Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, compared to Lincoln’s by some guy named “Wolf” on CNN, emphasized unity. Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, who sucks on lemons for pleasure, pointed out that unity was not a core American value like freedom, to which former DNC chairwoman and cheat Donna Brazile replied that unity just meant civility.
None of this matters. If by unity, Biden meant stop hating each other, engaging in violence to achieve political ends and doing everything possible to vilify the other side, is there really anything to complain about it? But if by unity, Biden meant seek common ground, then he was being disingenuous. He asked us to hear him out, then signed a flurry of Executive Orders without saying a word as to why, not making any effort to explain, to persuade, to at least inform people why. This isn’t to say that the EOs were bad or wrong, but that you can’t call for unity while signing it away.
But some of the most controversial changes must come from Congress, despite a president’s best efforts to “reimagine” a nation by unilateral executive fiat and unreviewed bureaucratic dictates. Even though the Democrats have slim majorities in both houses, courtesy of Trump and his enablers, there remains one road block to flexing their legislative muscles. The filibuster.
Jamelle Bouie asked on the twitters, “want the courts to stay in their lane? want the executive to have less reach and discretion? then you should want a strong, active Congress.” “I do,” I replied. But he wasn’t really asking whether we should have a functional Congress, but for the elimination of the filibuster.
anyway there are a lot of reasons the filibuster should be abolished, but my preferred ones are a) if the public elects a majority to govern, that majority should be able to govern & b) endless senate gridlock has effectively broken congress & undermined the constitutional order
He’s not wrong about either, ignoring that his perspective was decidedly different when the Republicans owned Congress, but the legislative filibuster remains intact, meaning that the minority party, now the Republicans, can pretend to filibuster (it used to require someone actually reading from the telephone book for days on end when there used to be telephone books) and require 60 votes for cloture, to end the filibuster and bring the law to an up or down vote won by a simple majority.
There is, theoretically, a 51-50 Democratic majority in the Senate. The Republicans earned this spanking the hard way, by being the worst they could possibly be. This isn’t just about backing Trump’s lies, but refusing to work with the Democrats to find common ground, to reach consensus and to enact laws the nation needed and wanted. Congress was paralyzed because the Senate became a zero-sum game.
Even though the Republicans are now the minority party in Congress, the filibuster remains to prevent the majority from riding roughshod over the minority, and to compel the majority to seek senators of good will to put nation over party by moderating their most extreme demands or horse-trading for their vote. Of course, it only works if the minority party has senators of good will or horse-traders. This is why the elimination of the filibuster is the first order of business.
But none of these bills will pass a Senate in which the filibuster forces 60-vote supermajorities on routine legislation. And that clarifies the real question Democrats face. They have plenty of ideas that could improve people’s lives and strengthen democracy. But they have, repeatedly, proven themselves more committed to preserving the status quo of the political system than fulfilling their promises to voters. They have preferred the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy. If they choose that path again, they will lose their majority in 2022, and they will deserve it.
Ezra Klein, recently of his baby Vox before it went too rogue even for his tastes, recognizes that the long list of Democratic changes in the name of progress will be stymied in the Senate if the filibuster remains in effect and the Republicans persist in their scorched earth policy of refusing to cooperate on anything ever.
Klein’s argument, that the Dems have “plenty of ideas that could improve people’s lives” is a bit shallow and partisan. These ideas could help, but could also do enormous damage to people’s lives. The thought process is that while the Republicans have never shied from unified willingness to use their power as shamelessly as possible, there is a broad enough spectrum of opinion among the Democrats that they cannot agree to abuse their clout to achieve their ends. As the left wing of the party forced the Overton Window to the edge, this is more true today than ever. Even worse, progressive demands for a plethora of freebies and the reimagination of racism are just as unabashedly zero-sum game policies, even if most of their supporters are too simplistic to grasp why.
Without the filibuster, the pressure on moderate Democrats will be enormous, perhaps even overwhelming, to vote in favor of paradigm shifts that they neither approve of nor believe will be beneficial. Even worse, to take these monumental steps to “rebuild better” will be to further harm and alienate a large portion of the citizenry. At the same time, the most progressive members of the Democratic Party in Congress believe they now have a mandate, slim margins notwithstanding, to make their every dream come true. And, to be fair, they believe this is the right thing to do and the best thing for America.
Where the new president stands on this issue of the filibuster is unclear. It may be that he anticipated a two vote Republican majority in the Senate, where he could use his personal good will to push through his priorities by prevailing upon his former colleagues to compromise just a bit. At the same time, he could pretend to pander to his hard left wing, which only pretends to tolerate him, while knowing that their radical plans would never happen. But now that Trump blew the deal, the only thing protecting a moderate Biden from his own party crazies is the filibuster.
Like Jamelle Bouie, I want a functioning Senate, meaning a Senate where two parties can find common ground, see problems that need fixing and find a way to fix them that everyone can live with. I don’t want the courts or the president to make legislative decisions by force. But this would require good will, intelligence and putting nation over party in Congress. Until that happens, at least we still have the filibuster to prevent the tyranny of the majority or minority. Maybe that’s what Joe Biden meant by unity.