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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Killing the Filibuster and Letting the Majority Rule in the Senate

One of the many reasons for the logjam in Congress in the past years has been that while a simple majority is all that is necessary to pass a bill in the House of Representatives, in the Senate it takes 60 votes to do so.  Why?  Because the Senate allows for a parliamentary procedure called a “filibuster” in which the Senators who oppose a bill may keep debating it, and debating it, and debating it, unless cut off by a “cloture” vote, which takes the support of 60 senators.  Thus, even though the Democrats have a majority of 53 senators (plus two independents who usually vote with them), they cannot pass a bill without the support of some of the 45 Republican senators supporting a cloture vote.

Aaron Burr
Under Robert’s Rules of Order (used by most deliberative bodies) debate is closed by the passage of a “Motion To Call the Question,” which is not debatable (see RRO section 37).  In the U.S. House of Representatives such a motion passes on a mere majority vote.  This originally was the rule in the Senate but in 1806 Aaron Burr called for a reform of procedural rules and recommended that this particular motion be eliminated as unnecessary.  It is widely agreed that he didn’t understand what this would mean, but when the rules were revised that same year they did eliminate any procedure for ending debate.  All that is left is a motion to end debate, which would require a majority vote, but, alas, such a motion itself could be subjected to a filibuster.

Although the filibuster has been possible in the Senate since 1806, it was rarely employed until recently.  Senator Jeff Merkley (D. Ore.) uses this statistic to show how the use of the filibuster has exploded in the past few years: Lyndon Johnson in his six years as Majority Leader of the Senate faced one filibuster, while Harry Reid, the current Majority Leader, in his six years has had to deal with 391.

This is outrageous.  The Constitution cites only five requirements for Senate supermajorities, including impeachment convictions of presidents, but none of those apply to cutting off debate.  Indeed the drafters of the Constitution considered making supermajorities a requirement for many forms of legislation but in the end went with the basic premise that majority rules.  The stupidity of the filibuster’s possible use means that the Senate is most often at a standstill. 

Late this year the Democrats finally took action and managed to pass a rule change that forbade the use of the filibuster in matters having to do with Presidential appointments (other than those to the United States Supreme Court).  This rule change was deemed the “nuclear option” because it bombed away some of the protection the filibuster has traditionally given to the minority party, and the Republicans were duly outraged at being deprived of this valuable delaying tactic.

Why not go all the way and simply abolish the filibuster by reinstating the motion to cut off debate (with a majority vote all that’s needed to prevail)?  Well, the answer is that the Democrats are now in control of the Senate, but that won’t last forever.  When they are next in the minority they’ll be every bit as fond of the filibuster as the current crop of Republicans.

But this is pusillanimous—the good of the country requires that Congress function as smoothly as possible, and obstructions as large as the filibuster are relics of the past that we should no longer tolerate.  With Congress’s approval rating at an all time low any step to make the legislative process speedier and more efficient should be taken.

Dump the filibuster completely.  Give us back majority rule in both houses of Congress.

Related Posts:
“Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun,” May 29, 2010
“How To Make Ethical Decisions,” December 12, 2010
“Ohio To Put Guns in Baby Strollers,” June 17, 2012
“Obamacare, John Roberts, and the Supreme Court,” July 3, 2012
“I Hate Meetings,” October 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Duck Dynasty & Gays: Freedom of Speech Isn’t What It’s Quacked Up To Be

Phil Robertson
The patriarch of the duck whistle family in “Duck Dynasty” (one of the most watched shows on television), Phil Robertson, granted a interview recently with GQ Magazine and made some remarks about blacks:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field. ...They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word! . . .  Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

and gay men:

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there!  She’s got more to offer.  I mean, come on, dudes!  You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.  [Asked what’s sinful, he replied:] Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.  Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.  [And later in a speech to church members, added that gays should turn to Jesus:]  Jesus will take sins away, if you're a homosexual he'll take it away, if you're an adulterer, if you're a liar, what's the difference?  If we lose our morality, we lose our country.

This caused an immediate uproar, and A&E, which has made a lot of money off of Duck Dynasty, suspended Mr. Robertson from appearances on the show (set to start its new season in January), but when the rest of the family said they wouldn’t continue without him, has now backed away and is hoping the whole kerfluffle will die down.

