A Power Grab or Healing a Wound?

The U.S. government established the Dakota Territory in 1861. It consisted of what’s now South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as parts of Montana and Wyoming. As the population grew, there was a campaign to make the territory a state. That happened in 1889. But there was a wrinkle. In order to give the Republican Party more representation in Congress, the territory was divided into two states.

Today, the 1.6 million residents of North and South Dakota have four senators and two representatives. If Dakota had been made a single state, it would be the fourth largest state by area and have two senators and one representative, just like Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming.

There are 3.2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, twice as many as live in North and South Dakota, but they have zero senators and zero representatives.

Washington, DC, only has 700,000 residents, but that’s more than Vermont and Wyoming and almost as many as Alaska. Just like Puerto Rico, the Americans who live in Washington, DC, have zero senators and zero representatives. 

From The Guardian:

One of the most powerful prosecutions [at the impeachment trial] came from Stacey Plaskett of the US Virgin Islands, the first delegate from an American territory to hold the position of impeachment manager. Yet Plaskett’s status meant that she was unable to vote for impeachment because she has no vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. The US Virgin Islands has no representation at all in the Senate. Its residents cannot even vote for president.

The anomaly illuminates America’s long unaddressed colonial history that leaves five territories floating in constitutional limbo, their residents – most of them people of color – effectively treated as second-class citizens.

But with the impetus of last summer’s protests against racial injustice, and the election of a Democratic president, one of those territories – Puerto Rico – is aiming to become the 51st state of the union. A parallel effort by Washington, District of Columbia, is also closer than ever to its similar goal.

‘It is incredibly important to take a step back and look at who actually has real representation in democracy,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of 51 for 51, an organization pushing for DC statehood. “If you think about all the players that you mentioned, they all have a common thread: [most] are people of color. Does America have a true democracy if so many people of color are standing outside looking in and are not able to fully participate?”

There are five inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Apart from American Samoa, people born in the territories are US citizens and pay federal taxes such as Medicare and social security, though not federal tax on locally sourced income. Each territory sends a delegate to the House who can debate legislation and sit on committees but is not able to actually vote.

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898 when it fell under US control as part of the terms that ended the Spanish-American war. In 1917 the Jones Act granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship and in 1952 it became a commonwealth of the US – but still without voting rights in American presidential elections.

Over the past half-century Puerto Rico has held six non-binding referendums on its status and last November voted 52%-47% in favor of statehood, a cause boosted by grievance over the federal government’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. . . . 

George Laws Garcia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council, said: “You have a bunch of unelected individuals making decisions on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico over the desires and ideas and perspectives of the local elected officials, which I think is basically blatant colonialism.

“We had Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes and now Covid and, in all these instances when Puerto Rico needs federal resources, federal support, federal action, we don’t have the capacity to hold elected officials in Washington accountable for what they do because they don’t ever get any votes from Puerto Rico, and that includes the president as well as members of Congress”. . . .

Almost all of Puerto Rico’s residents are Hispanic while nearly half of DC’s are Black. . . . 
Its 700,000-plus residents pay more per capita in federal income taxes than any state. They gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961 but still lack a voting member in the House or a voice in the Senate.

The movement for DC statehood is bigger and better organized than ever before. Last June the House passed a bill that approved it, the first time a chamber of Congress had advanced a DC statehood measure. . . .

Rhodes of 51 for 51 said: “Our most celebrated civil rights leaders were fighting for access to democracy. If you think about John Lewis and Martin Luther King, they were all fighting for access to voting and access to representation and so here in 2021 we’re still fighting in Washington DC for equal representation and a clear chance at participation in democracy” . . .
[After] the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, told reporters earlier this month: “If the District of Columbia could operate as a state, [what] any governor can do is to call out the national guard without getting the permission of the federal government. It shouldn’t have to happen that way”. . . .

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy for the grassroots movement Indivisible, said: “It’s an issue of basic fairness”. . . . 

