCH: At 26, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the first member of the millennial generation to be named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, but for almost everyone else in his cohort, the future is defined by turmoil and uncertainty. Weaned on the Internet, millennials will constitute 33 percent of the eligible electorate by 2016, coming of age in a political climate marked by never-ending gridlock and a prolonged recession that has shattered the myth of middle-class stability.
In response, the Roosevelt Institute—founded in 2004 as the first student-run policy organization in the United States—has released its “Blueprint for the Millennial America,” a comprehensive outline of where this generation’s political priorities lie. Its policy prescriptions include expanding college affordability, a restructuring of the economy to meaningfully redress global warming and some substantive means of reducing the millennials’ staggering unemployment rate, which now exceeds 25 percent.
But more consequential, the institute has started work on a grassroots model for activism—”a structure that enables young people to break down the policymaking process into manageable pieces.” Fittingly, you can learn more about the plan of action on the institute’s newly minted Facebook page. MICHAEL TRACEY