Many commentators who should know better, such as the Governor of Louisiana (where the show takes place), immediately were outraged that Mr. Robertson’s freedom of speech was being violated.  That’s simply wrong if what they mean by this is that something illegal has occurred.  Oh yes, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does explicitly guarantee freedom of speech, but look at its wording:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Note carefully that it’s Congress that’s forbidden from abridging the freedom of speech, or, phrased another way, the government.  Since the government has in no way violated Mr. Robertson’s freedom of speech rights, the First Amendment’s protection of him is not triggered.  If Mr. Robertson had been suspended by A&S for his religious views, that might violate various civil rights statutes, but again that isn’t a freedom of speech issue (it’s a violation of a statutory right).

But, you might ask, isn’t there a general right to freedom of speech?  Well, yes, but if people don’t like what you say they can do all sorts of nasty things to you without the law being broken.  But I’m sure that Mr. Robertson and his duck-calling clan signed a contract with A&E that allowed the company to fire them at will if they misbehaved and caused unwanted publicity. 

We all have the right to say what we think (with some exceptions: libel, invasion of privacy, fraud, yelling fire in a theater, etc.) but we don’t have the right to escape criticism or other penalties for what we utter, and that includes contractual agreements to keep our mouths shut about controversial topics.

I’m a gay man and an atheist.  If I make statements concerning these issues that upset some people (for example saying, as I have, that it’s impossible to change sexual orientation by praying to Jesus, or that religion is on the whole very bad for civilization) I may be roundly criticized for these remarks (which has occurred).  Evangelical Christians like Mr. Robertson will certainly be offended, and if I were to stand up in his church and stupidly announce these views from a pew, no amount of “freedom of speech” will keep me from immediate and very bad consequences. 

What is valid about objections to the public outcry is that “political correctness” seemed to  demand this man be fired or publicly flogged or something equally unpleasant.  To me the proper response to speech that you don’t agree with is to argue the issue out in the public forum.  Huge numbers of religious people believe exactly what Mr. Robertson said about gay people and—an even uglier truth—his brainless remarks about blacks.  We should take this opportunity to make it clear why these views are wrong and even immoral.  If we persuade enough people ratings from the show might go down.

But probably not.  Duck Dynasty’s audience is not likely to care about political correctness on a show about Evangelical duck hunters (and millionaires, who have a very different private life than the one they put on TV—see  It should be no surprise that reality shows reflect what real people believe, whether much of society agrees with them or not.

But whatever penalties there are for expressing unpopular opinions, as long as the government stays of out it, the legal concept of “freedom of speech” is not involved.

Related Posts:
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010
"An Atheist Interviews God,” May 20, 2011
“Is It Legal To Discriminate Against Gay People?” March 19, 2014

“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015;
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

Douglas and David Get Married

Continuing the story of the romance that has been explored before in this blog below (see Related Posts below), this update gives a prรจcis of the actual marriage and the celebration thereof that occurred to Douglas John Whaley and David Allen Vargo, who met on Saturday, January 12th of this year at 11 p.m. in Wilton Manors, Florida, and married in New York City on Saturday, November 9th at 5:30 p.m.

Since the States of Ohio and Florida both prohibit gays from obtaining a marriage license, we flew to New York on Thursday, November 7th, and checked into the Hilton on Times Square.  I mentioned to the nice woman at the reservations desk that we were in the city for the weekend in  order to be married, she congratulated us, and then promptly put us in a deluxe suite with a terrific view of downtown.  David hadn’t seen either “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Lion King” (though decades before I’d watched the original casts perform both), so we saw them in that order on Thursday and then Friday, and thoroughly enjoyed both.


On Friday morning we went to the New York City Clerk’s office to get a marriage license, and that experience was one of the highlights of the trip.  Even at 10:30 a.m. the halls were filled with couples, many of whom were to be married on the spot by a Justice of the Peace, and so things were very festive.  The happy couples were about evenly divided between straight and gay, young and old, and some had wedding parties at the ready with confetti in hand.  Our favorites were two lipstick lesbians, young and beautiful, both in identical traditional white wedding gowns, bouquets and all, smiling brightly.  The clerk who staffed the window issuing our license was great fun, and in the movie version of all this will be played by Whoopi Goldberg.  When I commented to her that her job had to be “good fun,” she replied, “For you it’s fun, for me it’s a job—with good days and bad days.”  When asked what were bad days, she mentioned the not infrequent quarrels that couples applying for a license sometimes engaged in right at her window (“You don’t want to change your name?”), and commented that there was a good reason for the mandatory 24 hour waiting period between the issuance of the license and the ceremony.  Asked what were good days, she smiled.  “For example, when they give me a box of chocolates.”

