Stories I’d like to see

Homeland loses focus, ditching the filibuster, unions that own big business

In his weekly “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Protecting the Homeland….in New Zealand

Is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano completely on the sidelines? And has she not gotten the memo about limiting government travel? How else to explain that on May 2 she began a trip to New Zealand and Australia? May 2 was the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, when we were supposedly on high alert for possible al Qaeda attacks; and it was also when the prostitution scandal involving the Secret Service - which is part of Napolitano’s department - was raging. A Department of Homeland Security press release described the trip this way:

In Wellington [New Zealand], Secretary Napolitano will meet with Prime Minister John Key, and participate in bilateral meetings with New Zealand counterparts to discuss a variety of issues including information sharing, combating transnational crime and human trafficking.

In Australia, Secretary Napolitano will lead the Presidential delegation to the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the World War II battle that marked the start of the U.S.-Australia security partnership. While in Canberra and Brisbane, Secretary Napolitano will deliver remarks on security, privacy, and strong international partnerships at the Australian National University, and meet with Australian counterparts to discuss the ongoing partnerships to combat transnational crime, counter violent extremism, enhance information sharing, and work to ensure a more safe, secure, and resilient global supply chain.

Sure, some of this sounds vaguely relevant to her job, though it’s difficult to put the “Commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea” in that category. And while human trafficking is an important issue, as with a recent trip Napolitano took to Miami Beach to participate in a panel on the dangers of online dating, it’s probably not what comes to mind when most Americans think of the mission of the person running the country’s third-largest cabinet agency - the one that is supposed to be focused on protecting us from terrorism.

What did this New Zealand-Australia sojourn cost us? (Probably a lot, if she had to take a government plane equipped with secure communications. Did she?) How much has her travel cost us in the last year? What about overall travel and conferences for her and her agency this year? And can’t somebody demand a log of her schedule and tell us how many days in the last year she’s been out of town and what those trips tell us about how much she’s engaged in the job we hired her for?

2. De-routinizing the filibuster:

I wish someone would do a piece explaining that the most prominent artifact of today’s Washington gridlock - the 60 Senate votes now routinely required for anything to pass because it has to overcome a filibuster - wasn’t always routine. I remember how in the ’60s a filibuster was an extraordinary event, replete with photos of senators having to bring cots on to the Senate floor, because to prevent a cutoff of debate, some senator or another had to stay on his feet and keep debating, while the others had to be present for a potential vote to cut off debate.

In 1975, the rules were changed to reduce the number of votes necessary to cut off debate from 67 to 60, but the requirement that debate actually continue was also scrapped. Democrats made some encouraging noises about filibuster reform in late 2010 and early 2011, but those efforts fizzled.

At a time when it’s clear that politics are so polarized as to make it impossible for 60, let alone 67, senators to agree on anything, someone should ask the Democrats, as well as those Republicans who would like to restore the Senate to a working body, why they don’t want to ditch the cloture threshold altogether, or at least insist on that talk-till-you drop spectacle to dramatize the gridlock?

With that in mind, when bills now fail to pass because they do not get the 60 votes necessary for a real vote on the merits, the press should stop reporting that the bill “failed 58-42.” That’s not only confusing but also distorts what happened - which is that 42 senators voted not even to allow a vote and, therefore, to subvert the legislative process as it was originally intended by the founders. After all, the only voting rule embedded in the constitution says that bills pass in the Senate by a majority vote.

3. Does Big Labor own Big Management?

This report about the California state teachers retirement pension fund bringing a shareholders’ suit against Wal-Mart for the damage its executives did to Wal-Mart shareholders’ interests by allegedly bribing Mexican public officials reminds me of a story I’ve been expecting to see for a while. Unions, particularly teachers’ unions, are a bastion of the political left, and Wal-Mart is, of course, well known for its support of conservative causes, especially anti-union labor laws. Yet, according to news reports, this teachers’ union pension fund owns about $300 million in Wal-Mart stock.

Similarly, a flood of television advertising from Big Oil’s American Petroleum Institute has been reminding us lately that it’s the little guy - through pension funds and mutual funds - who actually owns Big Oil. As the organization’s website explains: “Contrary to popular belief, America’s oil and natural gas companies aren’t owned by a small group of insiders. Only 2.8 percent of industry shares are owned by corporate management. The rest is owned by regular Americans, many of them middle class, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters.”

Beyond being a reminder of how out of whack corporate governance is, given that those 2.8 percent in “corporate management” seem to be calling the shots, juxtapose this irony or conflict or whatever else you want to call it with the fire hose of corporate money now going into lobbying, political advocacy and super PACs favored by that 2.8 percent. A slew of intriguing questions become obvious: The California teachers clearly don’t, but do any union pension funds have rules against holding stock in companies whose political positions are glaringly adverse to those of their members? Have any union funds that are invested in companies like Wal-Mart or Big Oil tried to use shareholder votes or investor meetings to get the managers who supposedly work for them to toe a different line?

How aware are union workers that the value of their pensions may depend on the success of entities, like Big Oil or Wal-Mart, they do not typically consider to be their friends?

Conversely, does awareness of their stake in corporate America’s biggest players, to the extent they are aware, moderate any of the workers’ political views, or give a persuasive talking point to politicians who want to take the side of big business - which is something that the Petroleum Institute’s ads are clearly attempting?

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: , ,