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.