Policy And Procedure

So here’s the problem: as Paul Krugman recently noted in his weekly newsletter, Will Rogers oft-quoted line — “I am not a member of any organized political party;  I am a Democrat” —is still accurate.

Today’s Republican Party has morphed into an ideological monolith, mainly constructed around racism and a visceral rejection of the “other.”  That has led to a Democratic Party that encompasses, and must appeal to, pretty much everyone else–from the sane centrists fleeing what has become of the GOP to the moderate left to America’s version of the far left.  In order to win elections with such a coalition, Democrats have to satisfy multiple constituencies. (As Krugman also observed, there’s a positive side to this reality–“this makes it harder to sell your soul, because it’s not clear who you’re supposed to sell it to.”)

The monolithic nature of the current GOP has helped it hold power despite the fact that we have literally mountains of research attesting to the fact that the party’s priorities are widely–sometimes wildly–unpopular. But (as a political scientist friend of mine recently explained over coffee) we fail to appreciate the extent to which Republican electoral successes are also a consequence of the filibuster.

Bear with me.

Even moderately honest observers realize that GOP legislators routinely put partisan advantage over the common good of the country. What we fail to appreciate is that most Democratic lawmakers–not all, certainly, but most–truly do try to put country first. (Granted, that doesn’t mean that the policies they pursue are necessarily correct, or that their motives are always pure.) Part of putting country first is protecting Americans from some truly awful policies that Republicans want to impose.

Democrats defending the filibuster point to precisely that function. They argue that in an inevitable future, when Republicans gain control of the Senate, Democrats will need the filibuster to keep the GOP from enacting damaging policies. As my friend pointed out, that impulse–to protect the country from policies that are broadly harmful and unpopular–actually helps the GOP.

He provided two illuminating examples.

In Indiana, when the Republican Governor and legislature passed a bill that would have allowed merchants to discriminate against LGBTQ customers, the blowback was intense, and the effort ultimately failed. The law was “clarified” to avoid its obvious goal. The very public nature of the response also “educated” a lot of people who don’t follow politics–and in the more urban parts of the state, at least, did the GOP no favors.

The more recent example is the Texas anti-choice vigilante law. For a number of years, pro-choice voters have relied upon the courts to protect their right to reproductive freedom, leaving them free to vote on the basis of other issues. It remains to be seen how much the outrage over the Supreme Court’s refusal to step in will motivate voters, but at this point, it looks like Texas Republicans have handed the Democrats a powerful issue.

My friend’s point is simple: let the GOP enact their pet policies, many if not most of which research tells us are very unpopular. Don’t use the filibuster to protect the party from the consequences of its own venality. Yes, the country will initially suffer the results –but the likely negative reaction will, once again, “educate” voters, clarifying the importance of  registering their disapproval with their votes. 

Obviously, there are other structural elements of our electoral system protecting an unpopular GOP from losses it would otherwise incur–as enumerated in this story in Vox.        Gerrymandering and the Electoral College are huge hurdles, as is the growing tendency to view political party affiliation as part of one’s tribal identity, and to vote on that basis rather than on reaction to policy. But the less-recognized use of the filibuster as a mechanism to keep Republicans from enacting a toxic agenda is counterproductive.

Also, since it is a rule made by the Senate, it ought to be easier to eliminate. Someone needs to “educate” Manchin and Sinema.


More Than One Way To Skin The Filibuster Cat…

Americans who may never have heard of the filibuster–or who were previously only dimly aware of that parliamentary mechanism–are passionately debating its continued existence. One reason so many of us favor its elimination is that the filibuster in its current iteration bears little or no resemblance to the original rule.

Whatever the original purpose of the filibuster, for many years its use was infrequent. For one thing, it required a Senator to actually make a lengthy speech on the Senate floor–unlike today. In its current form, it operates to require government by super-majority–it has become a weapon employed by extremists to hold the country hostage.

A bit of history is instructive.

The original idea of a filibuster was that so long as a senator kept talking, the bill in question couldn’t move forward. Once those opposed to the measure felt they had made their case, or at least exhausted their argument, they would leave the Senate floor and allow a vote. In 1917, when filibustering Senators threatened President Wilson’s ability to respond to a perceived military threat, the Senate adopted a mechanism called cloture, allowing a super-majority vote to end a filibuster.

