The Senate is Broken

The U.S. Senate is broken–and the Senators themselves have broken it with their adoption of the modern filibuster. The filibuster has deep roots, but they do not extend to the Constitution, only to an infamous vice president.

An argument that opened the door to a Senate filibuster was made in 1805 by Vice President Aaron Burr (then recently indicted for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel). Once the door was opened to it, the Senate filibuster grew over many decades of rules changes, to make the U.S. Senate the place where legislation goes to die. Burr argued to “clean up” the Senate rules by dropping something called “the previous question,” a motion to stop debate, stop consideration of amendments, and bring a bill to a vote. Before 1805 the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate played by the same rule book, but the House kept its “previous question” motion. In the U.S. House today a simple majority can force a vote on the bill at hand. In the House the retained “previous question” rule effectively prevents one or a few legislators from “talking to death” a bill under consideration even though a simple majority of Representatives are ready to vote on it. Not so in the Senate, where Burr’s argument prevailed, the “previous question” rule was voted out in 1806, and the filibuster became possible.

Historically, “talking to death” a piece of legislation is how the filibuster works. Without the “previous question” rule it became theoretically possible for a determined Senator or small group of Senators to prolong debate on a bill by holding forth on the floor of the Senate. The intent of filibuster is to force the majority who had wanted to vote for the bill to withdraw their favored legislation, motivated by exhaustion and disgust. In 1917, under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, the Senate, disgusted by the blockage of legislation by the filibustering of 12 anti-war Senators adopted a cloture rule. A cloture rule (think “closure”) empowers some number of Senators to end a filibuster by voting to cut off debate. In 1917 the number necessary to bring closure to debate was set at 2/3 the number of Senators “present and voting.”  (Remember the “previous question” rule in the House, essentially a cloture rule that requires only a majority vote to end debate and trigger a vote on “the question,” in legislation under consideration.) Since 1917 the U.S. Senate has kept a closture rule but the number of Senators necessary to invoke cloture has been a moving target. In 1975 the Senators themselves voted in a rule that changed the number necessary to invoke cloture. Cloture then required the votes of 3/5 of the Senators “duly chosen and sworn,” that is, an absolute number (usually 60)–not just those present at the time. That 1975 rule change is the origin of the current Senate’s routine obstructionism based on the modern filibuster. 

Americans’ concept of the filibuster is shaped by the almost mythological 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart. (Cathy McMorris Rodger’s once declared the film her all time favorite movie.) The high drama of the idealistic Mr. Smith’s filibuster wasn’t accurate in 1939 and is even less so today. Newly elected Senator Smith’s talking filibuster was presented as a wake-up call to a corrupt Senate, rather than the obstructionist tool the talking filibuster was in actual practice. 

Today a talking filibuster is a rare piece of drama. Instead, the filibuster in the U.S. Senate has become routinized and almost anonymous. All that a Senator needs to do is have their staff send an email threatening a filibuster. The mere threat effectively blocks legislation from coming to the floor of the Senate for debate, much less an actual vote on the bill’s merits. Thus, a Party with 41 votes, without even talking on the floor of the Senate, can obstruct consideration of all legislation it opposes, and the Senate moves on to other business that the Party with the 41 votes deems worthy of consideration. (Originally, the talking filibuster ground the business of the Senate to a halt, preventing it from moving on to consider other business. That obstruction was eliminated in 1970 with adoption of the “two track system.” “Under the two-track system, the Senate can have two or more pieces of legislation or nominations pending on the floor simultaneously by designating specific periods during the day when each one will be considered.” The two track system avoids the rancor, disgust, and total blockage of Senate business produced by an unpopular filibustering minority Senator. Whether by intent or accident, gradually accreted Senate rules now assure the minority of its ability to obstruct.

This minority obstruction in the Senate is likely a major cause of the public’s disapproval of the workings of Congress. Recent surveysshow disapproval as high as 82%. Campaign promises whither and die in the Senate, leaving voters to wonder why they bother to vote.  

Senators sometimes acknowledge the legislative constipation induced by the routinized filibuster by changing the rules to allow certain kinds of bills to bypass the artificial need for 60 votes. The five bill categories that bypass the 60 vote threshold are detailed here. The category most used (and lately in the news) is budget reconciliation.  Created in 1974 to help keep the government from being shut down by Senate obstructionism, budget reconciliation has more recently become the vehicle of choice for passing legislation through the Senate with only 51 votes. A whole set of additional arcane Senate rules govern the use of budget reconciliation, rules so arcane that the Senate Parliamentarian gets called upon to decide if a proposal fits under the rules. (The parliamentarian recently ruled, for instance, that the $15 federal minimum wage can NOT, under reconciliation rules, be crammed into the Covid Relief bill.) Precisely because budget reconciliation is the only feasible way for legislation to bypass the 60 vote requirement (and because reconciliation can only be used a maximum of three times a year) the reconciliation bill has become the vehicle for the passage of all proposed legislation when the majority party lacks 60 votes (i.e. most of the time). The result is huge, often incomprehensible, unreadable bills that further erode the public’s view of Congressional function. Notable recent examples of the use of reconciliation are the failed Republican effort in 2017 (for lack of a majority) to repeal the Affordable Care Act (remember John McCain’s famous thumbs-down) and the Republican party line passage the same year of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It is insane that the Senate can pass tax breaks for the wealthy with 51 votes but 60 votes are required to even consider H.R. 1, the For The People Act.

The modern-day Senate filibuster and the twisted lawmaking required to get around it make the Senate, already the most undemocratic institution in our governance, a legislative body subject to the veto power of determined minority that represent a small fraction of the American people. [1] 

The modern filibuster should be voted out of Senate procedure. A simple majority would suffice to do this (the “nuclear option”), a simple majority currently lacking on account of the reluctance of two Senators, Sinema (D-AZ) and Manchin (D-WV). Without jettisoning the filibuster–or at least getting rid of its modern incarnation as a costless email-born objection–Democrats have no chance of enacting most of what they have promised. I fear that if they cannot achieve more of their goals they will pay for it at the ballot box in 2022 on account of further voter disillusionment.

