How To Fix “Our” Problems, Including Guns

After our two most recent massacres, a group of senators is discussing federal gun control legislation. There’s no reason to think they’ll come up with anything that enough Republican senators will support (it’s not even clear that the Senate’s most conservative Democrat — from rural West Virginia — will support something that upsets the gun cult). 

So consider the final paragraphs of today’s New York Times editorial:

In Washington, D.C., there is talk that Republican and Democratic lawmakers might make a deal on some type of national red flag law, which would allow the police to take guns away from people judged to be an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, has been leading a bipartisan group of senators that is considering establishing a more comprehensive federal background check system, a reform supported by 88 percent of Americans.

We have seen these bipartisan efforts on gun safety measures come and go without results. Still, in the face of Republican intransigence, Democrats — Mr. Biden, in particular — should do whatever they can. Senator Murphy, who has led the charge for tougher gun regulations since Sandy Hook, put it well on the floor of the Senate this past week:

“What are we doing?” he asked his colleagues. “Why do you go through all the hassle of getting this job, of putting yourself in a position of authority” he wondered, if the answer is to do nothing “as the slaughter increases, as our kids run for their lives?”

It’s a question that speaks to the Senate directly and the entire system of American government more broadly. Yes, the country’s democratic system represents the diversity of views in this country on guns. But as currently structured, Congress is fundamentally unresponsive to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens and has been corrupted by powerful interest groups, allowing those groups to block even modest changes that the vast majority of Americans support.

We Americans all share this vast country and need to figure out how to make it better and keep one another alive and thriving. Right now, we’re failing at that primary responsibility. There are glimmers of hope, especially at the state level, that things are changing. But even there, progress is agonizingly slow and won’t be enough for the hundreds of Americans who will be shot today and tomorrow and every day until action is taken.

Unquote. 

The Times editorial board says we Americans” are failing. Earlier in the editorial, they say the United States is failing. In other editorials, they’ve said Congress is failing. They only once suggest that it’s Republican politicians who are resisting gun control legislation (“in the face of Republican intransigence”), and that their resistance is causing “we Americans”, the United States and Congress to fail.

The Times doesn’t suggest it, but there’s one way to address “our” failure. There are already so many guns in circulation that the problem might never be sufficiently addressed, but there’s a sure-fire way to make a dent in it:

  1. Elect Democratic presidents.
  2. Elect a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
  3. Elect a Democratic majority in the Senate, a majority that includes enough senators willing to abolish or reform the Senate filibuster (the Senate’s absurd rule that permits 41 senators to stop the other 59 from passing most legislation).
  4. After taking care of the filibuster, the Democratic president and Democratic Congress will be able to do lots of things, including gun control legislation.
  5. Among all those things will be adding four qualified justices to the Supreme Court, the number of justices needed to restore sanity there.

If that sounds too complicated, there’s a simpler solution:

  1. Nobody ever votes for a Republican again.

Understanding Their Perspective, and Thus Their Agenda

Jay Rosen of New York University recently listed the things he spends “most time puzzling about these days”. Here are his top two, although I’ve reversed the order, because one of them describes the world as most Republicans see it, a perspective that helps generate their warped political agenda:

        1) The Republican Party is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled . . . minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military. 

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainstream media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives. 

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. 

Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three. A counter-majoritarian [political party] thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures. 

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias. 

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the [journalistic] playbook about that.

        2) We have a two-party system and one of the two is [against democracy].

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the Big Lie that [somebody else] actually won

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that [the loser] won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership. 

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. 

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do . . . 

Unquote.

A thought occurred to me after reading Prof. Rosen’s post, so I left a comment:

It seems that the two biggest purveyors of right-wing propaganda and disinformation in the US are Fox News (the Murdochs) and Facebook (Zuckerberg). Do we have to accept the present behavior of these two institutions — actually, the behavior of these individuals — as facts of nature or are there practical ways to reduce their negative influence? Ways to address the problem have been suggested, but maybe there needs to be a more organized, targeted approach.

What do you do to sociopathic billionaires in order to get them to cease and desist? I don’t know, but that’s why people tried to assassinate Hitler.

