Columns Intersectional Equity

Week 28: The Filibuster

In the wake of the election, there has been intense debate around whether or not to do away with the filibuster in the Senate. The filibuster is when a minority (41%) of senators block the vote on legislation. In order for a bill to get passed, it needs to have a simple majority’s support (51% of Senate). However, this approval happens only if a bill gets a vote, which requires a supermajority (60% of senate) to happen. Essentially, a bill can have enough support to get passed, but not enough support for voting to happen in the first place. Many people argue that this is the reason for the Senate’s gridlock and inaction on so much legislation. Here is a brief video that explains how the filibuster works. 

The filibuster is a major obstacle to achieving Biden’s agenda, as the Democratically controlled senate has a majority only with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris. The level of partisanship in the Senate means that it is unlikely that significant legislation will receive the 60% support needed to get a vote, therefore blocking progress. The simplest way to get rid of the filibuster would be to directly amend the text of Senate Rule 22, which requires 60 votes to end debate. The problem with this solution is that a supermajority would have to agree to hold a vote on changing Rule 22, which, with our current Senate configuration, is extremely unlikely. 

There is a more complicated but likely scenario for eliminating the filibuster which has colloquially become known as the “nuclear option.” It would allow the senate to override Rule 22 by changing the way it is interpreted rather than the law itself. This change would only require a simple majority’s support and is therefore within the capabilities of the Senate. 

It was first used in 2013 by Democrats to dictate that only a simple majority was needed to confirm Obama’s judge nominees for the D.C. circuit court (watch Harry Reid call for the nuclear option). In 2014, Democrats were able to confirm 89 nominees (twice the annual average). However, in 2017, GOP Senators used the precedent set by Democrats to help get Trump’s supreme court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh (and later, Amy Coney Barrett), confirmed.

Getting rid of the filibuster would render the minority party practically powerless, discouraging bipartisan cooperation but also allowing more progress to be made. For these reasons, it is extremely controversial, with politicians radically switching their views with each power shift within the Senate. When Democrats were the minority, they nearly unanimously fought for the retention of the filibuster. Today, with the Democrats in slim control, the roles are reversed with conservatives fighting for the status quo. Implementing the nuclear option may be necessary right now if this administration wants to accomplish its goals, but at what cost for the future? 

Therefore, we must analyze whether we truly support getting rid of the filibuster because we believe the current ability of a minority to block progress is undemocratic, or if we only support the removal of the filibuster because it gives a certain party more power. If it is the latter, we must ask ourselves whether it is worth the future consequences should the Senate swing into another party’s control. While the filibuster has created a slow system in which progress is difficult, it also promotes a certain level of bipartisanship and cooperation that may be lost with its removal. 

There are positive and negative aspects to getting rid of the filibuster, and both action and inaction will have significant repercussions. However, with extreme partisanship polarizing our country, perhaps removing the filibuster is the only way to move forward in the short term, and we will, as a nation, need to address the larger ideological divide for a more productive and democratic future. 

Columns Intersectional Equity

Week 23: Inequities of the Pandemic for People with Disabilities:

This past Thursday, December 3rd, was International Day for People with Disabilities. First introduced in 1992 by the UN General Assembly, the day aims to recognize and further promote the rights and well-being of people with disabilities on an international level by increasing the awareness of their situations in political, social, economic, and cultural life. This day is particularly important this year as COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the challenges faced by people with disabilities. 

In this pandemic, we have all seen how vital it is to have accurate information, yet for people with hearing, visual, or mental impairments, gathering useful information in the chaotic news cycle is exponentially harder, often leaving them vulnerable and unprepared. 

Once informed about important health measures such as frequent handwashing, mask wearing, and social distancing, certain disabilities can make it more difficult to follow them. While masks are inconvenient for most, they make it especially difficult for people with hearing impairments to understand and communicate with others if they rely on lip reading. 

Caregivers or aids are also often unable to follow social distancing in the same way others are, putting the people they care for at an increased risk. Coronavirus can be more severe for people with certain underlying health conditions, and adults with disabilities are on average three times more likely than nondisabled adults to have heart disease, a stroke, diabetes, or cancer. 

People with disabilities also make up large percentages of several groups more heavily impacted by the pandemic, such as those in the prison system (32% of federal prison inmates and 40% of jail inmates have at least one disability), people living below the poverty line (26.9% of people with disabilities compared to 12.2% of nondisabled people), and other high risk groups. 

Switching to remote learning has been difficult for all of us, but the transition is particularly challenging for students with disabilities and special ed teachers. Many remote learning technologies and software are not conducive to certain disabilities (for example, not all video software includes closed captioning). Additionally, some special ed teachers are unable to effectively teach their students remotely, leaving many students without an education during the pandemic.

When it comes to receiving care for COVID-19, people with disabilities have had inequitable access. Despite the Department of Health saying doctors may not use ability as a means to decide who gets a ventilator, many state governments have discriminated based on the misconception that people with disabilities do not have the same quality of life. For example, Alabama decided that hospitals should not give mechanical ventilators to people with severe disabilities. This law and some others have since been challenged and removed, but there are still many other barriers to overcome. 