Keep to the high ground,

[1] The current 50 Republican senators collectively represent 41,549,808 fewer Americans than the 50 Democratic senators (out of a total population of 328,239,523).

P.S. In an impeccably timed new book, “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and The Crippling of American Democracy,” Adam Jentleson lays out the Senate filibuster’s history current use. An interview with Mr. Jentleson entitled “The Racist History Of The Senate Filibuster” on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air is available in your browser or as a podcast. It is a lesson in civics and the anti-democratic nature of our governance. (The discussion of the book starts at 8:17 in the program, if you’re pressed for time. Ezra Klein, writer for the NYTimes, is an eloquent spokesman for putting the filibuster out of its misery. See The Senate Has Become a Dadaist Nightmare from the February 4th, NYTImes. Google “Ezra Klein” for additional interviews. I find his arguments very convincing. His debate opponents fight an uphill, losing battle.

P.P.S. Check out this graphical representation of numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress over time:–Control_of_the_U.S._House_of_Representatives_-_Control_of_the_U.S._Senate.png
Note: the graph fails to show the brief 60 vote Senate majority Democrats enjoyed in early 2009 when they passed the Affordable Care Act without the use of reconciliation, the last piece of major legislation passed without bowing to arcane rules made necessary by the use of the reconciliation vehicle.

Our Region’s MTGreenes

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-NW corner of Georgia) has achieved a sort of national infamy for her support of “disproven far-right conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate,[5] QAnon,[6] false flag shootings,[7][8] and 9/11 conspiracy theories.[7] Additionally, before running for Congress, she supported the execution of prominent Democratic politicians.[9] She also supported Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.” (wikipedia, with references). Revelations around her whacko beliefs led to the U.S. House of Representatives stripping Greene of her committee assignments by a vote of 230-199 on February 4 with 11 Republican House members voting with Democrats.

On account of the nationalization of the news coverage we in the Inland Northwest might complacently imagine that we must look thousands of miles diagonally across our country to find an elected official as deluded as Ms. Greene. On the contrary, as I wrote last Wednesday, February 24, the Inland Northwest may be a net exporter of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists.

We gained unwelcome national attention last fall with incumbent WA State Republican Rep. Jenny Graham’s (LD6, SW Spokane Co. wrapping 3/4 of the way around the City of Spokane) dustup with Daniel Walters, reporter for The Inlander, after he brought attention to Ms. Graham’s sharing of QAnon conspiracy theories on Facebook. Regardless, Graham, as incumbent Republican State Representative, won the 2020 general election with 55% of the votes cast (the same percentage she garnered in the primary–before her QAnon dabbling was widely known). Are Republican voters 1) Oblivious to the news? or 2) Bought into conspiracy theories themselves? or 3) Vaccinated against voting for a Democrat by the conspiracy theories the Republican Party supports?

Matt Shea (now former State Rep. from LD4 (Spokane Valley north to Mt. Spokane) and Shea’s hand-picked successor, Rob Chase, garnered similar dishonorable mention in the same September 15th, 2020, Washington Post article as Jenny Graham. Regardless, LD4 voters sent Mr. Chase to Olympia with an even greater percentage of the votes, 62%, than Graham drew in LD6. Chase not only dabbles in Alex Jones style conspiracy theorizing, but, after he was elected to the legislature in Olympia, Chase announced the appointment of Cecily Wright as his legislative assistant. Ms. Wright, former chairwoman of the Spokane Republican Party, with her husband are locally notorious for warmly hosting nationally recognized white supremacist James Allsup to their monthly gathering in Spokane Valley of “Northwest Grassroots“. (See Spokane’s White Supremacists for additional information and links.)

Among these regional elected dabblers in fringe conspiracy theories none can hold a candle to the queen of whacko, Idaho State Representative Heather Scott from ID District 1 (Blanchard and Sandpoint north to the Canadian border). Her openness in espousal of fringe ideology is striking. Her wikipedia article, longer than most for a state representative, is a good place to become acquainted with her views, notoriety, and media coverage since her election in 2014. 

I’ve copied below part of an article published in the Bonner County Daily Bee on February 16, 2021, entitled “Scott talks gun rights, insurrection,” to offer a flavor of what passes for reality with Heather Scott:

A live meeting with constituents over Zoom had Rep. Heather Scott,, R-Blanchard, talking about gun rights, the federal prosecution of insurrectionists and warning those in the call against public education.

One of the biggest topics of the night, gun rights, was brought up in several questions throughout the video call.

Some constituents expressed concerns over whether President Joe Biden might sign an executive order restricting gun rights.

“I do not see any [executive orders] on guns, but apparently, Biden has made some comments that he wants Congress to take up gun legislation,” Scott said. “That’s what we’re all afraid of. They’re coming for our guns and I keep telling people, by the time they come for our guns it’s going to be too late.”

Scott encouraged those on the call to look into the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance, a group that describes itself as a “no-compromise” gun rights organization. Others, Scott said, are not.

“You can forget about the NRA,” she said.

In response to a question about “red flag laws” — laws that would allow police or family members to petition the state to temporarily remove firearms from someone deemed to be a danger to themselves or others — Scott said there are “many” attempts to push them through, which have been largely unsuccessful.

Still, Scott said, she believes there is an ongoing threat to gun rights.

Scott also discussed federal prosecution of insurrectionists at the Capitol building in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, acknowledging the Sandpoint man who was arrested Friday in connection with the insurrection.

“I don’t know if he did something bad there or if he just went to protest, but he’s been [charged] with an insurrection. This is a huge problem,” she said. “We don’t have to agree with everything government says or does. And so — but they are going to start tightening the screws on American citizens and free speech.”

