Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive — Part 3

If you use a credit card to buy $1,000 worth of stuff, you have taken on $1,000 worth of debt. You either have to give the credit card company $1,000 the next time they send you a bill or pay an outrageous amount of interest on what you haven’t paid off.

The federal government is in a similar situation. Since 1970, except for the last four years of the Clinton administration, the federal government has taken on more debt. It’s spent more money than it’s received through taxation, i.e. it’s run a deficit. As a result, the total national debt has increased.

In order to make up the difference, the government has issued bonds, i.e. borrowed money from investors in the bond market (in other words, the government is you and the bond market is the credit card company).

So, in 2020, the last year of the T____ administration, the government spent $6.5 trillion. But the government’s revenue, partly due to tax cuts, was only $3.4 trillion. That means, roughly speaking, the federal government needed to come up with $3.1 trillion dollars to pay its various bills. It was necessary to sell a lot of bonds.

But more than 100 years ago, during World War I, Congress decided that instead of approving the sale of all those bonds, they would set an upper limit on how many bonds the government can sell. That gave the people at the Treasury Department some flexibility. They didn’t have to repeatedly ask Congress for permission to sell more bonds to pay the government’s expenses.

There have been a few changes to the debt limit law since then, but that’s the basic idea. Congress and the president approve a budget. The executive branch then spends a lot of money. When there are too many bills or other obligations to address compared to the taxes collected, the Treasury Department sells bonds to cover the difference, i.e. the deficit. Raising the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it authorizes new borrowing to cover debts the government has already incurred by following the budget Congress and the president approved.

Ordinarily, Congress would simply vote for the debt limit to be increased. But things are not so simple these days. Congressional Republicans don’t believe in governing responsibly. They look for ways to make their Democratic colleagues and the government as a whole look bad. They then claim to be the ones who can fix the problems they’ve done so much to create.

Since the House of Representatives has already addressed the problem by a simple majority vote (218 Democrats voted Yes, 210 Republicans voted No), it’s now up to the Senate to finish the job.

In a more rational world, the 50 Democrats in the Senate could all vote Yes while the 50 Republicans voted No. Vice President Harris could then vote Yes and break the tie. Problem solved (for now).

But the Senate doesn’t have majority rule. It has the filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to do most of the Senate’s business, including raising the debt limit. Without the agreement of at least 10 Republicans, therefore, the 50 Senate Democrats can’t even bring the debt limit increase to a vote.

There are various ways the problem can be addressed before the U.S. government runs out of money and the global markets and the global economy take a dive.

The Treasury Department could mint a special coin and assign it a value of trillions of dollars. Depositing this coin at the Federal Reserve would mean the government suddenly had plenty of money. But it doesn’t look like anybody in authority likes this idea.

The Treasury Department could ignore the debt limit law, citing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned”, which kind of means the government has to pay its bills. But again, this idea doesn’t have enough support.

A third option, of course, would be for the Republicans to allow the Democrats to proceed to a vote. But the Republicans say they won’t do that.

Instead, they say the Democrats should pursue a fourth option: use the complicated process known as budget reconciliation, which allows a majority in the Senate to pass budget-related legislation. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process. In fact, it’s the very complicated process the president and congressional Democrats are (very slowly) using to pass most of Biden’s agenda (the agenda that’s popular with the public but too expensive for two Democratic senators, one who’s actually a moderate Republican and one who’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma). 

Reuters explains what the Democrats would have to do in order to use reconciliation to raise the debt limit:

* The budget committees in the Senate and House of Representatives would have to write legislation enabling the debt limit to be raised. . . 

* The Senate Budget Committee likely would deadlock 11-11 if all 22 members were present, preventing Chairman Bernie Sanders from sending such a bill to the full Senate.

* The Senate’s Majority Leader could then make a move on the Senate floor to “discharge” the stuck legislation from the budget panel. There would be a maximum of four hours of debate and then the Senate would vote on whether to instruct Sanders to release the bill to the floor.

* The Senate could then start debate for a maximum of 20 hours. But it would be open to a potentially large number of amendments in a procedure that is known as a “vote-a-rama.” Amendments would have to be directly related to budgetary matters however. Vote-a-ramas are often all-night affairs.

* Following votes on amendments, the Senate could vote to approve the debt limit bill and could do so with a simple majority of 51 votes.

* The House also would have to go through the process of debating and passing the bill, also by simple majority.