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: “At the end of the day, you have states from Utah to Montana to others that have gained statehood early on with less question, with less critique than DC and Puerto Rico. It is a fundamental democratic flaw and it reeks of hypocrisy. The only reason why it is a debate or even a question is because of who makes up the majority of both of those places”. . . .

Donna Brazile, a former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, said: “This is about making America a more perfect union. It’s the oldest constitutional democracy in the world and yet some of its citizens do not have all the full voting rights because of where they reside. If we’re going to end racial injustice in America and talk about a new beginning for the country, we can’t sidestep old issues.”


Of course, Congressional Republicans are opposed to statehood for Puerto Rico and DC. The Senate Minority Leader called the idea a “power grab”, simply a way to add Democrats to Congress (see “Dakota Territory, history of”). 

Except it’s not that simple at all. Our fellow Americans deserve representation in Congress. That’s the principal justification for adding two more states to the union. It’s not as clear what to do for the 376,000 Americans who live in Guam, the Northern Marianas, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands, but Puerto Rico and DC aren’t difficult cases.

Overcoming right-wing opposition (aka voter suppression) by abolishing or seriously reforming the Senate filibuster in order to give Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, full voting rights would give the voters who live there the same power as the other 330 million Americans. It would fix a longstanding problem. It would heal a constitutional wound. As a side effect, it would also add balance to the US Senate, where fifty Republicans today represent 43% of the population and fifty Democrats represent 57%.

A Great Opportunity for the Democrats

Having fifty votes in the Senate and the Vice President gives the Democrats a chance to make real progress and seriously damage the radical right. From Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

In the early morning hours on Friday, Senate Democrats passed a measure laying the groundwork to move President Biden’s big economic rescue package via the reconciliation process, by a simple majority. Republicans are already thundering with outrage.

The move does indeed pose a serious challenge to Republicans. But it’s one that runs deeper than merely moving toward passing this one package without them. It also suggests a reset in dealing with GOP bad-faith tactics across the board — and even the beginnings of a response to the . . . ideology loosely described as “Trumpism.”

First, the new move suggests a growing recognition that the conventional understanding of how “bipartisanship” works has things exactly backward — and that Republicans have manipulated the public debate on this topic for far too long.

For instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already denouncing this move. The minority leader railed that Democrats have “set the table to ram through their $1.9 trillion rough draft,” adding: “notwithstanding all the talk about bipartisan unity, Democrats are plowing ahead.”

McConnell’s underlying claim is that Democrats should allow their plan to be subject to a supermajority requirement via the filibuster [of 60 Yes votes] to facilitate bipartisanship. The idea is this: If a partisan majority [in this case, the 50 Democrats plus the Vice President] can’t pass things by itself, it must reach out for bipartisan support [from at least ten Republicans] . . .

This is a scam. The reality is the other way around: In McConnell’s hands, the filibuster has actually made bipartisanship less likely.

By preventing a partisan majority from passing things, McConnell has created the conditions for withholding the support necessary to enact them, for the instrumental purpose of casting Democratic presidents (such as Barack Obama) as failed conciliators.

This has worked as follows: GOP senators have withheld support regardless of the concessions made to win them over, because they calculate the president’s party will take the political hit for failing to make bipartisan deals.

The paradox here is that using reconciliation — moving to pass something by a simple majority — actually could bolster the conditions for good-faith bipartisanship. GOP senators who might be gettable will no longer have a built-in incentive to oppose a particular bill. It’s likely passing anyway, so the lure of helping [their own] party by opposing it — because the Democratic president will get blamed for failure — isn’t nearly as strong.

Under those conditions, Biden actually would have an opening to negotiate with Republicans in the quest for bipartisan support. In the conditions McConnell wants, the incentives for moderate GOP senators point in the other direction.

Whether Biden actually will end up negotiating down to win a few Republicans is an open question. But the point is, in McConnell’s cynical scenario, this would be nothing but a fool’s errand, because it would be far less likely to work.