Although there are currently no federal offenses designated for “domestic terrorism” without connection to a foreign entity, Scott said she’s concerned that if one is added it would allow the government to infringe on citizens’ rights.

“The Biden administration says he’s going after domestic terrorists. The concern is they are going to get rid of that international tie to call you a domestic [terrorist],” she said. “What that will do is that will make every single person that says something they don’t like a domestic terrorist.”

Scott criticized Gov. Brad Little on multiple occasions, saying that he, and many of the state legislators are not truly conservative — and claimed many politicians to be influenced by globalism and corporate interests through lobby groups.

“The governor is part of the [National] Governors Association,” she said. “The National Governors Association, guess who they have a new partnership with? The World Economic Forum … It’s the globalists that are basically running the governors.”

Scott went on to make the unsubstantiated claim that the group, or globalists, were responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic and are planning a cyber attack.

“They are the ones that came out with COVID. And they are the ones that are coming out with a cyber attack,” she said. “They just said COVID is going to be nothing compared to the cyber attack coming.”

Throughout the meeting, Scott said she believes Idaho is not conservative, and that within the Idaho Legislature she estimates there are “probably three” conservatives in the Senate, and “maybe 20, 25,” in the House.

She also blamed other legislators for a lack of legislative progress; namely Republican representative Fred Wood, for not hearing bills by more conservative legislators.

“[He] will not hear any bills about vaccinations or the health districts or anything,” she said.

In response to questions about education, Scott said she believes college to serve only as “indoctrination.”

“I would not send my kids to college, I would find another route,” she said. “I feel the same way about public schools, unfortunately.”

One caller asked whether there would be “consequences” for Gov. Little banning hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 and the deaths from the virus during that time.

Hydroxychloroquine, which was touted as a treatment for COVID-19 by former President Donald Trump, despite a lack of evidence.

“It’s just not, it’s not going to get better,” she said. “We’re not going to just do this and it’s all going to be fixed. It’s going to take a lot more than that. And I hope it doesn’t take blood but I’m, I’m beginning to wonder.”Absorb that. “The globalists” are responsible for Covid-19 and are planning a cyberattack. That’s straight out of New World Orderconspiracism spouted from Fundamentalist (Evangelical) pulpits obsessing on End Times theology. More subtle but equally chilling is Scott’s declaration that public education serves only as “indoctrination.” This is from the mouth of a woman with a B.A. in Biology from the University of Akron, a credible institution of higher learning, a woman who worked as a fisheries and aquatic biologist for 15 years. When did she conclude that much of her earlier life consisted of “indoctrination”? What is her life story? Did she undergo a conversion experience to the Fundamentalist End Times theology that her comrade-in-arms, former WA State Rep Matt Shea now preaches from his new position as pastor of the Covenant Church? 

We in the Inland Northwest need not gaze toward NW Georgia and Marjorie Taylor Greene to see the mind rot afflicting our nation. This whacko ideas espoused by Ms. Greene took root long ago in fertile ground among the elected officials of our own region. Take note. Spread the word.

Keep to the high ground,

CPAC Craziland

Notables of the Republican Party meet this weekend in Orlando, Florida, in their annual showcase of conservatism, The Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC. In keeping with the latest Republican buzz-phrase, “cancel culture,” the theme for CPAC2021 is “America Uncanceled.” Judging by the offerings on this year’s CPAC Agenda “Uncanceled” is code for Republican whining that Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him isn’t accepted as God’s truth by the entire populace. The forces “cancelling” his Big Lie consist of some sinister cabal of a Deep State that happens to include Republican-appointed judges, Republican Secretaries of State, and pedophilic, baby-eating, and, worst of all, socialist Democrats. I’ve never been a fan of CPAC, but at least in its early years (founded in 1974), back when featured speakers included the like of Ronald Reagan, there were ideas expressed from the podium, not just grievance at having been shunned by reasonable people.

If you are puzzled by “Why [it’s] ‘cancel culture’ when Josh Hawley loses his book contract after cheerleading an insurrection, but not when Colin Kaepernick gets drummed out of the NFL for protesting racism?” then I strongly recommend reading Doug Muder’s article, “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric.” 

The webpage for the agenda of CPAC2021 loaded properly for me only once despite multiple attempts using two different browsers. That one time allowed me to confirm several of the CPAC sessions highlighted in John Fea’s post of February 23rd, “What you can expect at CPAC this weekend” that I have pasted below. You can’t make this stuff up. This is craziland. But remember that prominent Republican Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) recently still could not bring himself in an interview to allow that Joe Biden won the election. (Did the injuries he suffered in the shooting in 2017 affect his ability to reason or has he always been this way?)

Yes, Trump will be at the big MAGA event this weekend. If you’re going, you can choose to attend one of these sessions:

Ted Cruz’s talk is titled “Bill of Rights, Liberty, and Cancel Culture.”

Deroy Murdock of Fox News will speak on “Voting is Democracy: Why we Must Protect Elections”

Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama will join a panel on the subject “Protecting Elections: Other Culprits: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence”

Fox News’s Jason Chaffetz’s talk is titled “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It”

Radio talk show host Ben Ferguson will “emcee” a session titled “The Left’s Assault on a Free People: How Government, Big Tech, and Media are Colluding to Deprive Us of Our Humanity.” Matt Gaetz and Charlie Kirk will also be part of this session.

Florida Senator Rick Scott’s talk is titled “The Way Forward: Unlocking Our Churches, Our Voices, and Our Social Media Accounts.”

Donald Trump Jr. will give a speech titled, “Reigniting the Spirit of the American Dream.”

Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kirk will be part of a session titled “Same Badge, Different Beat: To Protect and Serve Or Socialist Social Workers?

Two Congressman, Mark Green and Jody Hice, will be part of a session titled “Who’s the Boss, Where’s My Applesauce? Who’s Really Running the Biden Administration?”