* As all of this is unfolding, global financial markets could become unsettled as Oct. 18 nears and Washington flirts with a default. 

The reason Senate Republicans want the Democrats to use reconciliation for the debt limit is that it would interfere with using reconciliation to pass Biden’s big, popular agenda. That’s the whole reason.

Fortunately, there’s a fifth option. The 50 Senate Democrats could make an exception to the filibuster rule. That’s already been done for budget reconciliation and approving judicial appointments. Why not do it for the debt limit too? It shouldn’t require 10 extra votes in the Senate to allow the government to pay its credit card bills.

But those two Democratic senators (the moderate Republican and the mystery woman who now votes like one) think the filibuster rule is near sacred. They claim it brings the Democratic and Republican senators together in a wonderful spirit of compromise. Maybe it did once upon a time, and once in a while, but all it does now is allow a minority to control the Senate.

So when the Republican Minority Leader says the debt limit problem is for the Democrats to solve, since they control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, he might as well be speaking in tongues. The only way Democrats can control the Senate is to eliminate or change the filibuster rule, which so far isn’t happening. (While they’re at it, they should make a filibuster exception for voting rights too — that seems obvious but so far isn’t to all 50 of them).

A Lingering Question from the 2020 Election

Why didn’t Democrats do better in House and Senate races last year, given that Biden got seven million more votes than the other guy.

First, the House of Representatives. There were roughly 156 million votes for either Biden or his Republican opponent. Biden’s share of that 156 million was 52.3%. Meanwhile, Democrats got 51.5% of all the votes cast in House races and, as a result, 51.5% of seats in the House. If they had gotten Biden’s percentage instead of 51.5%, they would have done better, but not much better. Instead of 224 seats out of 435, they might have gotten 227 or 228. That wouldn’t have been a big difference. The House vote pretty accurately tracked the presidential vote.

One reason the Democrats’ House vote fell slightly short might be that five million voters didn’t bother voting for a House candidate — maybe more of those lazy, uninformed or cynical voters were Democrats. Another reason, no doubt more likely, may be that Biden’s opponent was especially unpopular. More than a few people who usually vote Republican couldn’t bring themselves to vote for their party’s presidential candidate, even though they were willing to vote for his supporters in Congress.

The Senate was a different story. Because senators serve for six years, only one-third of Senate seats are contested in any given election. In 2020, thirty-four states had Senate elections. For no reason except that it was their turn, twenty-two of those thirty-four states had Republican senators. Only twelve had Democrats.

Since states generally elect their senators with large majorities — incumbent senators often win 60% or more of the vote — you’d expect Republican presidential candidates to do extraordinarily well in states with Republican senators. That’s exactly what happened in this election. The Republican presidential candidate got 57% of the vote in states that elected Republican senators, compared to 47% in the country as a whole.

Even so, Democrats ended up winning Senate seats in fourteen of the thirty-four states, adding two states to their total. Precisely those fourteen states of the thirty-four also went for Biden.

So the Democratic presidential candidate won 52.3% of the votes cast for either him or the Republican [not for a 3rd party candidate]; Democrats running for House seats did only slightly worse; and Democrats running for the Senate picked up a few seats, despite the fact that two-thirds of the states with Senate elections usually vote for Republicans.

If there’s an anomaly here, it’s that almost half of the electorate voted for a terrible president and disgusting human being, while also voting for congressional candidates who’d support him every step of the way.

One other statistic is worth noting. Biden got 49.6% of the vote in the thirty-four states with Senate elections, even though two-thirds of those states preferred his opponent. How did he get almost half the votes in thirty-four states if two-thirds of those states voted for the other guy? The reason is that Democratic states have larger populations.

Among the thirty-four states, the average Democratic state had 3.6 million voters. The average Republican state had only 1.8 million. Because each states has two senators without respect to population, the 40 million voters in the twenty-two Republican states are represented by forty-four senators. The 43 million voters in the twelve Democratic states only have twenty-four senators.

The men who wrote the Constitution made the US Senate a bastion of minority rule. The Senate filibuster adds insult to injury by requiring sixty votes out of one-hundred to get much done. There is no justification for giving a minority of senators so much power in a legislative body that already gives disproportionate power to America’s smallest states.

Priority #1

The New York Times editorial board usually publishes bland editorials. This one isn’t bland. It calls for action on an issue that is surpassingly important to the future of this country, simply because the ability to vote affects just about every other issue: 

Far too many Republicans are players in a cynical pantomime: They say that the new voting restrictions being passed across the nation are designed solely to thwart widespread voting fraud, when the reality is that widespread fraud does not exist and the new restrictions’ purpose is to frustrate and disadvantage voters who lean Democratic — especially minority, young and lower-income voters.