McConnell’s other basic idea — that a supermajority requirement protects the minority — is also nonsense. Adam Gurri makes a key distinction between protecting the rights of the minority party and protecting those of minorities of voters. The latter are protected by many other veto points in the system. Protecting the minority party’s rights by subjecting all Senate business to a supermajority requirement is only about facilitating its ability to obstruct.

Senior Democrats have begun to articulate the idea that the true way to revitalize faith in government — and in democracy — is by successfully delivering on big-ticket items. Achieving bipartisan cooperation for its own sake will do far less to address deep civic division and disillusionment than robust and effective action on behalf of the common good.

The Biden plan now will be written by Congress. But the new move lays the groundwork for passage of a package that could spend as much as $1.9 trillion. . . .

In an interesting column, David Brooks suggests that such large-scale spending could begin to accomplish “social repair.” We should spend far more than what’s merely needed to fill the “output gap.” We should spend to address the deep inequalities and injustices revealed by the pandemic and longer-term structural ills such as flat wages and regional stagnation. Undershooting here, Brooks notes, carries far greater moral and civic risks than overshooting.

I’d go further: Such an approach also contains the seeds of a broader answer to Trumpist populism. Success in using robust government action to charge up the recovery and get the coronavirus under control — including sinking medical resources into rural America — could clear political space for Biden to restore humanity to our immigration system and sanity to our international climate efforts.

Spending effectively toward the common good might begin to defang destructive zero-sum nationalist appeals. That could pave the way for a “new synthesis” that combines bolder progressive economics with a refusal to backpedal on issues that Democrats have long seen as politically perilous in the face of right-wing populist demagoguery. Biden’s ambitious actions so far on immigration and climate suggest just this understanding of the moment.

All this might sound overly optimistic. And there are countless ways Democrats can screw this all up. But the early returns suggest they are constructively breaking with old ways of thinking. And that could portend a serious long-term challenge to the Trumpified [Grotesque Old Party].


Senate Democrats can change the Senate rules whenever they want. They just need the courage to do so (and the cooperation of their least progressive members).

Facing the Truth about American Politics

Chris Hayes of MSNBC summed it up tonight:

Today, [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy made a deeply humiliating, almost too awful to watch pilgrimage down to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring of the twice-impeached, possibly soon-to-be-indicted ex-president. Because there is no line to cross that goes too far for him or for them or for the party. This is where we are, folks, this is what everyone has to acknowledge. There will be no self-regulation. No self-governance. No, “Did we go too far?” No mea culpas. There will be no growth. This is what the contemporary Republican Party and conservative movement right now is, so now the question is, the question becomes “What do you do with that?” There are people like that who are part of the government of this country, who believe what they believe.

Paul Krugman expanded on the topic:

Here’s what we know about American politics: The Republican Party is stuck, probably irreversibly, in a doom loop of bizarro. If the Txxxx-incited Capitol insurrection didn’t snap the party back to sanity — and it didn’t — nothing will.

What isn’t clear yet is who, exactly, will end up facing doom. Will it be the [Republican Party] as a significant political force? Or will it be America as we know it? Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer. It depends a lot on how successful Republicans will be in suppressing votes.

Even I had some lingering hope that the Republican establishment might try to end Txxxxism. But such hopes died this week.

On Tuesday Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who has said that [the ex-president’s] role in fomenting the insurrection was impeachable, voted for a measure that would have declared [an impeachment] trial unconstitutional . . . 

On Thursday, the House minority leader — who still hasn’t conceded that Joe Biden legitimately won the presidency, but did declare that Txxxx “bears responsibility” for the attack on Congress . . . — visited Mar-a-Lago, presumably to make amends.

In other words, the G.O.P.’s national leadership, after briefly flirting with sense, has surrendered to the fantasies of the fringe. Cowardice rules.