In 1975, the Senate again changed the rules, making it much, much easier to filibuster.

The new rules allowed other business to be conducted during the time a filibuster is (theoretically) taking place. Senators no longer are required to take to the Senate floor and publicly argue their case. This “virtual” use has increased dramatically as partisan polarization has worsened, and it has effectively abolished the principle of majority rule. It now takes the sixty votes needed for cloture to pass any legislation. This anti-democratic result isn’t just in direct conflict with the intent of the Founders, it has brought normal government operation to a standstill.

Meanwhile, the lack of any requirement to publicly debate the matter keeps Americans  from hearing and evaluating the rationale for opposition to a measure–or even understanding why nothing is getting done.

There is really no principled argument for maintaining the filibuster in its current iteration. But there may be alternatives to simply jettisoning it, as Ezra Klein points out in a recent column about Joe Manchin.

Klein is clear-eyed about Manchin’s purported reasons for maintaining the filibuster– devotion to a long-gone “bipartisanship.”

At his worst, Manchin prizes the aesthetic of bipartisanship over its actual pursuit. In those moments, he becomes a defender of the status quo and, paradoxically, an enabler of Republican partisanship. But over the past 24 hours, a plausible path has emerged through which Manchin could build a more cooperative and deliberative Senate. It’s narrow, but it’s there.

Part of the strategy relies on changing the rules. Manchin has said, over and over again, that he will not eliminate or weaken the filibuster. I wish he’d reconsider, but he won’t. The possibility remains, however, that he will strengthen the filibuster.

Klein points out how dramatically the filibuster has morphed from its original form, and considers–in lieu of simply getting rid of it–how it might be returned to something approximating its historical form.

It’s possible to imagine a set of reforms that would restore something more like the filibuster of yore and rebuild the deliberative capacities of the Senate. This would begin with a variation on the congressional scholar Norm Ornstein’s idea to shift the burden of the filibuster: Instead of demanding 60 votes to end debate, require 40 (or 41) to continue it.

That would return the filibuster to something more like we imagine it to be: Impassioned minorities could hold the floor with theatrical speeches, shining public attention on their arguments, but the majority could end debate if the minority relented. To sustain this kind of filibuster would be grueling, which is as it should be. The filibuster is an extraordinary measure, and it should require extraordinary commitment to deploy.

The majority, for its part, would have to carefully weigh the consequences of proceeding with partisan legislation: They would gamble weeks or months of Senate time if they chose to face down a filibuster, with no guarantee of passage on the other end. A reform like this would demand more from both the majority and the minority and ignite the kinds of lengthy, public debates that the Senate was once known for.

In leaked audio published by The Intercept on Wednesday, Manchin appeared to favor exactly this kind of change. “I think, basically, it should be 41 people have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in the affirmative,” he said.

I think that most of us who are exasperated by the constant, dishonest and sneaky use of the filibuster in its current form would be willing to give this modification a try. 

Fingers crossed.


The Founders And The Filibuster

Among the many forgotten lessons of America’s past is the abysmal failure of the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Thanks to the widespread absence of effective civics instruction, much of the public is unaware of the very existence of America’s first effort at nation-building, let alone the reasons that initial effort failed.

The Articles had numerous flaws–mostly attributable to the reluctance of the colonies to cede authority to a central government. Probably the best-known weakness of that first effort was the inability of the new central government to levy taxes. The central government could ask for revenues–for example, monies to retire debt amassed during the Revolutionary War–but if a state didn’t want to pay, it didn’t pay, and the federal government could do nothing about it.

The lack of a dependable revenue stream wasn’t even the worst of it. Under the Articles, any changes to the structure or operations of government needed a unanimous vote of the 13 colonies–and most other policies required the concurrence of a super-majority. Those provisions made governing impossible. When the Founders met in Philadelphia to replace the fatally-weak Articles with the Constitution, changing that unworkable super-majority requirement was  high on their “to do” list.

What we know of that history and the Founders’ antagonism to government by super-majority should inform our approach to the current iteration of the Senate filibuster.

Ezra Klein recently hosted Adam Jettleson, a longtime Senate staffer, on his podcast, and reported their conversation in a column for the New York Times. Jettleson pointed out that one of the biggest misconceptions about the filibuster is the idea that it promotes bipartisanship.