Are Democrats going to do a darn thing [or a goddamn thing] about it? We’ll soon find out.

Republicans in Congress have repeatedly rejected measures to make voting fairer, more accessible and more secure. In state after state, the party has spent this year pushing laws that tighten ballot access — at least for certain groups — and that make the system more vulnerable to partisan meddling.

This antidemocratic (and anti-Democratic) agenda began before President D____ T____, but he supercharged it. Now, the former president and his supporters — who tried unsuccessfully to overturn the last election by lying about fraud and trying to strong-arm state officials and Congress into flipping electoral votes — have continued their crusade against democracy at the state and local levels.

In the recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Republicans began floating bogus claims of fraud long before the votes were tallied. “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?” Mr. T____ charged Monday, on the eve of Election Day. Urging voters to mistrust the system and to reject the outcome if they dislike it has become standard operating procedure for the G.O.P. [an acronym that needs to be abolished — there’s nothing grand about the Republican Party, a collection of miscreants very different from Republicans in the era of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant].

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats rolled out a reform bill aimed at curbing the madness. The Freedom to Vote Act, introduced by Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, would address longstanding flaws in the electoral system along with some of the Republicans’ recent machinations. It is a compromise proposal of sorts, crafted by a coalition of moderates and progressives after a more sweeping reform bill, the For the People Act, was blocked in June by a Republican filibuster.

This slimmed-down package jettisons some of the more controversial elements of the earlier plan. It would not, for instance, restructure the Federal Election Commission or mandate the use of nonpartisan commissions for congressional redistricting. It is nonetheless an ambitious, urgently needed corrective to Republicans’ ongoing assault on the franchise.

The package’s provisions range from making Election Day a public holiday to protecting local election officials from partisan interference. Partisan gerrymandering and voter caging, a sketchy method of purging voting rolls, would be banned. Same-day voter registration would be available in all states, as would automatic voter registration systems. A 30-minute wait-time limit would be imposed for in-person voting, and uniform, flexible ID requirements would be established in states that require voter IDs. The list goes on.

Federal voting protections wouldn’t just protect voters in red states. Blue and purple states with less liberal standards would have to up their game as well. For instance, neither Connecticut nor New Hampshire currently provides for early in-person voting, nor does New Hampshire have online voter registration. Wisconsin has a strict photo ID law. New York does not have same-day voter registration (though voters have the opportunity to move to change that in November). Federal standards would serve all voters in all states and of all electoral hues.

“Put simply, if the new bill is enacted, more citizens will be able to register to vote, vote in person and by mail and have their votes counted,” asserted Marc Elias, one of the Democrats’ top legal champions on voting rights. “And, those of us fighting suppression laws in court will have the tools necessary to achieve fast, consistent victories for voters when states fail to follow the law.”

Merits aside, . . . to avoid death by filibuster, it needs the support of all 50 Democrats plus 10 Republicans. Absent that, Democrats will face a hard choice: Let this crucial legislation die or eliminate the legislative filibuster in order to pass the bill on a party-line vote [actually, there’s no need to eliminate the filibuster — they simply have to create an exception to the filibuster, like the Senate has already done for “reconciliation” budget bills and judicial appointments].

This is a better dilemma, at least, than Democrats had to deal with over the summer, when they didn’t even have their entire caucus on board. While 49 Democratic senators supported the For the People Act, one, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, opposed it. As a conservative Democrat representing a deep-red state that Mr. T____ carried by close to 40 points last year, Mr. Manchin’s policy priorities [and his ridiculous whims] often clash with those of his Democratic colleagues.

But while there were some pieces of the For the People Act that made Mr. Manchin uneasy, his primary objection was that it lacked buy-in from Republicans. . . .

Bipartisanship is a big issue for Mr. Manchin — unsurprising, since his job security depends on appealing to voters who typically support the other party. He is correct that, even in today’s Senate, there can be agreement in areas where both parties are committed to making progress. . . .

But there are limits to bipartisanship, and the system comes up hard against those limits on the issue of voting rights. Yet Mr. Manchin has continued his search. In June, he put forward an alternative framework for reform that he felt had more bipartisan promise. Key Republicans promptly dismissed it.