The President and Congress Can Protect the Right to Vote

Now that the American Rescue Plan is on the brink of becoming law, the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats are giving more attention to voting rights and the restoration of majority rule. In response, Republican politicians are producing attacks like this from Sen. Cassidy of Louisiana:

Democrats are selling out their own voters in a brazen attempt to permanently solidify their majority. States make their own voting laws, not the federal government. This power grab is shameful.

Maybe Cassidy isn’t familiar with the Constitution:

Article 1, Section 4: The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Amendment XVII: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years . . . 

From CNBC:

President Joe Biden on Sunday signed an executive order aimed at helping to ensure all Americans have the right to vote by increasing access to voter registration services and information.

Biden’s executive order aims to take initial steps toward making the polls more accessible to Black and other minority voters, including Native Americans and people with disabilities.

It also calls for initiatives to improve access to voting for federal employees, active duty military and other voters overseas, and Americans in federal prison.

The executive order directs federal agencies to increase voters’ access to registration and information on elections online, as well as through more regular distribution of vote by mail and voter registration applications.

The executive order also calls for federal agencies to better coordinate with state governments on voter registration, as well as for updating the website Vote.gov.

Biden also called for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law in 1965 following a violent protest in Selma, Alabama, that left some participants injured.

The late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was one of the activists leading the march, suffered a fractured skull. Lewis passed away last year.

Biden’s executive order coincides with the 56th anniversary of that protest, known as Bloody Sunday.

“Today, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I am signing an executive order to make it easier for eligible voters to register to vote and improve access to voting,” Biden said in prepared remarks.

“Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have that vote counted. If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”

Biden’s executive order is an “initial step,” according to the White House. The president plans to work with Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated discriminatory practices such as requiring literacy tests in order to vote.

“I also urge Congress to fully restore the Voting Rights Act, named in John Lewis’ honor,” Biden said.

In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a central plank of the act which required nine states with a history of discrimination, mostly in the south, to receive federal approval to change their election laws.

Biden also plans to work with lawmakers to pass the For the People Act that was passed by the House last week, which includes additional reforms to make voting “equitable and accessible.”

“This is a landmark piece of legislation that is urgently needed to protect the right to vote, the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy,” Biden said.

What the Majority Wants vs. the Minority Rule Party

The American Rescue Plan the House of Representatives passed early Saturday morning has so much in it that one amazing provision is hardly being mentioned:

President Biden and Democratic lawmakers want to fight child poverty by giving U.S. families a few hundred dollars every month for every child in their household — no strings attached. A kind of child allowance. . . . Experts say it could cut child poverty nearly in half (NPR).

It’s understandable, therefore, that polls say an overwhelming majority of Americans support the Democrats’ Covid relief bill. One poll says 76% — even 60% of Republicans — support it. But not a single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for it. 

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Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent of The Washington Post both have columns about the bill and the politics. Here’s a mixture from what they wrote:

If I asked you to explain the Republican case against the Covid relief bill, what would you say? Well, they think it’s too expensive, and they’d rather not give too much help to states and localities. But their arguments against it seem halfhearted, anemic, almost resigned. . . .

This ought to be a moment when the GOP is back in its comfort zone. It’s not a party built for governing; Republicans no longer have much of a policy agenda, their leaders have become much more skilled at obstruction than at passing laws, and they have an enormous propaganda machine with a talent for creating fear and outrage. The party’s specialty is opposition.

One of the things they’ve done in the past is cast every new Democratic or liberal move as a harbinger of an impending apocalypse. Obamacare, they said in 2010, would destroy the American health care system. If gay people are allowed to marry, they said in 2004, the result would be the end of families and the breakdown of society. Both predictions proved ludicrously wrong, but at the time, they were highly effective means of motivating opposition. Today you can still find such rhetoric, but you have to look for it. . . .

Back in 2009, [Republican congressman Paul Ryan] made a very public case against a stimulus a fraction this big, making an actual argument (if a fraudulent one) about what debt Armageddon would mean for American society.

These days it’s harder to make that case. Republicans blew up the deficit with a huge tax cut for the rich, and cheered along as the pre-Covid economy was rocket-fueled with stimulus. Economists no longer fear the long-term risks of massive deficit spending amid big crises.