And the fringe is consolidating its hold at the state level. The Arizona state party censured the Republican governor for the sin of belatedly trying to contain the coronavirus. The Texas G.O.P. has adopted the slogan “We are the storm,” which is associated with QAnon, although the party denies it intended any link. Oregon Republicans have endorsed the completely baseless claim, contradicted by the rioters themselves, that the attack on the Capitol was a left-wing false flag operation.

How did this happen to what was once the party of Dwight Eisenhower? Political scientists argue that traditional forces of moderation have been weakened by factors like the nationalization of politics and the rise of partisan media, notably Fox News.

This opens the door to a process of self-reinforcing extremism . . .  As hard-liners gain power within a group, they drive out moderates; what remains of the group is even more extreme, which drives out even more moderates; and so on. A party starts out complaining that taxes are too high; after a while it begins claiming that climate change is a giant hoax; it ends up believing that Democrats are Satanist pedophiles.

This process of radicalization began long before Dxxxx Txxxx; it goes back at least to Newt Gingrich’s takeover of Congress in 1994. But Txxxx’s reign of corruption and lies, followed by his refusal to concede and his attempt to overturn the election results, brought it to a head. And the cowardice of the Republican establishment has sealed the deal. One of America’s two major political parties has parted ways with facts, logic and democracy, and it’s not coming back.

What happens next? You might think that a party that goes off the deep end morally and intellectually would also find itself going off the deep end politically. And that has in fact happened in some states. Those fantasist Oregon Republicans, who have been shut out of power since 2013, seem to be going the way of their counterparts in California, a once-mighty party reduced to impotence in the face of a Democratic supermajority.

But it’s not at all clear that this will happen at a national level. True, as Republicans have become more extreme they have lost broad support; the G.O.P. has won the popular vote for president only once since 1988, and 2004 was an outlier influenced by the lingering rally-around-the-flag effects of 9/11.

Given the unrepresentative nature of our electoral system, however, Republicans can achieve power even while losing the popular vote. A majority of voters rejected Txxxx in 2016, but he became president anyway, and he came fairly close to pulling it out in 2020 despite a seven million vote deficit. The Senate is evenly divided even though Democratic members represent 41 million more people than Republicans.

And the Republican response to electoral defeat isn’t to change policies to win over voters; it is to try to rig the next election. Georgia has long been known for systematic suppression of Black voters . . . the Republicans who control the state are doubling down on disenfranchisement, with proposed new voter ID requirements and other measures to limit voting.

The bottom line is that we don’t know whether we’ve earned more than a temporary reprieve. A president who tried to retain power despite losing an election has been foiled. But a party that buys into bizarre conspiracy theories and denies the legitimacy of its opposition isn’t getting saner, and still has a good chance of taking complete power in four years.

Three more items:

Pennsylvania G.O.P. leaders have made loyalty to the defeated ex-president the sole organizing principle of the party, and would-be candidates are jockeying to prove they fought the hardest for him (NY Times).

After an election filled with misinformation and lies about fraud, Republicans have doubled down with a surge of bills to further restrict voting access in recent months, according to a new analysis . . .  There are currently 106 pending bills across 28 states that would restrict access to voting (The Guardian).

Arizona G.O.P. lawmaker introduces bill to give Legislature power to toss out election results (NBC News).

With the presidency and small majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats have an opportunity to deliver on many of their campaign promises, not just a few. That will almost certainly require ending or severely limiting the ability of the Republican minority in the Senate to kill legislation. If Democrats don’t have the foresight and courage to do that, we may be facing a very bleak future.

Go Big or Go Home

Eric Levitz of New York Magazine on the choice facing the Democratic Party:

The Electoral College now has a four-point pro-[Republican] bias, meaning that if Biden [or whoever] wins the two-way popular vote by “only” 3.9 percent in 2024, he will have a less than 50 percent chance of winning reelection, and (2) the Republican Party has grown more openly contemptuous of democracy since Txxxx’s defeat. If the GOP does gain full control of the federal government in 2024, there is a significant risk it will further entrench its structural advantages through anti-democratic measures, so as to insulate right-wing minority rule against the threat of demographic change.