On Saturday afternoon we hustled into our marriage suits and went to Central Park for a carriage ride.  The driver was a very nice young man from Turkey who was just finishing up his degree in engineering at City College and his horse was an old pro named “Chestnut.”  It was cold, but there was a blanket for couple to pull around them, and it was appropriately sappy and romantic to snuggle together and watch the park go by.  Chestnut knew the route and keep encouraging the driver to take the short tour at various forks in the road, and it was cold enough we were all glad to do that.

[Click to enlarge]
By one of those strange coincidences that happen in life (or, in David’s view, are assigned by God) the marriage took place at the very apartment house, Chelsea Gardens, where David had lived when he was doing theater in New York in the 80s.  It was the home of my good friend Roger Bailey, who welcomed us and guests for the ceremony, which was presided over by a friend of his, Ben Sander, who lived in the same building.  The ceremony was traditional, but short.  We exchanged vows.  Mine was an adaptation of David’s favorite quotation from “The Tempest”:

Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service.
There will it reside until the last instant of my oh-so-blessed life.

David’s vows were longer, and very poignant, and they concluded with:

I will honor and respect you. I will rejoice in your joys and weep in your sorrows. I will love and cherish you without cease and without pause, all the days of our lives until death parts us.

In your eyes, I have found my new home.
In your heart, I have found a true and everlasting love.
And in your soul, I have found my friend, my teacher, my companion, and my mate.
With you, I am happy, empowered, and alive.
You have made me feel safe in a turbulent and unstable world.
You have restored my faith in humankind and given me a reason to look forward to each new day.
I am yours.
You are mine.
Of this I am certain.
You now live in my heart and will remain there all the days of my life.

After that we placed rings on each other’s fingers, were pronounced “husband and husband” by Ben, and kissed.

Roger popped open a bottle of champagne for the toasts, and then performed his signature song “Pour Me a Man” (which had brought down the house at my 60th birthday party ten years before).  One of the guests was my Gilbert and Sullivan buddy of long standing, Marc Lewis, who coaches actors for a living, and he sang a lovely acapella version of “How Deep is the Ocean” for David and me.  David’s friend Arthur “Ziggy” Siegfried told stories of how David had been his mentor in Fort Lauderdale when he was a young gay man struggling to understand that scary new world.  For supper we adjourned to “The View,” a restaurant on top of the Marriott Hotel, which revolves and displays all of NYC as it does so.  A terrific time was had by all.

The Wedding Party at The View
Back in Columbus there was a wedding reception for our Ohio friends generously hosted by Lorri Latek, Art Greenbaum, Tom Jeffire, and Ann Matheson at Art and Lorri’s home on December 8, with some 30 people in attendance.  Lorri prepared wonderful finger food in quantities that covered their large dining room table, there was a cake which David and I ceremoniously cut, and a generous bar provided libations for the drinkers in the crowd, who gave us many touching toasts.  David and I had rehearsed our own version of the comic song “It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love” (from the musical “The Boy Friend”), performed it to the enthusiastic enjoyment of the onlookers. A rollicking good time followed.  The video can be found on YouTube at


Since then David and I are settling into married life.  He’s found a good job right down the street from where we live, and so for the first part (at least) of 2014 we’ll be staying in Columbus.  We took the condo off the market for now, and were immediately given an offer on it that we had to refuse.  Future blog posts will explore some elements of our new life: the fun we have on a daily basis clowning with each other and developing running gags, the delicate tension between an atheist married to a believer, the reactions of a native Floridian to snow and ice and the mania of Buckeye football, and much, much more.

Until then I’ll close by saying that marrying David Vargo has made me the happiest man on the planet.

Related Posts:
Falling in Love, Turning 70, and Getting Married,” October 21, 2013
"My Cats Get Involved in My Knee Surgery and Selling My Condo," June 7, 2013 
“A Decision To Move to Florida,” March 30, 2013
"Doug Update: Health, Acting, Book Readings, and Snowbirding," September 6, 2012
"Snowbirding, My iPhone 5, and the Coming Crazy Cat Trip," December 12, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013