In fact, it does the opposite because it gives the party that’s out of power the means, motive and opportunity to block the party that’s in power from getting anything done. And when the party that’s in power doesn’t get anything done — when voters see nothing but gridlock from Washington — they turn to the party that’s out of power and try to put them back in office.

Republicans are well poised to take back majorities in both the House and Senate — all they need is a handful of seats to do so. So they have every rational, political incentive to block Biden from achieving any victories. A program that would cut child poverty massively would be a huge victory for Biden. And the ability for Biden to pass it on a bipartisan basis would be a huge victory for his campaign promise to restore bipartisanship and unity.

Jettleson reminded listeners that the Framers had anticipated this very situation. They identified this huge drawback with supermajority thresholds in 1789, when they had direct firsthand experience with the Articles of Confederation.

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton addresses this misperception head-on. He says, “What at first sight might seem a remedy,” referring to a supermajority threshold, “is in reality a poison.” You might think it would cause compromise, but really what it does is it provides an irresistible temptation for the party that’s out of power to make the party in power look bad.

As Klein observed, bipartisanship is something the majority wants, but the minority has no incentive to give–something  Mitch McConnell certainly understands. During the first years of the Obama administration, McConnell knew he could win the majority back by sabotaging its ability to govern–that the majority party will inevitably get the blame for gridlock, no matter how unfair that may be.

The mischief being done by the current iteration of the filibuster has become obvious. It continues to prevent the Senate from functioning properly–for that matter,  as Jettleson documents in his recent book, “Kill Switch,” it pretty much keeps the Senate from functioning at all.

A mountain of evidence suggests that it is long past time to get rid of the filibuster.

The question, then, is why Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to defend it.


What’s Next?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Thomas Edsall asks a question that is rapidly becoming more pressing: what happens after the election?

It’s a question we really can’t answer until we know not just who has won the Presidency, but how the transition has been handled and–far more important–who will control the Senate.

Although “what now?” depends upon currently unknown election returns, we can–actually, we should–consider a variation of that question. What ought to happen next?

My own concerns revolve around the inevitable splintering of the Democratic Party into its factions. One of the problems with single-party dominance (or in this case, single-party sanity) is that reasonable people holding very different views all end up in the non-crazy party. Democrats have never been ideologically monolithic; these days, thoughtful conservatives, liberals and leftist activists are all Democrats because their only other options are to join a cult (the contemporary GOP) or vote for a third-party candidate (essentially flushing their votes).

My most fervent hope–assuming Democratic control of the Senate as well as the House and the White House–is that leadership will immediately move to implement policies on which there is broad consensus: rolling back the roll-backs of environmental protections; passing H.B. One–the broad reform of electoral rules that passed the House by a massive margin and languished (along with everything else Mitch McConnell touched) in the Senate; ending tax policies that soak the middle class while allowing the rich to evade paying their share; re-instating DACA and instituting humane immigration policies.

There are others, and they should all be introduced and passed as expeditiously as possible.

Noted political scientist Theda Skocpol believes the Democrats will hang together; she tells Edsall that, in the event of a Democratic Senate majority, especially with a cushion of 2 or 3 votes, she

does not foresee any acute internal conflicts, because there will be so much to do in a pandemic and economic crisis,” adding, “I think joint approaches will not be hard to work out: voting reforms, expansion of Obamacare with a strong public option, college costs help for lower income and lower middle class, robust green jobs investments, etc., etc.

I hope she’s right.

Other measures that ought to be taken–preferably, within the first hundred days–include eliminating the filibuster and expanding the number of federal judges. If–as is likely–Judge Barrett has been confirmed in a departing f**k you by McConnell, the number of Justices on the Supreme Court should also be expanded. (Actually, according to the Judicial Conference, that should be done even if, by  some intervening miracle, her nomination fails). But what should be done and what will occur are two different things, and opinions on both the filibuster and the approach to the courts divide the party’s moderates and progressives.

“What’s next” is, of course, a broader question than “what policies should Democrats pursue?” Edsall’s column is concerned less with policy and more with politics. He quotes a political scientist for the rather obvious observation that it’s easier to unite against something than for something, a truism that doesn’t bode well for continued Democratic unity. He also tackles the less obvious–and far more important–question “what happens to Trumpism” if, as seems likely, Trump loses?