Devin Nunes will be featured in a session titled “California Socialism: Promising Heaven, Delivering Hell”

Utah congressman Burgess Owens will be part of a session titled “In the Left’s Own Words: ‘Disrupting the Nuclear Family.”

Kevin McCarthy will be part of a session titled “Winning Back America”

Several attorneys will be part of a session titled “Did Your Vote Count? Ask the Experts”

California congressman Darrell Issa will be part of a session titled “The Only Thing We Have to Fear is…Neera, Herself: How to Block a Tyrannical Administrative State.”

Someone named Jeff Brain will lead a session titled “So You’ve Been De-Platformed–What Now/

A session titled “Failed States” will focus on the election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was founded in 1974 by the American Conservative Union (itself founded in 1964) and Young Americans for Freedom (founded in 1960). William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008) features prominently in the founding and intellectual underpinnings of these two organizations and of the last 70 years of American conservatism. A Yalie (like several articulate and some inarticulate conservatives, think GW Bush), Buckley was also the founder of the National Review in 1955, a magazine that became the intellectual flagship of American conservatism. To understand Buckley is to understand the trajectory of the Republican Party for the last 70 years. Throughout his life Buckley managed to hold off the extremists upon whom the Republican Party now depends. Buckley had a falling out with Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society in the 1950s over Welch’s assertion that Dwight D. Eisenhower (a Republican) was part of  a communist conspiracy. Until Buckley died of a coronary in 2008, he succeeded in keeping the John Birch Society and like-minded conspiracy theorists at arms length from the Republican Party. It is more than a little telling that only two years after Buckley’s death, in 2010, one of CPAC’s sponsors was the John Birch Society–and now the Republican Party under Trump is rife with lies and conspiracy theories. 

Local hook: Caleb Collier, a man who figures prominently with Ken Peters and Matt Shea at the Covenant Church on Spokane’s near north side also serves as the executive field coordinator for the John Birch Society in 11 western states. (Collier is also a former council member of the City of Spokane Valley’s City Council.)

Keep to the high ground,

Spokane Covenant Export

Spokane is a breeder and exporter of conspiracy theorists and Christian nationalists.

Pastor Ken Peters recently migrated from his Covenant Church on Princeton Ave on Spokane’s near north side to become pastor and chief conspiracy theorist in Knoxville, Tennessee. Shawn Vestal covered Pastor Peters’ enthusiastic involvement in the events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol in a Spokesman article January 13th. (See Spokane’s White Supremacists for additional context.) Mr. Vestal’s writes of Peters’ successor as Pastor at Spokane Covenant in another article on February 5th, entitled “Matt Shea, the Redoubt rock star, keeps riling up his followers for ‘total war’“:

Shea [until January 2021 the Republican State Representative from LD4, Spokane Valley north to Mt. Spokane], who chose not to run for re-election after an investigator concluded he had engaged in “domestic terrorism” by assisting the Malheur occupation in Oregon, has stepped into Peters’ former spot at the head of Spokane’s Covenant Church and continued his role as the rock star of the American Redoubt, serving up big, steaming bowls of alternative-universe gruel.

Alex Jones style whacko conspiracy theory runs deep in Pastors Peters and and Shea. Matt Shea featured prominently in the “Freedom Force Red Pill Expo Conference”, held in Spokane at the Convention Center, June 17-26, 2018. (The Red Pill Expo will be held this year in Rapid City, South Dakota. Check out their website for some flavor.)

Evangelical (Fundamentalist) Christians seem especially susceptible to conspiracy theories at which most of us would shake our heads in dismay. Perhaps subscription to a belief system that pins one’s understanding of the future on cryptic writing dating from the Roman Empire (the last book of the Bible, Book of Revelation) primes one to delight in interpreting Q’s bizarre posts. 

Evangelical Christianity is no monolith, however. John Fea, a published and respected author [check out Amazon for confirmation], is a professor of history at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvannia, thirty miles north of Gettysburg. (Like all such Evangelical educational institutions, you will find no mention of a course in geology or anything touching on evolution among the academic offerings, proof of the University’s Fundamentalist bona fides.) Professor Fea writes a prolific blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Professor Fea’s February 19th blog post, Patriot Churches, copied below, helps bring us up to date with the activities of Spokane’s export, Pastor Peters:

This extended NPR piece does a nice job of covering the divisions in the evangelical community right now. The GOP is not the only group that is divided in the wake of the Trump era.

Listen [well worth 11 minutes of your time]

You can listen to the Knoxville “Patriot Church” service (January 10, 2021) referenced in this NPR piece (“Onward Christian Soldiers”) here.

The pastor of the Knoxville Patriot Church, Ken Peters, introduces the service wearing a “Rigged 2020” T-Shirt. He tells his congregation that Antifa stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020 and describes Mike Pence as “evil.”

The main speaker, Sharam Hadian, a former Muslim and pro-Trumper, tells the audience that “this is the time to run toward the battle.” He says anyone who walked away from the U.S Capitol during the insurrection is not a “good Christian soldier.” He adds, “there comes a time to overturn the tables of the temple” and “put the fear of God” in those trying to stage a coup on the government of the United States. The senators in the Capitol on January 6, Hadian preaches, have betrayed America. He refers to Mike Pence as “Pontius Pence” and claims that the former vice-president has “betrayed his anointing.”

Hadian tries to separate the true Trump followers in Washington D.C. from the insurrectionists, but I am not sure that many of the Christian nationalists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 really understand this difference, especially when they are constantly fed this militant language.

This entire service is a conspiracy theory baptized with Christian praise music, Bible quotations, and prayer.

On January 13, 2021, Peters holds a “men’s discipleship” meeting at the Patriot Church. They are discussing David Gibbs‘s, One Nation Under God: Ten Things Every Christian Should Know About the Founding of America. Gibbs They are also reading David Barton’s (Wallbuilders) Christian nationalist book The American Story.