To defy political gravity, and fortify U.S. democracy against the threat of authoritarian reaction, Democrats need to either rebalance the electoral playing field through the passage of structural reforms, or attain a degree of popularity that no in-power party has achieved in modern memory. If the filibuster remains in place, doing the former will be impossible and the latter highly unlikely.

The Constitution limits the Democrats’ capacity to correct the biases of America’s governing institutions. But the party could significantly reduce the overrepresentation of white rural America in the Senate by granting statehood to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other U.S. territory that wants it. The party could also prohibit partisan redistricting, ban felon disenfranchisement, erode practical barriers to the political participation of working-class people and immigrants, make it easier for workers to form unions, grant citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, and pack the Supreme Court if it interferes with the implementation of these reforms.

But none of those measures are going to attract ten Republican votes in the Senate. And none of them are achievable through the budget-reconciliation process.

If Democrats do not pass structural reforms, their odds of retaining both chambers of Congress in 2022 aren’t good. The president’s party almost always loses seats in midterms. . . .

All this said, Democrats could have some extraordinary winds at their back. Biden has a decent shot of presiding over a post-pandemic economic boom. To the extent that Democrats can juice that recovery with further growth and wage-boosting measures — while maintaining the enthusiasm of their core interest groups — they may pull off the unprecedented in 2022.

But it’s hard to see how the party can do that while leaving the filibuster fully intact. Democrats will be incapable of honoring their (now decade-old) IOUs to civil-rights organizations, labor unions, and immigrant communities if they allow the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to remain in place. . . .

In the immediate term, the Democrats’ internal conflict over the filibuster will move to the backburner. Joe Biden’s COVID-relief package and green-infrastructure “recovery” plan consist primarily of tax-and-spending measures that the party can advance through the budget-reconciliation process. And Schumer has signaled that he intends to bend the rules of that process as far as the Senate parliamentarian will let him, arguing that both a ban on new vehicles with internal-combustion engines and a $15 minimum wage are actually, primarily means of reducing government spending, when you really think about it.

But once reconciliation is done, attention will turn to the large stack of Democratic-coalition priorities that are currently subject to a 60-vote requirement. It will not be easy for Schumer to tell the NAACP that his caucus values a “Senate tradition” (that is anti-constitutional, historically associated with Jim Crow rule, and less than two decades old in its present form) more than it values a new Voting Rights Act. Nor will it be easy for the majority leader to tell organized labor that it will just have to wait until next time to see a $15 minimum wage (assuming that doesn’t get through reconciliation) or collective-bargaining reform. And it might be hard for Schumer to accept that he probably won’t ever wield majority power again after 2022 because his caucus would rather maintain the GOP’s structural advantage in the upper chamber than abolish the filibuster and add new states.

For these reasons, Schumer, Senate Democrat Whip Dick Durbin, and Delaware senator (and Biden confidant) Chris Coons have all telegraphed an intention to eliminate the filibuster if McConnell obstructs their coalition’s priorities. The apparent hope is that — while Manchin, Sinema, and a few others support the filibuster in the abstract — in the heat of a legislative battle over voting rights or a $15 minimum wage, they may consent to weakening the filibuster while lamenting what Mitch McConnell is making them do.

Sinema and Manchin have repeatedly insisted that they will not “eliminate” or “get rid of” the filibuster. But there are plenty of ways to erode the Senate’s 60-vote requirement that stop short of filibuster abolition. You could create new exemptions, modeled on budget reconciliation, that allow for the passage of certain categories of legislation by simple majority vote. Or you could restore the requirement for those mounting a filibuster to speak continuously from the Senate floor. Or you could throw every Democratic priority into a reconciliation bill and then let Kamala Harris overrule the parliamentarian when she objects.

