Margins are so tight in the House and even more so in the Senate, that just a few dissenters on the Democratic side of the aisle can throw any vote to the GOP. The right-wing of the Democratic Party in the Senate has taken advantage of that and have worked with Republicans to prevent the passage of all progressive initiatives. Nothing on the progressive agenda has passed. It's like the bad old days in Congress when the Democrats may have had majorities but the real shot-callers were ad hoc coalitions of Republicans and racist, conservative Democrats. Biden himself was once part of that.
Will there ever be anything important enough to progressives for them to just say no? So far... no, not even democracy itself apparently. But the Climate Crisis may be the breaking point. Anthony Adragna, reporting for Politico, wrote that "Progressive anxiety about sufficiently strong climate change provisions being left out of forthcoming infrastructure legislation burst into public Wednesday with several Democratic lawmakers warning they would not rubber-stamp eventual legislation. Faced with razor-thin majorities in both chambers and bipartisan negotiations that have languished for weeks, many Democrats behind the scenes worry climate change has faded from center stage-- and they worry about sacrificing what the scientific community says is necessary to stave off the worst consequences to claim a bipartisan victory. 'The White House and Democratic Congress need to hold strong on real meaningful bold substantial climate provisions that President Biden proposed in his American Jobs Plan,' Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said at an event with Climate Power on Wednesday. 'There is little appetite in our caucus for an infrastructure plan that ignores the greatest crisis, the most existential crisis that we face.'"
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) was even blunter: No climate, no deal. And he's well aware that the public wants to see strong measures on Climate as well. Will progressives actually draw a line in the sand over this?
How ironic would it be for Biden-- a career-long conservative-- to cobble together an ad hoc group of Republicans and the Republican wing of the Democratic Party to pass a "bipartisan" (all conservative) infrastructure bill that leaves out the Climate Crisis, not to mention other progressive priorities Democrats promised the voters in 2020?
Evergreen Action Executive Director Jamal Raad said the administration assuaged some concerns Tuesday evening when his organization spoke with the White House, where Biden officials reiterated support for a clean electricity standard.
Raad said his group and allied progressive outfits had openly warned the administration about dealing with Republicans, worrying that critical provisions like the standard could fall by the wayside-- a sentiment he said some Democratic senators reflected in growing openness to publicly criticize the White House for perceived trade-offs on climate.
"Senators are bolstering their case but also sending a message that half-measures and compromises on the defining issue of our time are not acceptable," he said.
The escalation comes as several senior Democrats have outlined a plan whereby they would pass a bipartisan package through regular order-- and come back to do other Biden administration priorities, like climate change, through a reconciliation package.
“The more traditional stuff-- roads, highways, bridges, rail, ports, safety, all that stuff, broadband-- that would be handled through regular order,” Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper [a 100% corporate whore Democrap from Delaware] told reporters on Tuesday. “Then if we’re unable to also do the other issues that the president has characterized as infrastructure, [we’d] come back and do those in a different way.”
They must also contend with the fact that some [far right] members of the conference, most notably and visibly Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), have expressed reluctance to pass legislation with Democratic votes alone.
Heinrich’s comments were amplified and echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who suggested progressives in the narrowly-divided House also wouldn’t vote for a package without strong enough climate change provisions.
“Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers are not worth setting the planet on fire for,” she tweeted. “I know some Dems may disagree with me, but that’s my unpopular opinion of the day.”
Climate hawk Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) also weighed in on Twitter: “Just a gentle, friendly reminder that the executive branch doesn’t write the bills.”
Earlier today, progressive congressional candidate Jason Call from northwest Washington, noted in a guest post that "the corporate political establishment has been misreading the room and if the Democrats don’t deliver on meaningful policy, they stand to lose big in 2022 just like they did in 2010... The only thing that Democrats can do to avoid such losses is pass progressive policy. So when we progressive candidates are critical of the corporate establishment, we’re actually trying to help the party to not get murdered in the midterms. We do not want Republicans in charge of anything. But we can’t softball an establishment that isn’t serving the public good, nor should we. Time is running out for the planet, and we need to pass Green New Deal legislation, Medicare For All, and some serious campaign finance reform, among other critical legislation."