Peters starts with a lesson on the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact. He has a “Rigged 2020” baseball cap on as he teaches. He talks about how “God cleared out the Indians with plagues” in order to allow the Pilgrims to claim the land and build America. Notice how this Christian revisionism is shaping the day-to-day life of evangelical churches. “When you discover that America was founded on Christian principles, by Christian men…it makes you want to fight for it, Peters says. He adds: “if America was a totally pagan country I wouldn’t have the love for it that I do.”

This is classic Christian nationalism. But what if this history is wrong, or at the very least more complex? The entire Christian nationalist movement is built on a distorted view of American history. It rests on the work of pseudo-historian David Barton and this Wallbuilders organization.

Peters then moves into providential history and Christian Zionism. “I believe that America was a move of God for the sake of Israel, protecting Israel, helping Israel get established.” At this point, Peters references an interview he did with CBS News. I am familiar with this interview because CBS also interviewed me for this story–a forthcoming video piece on Christian nationalism. I am told it will be out soon.

Peters’s “men’s discipleship class” then moves into a discussion of Trump’s second impeachment: “It reminds me of what the world did to Jesus.” There is definitely “discipleship” going on here, but I am not sure if it is Christian discipleship.

On January 14, 2021 Peters wrote on the Patriot Church-Knoxville Facebook page: “The left is going to use the Capitol incident to try and destroy me and others who have taken a stand. They will spin and deceive. They are absolutely evil and bent on our demise. Don’t fall for. It. Satan is a liar.”

On Sunday morning, January 17, 2021, Shahram Hadian was back to finish his sermon from the week before. He warns the congregation not to believe the “lie” that the Left wants “unity” or “peace” when they really “want to destroy us.” The Church, he adds, cannot “sit at the table with demons.”

In this speech, preached on the evening of January 17, 2021, Hadian tells the congregation that the 2020 presidential election was a “deep state coup” orchestrated by Satan. Now that Trump is out of office, Hadian says, we can expect “the rise of Islam, globalism and ecumenicalism converging to a one world government, one world religion and the coming of Anti-Christ system!” The coming of this new world order is directly connected to digital chips in the COVID-19 vaccine and “digital passports.” In other words, the pandemic is “paving the way for the mark of the beast.” And that is just the beginning.

I’ll keep my eye on this Patriot Church movement.We in Spokane, as exporters of the like of Ken Peters, would do well to keep the same watch. This is the sort of conspiracy theory rot within American Evangelicalism that led to the January 6th insurrection. It needs to be spotlighted and called out for what it is.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. If the Patriot Church movement looks inconsequential to you, consider that the 1996 bombing and bank robberies in Spokane Valley were inspired by the distorted theological writing of one twisted “Christian” author, Richard Kelly Hoskins. (See Phineas Priesthood Parallels.)

RCV and the Impeachment Trial

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) and Susan Collins (R-ME), along with five other Republican Senators, voted to convict Donald Trump of incitement to insurrection in Trump’s second impeachment trial on February 13. The vote to convict was not only a 57-43 majority, but also the most bi-partisan vote to convict a President in our nation’s history. (The Constitution requires a 2/3 supermajority vote of those present to convict, in this case, 67 votes.) In the three prior presidential impeachment trials, those of Andrew JohnsonBill Clinton, and Donald Trump (1), Mitt Romney (R-UT) stands out, up to now, as the only member of an impeached President’s party ever to vote for conviction, even on a single article of impeachment.

The U.S. Senate was conceived by the framers as an august deliberative body of senior statesmen relatively insulated from the voting masses. Not only were Senators given a six year term (unique among federal elected officials), but the Constitution specified they were to be selected by state legislatures, thereby removing them an additional step from the voters. It was not until the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, that Senators were elected directly by the people of the states they represent. (Click the link for the story.) Furthermore, the framers did not plan on the rise of political parties or the role such parties would play in backing their partisans and demanding loyalty, but political parties arose early in our history and play an significant role in the calculations of most elected officials. It can be argued that today’s Senators are more answerable to voters and, therefore, potentially less independent and deliberative as statesmen than the framers intended.

Each of the Republicans who voted in favor of convicting Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial is in one way or another relatively isolated (for a while) from Republican electoral backlash an isolation that allows them to hear the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt. Only one (see below) will face the voters in 2022. [2] (See Why Seven Republican Senators Voted to Convict Trumpfrom the NYTimes, February 14th, for more detail.)

Ranked Choice Voting plays a role for two of the seven, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Alaska and Maine have recently changed their electoral rules by adopting a version of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), an electoral method currently under consideration in the legislature here in Washington State. There is good reason why Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is alone as the only one of the seven Senators who must stand for re-election in 2022. By passage of an initiative in the November 2020 election, Alaska became the third state with jungle primaries [1] for all statewide races (like Washington and California), the second state with ranked voting (along with Maine), and the only state with both. Alaska’s new system is unique in that the jungle primary advances the top four vote getters to the general election regardless of the party preference of the candidates. In the general election the winner among the four is determined by ranked choice voting. If one of the four takes more than 50% of the vote they win outright, but if none of the four reaches that threshold then then second choice votes of the lowest vote-getter are re-allocated. With the passage of the 2020 initiative in Alaska the parties no longer control access to the general election ballot, something many feel reduces the chance that an extremist faction will be able to advance a candidate “to primary” an incumbent. Lisa Murkowski adds this reassurance from Alaska’s new voting system to an impressive electoral history: Ms. Murkowski was appointed to her seat to replace her father, Frank Murkowski, in 2002, when the senior Murkowski resigned his seat to become Governor of Alaska. She won elections in 2004, 2010, and 2016. In 2010 she was successfully“primaried” by a Republican Tea Party candidate but went on to win the general election on a write-in vote campaign, only the second U.S. Senator ever to win on a write-in vote. Lisa Murkowski has certainly earned her independent streak.