But Manchin & Co.’s cooperation with this scheme is far from assured. The Democratic Party has a vital interest in passing sweeping reforms that gratify its base and mitigate its structural disadvantages. But Joe Manchin doesn’t necessarily have an interest in the institutional health of the Democratic Party.

Our Republic’s founders famously disdained political parties. And partisanship is a pejorative in contemporary American discourse. But our democracy’s present affliction lies in the weakness of its parties, not in their strength. Were the GOP a stronger institution, the Txxxx presidency would never have happened. Were the Democratic leadership capable of formulating and enforcing a party line, the filibuster would not be long for this Earth.

While the Constitution failed to stymie the advent of political parties, it has kept them weaker than their overseas analogs. The Democratic Party is more of a loose association of elected officeholders than a coherent mass-member organization. As such, it has limited capacity to dictate terms to any of its incumbent senators, let alone to those whose job security would be enhanced by becoming Republicans. . . .

Thus the Democrats’ existential interest in eroding the filibuster remains on a collision course with its moderate senators’ aversion to power. Anyone with a fondness for democracy must hope that, against all odds, the forces of partisanship will prevail.

So Much For Unity — U.S. Senate Edition

As part of a good news agenda, I’ve got a post lined up about Bernie Sanders becoming chairman of the Senate’s Budget Committee. Sanders ascends to that powerful position because Kamala Harris is now the vice president and three new Democratic senators were sworn in yesterday. That means the Democrats get 51 votes in case of a tie and the Republicans only get 50.

But as of now, Sanders isn’t chairman of anything. The odious Republican senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, is already up to his old tricks.

You see, the Senate requires something called an “organizing resolution”. According to the Senate’s official site:

At the beginning of a new Congress, the Senate adopts an organizing resolution listing committee ratios, committee membership, and other agreements between the parties on the operation of the Senate. Typically a routine matter approved by unanimous consent agreement, on occasions when the Senate has been closely divided, the organizing resolution has provoked fierce debate.

The Democrats have said they’re willing to organize the Senate the way it was organized the last time there were 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. That was the situation in 2001, the only difference being that Republicans had the White House, giving them the ability to break ties in their favor.

But organizing the Senate the same way as last time isn’t good enough for Mitch McConnell now that Democrats have the edge. He wants to change the organizing resolution so that the Democrats agree to never require majority rule in the Senate, i.e. to never abolish the  filibuster. That’s the ability of a single Senator to stop vital legislation without even identifying himself in public.

In 2021, if a senator wants to filibuster legislation, they don’t even have to hold the floor by talking for hours, the way an exhausted Jimmy Stewart did in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.


Today, senators can simply say “No” to a piece of legislation — without even publicly identifying themselves. To override a senator’s filibuster, it takes a supermajority of at least 60 senators (a 60-40 vote). So unless your party has 20 more senators than the opposition, a filibuster can kill important legislation, even though most senators (and a majority of Americans) want it.

So here’s what McConnell is doing: 

McConnell is threatening to filibuster the Organizing Resolution, which allows Democrats to assume the committee Chair positions. It’s an absolutely unprecedented, wacky, counterproductive request. We won the Senate. We get the gavels (Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii).

Because of McConnell’s new demand, the U.S. Senate’s organizing resolution is still the one they had last week when the Senate and White House were run by Republicans. That means they’re still in charge of the committees that approve legislation before it can go to the whole Senate for a vote (and before the Senate can approve many of Biden’s nominees). Bernie Sanders and his Democratic colleagues who are supposed to be in charge of those committees are as powerless as they were before the inauguration!

It sounds like Democrats have to agree to keep the filibuster or they (and we) are screwed.

Except for one thing. Kamala Harris can take the gavel whenever she wants. Being Vice President of the United States automatically makes her President of the Senate. And that makes Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York the Majority Leader of the Senate, instead of the odious Mitch McConnell. In other words, the Democrats can now tell Mitch McConnell to go to hell if they want to. Whoever is Majority Leader of the Senate gets to control the proceedings, deciding, for example, what legislation the Senate gets to vote on. It’s quite a system.