Meanwhile, their colleagues in the states are seizing the moment. Republican-controlled legislatures already have passed laws restricting ballot access in at least 18 states. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas recently signed a raft of measures that the head of the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank in New York, declared “the most extreme of the voting restrictions passed by legislatures this year.”

Undeterred, Mr. Manchin, at the behest of Senate leadership, huddled with colleagues to hammer out the revised plan that’s now on the table.

Having waited for Mr. Manchin to get behind a bill, the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is now eager to move forward. He says a vote on the new package could take place within the week.

Mr. Schumer has also made clear that he considers this Mr. Manchin’s moment to try to drum up whatever bipartisan support he can. “He has always said that he wants to try and bring Republicans on, and now, with the support of Democrats and this compromise bill — which Senator Manchin had great input into — he can go forward in that regard,” Mr. Schumer said Tuesday.

No one expects Mr. Manchin’s gambit to succeed. But if his earnest outreach to Republicans fails, where does the senator go from there? Will he simply shrug and sacrifice voting rights on the altar of bipartisanship? Will he bow to a minority party pursuing antidemocratic measures to advance its partisan fortunes?

. . . Bipartisanship can be a means to an end. But when voting rights are being ratcheted backward by one party, bipartisanship can’t be an excuse for inaction.

President Biden is said to be ready to enter the fray. “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls,” he recently urged Mr. Schumer, according to Rolling Stone.

Now, Mr. President, is the time to act boldly. Make those calls. Set up those Oval Office chats with Mr. Manchin and any other Democrats who might still need persuading. Bring all the powers of persuasion and the weight of the office to bear on this issue before further damage is done.

Having lost the White House and the Senate last year, Republicans appear intent on rigging the game in their favor before the midterms. Protecting the integrity of America’s electoral system and the voting rights of its citizens should be priority No. 1 — not because it helps Democrats, but because it helps preserve democracy.

“Purity” and “Quality”: A Crisis in the Making

More than 100 experts on democracy, from John Aldrich to Daniel Ziblatt, have issued a “statement of concern” regarding the imminent crisis in American politics:

We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm. Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.

When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral. In the process, violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators. State legislatures have advanced initiatives that curtail voting methods now preferred by Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as early voting and mail voting. Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the “purity” and “quality” of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.

State legislators supporting these changes have cited the urgency of “electoral integrity” and the need to ensure that elections are secure and free of fraud. But by multiple expert judgments, the 2020 election was extremely secure and free of fraud. The reason that Republican voters have concerns is because many Republican officials, led by former President Donald Trump, have manufactured false claims of fraud, claims that have been repeatedly rejected by courts of law, and which Trump’s own lawyers have acknowledged were mere speculation when they testified about them before judges.

In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win elections.

Democracy rests on certain elemental institutional and normative conditions. Elections must be neutrally and fairly administered. They must be free of manipulation. Every citizen who is qualified must have an equal right to vote, unhindered by obstruction. And when they lose elections, political parties and their candidates and supporters must be willing to accept defeat and acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcome. The refusal of prominent Republicans to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, and the anti-democratic laws adopted (or approaching adoption) in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and Texas—and under serious consideration in other Republican-controlled states—violate these principles. More profoundly, these actions call into question whether the United States will remain a democracy. As scholars of democracy, we condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms as a betrayal of our precious democratic heritage.

The most effective remedy for these anti-democratic laws at the state level is federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections. Just as it ultimately took federal voting rights law to put an end to state-led voter suppression laws throughout the South, so federal law must once again ensure that American citizens’ voting rights do not depend on which party or faction happens to be dominant in their state legislature, and that votes are cast and counted equally, regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which a citizen happens to live. This is widely recognized as a fundamental principle of electoral integrity in democracies around the world.

A new voting rights law (such as that proposed in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) is essential but alone is not enough. True electoral integrity demands a comprehensive set of national standards that ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration, guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote, prevent partisan gerrymandering from giving dominant parties in the states an unfair advantage in the process of drawing congressional districts, and regulate ethics and money in politics.

It is always far better for major democracy reforms to be bipartisan, to give change the broadest possible legitimacy. However, in the current hyper-polarized political context such broad bipartisan support is sadly lacking. Elected Republican leaders have had numerous opportunities to repudiate Trump and his “Stop the Steal” crusade, which led to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Each time, they have sidestepped the truth and enabled the lie to spread.

We urge members of Congress to do whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.

Unquote.

