Democrats Have Two Years To Prove U.S. Political System Can Work

Ezra Klein, now a regular New York Times’ columnist, argues that the Democrats have the next  “two years to prove that the American political system can work.” [1]

Therefore, according to Klein, “First, . . . [Democrats] need to help people fast and visibly. Second, they need to take politics seriously, recognizing that defeat in 2022 will result in catastrophe. The Trumpist Republican Party needs to be politically discredited through repeated losses; it cannot simply be allowed to ride back to primacy on the coattails of Democratic failure. And, finally, . . . [Democrats] need to do more than talk about the importance of democracy. They need to deepen American democracy.”

Immediate Legislative Priorities

Klein starts with the assertion, “The American system of governance is leaving too many Americans to despair and misery, too many problems unsolved, too many people disillusioned. It is captured by corporations and paralyzed by archaic rules. It is failing, and too many Democrats treat its failures as regrettable inevitabilities rather than a true crisis.”

In these circumstances, as pointed out by political scientists William Howell and .Terry Moe in their book Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy, “populists don’t just feed on socioeconomic discontent. They feed on ineffective government–and their appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective through their own autocratic power.”

Therefore, Klein argues, Democrats while they control the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government over the next two years “need to help people fast and visibly.”

President Biden and the Democratic leadership in the Congress know this. The President’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan “is packed with ideas that would make an undeniable difference in people’s lives, from $1,400 checks to paid leave to the construction of a national coronavirus testing infrastructure that will allow some semblance of normal life to resume.”

In addition, Klein says, the first bill in this new Session of the Senate is the For the People Act, “which would do more to protect and expand the right to vote than any legislation since the Great Society, and it would go a long way toward building a fairer and more transparent campaign financing system.” There also will be bills for statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Improving Senate Procedures[2]

The major obstacle to their achieving these goals, said Klein,  is the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule requiring a 60-vote supermajority on even routine legislation.” Indeed, the “modern Senate has become something the founders never intended: a body where only a supermajority can govern. From 1941 to 1970, the Senate took only 36 votes to break filibusters. In 2009 and 2010 alone, they took 91. Here’s the simple truth facing the Democratic agenda: In a Senate without a filibuster, Democrats have some chance of passing some rough facsimile of the agenda they’ve promised. In a Senate with a filibuster, they do not.”

Indeed, a battle over the future of the filibuster had been stalling activities in the initial days of the new Session of the Senate. The first order of business for the Senate in this first session of this new Congress is the adoption of what is known as an organizing resolution. Senator Chuck Schumer (Dem., NY) and the new Majority Leader) had proposed doing so under the two parties’ 2001 agreement—the last time the body was divided 50-50—and giving Republicans equal representation on committees. Senator Mitch McConnell (the new Minority Leader), however, had been resisting doing so unless the Democrats agreed not to gut the rule over the filibuster.

On January 25, however, this initial logjam apparently was overcome when Senator McConnell announced, “Today two Democratic Senators publicly confirmed they will not vote to end the legislative filibuster [Joe Manchin, III (WVA)) and  Kyrsten Sinema (AZ)]. They agree with President Biden’s and my view that no Senate majority should destroy the right of future minorities of both parties to help shape legislation.” [Another Democratic Senator who favors the filibuster is Jon Tester (MT).]

McConnell added, “The legislative filibuster was a key part of the foundation beneath the Senate’s last 50-50 power-sharing agreement in 2001. With these assurances, I look forward to moving ahead with a power-sharing agreement modeled on that precedent.”

Later that same day, Senator Charles Schumer (Dem., NY) , the new Majority Leader, responded. “We’re glad Senator McConnell threw in the towel and gave up on his ridiculous demand  [to require preservation of the filibuster]. We look forward to organizing the Senate under Democratic control and starting getting big, bold things done for the American people.”

Ezra Klein had a more restrained view of this development in a series of tweets that said the following:

  • “Did Schumer win the fight with McConnell? I’m less certain on this than others. He certainly didn’t lose it. Sinema and Manchin simply said what they’ve said before on the filibuster. On that level, McConnell got nothing new.”
  • “But another way of looking at it is this: McConnell engaged in the most blatant, ridiculous act of obstructionism imaginable, and instead of telling him that if he kept it up, they’d take that power from him, key Dems reassured him that they’d never take that power from him.”
  • “I’d have much preferred to see this end by Manchin, Sinema, and other Democrats saying they didn’t want to get rid of the filibuster, even on organizing resolutions, but if McConnell didn’t cut it out, they’d have no choice.”
  • “McConnell’s demonstration here is that in a 50-50 Senate with a filibuster, he can make anything miserable for the Democrats, even the simple resolution to organize the Senate. And while he backed down, he wasn’t punished for it.”
  • “So did McConnell get what he wanted here? No. Democrats didn’t agree to a resolution further protecting the filibuster. But did this episode augur a Senate that will get much done in the next two years? Also no.”

Although elimination of the filibuster apparently is no longer a topic for discussion in this Senate, modifying the rules that allow filibusters could be, and should be, topics for discussion and decision. For example, the subjects potentially subject to filibuster could be narrowed and/or the number of votes to break a filibuster could be reduced from 60.

