Mr. Ambinder's Universe

Mr. Ambinder's Universe

Mr. Ambinder's Universe

A mostly political weblog.
March 13 2009 3:09 AM

Mr. Ambinder's Universe

Marc Ambinder now says he was wrong to under estimate the prospects of "card check":

 A major development during my short medical leave was the introduction in the House and Senate of the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check" for union organizing. So rapidly has this issue matured, in fact, that I have cause to re-examine whether my approach to the politics of card check underweights some fundamental realities.


A week ago, virtually all of the political cognoscienti believed as an article of faith that the White House did not want Congress to introduce EFCA this year... that Obama was wavering on the legislation itself... that congressional backers were too afraid of the vote count to go ahead.  

We were wrong; Obama, Vice President Biden and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made public statements in favor of card check and the bill was introduced in both houses.

What did we miss? 

I don't remember Ambinder underweighting card check's chances ! But never mind. Is he on to something? Or is he living in an altermative universe (or being spun by someone)? He's a serious reporter with better sources than I have. He could be right! And if Citigroup keeps throwing its sterling reputation into the anti-card-check fight , anything is possible. (Next: Bernie Madoff comes out against EFCA?) I am not invested in the idea that card check won't pass. I'm invested in the idea that card check is terrible.

But here's the evidence for the alternative universe theory:

a) Did anyone really expect Democrats not to even introduce the card check bill this year? I hadn't heard that. Practically everything gets introduced, no?


b) Obama and Biden made public statements in favor of card check, but why wouldn't they? Why not give at least lip service? That would be true--maybe especially true--if the White House didn't think card check was going to pass. In the event, both statements were fairly brief and non-full-throated. Obama :

"As we confront this crisis and work to provide health care to every American, rebuild our nation's infrastructure, move toward a clean energy economy, and pass the Employee Free Choice Act, I want you to know that you will always have a seat at the table."

[ Note that this is not "Obama Vows to Pass Card Check"   or  " We Will Pass the Employee Free Choice Act ," This is "we will work to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.' .]

Biden :

So, folks, that's why there's no one thing we have to do.  This is all going to be difficult, and one of the most difficult things will be to reinstitute that basic bargain.  And I think the way to do that is the Employee Free Choice Act. (Applause.)


Note that Biden also avoids vowing that the bill will pass. ... I guess there was some hope on the anti-card-check side that Obama would duck the issue entirely. But he was a lot more forceful on the subject in the campaign.

c) Even if Obama actually desperately wants the bill to pass, he might not want to put his full prestige on the line right now. Fair enough. The key to the bill isn't Obama. It's the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to beat a filibuster. Here Ambinder says:

So -- does labor have the votes in the Senate?  I think they're close , as Sen. Ben Nelson understands the wiggle room he has by potentially supporting cloture while opposing the final bill.

But the list of Senators he cites has 15 undecided Democrats on it. Keep in mind that in order to get 60 votes, the card check side will probably have to hold all fifteen. And the list leaves off Sen. McCaskill--who recently said "I'm not sure we have the votes" and certainly sounded like she was desperately seeking a face-saving compromise . Even South Dakota's Tim Johnson is now publicly wavering.  Make that 17 undecided Democrats.


d) How can Dems get almost all of those 17? Ambinder is counting on the hoary Senate kabuki of "supporting cloture while opposing the final bill."  In other words, wavering Senators like Ben Nelson would help the bill pass by voting to end the filibuster, but then join the minority on the final vote (when the bill would only need the support of 50 senators) and tell constituents that he was really against it on the merits.**

This may work on obscure bills. But does it work on big, well-publicized fights? I'm not so sure. During the big Senate immigration fight of 2007 it was obvious to everyone, even the electorate, that the cloture vote was the key vote and voting for cloture was in effect supporting the bill. (That's one reason cloture didn't even get a majority .) And if the main opposition to card check comes from the business community--well, does Ambinder think the Chamber of Commerce is going to be fooled by the old Cloture Two-Step ? Does he think senators think the Chamber of Commerce will be fooled?

e) Ambinder's final paragraph is not exactly the ringing note of confidence his alleged reassessment would lead you to expect:

I now believe that 2009 can be a dress rehearsal for 2010 and beyond -- since the Democratic Party will have incumbents to pressure in the midterms and probably have a larger Senate majority in 2011 regardless.


Dress rehearsal for 2011! I'll take that. Is that labor's new optimistic pro-card-check line? Maybe they are suddenly trying to lull their foes to sleep.

**--Only 10 senators could pull this stunt, of course, or else the bill would fail to get a majority (unless some of its opponents abstain). 3:11 A.M.


"Since when is the secret ballot a basic tenet of democracy?" Hoffa said. "Town meetings in New England are as democratic as they come, and they don't use the secret ballot. Elections in the Soviet Union were by secret ballot, but those weren't democratic."

That raises some interesting and not-irrelevant issues. But Hoffa's euphemism for the mandatory arbitration-of-first-contract provision in the bill needs a bit of work:

The bill would also strengthen penalties for violations against workers who are trying to organize or negotiate a first contract, and ensure all parties negotiate a first contract in good faith. [E.A.]

I'm going to make him an offer he can't ...I mean, I'm going to ensure he negotiates in good faith! ... P.S.: Once a workplace is unionized, can't the mighty Teamsters get what they want the old-fashioned way--by threatening a strike? Now the poor little union needs the feds to come in and do the job for them? ....  3:11 A.M.