Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Former President Trump’s impeachment trial for instigating an insurrection opens this week, but in many ways, the Senate proceedings are a sideshow.
For one, the result is almost a foregone conclusion, the only question being whether any Republicans break with their party to punish a president who tried to install himself as an unelected autocrat and overthrow our democracy. (Predictions put the number who will cross party lines somewhere from zero to five or six or up to 12, an optimistic count that is still short of the two-thirds of the chamber that would need to vote for conviction to ban Trump from all public office forever.)
Nonetheless, it’s still important to hold Trump accountable for his actions, and the impeachment and trial are the very least Congress should do.
Instead, the real news was last week: the Senate’s party-line procedural vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaker, that will send President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue package to the floor, where just a simple majority is needed for passage. The House of Representatives is expected to take up the bill after it passes the Senate.
This is a huge deal, even if it comes almost a year too late, and if a few wished-for items like a $15 minimum wage are unlikely to be included in the final version.
There are two important takeaways here, one good and one bad. The good one is that Biden is pushing ahead with his agenda. He’s used his executive orders to undo many of his predecessor’s worst decrees, and he’s let the Republican Party know in no uncertain terms that he’s unwilling to compromise away his agenda just for the promise of a handful of votes that, as Obama’s experience with the Affordable Care Act showed, were never delivered.
To Republicans, “bipartisanship” has come to mean that the Democrats roll over and let Republicans set the agenda. Biden’s apparently having none of that. He won, and is acting like it.
The flip side of the equation is that the rescue package is not being passed through legislation, but through a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows the Senate to pass spending and taxation bills with a simple majority.
The Republicans used the same process to pass Trump’s huge tax cut for the wealthy and corporations in 2017. But it can’t be used for non-spending priorities, such as strengthening protections against voter suppression, protecting against job discrimination for LGBTQ employees, or even strengthening environmental regulations.
This is a workaround, because the Democrats are clearly going to face continued Republican obstructionism, and it’s unlikely that 10 Republican senators will sign on to any major element of Biden’s agenda to overcome a filibuster.
At the same time, moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have stated their opposition to eliminating the filibuster, effectively handing the Republicans a veto over any legislation.
So here we are in 2021, but the clock is turned back to 2016. Biden is un-Trumping the executive branch and overturning his predecessor’s authoritarian orders, and Congress has ground to a halt on meaningful legislation because of minority obstructionism.
But 2021, post-Trump and post-attempted coup, is a bit more dangerous than 2016. One of the two parties has decided it will not punish the former president or members of its caucus for instigating and supporting the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, and there’s little sign that Trump has relinquished his grip on the Republicans.
Effectively, we’re putting a bandage on a country that’s suffered near-mortal wounds to its social fabric over the past four years. Biden’s efforts to date are not the reform we’re going to need if the United States is to become a more democratic society. Rather, continued gridlock in Washington, D.C., will only feed the forces of discontent that led to President Trump in the first place.
There may be some hope, but it’s a thin hope, because the timer is already running for the 2022 midterm elections, and a new president’s first midterm is often a reaction against the administration. Losing the Senate in 2022 will be the death knell of any forward momentum, and if the House of Representatives swings toward the Republicans, we’re going to start seeing more clownish obstructionism from Congress: blocking presidential appointees, keeping court seats vacant, politically motivated investigations over nothing.
Some liberal commentators hope that conservative Democrats overcome their opposition to the filibuster and vote to eliminate it entirely. The filibuster is an anti-democratic accident of the legislative process that, throughout its history, has been mostly used to stall and kill civil rights legislation such as bills against lynching, poll taxes, and employment discrimination.
But there is an argument for keeping the filibuster, best articulated by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute: by 2040, 70% of the U.S. population will live in 15 states, which is another way of saying 70% of the Senate will be elected by 30% of Americans. Furthermore, the demographic changes in our population mean that 30% will come from older, Whiter, more rural and more Republican states. And as New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently warned, the filibuster would be the Democrats’ sole bulwark against radical Republican rule, and the ability to pass reforms, especially about civil rights issues, will be severely handicapped.
But that’s also a longer-term problem, and one that’s unlikely if not practically impossible to fix: it’s rooted in the undemocratic nature of the Senate, which gives sparsely populated states like Wyoming and Vermont the same clout as California and Texas. Only a constitutional amendment can change that, which is unlikely in the extreme to come about any time soon, despite its necessity, and despite the fact that the Senate is nobody’s ideal of a modern legislative body except Mitch McConnell’s.
(There’s also an idea floating out there—in the meme-heavy wilds of the internet, not in Washington—that the U.S. could be reorganized into states of equal population, which would largely eliminate the anti-democratic natures of the Senate and the Electoral College. This particular “proposal” is the work of an artist and graphic designer, and I’m not aware of anyone seriously considering such a massive upheaval, let alone figuring out how to make such a complex change a reality. But it has one advantage, in that nothing in the Constitution requires that, for example, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego should all be in a single state. But I digress.)
The impasse in Washington is like a chronic disease, one that’s beginning to take its toll on the body politic. Without significant reform, we’re likely to be in no better shape than we were in 2016, with elections a choice between making incremental progress on reform or the mass psychosis of authoritarianism.
If it is to occur, significant reform must be undertaken by those with the courage to capitalize on it. It would be foolish to abolish the filibuster and then not use the opportunity to aggressively implement policies aimed at eliminating voter suppression, for example, or revamping and recharging the U.S. economy to deprive the forces of nihilism an autocracy the fuel they need to grow. Biden has the approval of a majority of Americans right now, something Trump never achieved. Power that is left unused gets picked up by someone else.
Sadly, even if Biden is coming out of the gate with one of the most aggressive programs since Franklin Roosevelt, he needs to push his party past its ingrained timidity to become equally aggressive as its opponents have been for decades. Nothing less than the future of the democracy is at stake.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.