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), also from a state recently converted to a form of Ranked Choice Voting, was re-elected in 2020. Maine retains partisan primaries, but, unlike Alaska, uses Ranked Choice Voting in the general election and the primary. In 2020 Ms. Collins had a weak primary challenger; in the general election Collins garnered 50.99% of the vote. That greater than 50% vote avoided triggering the re-assignment of 2nd choice votes under ranked choice voting rules. In the impeachment vote Senator Collins was insulated from party backlash by her new six year term and, perhaps, by the knowledge that if she were to face a far right primary challenger in 2026 the new ranked choice primary might work to her advantage.

I highlight the potential role of Ranked Choice Voting in the electoral calculation that Senators Murkowski and Collins undoubtedly made, to point out that the details each state’s voting system matters. Ranked Choice Voting offers a chance for campaigns that are more civil, attract a broader array of candidates without fear of being a “spoiler,” and result in more equitable representation. HB1156, currently under consideration in the Washington legislature, would modify Washington law to offer local Washington jurisdictions the chance to try Ranked Choice Voting in local elections. The path to state level RCV in Maine was not a straight line. It took years. HB1156 is a first step here in Washington. Keep it in your sights.

Keep to the high ground,

[1] A jungle primary (aka a “nonpartisan blanket primary”) is a primary election in which all candidates for a political office run against each other at once, instead of being segregated by political party. Multiple winners are selected and become the contestants in the general election, in a two-round system.

[2] Of the seven Republicans to vote for conviction only Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) plans to stand for re-election in 2022 (see above). Two others, Richard Burr (R-NC) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) would be up for re-election in 2022, but have announced plans not to run. Mitt Romney (R-UT) faces the 2024 election, but seems secure as a maverick in Mormon Utah. The other three, Ben Sasse (R-NB), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Susan Collins (R-ME) don’t face re-election until 2026, completing a picture of relative immunity to being “primaried”. 

P.S. Since the U.S. Constitution left the details of voting up to the states, each state has cobbled together its own rules. This makes understanding election strategy in any one state a complex task–and grasping more than the basic rules in two or more states a massive challenge–a challenge typically taken on only by dedicated strategists looking for an edge. It is time we pay more attention. 

Phineas Priesthood Parallels

The Phineas Priesthood Story

In the last half year the Spokesman has published articles on the re-sentencing of the four domestic terrorists claiming allegiance to the “Phineas Preisthood.” The four men were convicted of bombings and armed robberies in Spokane Valley in 1996. Bombs were detonated at the Spokesman-Review’s Spokane Valley office and at a Planned Parenthood clinic in the valley. A U.S. Bank branch was robbed at gunpoint. It is something of a miracle that no one was maimed or killed. All four men were caught, tried, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 1997. At the time of the bombings in 1996 the men ranged in age from 37 to 50. Now, after 24 years in prison, they range from 61 to 74. The latest article covering the series of re-sentencings appeared on January 25, 2021, and concerned the re-sentencing of Charles Barbee, one of the four. The re-sentencings from the original life sentences were made necessary by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 holding that some of the federal laws under which these men were convicted was unconstitutionally vague.

Of these four domestic terrorists, the youngest, Brian Ratigan, a former U.S. Army sniper, now age 61, was released from prison in June 2020 in recognition of good behavior and the 23 years he had already served in federal prison. The Spokesman articles were not specific enough about the crimes of which each of the four was convicted to understand why Ratigan was released even as the three others were re-sentenced to prison terms that condemn them to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Combing through the four articles that describe the re-sentencing of each of these men one thing stood out: three of them (including Ratigan) had given up the beliefs that had led them to commit their crimes. Those three had been model prisoners. A recently retired prison employee even came to court and testified that Charles Barbee had become a model citizen during his time in prison. For what little picture one can glean from the coverage in the newspaper articles, one is left feeling a little sorry for Charles Barbee and Robert S. Berry. Despite their leaving behind the malignant belief system that once motivated them, each of them was re-sentenced to the equivalent of life imprisonment. Mandatory sentencing guidelines for the particular crimes of these two removed the option of leniency from the judge’s toolbox.

The fourth terrorist, Verne Merrell, now age 74, stood out from the rest. The Spokesman article (somewhat vague) quotes Merrell as saying at his re-sentencing that the crimes he committed almost a quarter century ago were meant to make people aware of “the degradation of our Constitutional system.” To that he added, “It [the awareness] just didn’t happen.” He had not been a model prisoner. Re-sentenced to 58 more years in prison, it seems likely that Merrell will die still believing in his righteousness as a “Phineas Priest.” 

So what is the belief system to which these men once subscribed? Here’s where things get interesting–and disturbing. The Spokesman articles don’t flesh out the story for their readers. The articles mention these men were “members” of something called the Phineas Priesthood, as if the Phineas Priesthood were an isolated, shady organization that held meetings somewhere and actually had a card-carrying membership. The truth is much darker–and instructive for our present day travails.

Recall the 1990s. In 1995, the year before the bombings in Spokane Valley, Timothy McVeigh (since executed for his crime) and Terry Nichols, a pair of Army buddies from basic training at Fort Benning, killed 168 people, many of them children, with a truck bomb detonated at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Also in the 1990s just north of Hayden, Idaho, Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations were still in full swing, annually hosting white supremacists from across the nation for confabs at Butler’s compound. Published in 1990, Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood, was conceived in the toxic mind of Richard Kelly Hoskins. For forty years Hoskins had written (and sometimes self-published) pro-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-semitic, and blatantly racist literature, but Vigilantes of Christendom found fertile ground in the minds of 1990s white supremacists. The book was found among the effects of the Spokane Valley bombers, who self-described as “Phineas Priests.” Not only was the book the inspiration for the Spokane Valley bombers but was also found among the effects of Buford O. Furrow, Jr. a man hailing from Lacey, Washington, made infamous by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting in 1999. The “Phineas Priests” Hoskins detailed in his book are exhorted to take solo or small group “Phineas action.” Such action is biblically based in the story of Phineas, a Hebrew man who, according to the Old Testament book of Numbers 25:6, was rewarded by God for killing an interfaith couple (a Jewish man and Medianite woman, a worshipper of idols) with a single spear thrust that pierced both of them. (For me it was worth noting that in the 1960s Hoskins became a member of the Southern Baptist Church, inspired by attending Jerry Falwell’s church, possibly the basis for Hoskins later biblical meanderings.) Hoskins suggests in his book that any righteous man is automatically ordained into the Phineas Priesthood merely by seeking to destroy God’s enemies, including race-mixers, homosexuals, abortionists and Jews. (Read more about this sickening man’s life and work here.)

