Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Reading

New Year’s Resolution — Ezra Klein says that the Senate needs to be reformed.

This might seem an odd moment to argue that the Senate is fundamentally broken and repairs should top our list of priorities. After all, the Senate passed a $900 billion health-care bill Thursday morning. But consider the context: Arlen Specter’s defection from the Republican Party earlier this year gave Democrats 60 votes in the Senate — a larger majority than either party has had since the ’70s. Democrats also controlled the House and the presidency, and were working in the aftermath of a financial crisis that occurred on a Republican president’s watch. This was a test of whether a party could govern when everything was stacked in its favor.

The answer seems to be, well, not really. The Democrats ended up focusing on health-care reform’s low-hanging fruit: the bill the Senate ultimately passed does much more to increase coverage than it does to address the considerably harder problem of cost control, it strengthens the existing private insurance system and it does not include a public insurance option. And Democrats still could not find a single Republican vote, which meant they had to give Nebraska a coupon entitling it to a free Medicaid expansion and hand Joe Lieberman a voucher that’s good for anything he wants. If the Senate cannot govern effectively even when history conspires to free its hand, then it cannot govern.

To understand why the modern legislative process is so bad, why every Senator seems able to demand a king’s ransom in return for his or her vote and no bill ever seems to be truly bipartisan, you need to understand one basic fact: The government can function if the minority party has either the incentive to make the majority fail or the power to make the majority fail. It cannot function if it has both.

In decades past, the parties did not feel they had both. Cooperation was the Senate’s custom, if not its rule. But in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich, then the minority whip of the House, and Bob Dole, then the minority leader of the Senate, realized they did have both. A strategy of relentless obstruction brought then-president Bill Clinton to his knees, as the minority party discovered it had the tools to make the majority party fail.

Unfortunately, both parties have followed Gingrich’s playbook ever since. According to UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair, about 8 percent of major bills faced a filibuster in the 1960s. This decade, that jumped to 70 percent. The problem with the minority party continually making the majority party fail, of course, is that it means neither party can ever successfully govern the country.

Way Up in the Air — First class is coach for these frequent fliers.

United States airlines have cut back on all but the most basic services in recent years — for most passengers.

But for their very best customers, some airlines are providing extra perks and creating new tiers of status to make them feel special. Continental Airlines, for example, created a new top category this month, Presidential Platinum, for customers flying at least 125,000 miles and spending $30,000 a year on plane tickets. Delta Air Lines established the new Diamond level this summer for customers who earn a minimum of 125,000 miles each year.

Members at these levels, in addition to getting bragging rights, might be offered free access to airport clubs and automatic check-in, might get fees for extra bags waived, and might be allowed to go to the front of any line — and sit in the front of the cabin — even when other travelers paid more for their tickets.

Once inside those airline clubs, these elite fliers can get free cocktails and buffet meals, perhaps a shower, and in the case of some Delta clubs, practice time on putting greens.

Airlines are also studying how to create a greater sense of personalized service on board — perhaps allowing passengers to preorder a favorite wine for an international flight or a special treat for an anniversary, or letting them designate a favorite seat on various kinds of aircraft so they sit in the same place on every flight.

Giving special perks to the biggest spenders is an old trick used by casinos, who pamper the “whales” so they feel appreciated more than all the “minnows” that populate lower-stakes poker tables.

The Kindness of Strangers — More than fifty years after being written, an unproduced screenplay of Tennessee Williams finally gets made.

GORE VIDAL once remarked that if Tennessee Williams had nothing better to do, he would rewrite something he had already published. Almost until the day he died, in February 1983, Williams kept working, and not just on plays. He also turned out poems, novels, short stories, screenplays. The Williams archive is so vast that much of it is still uncataloged, and there are also works that are hiding in plain sight. “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” a script he wrote in 1957, when he was at the peak of his fame and powers, was collected in an anthology of his screenplays in the mid-’80s but remained unproduced until recently, when Jodie Markell, who had never directed a feature before, exhumed it.

Though he was a famously successful adapter of his own work, Williams was not a natural screenwriter, and, remarkably, of the almost 50 movies made from Williams material, Ms. Markell’s film — starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret and opening on Wednesday — is the only one that didn’t begin life as something else. It’s also the first major Williams movie in decades — a reanimation of a film career that once rivaled his stage success.

Ms. Markell, who is also an actress, is herself a bit of a Williams character. She grew up in Memphis and has a courtly, genteel Southern manner that conceals a steely purposefulness. She is also a rummager in the past who loves to dust off antiques everyone has forgotten about. She was largely responsible, for example, for the Public Theater’s eye-opening 1990 revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play “Machinal,” in which she also starred. She came upon “Teardrop Diamond” at roughly the same time as “Machinal,” she recalled recently, but because she wasn’t very savvy about the film business did nothing about it for a while. “I tend to carry things in my heart,” she said.

In the early ’90s she interested the producer Brad Michael Gilbert in the project. “It felt fresh and honest,” he said, “and it’s a little more hopeful than a lot of Williams films. I decided I wanted to give these characters a lift and hand Jodie the wheel.”

It took him years to secure the rights, however, because, like many others, he found Maria St. Just, a friend of Williams’s who had commandeered the estate, impossible to deal with. After Ms. St. Just died in 1994, he again approached the Williams estate, now administered by the University of the South, and what finally won over the trustees, he said, was Ms. Markell’s award-winning short film based on the Eudora Welty short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” “I think they liked the idea of bringing Tennessee Williams home to the South,” he said.

Doonesbury — Still alive?