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Trick or Treat! Guess who wants to mess up Halloween?

February 4, 2011

I ask you, what could be scarier than the RI General Assembly mucking up a perfectly good tradition like Halloween?
But South Kingstown Rep. Donald Lally, a deputy whip on Speaker Gordon Fox’s leadership team, has an idea; he wants to fine-tune Halloween. Halloween has been around in one form or another since the mid-1500s, it is celebrated in many parts of the world, but Lally suddenly wants the General Assembly to fix it.
Risking the ire of ghosts, skeletons, zombies, vampires, goblins and other denizens of the netherworld, Lally has proposed a law to move Halloween from Oct. 31 to the last Saturday in October. As if any self-respecting undead demon would obey such a law in the first place. Can’t we leave anything alone?
Halloween is on Oct. 31 for a reason. It is the eve of All Saints (or Hallows) Day, when ghosts and goblins are said to move about in the night.
In observance of that, kids dress up in scary costumes and canvass their neighborhood warning “Trick or Treat” and are given candy and other goodies as treats to ward off tricks such as slinging eggs at houses (a personal favorite of my adolescence) or scrawling windows with wax (a tradition that seems to have waned in recent years). More recently, it has become a tradition for twentysomethings and thirtysomethings to go out reveling dressed in sexy/naughty costumes.
To be fair to Lally, he says he introduced the bill at the request of a constituent and even he doesn’t know yet if he favors it passing.
Lawmakers – who, it cries out to be said, should be able to find more important things to worry about (don’t we have a budget deficit or something?) – should resist the temptation to futz around with Halloween.
But Lally’s constituent is not alone. Places all over the map are messing with Halloween. The thing I found most amazing is that on blogs and message boards and places where readers respond to stories, their instinct isn’t to reject this Big Government intrusion into a frivolous holiday, they want it to go further. Some people – I swear to God! – actually want the legislative branch of state government to establish officially-sanctioned hours for Trick or Treating.
The U.S. Congress, for Pete’s sake, not long ago shifted the calendar for Daylight Savings Time at least in part to keep it lighter later on Halloween. When I was young, no kid even wanted to start Trick or Treating until it got dark out – it was part of the mystique.
We should leave Halloween alone. It is one more thing that isn’t broken but is nonetheless in line for a legislative fix.
A missed opportunity
I am flabbergasted that it did not get more attention last week when Democrats in the U.S. Senate voluntarily surrendered their majority status starting in 2013 and abandoned Barack Obama to being a one-term president.
In a breathtaking demonstration of political cowardice and ineffectiveness, Senate Democrats totally wimped out on a promise to bring common sense and small-d democracy to the arcane Senate rule that allows for a filibuster. They instead acquiesced to continuing to subject themselves to the tyranny of the minority that has stalled and obstructed Senate business in the last two years to a degree never before seen in more than 230 years of American history.
Republicans used the filibuster rule – more accurately, they abused the filibuster rule -- to effectively obstruct action on a record number of bills last year and the year before. An untold number of bills that passed the House of Representatives weren’t even brought up in the Senate because they inevitably would have been the subject of filibusters.
I am a sucker for hoary tradition and, until not long ago, supported the filibuster as an opportunity for a small group of principled lawmakers (that would have to be pretty small group in today’s Senate) to stand and argue on behalf of an idea that was getting rolled over by a majority. Until fairly recently, that meant those wanting to conduct a filibuster would hold the floor during the debate of a bill in an effort to talk the measure to death or perhaps force a compromise that was at least a bit more to their liking.
That’s not the way it works anymore.
Now, not only can a small minority, or even one single Senator, block a bill from coming to a vote, they (or he or she) can even block a bill from coming to the floor, causing literally months of delay, gridlock and political paralysis, simply by invoking the filibuster rules. The party with 41 votes can determine what will and will not pass in the Senate, while the majority party with 59 votes is a hopeless Gulliver, staked firmly to the ground by 41 Lilliputians.
Filibusters used to be rare, holy-mackerel events. In truth, it has a rather ignominious history. It was first used to protect slavery back in the days before the Civil War. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was used to block civil rights bills. Be that as it may, it was also used occasionally for loftier purposes. When it was used rarely as a last-ditch measure, it was barely tolerable.
In the last two years, however, Senate Republicans have used it on virtually every piece of major legislation. It has become a first-ditch tactic to stymie, obstruct and thwart the will of the majority and as a result it has to go. But having been the victim of this minority tyranny, and seeing themselves in the minority in the not-so-distant future, Democrats want to keep the evil instrument in their back pockets. This is gutless and unprincipled and any Senator who voted in favor of keeping the filibuster should be voted out of office at the first opportunity or, if possible, recalled immediately. When Americans go to the polls and elect United States Senators by popular vote, they have every right to expect that a majority of those Senators should be able to work their will.
The United States Constitution specifically cites several instances where a super-majority is necessary to conduct business. Ratifying treaties and impeachment proceedings are two times the Constitution calls for more than a majority vote. It does not countenance a three-fifths vote (now, 60 out of 100) for every piece of routine business to pass.
Democrats in the Senate had the opportunity on Opening Day to change the rules to allow bills to pass with 51 or more votes, but they didn’t have the guts or even the inclination to do so. They fiddled around for a couple of weeks then punted, satisfying themselves with stopping a single Senator from placing an anonymous hold to halt legislation temporarily or permanently. Big, fat hairy deal.
So Republicans in the House are, for the next two years, going to insist that the Democrats reach the virtually unattainable 60-vote majority to pass any piece of legislation. That will not make the majority Democrats look weak. It will make them be weak.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said and repeated publicly that the number one legislative goal for the Republican minority in the Senate for the next two years is to make Obama a one-term president. By not abolishing the filibuster, the Democrats have handed him the tool he needed to get that done.
What is President Obama going to accomplish in the U.S. Congress for the next two years?
Then, I can guaran-damn-tee you that a Republican will run for President in 2012 on the platform that the president has achieved absolutely nothing. As Democrats see it, the virtue of that is that they – who will by then be deservedly in the minority – will be able to see to it that the Republican president won’t be able to get anything accomplished, either.
Isn’t politics wonderful?

Jim Baron is a freelancer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.

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