The two Democratic senators who seem most reluctant to suspend the filibuster in order to protect democracy should read this statement.

Senator Joseph Manchin
306 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Senator Kyrsten Sinema
317 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Bad News and Possible Good News

The bad news isn’t actually news, but it’s good news that more people are finally admitting how bad it is. From Charles Pierce of Esquire:

Call me the Wet Blanket of the Gods, but I despair of ever making common cause with people who volunteer to live in Bedlam. From IPSOS:

. . . 56% of Republicans believe the election was rigged or the result of illegal voting, and 53% think [X] is the actual President, not Joe Biden.

There is no longer any reason to try to “understand” these people. Nor should there be any compunction about doing whatever we can to read them out of American politics, because they clearly have opted out on their own. They should be considered anathema, as should the entire Republican Party and the modern conservative movement that animates it.

Anything that can be done without including them should be done for the good—to say nothing of the sanity—of the country. Raw political power should be used to push through whatever of this administration’s policy priorities can be passed without any Republican help whatsoever. Majoritarianism should be invoked without mercy, and by whatever legitimate means necessary, and the window of opportunity to do that is closing fast.

It doesn’t matter if 53 percent of them say they believe the former president* is still the president* because they actually believe it, or they say it because it makes them one of The Elect. The effect on democracy is the same. They are poison in the bloodstream. And they’re proud of it.

Only 30% of Republicans feel confident that absentee or mail-in ballots were accurately counted . . . As a result, 87% of Republicans believe it is important that the government place new limits on voting to protect elections from fraud. Finally, 63% percent of Republicans think [X] should run for President again in 2024 . . . 

This is beyond the beyond. There is no compromise with this. There is no common ground. There is no deal to be struck. Millions of our fellow citizens are lost in rebellion against reality, and the only solution for the common good is to isolate them from decision-making and hope enough of them find their way back to make the country governable again. I’m not optimistic.

Unquote.

Today it was announced that the Manhattan district attorney has convened a grand jury to look at possible criminal behavior by the former president, his associates or his company. It’s unlikely the grand jury will indict anybody soon, but it’s a good development. Maybe he’ll have to run for president from jail.

And some observers think it’s becoming more likely the Senate filibuster’s stranglehold on progress will be loosened. From David Atkins of Washington Monthly:

The pressure to end the filibuster is getting strong enough you can feel all way from Arizona to West Virginia. But this time the impetus isn’t coming from outside activists or anti-gerrymandering and vote suppression reformers: it’s coming from inexorable forces within Congress itself.

A series of crucial votes looms in the near future, and it’s not clear that the internal calculus of Republican senators in the [X] era can permit a compromise with Democrats. Even less can Democrats permit an entire year and a half of legislative stalemate that not only threatens to derail democracy but would functionally disable the basic functions of government.

The immediate triggers for all this are 1) the imperiled January 6th Commission; 2) the debt ceiling fight; and 3) rising awareness that if nothing is done to curtail it, Republicans will simply rig elections in their favor and even refuse to certify their defeat even if they do lose their own rigged game. . . . 

The hostility of Senate Republicans toward accepting even the basic premises of a bipartisan commission to examine the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol has pulled a wet blanket over the hopes of optimists seeking to avoid partisan entrenchment. It is possible that Republicans are simply using hardball negotiating tactics and will eventually . . .  strike an agreement. But it’s unlikely. . . . 

Democrats, meanwhile, cannot afford not to investigate it. It was the most damaging assault on the foundations of American democracy since the Civil War, and members of Congress themselves were just minutes from potentially being murdered by the right-wing mob. Pressure will mount considerably to push the Democratic senators still defending the filibuster (most notably Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin) to change their stance if Republicans refuse to come to the table . . . 

But an even bigger battle looms ahead of the commission. As Dave Dayen notes at The American Prospect, Republicans in Congress are even likelier than they were in the Obama Administration to hold the government hostage over the debt limit–thereby threatening the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury. Democrats, for their part, are far less inclined to lend credibility to conservative crocodile tears about deficits or hamstring their own ability to help people or craft policy. . . . 

Ryan Grim is confident enough in this trajectory to predict that this is how the filibuster goes down. Grim believes that the debt ceiling will be the cue to enter Act II of Adam Jentleson’s speculative timeline for the end of the filibuster in his book Kill Switch: the flash point that will turn Manchin’s and Sinema’s Mom-and-apple-pie defenses of the filibuster into regretful reforms. There is good reason believe this analysis is correct. . . .