Richard Kelly Hoskins spent a lifetime of pushing ideas that clearly inspired violence, some in our own community, and yet I only recently learned of his existence. Has he paid for his incitement of violence in any way? Well, no. A simple google search suggests that he remains alive at age 92 at 2111 Link Rd, Lynchburg, Virginia, the city of his birth. You can download his most famous, and, arguably, his most vile and consequential work, Vigilantes of Christendom, for free from the internet or you can purchase a vintage copy as a keepsake (gag) from Amazon for around $300

This putrid underbelly of American culture has always been around, but most of us choose to look away, preferring not to imagine the bile that spews forth from these people. The ideas put forward by “thought leaders” like Hoskins still fuel the simmering and twisted hate and sense of victimhood nurtured by the pastors of the Covenant Church in north Spokane, organizations like Northwest Grassroots in Spokane Valley (discussed in my post, Spokane’s White Supremacists), and the Marble Community in northern Stevens County. Equally twisted is the cloaking of these ideas and organizations in the mantle of Christianity, Christianity that has gone off the rails like that of Hoskins’ Phineas Priesthood, a Christianity thoroughly wedded to a warped idea of Patriot piety and the righteousness of parading with assault weapons, a warped Christianity that has burrowed itself firmly into the rightward side of the local Republican Party.

The local Republican Party, like many Republican members of the U.S. Congress, now express horror at the violence displayed in the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Earlier they stoked the fires of Trump’s baseless assault on our elections systems and now expect to escape from the consequences of their own inflammatory rhetoric. Richard Kelly Hoskins, flying largely under the radar, escaped responsibility almost entirely. 

It is a shame that many Christian Evangelical Republicans have been so poisoned against anything with the word “Democrat,” “liberal,” or “progressive” attached to it. Were they not poisoned in that way, were they more clearly aware of the perversions of the Christianity that fester on their right flank, rather than being lulled by the term Christianity itself, they might recognize that real Christian values better flourish to their left.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. For more on this link between twisted Christianity (Christian Nationalism and Christian Identity) I recommend Thomas Edsall’s excellent opinion piece published in the NYTimes January 28, 2021, entitled “The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets.

P.P.S. I occurs to me there might be a reason that so many of the followers of QAnon, Hoskins’ Phineas Priesthood, various “Patriot” groups, and followers of the conspiracy theories of the ilk of Trump and Alex Jones seem to share warped, far right interpretations of Christianity. If one’s worldview, before all else, depends on the absolute and literal truth of the entire Bible, then accepting something like Hoskins’ interpretation of Numbers 25:6 in deriving the “Phineas Priesthood” is only a small step away. Reining in warped interpretations of the Bible leading down these roads depends on which interpreter catches the imagination of the listener. I am by no means suggesting here that all Evangelical (Fundamentalist) Christians go down these paths, only that their worldview is fertile ground for manipulation. 

Vote!, Short-Selling Trap, 2008

If you haven’t yet, go find your ballot in that pile of junk mail, vote YES on the Spokane Public School’s (District 81) replacement levy and either get it in the mail today or deposit it a ballot drop box. Your ballots must be in by or postmarked by (no guarantee there) Tuesday, February 9 at 8PM. For more of my thoughts on the subject see Republicans, Schools, and Taxes.

Puzzled by the news blip around the run-up in stock price of a company called “GameStop”? I was. Judd Legum in his Popular Information on January 28th puts it all in context in his The merry adventures of Robinhood. I’ve copied it below. There are echoes in this piece of the outrage many felt surrounding the crash of 2008 and the bailouts that followed. I have little sympathy for those who make vast sums of money taking bets with other people’s money. Some of them seem to be getting their comeuppance in the current melee. The story is entertaining, satisfying–also disquieting and worrisome in a world that already feels unsteady:

Hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin is ridiculously wealthy. In November, Plotkin purchased a $32 million mansion in Miami with “nine bedrooms, twelve full bathrooms and four half bathrooms.” To preserve his privacy, he also paid $12 million for the house next door. Plotkin also recently bought a “large chunk” of the Charlotte Hornets. 

How did Plotkin get so rich? The hedge fund he founded, Melvin Capital Management, has generated fantastic returns. Since its start in 2014, Plotkin’s firm has averaged returns of 30% per year. Melvin Capital Management now has more than $12 billion under management and Plotkin collects 30% of the profit as his fee. 

Plotkin generates huge returns by taking big risks. One of Plotkin’s strategies is short selling stocks he believes will decrease in value. The way you short sell a stock is by borrowing it from someone else, selling it and, hopefully, repurchasing it at a lower price later. When the short sale works out, the drop in share price becomes profit for investors like Plotkin.

Short sales can be very profitable, but the strategy comes with extra risk. When you purchase a stock for $100, the worst that can happen is that it goes to zero and you lose all your money. When you execute a short sale for a stock at $100 and instead the price increases to $300, it will cost you another $200 to close out your position.

Plotkin and his colleagues in the industry had no problem with these risks when they were generating enormous profits. But 2021 has presented challenges. On January 22, the Wall Street Journal reported that Plotkin’s firm had lost 15% of its value in the first three weeks of the year. The losses were a result of the firm’s extensive “short book, or array of bets against companies.” Then things got much worse. 