As a result, there’s nothing close to the same kind of public argument this time. As Paul Krugman points out:

Republicans appear to be losing the economic argument in part because they aren’t even bothering to show up

It’s as if they know they don’t have to.

They may well fully expect Democrats to . . . get the economy booming again, even as the vaccine rollout and other policies successfully tame the pandemic.

Yet Republicans know that even if this happens, they still have a good chance at recapturing the House at a minimum, helped along by a combination of voter suppression and other counter-majoritarian tactics and built-in advantages.

[Outside of Washington] they’re racing forward with an extraordinary array of new voter suppression efforts. Such measures are advancing in Georgia, Florida and Iowa, and in many other states.

In a good roundup of all these new efforts, Ari Berman notes:

After record turnout in 2020, Republican-controlled states appear to be in a race to the bottom to see who can pass the most egregious new barriers to voting.

On top of that, Republicans are openly boasting that their ability to take back the House next year will gain a big lift from extreme gerrymanders. Some experts believe they can do that even if Democrats win the national House popular vote by a margin similar to that of 2020.

So is there any reason to doubt that they’re primarily counting on more of the same as their path back to power this time?

[But controlling the White House and both houses of Congress] presents an extraordinary opportunity for Biden and congressional Democrats if they can see their way clear to take advantage of it.

Right now, Democrats are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to increase the minimum wage, something President Biden ran on, their entire party believes in, and which is overwhelmingly popular with the public. Some want $15 an hour, while others would prefer $11.

Yet the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a straight minimum wage increase can’t pass via the reconciliation process — the only way to pass a bill with a simple majority vote — the details of which are incomprehensible, or endlessly maddening, or both.

So Democrats have to find some kind of fiscal somersault to try to get the minimum wage increase into the Covid relief bill. 

This is no way to make laws. And what’s even worse is that it’s happening at a moment when Republicans — who in the past have been nothing if not skilled at undermining, vilifying, and sabotaging Democratic presidents — have seldom looked more feckless.

Republicans just haven’t been able to take the hatred and fear their hardcore base feels for Biden and scale it up and out, which then affects their ability to whip up frenzied opposition to the things he’s trying to do. And the broader context matters, too: When we’re caught in a pandemic and an economic crisis, only so many people will get worked up about whether a transgender girl is allowed to play softball.

That gives Democrats the chance to move forward confidently with their agenda, an agenda that is enormously popular. Yet some in the party are still in the grip of the nonsensical belief that it’s more important to retain a Senate procedure whose purpose is to thwart progress than to pass laws that solve problems.

In every American state legislature and in most every legislature around the world, if there’s majority support for a bill, it passes. In almost all cases supermajorities are only required, if ever, on things like constitutional amendments.

And every argument the filibuster’s defenders make about it — that it produces deliberative debate, that it encourages bipartisanship, that it makes for cooperation and compromise — is simply wrong, as anyone who has been awake for the last couple of decades knows perfectly well.

The Covid relief bill will pass, because it’s the only thing Democrats can do without a supermajority. It’s a vital, popular bill that could have been done in cooperation with Republicans had they wanted, but instead they’ve decided to oppose it. Which is their right, but it also shows how a simple majority should be the requirement for more legislating — which can only happen if the filibuster is eliminated.

The first weeks of the Biden presidency show the path Democrats can take: Push forward with the popular and consequential parts of your agenda, don’t be distracted by bleating from Republicans, act as though the public is behind you (because it is), and you might find that the Republican opposition machine isn’t as potent as it used to be.

But none of that will be possible unless Democrats can deliver on their promises. If they let themselves be handcuffed by the filibuster, the Biden presidency will fail and Republicans will take control of Congress. In other words, Democrats will have done the job Republicans couldn’t do themselves.

Unquote.

Neither of the columnists mentioned two key parts of the Democratic agenda.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would protect voters from racial discrimination and voter suppression.

The For the People Act would expand voting rights, overhaul our campaign finance system, and end extreme partisan gerrymandering.

All that stands in the way of these bills becoming law is the current requirement that ten Republican senators vote for them. That’s why the 50 Democratic senators need to end or severely limit the filibuster, thereby restoring majority rule to the US Senate. That’s how we can help restore majority rule to the United States of America.

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.

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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.