Writing for the New Republic a few days ago, Michael Tomasky advocated for a policy I've been talking about for years: abolishing the ridiculously undemocratic Senate entirely. "Poll after poll after poll," he wrote, "has told us that the things Biden wants to pass enjoy the support of huge majorities of Americans. But because of the rules of the Senate, rules that aren’t in the Constitution and which would have appalled the Founders, these things that clear majorities want can’t pass. That’s anti-democracy in action, benefiting only a political party that has shown its contempt for democracy on other fronts through its support of gerrymandering and voter suppression. What to do? People talk of reforming the Senate in this way or that. But that’s hopeless. There’s only one conclusion here. Before the Senate kills democracy, we must kill the Senate. That’s right. Kill the Senate. It shouldn’t exist. Or maybe it can exist, but only as a toothless and meaningless body, like the British House of Lords."
The House of Lords example is highly relevant here. In 1909, the governing Liberal Party proposed a budget known as “the people’s budget,” which, for the first time in British history, proposed a raft of taxes on rich people to pay for social welfare “programmes.”
The rich weren’t very keen on this. They couldn’t control the House of Commons, where the Liberals were in charge, having won more votes than the Tories (another increasingly quaint concept in the United States-- that the party that won more votes should get to impose its agenda). But they had the run of the House of Lords, which mostly consisted of wealthy aristocrats.
The long and the short of it is that in 1911, the House of Commons passed the Parliament Act, which eliminated the Lords’ ability to veto money bills and left it so that Lords could merely delay, but never block, legislation passed by the Commons. And for the 110 years since, the House of Lords has been a nonfactor.
We should do the same to the Senate. It has no justification for even existing. It was created in a deal that was sold to us as schoolchildren as “the Great Compromise” but that, in real life and in real time, no one particularly liked. It passed at the Constitutional Convention by one vote, 5–4–1. Speaking of majority will, those five state delegations voting in favor did not represent a majority of state delegations, because 12 states sent delegates to the convention. In addition, the large states with more delegates, notably Virginia and Pennsylvania, opposed it. So the body that has repeatedly thwarted majority will in our history and been overly protective of the minority was itself created by a minority.
The day after that vote, delegates from the four states voting against the creation of the two-per-state upper chamber huddled together to try to undo this madness. But, as James Madison wrote, they could not come to an agreement on a Plan B, so they dropped it.
The rest is history, mostly very bleak history, and I expect you know it. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the Senate was home to wealthy conservative men who looked after the interests of the railroad barons and the cotton planters and the sugar growers and so on. But the Senate was most viciously and consistently reactionary when it came to civil rights.
Then, for one brief and shining moment in history, which lasted for about 20 years or so, there was a shift. The election of 1958 brought several genuinely liberal members to the Senate, giants like Phil Hart of Michigan and Gene McCarthy of Minnesota. These were men who’d grown up in the Depression and served their country in World War II and thus understood that both severe poverty and global fascism were very real threats to democracy. They governed and voted accordingly.
But those among this visionary cohort who hadn’t retired or passed away by 1980 were wiped out when the backlash hit and several very conservative and not always very bright (e.g., Dan Quayle) senators rode into Washington on Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Since 1980, power in the Senate has teeter-tottered back and forth, but for the past two decades, the Republican Party has been extreme enough that the thought of getting six or eight or 10 Republican senators to join Democrats in backing even watered-down progressive legislation has been a fantasy.
None of this is to let Sinema and Manchin off the hook. Their behavior here is tragic. Manchin’s position is at least politically understandable given that he’s from a state Donald Trump won by 40 points. Sinema is just an infuriating mystery. Whatever their motivations, their actions are historically indefensible. The filibuster doesn’t protect democracy, and they know it.
Nevertheless, this predicament is bigger than the two of them, and it wouldn’t be solved if they changed their minds tomorrow. The problem is the Senate itself. Someone needs to mount and finance a serious public education campaign to do away with or at least dramatically weaken it. An unrepresentative upper chamber will almost always stand athwart progress. The United Kingdom awoke to this reality 110 years ago. When will we?