A particular problem for Plotkin and other investors was short selling GameStop, the video game retailer. GameStop sells video games and related equipment in retail stores. Many hedge funds and others bet against GameStop because modern gamers are more likely to download their games and shop online. The pandemic hasn’t helped GameStop’s business prospects. 

But the bets against GameStop, which turned a profit and reduced its debt load in 2019, were very heavy. There were more GameStop shares sold short(71.2 million) than total shares available (69.7 million). This is possible for technical reasons, but the volume illustrates just how many people were betting on GameStop’s situation to get worse.  

Further, not everyone believed GameStop was a lost cause. Ryan Cohen, the former CEO of online pet retailer Chewy, believes that GameStop can be reimagined as a force in online retailing. Cohen started buying a lot of stock and earlier this month, Cohen and two of his colleagues from Chewy were named to the GameStop board of directors. 

2020 has seen a boom in retail trading, especially from no-cost apps like Robinhood. Some of these traders congregate on a Reddit forum called r/wallstreetbets. Users of that forum began buying GameStop stock. Some believed in Cohen’s vision, some wanted to stick it to the Wall Street short sellers, and some just wanted in on the fun. Late last week, GameStop stock was trading at under $40. On Wednesday, the stock closed at nearly $350. 

How did some people hanging out on Reddit drive this kind of increase? Their stock purchases are only one component of GameStop’s dramatic rise. When a stock that is sold short rises dramatically, lenders start to ask for their stock back. That means short sellers have to buy GameStop to close their position, driving the stock up further. Also, some of the buyers from Reddit and elsewhere were not directly buying GameStop stock but were buying call options — the right to buy GameStop stock at a higher price. But as the stock goes up, the firm on the other side of these trades purchases more GameStop stock to hedge its position. All three of these factors created a feedback loop that caused GameStop’s meteoric rise on Tuesday. 

The dynamic was not limited to GameStop. Other stocks targeted by short sellers, including AMC and Blackberry are seeing large gains. The dynamic has panicked the Wall Street establishment, which began taking steps on Thursday to curtail the trading of Redditors and other retail investors. 

Ostensibly, these actions were done to save small investors from themselves. But is that what’s really going on? Or do Wall Street titans just not like it when regular people use tactics normally reserved for “experts” to make money?

Plotkin’s bailout

Plotkin went quickly from running one of the best-performing hedge funds in the industry to serious financial peril. But he was rescued with a $2.75 billion cash infusion from two other hedge fund titans, Steve Cohen and Ken Griffin. Cohen was Plotkin’s former boss at SAC Capital Management. SAC shuttered after the firm pled guilty to insider trading and paid $1.3 billion in fines. Cohen was not personally charged. Griffin runs Citadel LLC, a hedge fund which he found in 1990. Longtime Popular Information readers may remember Griffin for purchasing the most expensive home in America.

In exchange, Citadel and Point72, the successor firm to SAC, own an undisclosed stake in Melvin Capital Management. The companies now all have an interest in Plotkin getting out of this jam and resuming his work of bringing in massive profits. 

The trio appears to be getting some help. 

Schwab and TD Ameritrade restrict retail traders

On Wednesday, Schwab and TD Ameritrade, two large retail trading platforms with a common owner, took the highly unusual step of “restricting trading” on GameStop, AMC, and other stocks. TD Ameritrade said it was acting to protect its customers and itself. “In the interest of mitigating risk for our company and clients, we have put in place several restrictions on some transactions in $GME [GameStop], $AMC and other securities. We made these decisions out of an abundance of caution amid unprecedented market conditions and other factors,” TD Ameritrade said. 

The SEC announced it was “actively monitoring the on-going market volatility in the options and equities markets.” Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets was temporarily set to private, supposedly because there were too many new members to moderate the content. A related discussion board on a service called Discord was shut down

Limiting trading of these stocks may make it easier for hedge fund managers like Plotkin — and his new investor Griffin — to navigate out of this predicament. Less buying of GameStop stock or call options will put downward pressure on the stock, making it easier for short sellers to unwind their position. 

Griffin, through Citadel, does a lot of business with retail trading platforms. When retail investors make a trade, it is frequently handled by Citadel. The Financial Times reported that “Citadel Securities accounts for 40 of every 100 shares traded by individual investors in the US, making it the number one retail market maker.” Specifically, Citadel is “a big buyer of customer trades from the leading US retail brokerages such as Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade.” Citadel pays companies like Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade tens of millions of dollars for the right to handle this “order flow.” Citadel, in turn, profits from the “spread” — the difference between the price to buy and sell the stock. 

CNBC freaks out

On CNBC, many people were freaking out about the Game Stop situation. Host Scott Wapner, for example, said that the rise in GameStop’s price was evidence of problems with the “integrity of the system.”

Investor Chamath Palihapitiya pushed back. “Just because you were wrong, doesn’t mean you get to change the rules. Especially because when you were wrong, you got bailed out the last time. That’s not fair,” Palihapitiya said

Palihapitiya did not say who he was talking about, but he could have been talking about Griffin. In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, Citadel had massive exposure as a securities lending counterparty with AIG. If AIG went under, Griffin would be out hundreds of millions of dollars. But that never happened. AIG received a $182 billion taxpayer bailout. As part of this, AIG was able to pay counterparties full value for its otherwise worthless contracts. Citadel ended up with a $200 million cash infusion. 

Citadel benefited even more from the massive bailout of lenders it relied on to stay liquid. Griffin admitted that, one Friday during the crisis when he left work and realized that if Morgan Stanley did not open on Monday, Citadel would go under. But Morgan Stanley did not go under because it received a $100 billion bailout from the federal government. 

But now, twelve years later, we are told it is retail investors that are irresponsible and do not understand how things are supposed to work. 

Support Accountability Journalism

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. The news that appeared after I wrote this disclosed that the platforms that were being used to bid up the share price of GameStop (and thereby punish some hedge fund managers like Mr. Plotkin had clamped down on small investors taking part–and that produced a general uproar and shouts of “Unfair!” This story is not over…