 One important way in which these inequalities can be addressed is through more representation in politics and the medical field. 1 in 10 officials elected to office in the United States report having a disability, which is significantly lower than the 1 in 4 national average for adults. Additionally, only 2 percent of practicing physicians have a disability, a severe underrepresentation that leads to bias and misinformation within the medical community. This, combined with the stigma around disabilities, means that policy and emergency responses often do not adequately protect people with disabilities.

Another major step that needs to be taken in order to address the challenges specifically faced by people with disabilities is to gather disability disaggregated data. There is currently no infrastructure in place to gather data about COVID-19 testing, infection, mortality, or outcome that is separated by disability status in the United States. This means that we can’t generate solutions to many problems that may exist because we have no way of knowing about them. 

Additionally, this lack of data makes it difficult to equitably distribute resources and direct policies (data separated by age, race, geographic location, and pre existing conditions have been critical for both of these). This is not a problem only of this pandemic; there has been a historic lack of disability data collected in public health and medical surveillance, making it more difficult for people to access equitable medical services. 

However, there is a silver lining: the exacerbated inequalities faced by people with disabilities during this pandemic have prompted more awareness and conversations about disability and inclusion. We have the opportunity to rebuild in a way that is more inclusive and equitable than ever before, but it will require conversations around ability and privilege in our communities, as well as increased representation of people with disabilities in positions of power. As individuals, we must think critically about how we view disability, and, as a community, we must work to ensure dignity and access for people with disabilities. 


When in France…

Photo Credit: Laxmi McCulloch

Wandering through a French cathedral on your way to get a hot chocolate at an outdoor café with your best friends is the solution to all of life’s problems. I’m not religious, but I’ll admit there’s something special about Cathedrale St. Gatien in Tours, France. There’s something special about the whole city, actually, and the month I spent there was nothing short of spectacular.

While in Tours, I attended French language and culture classes at the Institut de Touraine from 9:00 A.M. to 12:20 P.M., Monday through Friday. Most of the other students at l’Institut are college or graduate students from places all over the world, including Turkey, Washington state, Alaska, Japan, Virginia Beach, Belgium, and South Korea. At fifteen years old, my friends and I were by far the youngest in our class, but it didn’t seem to really matter to our welcoming peers. They were all eager to give us advice about being a foreigner in France or share stories from their lives.

As soon as I got out of class, I would head to lunch with some friends. Most of the time this meant walking to a boulangerie for a sandwich and a tart, although I did enjoy the occasional crêpe. After about a week in Tours, I had developed a list of my favorite restaurants and cafés. While I frequently drew inspiration from this list to choose a lunch spot, I did my best to try new things as often as I could.

90% of my afternoons were spent in one of the following eight ways:

  1. Shopping (both on the main shopping street with all the big chain stores and in small boutiques I found down tiny cobblestone alleys)
  2. Visiting the Jardin Botanique de Tours (possibly my favorite place in the world)
  3. Playing Uno for hours in my favorite café
  4. Taking walks along the Loire river
  5. Doing homework in the sun on the steps of L’Hotel de Ville (city hall)
  6. Wandering around local chateaux and art museums
  7. Taking French cooking classes
  8. Drinking hot chocolate and people watching in the Place Plumereau (a quintessentially Tourangeau spot)

Sometime around 5:00 or 6:00 (depending on if I had the key to the apartment or not — there was only one key for me and my roommate to share, so we had to alternate days), I would go back home, finish my homework, talk to someone from home on the phone, or hang out with my host family. Then it was dinner and time for bed. 

There was the occasional night out, but as fifteen year olds, there weren’t many legal activities for me and my friends to partake in late at night in a college town. If we were out late, we were mostly likely wandering around the crowded streets lamenting the fact that one day soon we would have to go back home to our parents and strict curfews. 

I couldn’t be more serious in saying that my time in Tours changed my life. I learned to be more self-reliant, improved my time management skills, significantly reduced my stress levels, and had an experience that I’ll remember forever. In fact, I have an open invitation from my host family to stop by for dinner if I’m ever back in town. You better believe I’m going to take them up on that as soon as I get the chance. 


Call it Wonderful: New Yorker Stories

Photo Credit: Scott Foley

Wonderful Town, a collection of essays from The New Yorker magazine, assembled by the current editor David Remnick, was nothing short of wonderful. In Joe McGeary’s class, we traversed our way through various essays included in the collection. One of my favorites was called The Catbird Seat by James Thurber, which detailed a quiet guy named Martin who never drinks or smokes, and is simply a class act. Pushed to his limits, he plots the murder of his insufferable colleague. 

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the story: “The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. ‘Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?’”

You can tell the writer was having fun when crafting the story because of the good feeling seeping through the murderous plot. 

One of my favorite things about short stories is that they are, well, short. There isn’t enough space for anything but the most essential details and descriptions, making them fun, poignant, and memorable; perfect for a J-Term class.