Of course, the Constitution doesn’t mention the Senate Majority Leader. The Constitution doesn’t even mention political parties. Nor does the Constitution mention the filibuster. Someone who’s written a book about the filibuster and used to work for a Democratic senator explains where the filibuster came from:

The filibuster was not part of the original Senate because the Framers knew exactly how it’d be used — they saw McConnell coming. The filibuster represents Calhoun’s vision, not Madison’s. Calhoun wanted a Senate where the minority could block the majority (Adam Jentleson).

That’s John C. Calhoun, the Southern senator who wanted to protect the South and slavery from the Northern majority.

Calhoun was profoundly racist. He was slavery’s leading defender in the Senate. He argued on the Senate floor that slavery was a “positive good.” And he was motivated to innovate the filibuster by the desire to protect slavery — to give the South veto power. Bad, bad guy.

The filibuster means that, in many cases, you need at least a 60-40 vote to get something done in the Senate.

The de facto supermajority threshold was first forged against civil rights. Jim Crow-era segregationist senators repurposed a 1917 Senate rule to force every civil rights bill to clear a supermajority threshold, blocking them all. Only civil rights bills were blocked in this way.

The authors of the Constitution favored majority rule, except in a few special cases, like overruling a president’s veto or removing a president from office. Mr. Jentleson quotes an article in The New York Times:

The supermajority threshold of today flies in the face of the framers’ intent. They wanted the Senate to be a place where debate was thorough and thoughtful, but limited, and where bills passed or failed on majority votes when it became clear to reasonable minds that debate was exhausted. Originally, Senate rules included a provision allowing a majority to end debate, and an early manual written by Thomas Jefferson established procedures for silencing senators who debated “superfluous, or tediously.” Obstruction was considered beneath them.

The reason the framers set the threshold at a majority is that they wrote the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, which they saw as a disaster because it required a supermajority of Congress to pass most major legislation. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 22, the idea that a supermajority encouraged cooperation had proven deceptive: “What at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison.” Rather than encourage cooperation, he prophesied, the effect of requiring “more than a majority” would be “to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices” of a minority to the “regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

So here we are. The Democrats can now make any rules they want for the Senate and adopt those rules by a 51-50 vote, as long as those rules don’t conflict with the Constitution. They could then pass any legislation they want and get President Biden’s signature on it. That would include things like Biden’s massive Covid relief bill, elements of the Green New Deal and statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico (giving the Democrats four more votes in the Senate). They could even expand the Supreme Court to cancel out the Republican majority’s ability to find reasonable laws unconstitutional.

Will they use their authority to defang Mitch McConnell, get rid of the filibuster and restore majority rule to the Senate? Before today, it was doubtful, because there are conservative or “traditionalist” Democrats who worry about changing Senate rules (see “Fear vs. the White Male Effect”). Back to Twitter:

The fact that Mitch McConnell can use the filibuster to prevent the majority from taking control of the Senate is a pretty good argument against the filibuster (Dan Pfeiffer).

McConnell makes mistakes and this may have been one. His obstruction playbook relies on stringing Dems along and keeping them believing a bipartisan deal is just around the bend. Filibustering the organizing resolution to prove he won’t filibuster Biden was too clever by half (Adam Jentleson).

Democrats who want to save the filibuster claim it encourages the two sides to work together for the common good. But they’re wrong:

To those who say the filibuster encourages bipartisanship, Hamilton addressed this directly in Federalist 22: “What at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison,” he wrote of a supermajority threshold. It doesn’t encourage cooperation, it encourages obstruction (Jentleson). 

The fact is that the Democrats are the party of Yes and the Republicans are the party of No. It’s time to stop making it so easy for them to say No to the majority, especially today when we face so many crises that require urgent action.