Rogers Smith–another noted political scientist–thinks that a loss for Trump won’t defeat Trumpism.

Trump has built a new right populist coalition that has more electoral appeal than the full-tilt neoliberal, moderately multicultural economic and social positions of the prior Republican establishment. It has plenty of reasonably charismatic youthful champions. Its leaders will avoid the crude bullying and rule-flouting that Trump displayed in the recent presidential debate, and they’ll certainly try to avoid Access Hollywood-type scandals. But otherwise they will carry the Trump right-populist movement forward.

The “Trump movement” is essentially racist, theocratic and misogynistic. So long as it remains a viable, non-fringe element of American political life, the “American experiment” is at risk.

Whatever is “next,” we probably aren’t yet out of the woods.


The Republican Voter, Again

A couple of days ago, I posted excerpts from an article suggesting that the disasters that define our current civic reality aren’t primarily attributable to Trump, appalling as he is, but to the voters who form the base of whatever it is the Republican Party has become.

Since then, I have continued to encounter evidence confirming the accuracy of that diagnosis.

Exhibit One:  In the run-up to the Republican convention, an event presumably intended to persuade people to support the party, convention planners enlisted the entitled, bigoted St. Louis couple–the ones who brandished guns and threatened Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their mansion– to appear and publicly affirm their support for Trump.

I can’t think of speakers more likely to offend viewers who don’t display Confederate flags or have swastika tattoos.

The choice of the St. Louis couple underscores the point made by an opinion writer in The New York Times, who has concluded that “Trumpism” is the current GOP. As he says, even if  Biden wins and Trump leaves office peacefully — two big ifs — Democrats will still confront a Republican Party that is the party of Donald Trump.

In 2016, Mr. Trump didn’t change the Republican Party; he met it where it was. The party had been ready for him for years: In 2012, the congressional scholars Thomas Mann of the center-left Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote, “The G.O.P. has become an insurgent outlier in American politics.” More recent studies, including by Pippa Norris of Harvard, have confirmed this assessment. In a brief summary of her research — which compared the U.S. Republican Party “with other major parties in O.E.C.D. societies” — she found the G.O.P. “near far-right European parties” that flirt with authoritarianism, like the Polish Law and Justice of Poland or the Turkish Justice and Development parties.

This is not a party poised to pivot toward moderation — even in the face of an electoral landslide loss. The inevitable calls for reform (like the party’s abandoned “autopsy” report after the 2012 election) will yield to the inescapable gravitational pull of the party’s own voters and the larger forces dominating our politics.

The author, one Adam Jentleson, says that the GOP is not only unlikely to moderate in the wake of a defeat,  it is likely to turn to reactionary politicians like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. (You will remember Cotton for his despicable attempt to sabotage President  Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.)  If Trump loses, Cotton is evidently seen–along with Tucker Carlson(!)– as a leading contender for the 2024 Republican nomination.

Jentleson says the “way forward” is to recognize what the Republican Party has become. That means ignoring them and working to deliver the results Americans want and need.

I agree. Assuming (fingers crossed) the Democrats take the Senate in November, they should focus on restoring checks and balances and passing long-bottled-up legislation. That will require eliminating the mechanisms that have allowed the Senate GOP to stonewall, obstruct and play partisan politics.  As Jentleson writes,

Sure, invite Republicans to participate constructively in the legislative process, but take away their ability to scuttle it.

To this end, it is encouraging to see Mr. Biden shifting from his staunch opposition to reforming the filibuster, whose modern iteration is what has allowed Republicans to raise the bar for passing most bills in the Senate from the majority threshold the framers set to the current 60-vote supermajority.

I have written before about the way the filibuster has been changed over the years; it’s no longer the process depicted in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” As Jentleson writes,

The Republican Party is now an even more hopeless tangle of pathologies than it was back then. If Republicans choose to take personal responsibility for unwinding themselves and contributing productively to intelligent solutions, they are welcome to do so. But Democrats cannot bet the future of the country on it.

He’s right, of course. But that leaves us with a far more troubling dilemma: a two-party system in which one party has morphed into a cross between bat-shit-crazy conspiracy theorists and a fascist cult.