Another idea suggested by two law professors—Burt Neuborne (New York University Law School) and Erwin Chermerinsky (Dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law)—was returning to the Senate’s rules governing cloture (ending debate) that were in effect, 1917-1975: (1) a  motion to end debate required  the Senate to vote on that motion before proceeding with any other business; (2) a senator, individually or in relays, opposed to ending debate had to hold the floor (a speaking filibuster); and (3) supporters of the filibuster needed the presence on the floor of more than one-third of their Senate allies to head off a surprise cloture vote. This “speaking” version of the rule “protects the conscience of the minority without turning the Senate into a super-majoritarian body.” This earlier rule also lead to much fewer filibusters.

Ending Other Minority-Rule Provisions[3]

Kline broadened his recent criticism of the current structure of the U.S. government by saying, “Democracy barely survived [the last four years of Donald Trump]. If America actually abided by normal democratic principles, Trump would have lost in 2016, after receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The American people did not want this presidency, but they got it anyway, and the result was carnage. In 2020, Trump lost by about seven million votes, but if about 40,000 votes had switched in key states, he would have won anyway. The Senate is split 50-50, but the 50 Democrats represent more than 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republicans. This is not a good system.”

Democracy, Klein added, “ is designed as a feedback loop. Voters choose leaders. Leaders govern. Voters judge the results, and they either return the leaders to power, or give their opponents a chance. That feedback loop is broken in American politics. It is broken because of gerrymandering, because of the Senate, because of the filibuster, because of the Electoral College, because we have declared money to be speech and allowed those with wealth to speak much more loudly than those without.”

Klein continued, “Democracy is also broken because we directly disenfranchise millions of Americans. In the nation’s capital, 700,000 residents have no vote in the House or Senate at all. The same is true in Puerto Rico, which, with 3.2 million residents, is larger than 20 existing states. For decades, Democrats promised to offer statehood to residents of both territories, but have never followed through. It is no accident that these are parts of the country largely populated by Black and Hispanic voters. If Democrats believe anything they have said over the past year about combating structural racism and building a multiethnic democracy, then it is obvious where they must start.”

In conclusion, Klein refered to Amy Lerman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Good Enough for Government Work: The Public reputation Crisis in America (And What We Can Do To Fix It), who argues that “the U.S. government is caught in a reputation crisis where its poor performance is assumed, the public is attuned to its flaws and misses its virtues, and fed-up citizens stop using public services, which further harms the quality of those services. . . . Frustration with a government that doesn’t solve problems leads people to vote for demagogic outsiders who create further crises. But this is not an inevitability.”

Conclusion[4]

 This blogger in other posts has voiced his concurrence  with the suggested elimination of the Electoral College by a constitutional amendment or by eliminating its undemocratic impact by having additional states signing the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. These other posts also criticize other ways that minority-rule is evident in the U.S. governmental system.

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[1] Klein, Democrats, Here’s How to Lose in 2022. And Deserve It, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2021).

[2] Filibusters are a result of the Senate’s so-called Cloture Rule set forth in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Senate’s Permanent Rule XXII “Precedence of MotionsSee also Hulse, War Over Filibuster, a Famed Stalling Tactic, Stops the Senate From the Start, N. Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2021); McConnell Press Release. McConnell Statement on Democrats’ Commitments to Protect Senate Rules (Jan. 25, 2021); Kaplan & Grandoni, One coal state senator holds the key to Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. And it’s not McConnell, Wash. Post (Jan. 25, 2021);  Bobic, Mitch McConnell Backs Down in Fight Over Filibuster, Huffpost (Jan. 25, 2021); Levine, McConnell agrees to allow Senate power-sharing to move forward, Poliico.com (Jan. 25, 2021); Wise, Senate Power-Sharing Deal Moves Ahead, W.S.J. (Jan. 25, 2021); Ezra Klein on Twitter (Jan. 25, 2021). Sargent, The good and the bad in Mitch McConnell’s big surrender, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2021); Neuborne & Chemerinsky, Make the Filibuster Difficult Again, N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2021).

[3] This argument was advanced by Klein only one year ago. (U.S. Needs More Democratization, dwkcommentariees.com (Feb. 14, 2020); Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2020).

[4] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Prescriptions for a Better American Politics (Feb. 18, 2020); The Principles Underlying the U.S. Form of Government (May 1, 2020); Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? (July 5, 2020); Electoral College Electors Do Not Have Discretion To Vote Contrary to Their State’s Voters (July 6, 2020); Other Opinions About the U.S. Electoral College (July 10, 2020); Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John Lewis (July 31, 2020);The Need To End Minority Rule in U.S. (Nov. 2, 2020); Comment: Colorado Voters Approve National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (Nov. 11, 2020); The U.S. Needs a Democracy Overhaul (Jan. 3, 2021). See also Wegman, Why Do We Have an Electoral College Again?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2020).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

2 thoughts on “Democrats Have Two Years To Prove U.S. Political System Can Work”

  1. I fear the Democrats were doomed when they failed to flip the senate seats in Iowa and Maine, where they appeared to have a good chance according to the polls. Meanwhile, the Republicans flipped 14 house seats. Because the Democrats don’t have the votes to end the supermajority rule in the Senate, the Republicans can insure that nothing much is accomplished, and look forward hopefully to 2022 midterms.

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