The Republican Party currently enjoys a 53-47 advantage in the U.S. Senate. There also seems to be little chance that Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama will be reelected next year. What this means is that the Democratic Party, if it wants to take control of Congress’s upper chamber, needs to pick off four GOP-held seats if they win the presidency, and five GOP-held seats if they don’t. The distinction between the two scenarios arises because the vice-president breaks 50-50 ties in the Senate.
For my purposes here, I am going to focus only on the situation where there will be a Democratic president in 2021, because I want to talk about the art of the possible.
If the Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate, the new Democratic president will not be enacting one iota of their top shelf legislative agenda. There will be nothing major on health care or college loans or immigration or climate change. Even judges will be only confirmed in the most belated and begrudging manner, and only if they’ve never said anything on the record that conservatives find irritating. All legislative progress that can be made will come as the result of leverage over must-pass bills, and the leverage will only be truly significant so long as the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives. But navigating government shutdowns and threats of national default in order to attach a few things to appropriations bills is not going to turn many of a candidate’s campaign promises into reality.
If, however, the Democrats win control of the trifecta (White House, Senate and House), they will still be hamstrung by the Senate’s legislative filibuster and the limits of what vulnerable or conservative Democrats are willing to support. It’s actually becoming foreseeable that the Democrats will do away with the legislative filibuster, thus allowing them to pass bills with fifty instead of sixty votes. But that would require them to be completely united, or nearly so if they somehow win even more than four GOP-held seats in 2020. Because the Democratic caucus includes many institutionalists, it’s probable that they won’t kill the filibuster for good until they’ve given the Republicans most of the 2021 congressional calendar to provide some compromise. Only if they are frustrated in that effort (and they will be) does it seems possible that every Democratic senator will be ready to make the move. As a result, President Biden (or Warren or Harris or Sanders, etc.) will probably lose all the momentum normally enjoyed during the honeymoon period of a new chief executive.
Yet, even if the Democrats win the trifecta and eliminate the legislative filibuster, they’ll still have huge problems passing legislation. Even assuming that Nancy Pelosi can push the president’s agenda through her chamber (and this is doubtful for some of the policies the candidates are pushing), there are senators (like Michael Bennet of Colorado, for example) on the record opposing much of the progressive candidates’ agenda. There are senators like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia who vote with the Republicans almost as often as they vote with the Democrats. Manchin, by the way, will probably be the chairman of the Energy Committee, making impactful climate legislation next to impossible to pass. And then there will be the freshman class. In order to get a net gain of four seats, the Democrats will have to win a seat or two in states like Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Even the seemingly easy pickings in Colorado, Arizona and (perhaps) Maine are going to bring in freshmen who won’t feel very safe in their seats.
In this scenario, the only things that will be legislatively possible are going to have to pass muster with the one or two most conservative/vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. And this is the rosy scenario. One way of putting it is that if Joe Manchin doesn’t want it to happen then it almost definitely is not going to happen.
So, what are the prospects for enacting Medicare for All, as many of the candidates have proposed? Could a President Biden or Bennet even hope to add a public option to Obamacare? How is President Inslee going to convince Manchin to pass a good climate bill through his committee? How can any of the candidates proposing that we decriminalize illegal border crossings get that through Congress? How about abolishing ICE or creating a slavery reparations program? Is Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren going to be able to deliver a massive trillion dollar college loan forgiveness program that isn’t even supported by many progressives? Will the DREAMERS get any relief? Will comprehensive immigration reform pass? Will Trump’s tax cuts get repealed? Any chance of closing Guantanamo?
As mentioned above, there will be some leverage points around must-pass legislation, so appropriations bills needed to keep the government operating can serve as vehicles to get a few things through. But, for the most part, even in the incredibly optimistic conditions I’ve set out here, the parties are too far apart and the Republicans are too implacable and resistant to pressure to allow me to predict any significant legislation will pass at all.
Notice, I make no distinction here between the Democratic candidates. It doesn’t matter who they are, how much they win by, what they’ve promised, how they get along with the Republicans in the Senate or what the people have to say during the process.
As far as I can tell, Congress is broken and nothing can fix it other than the Democrats winning 60 or maybe more Senate seats.
As if this isn’t bad enough, Trump has seeded the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, with so many far-right conservatives that it’s more likely that progress we’ve already made (like the Affordable Care Act) will be rolled back than that big new federal programs and regulations will be considered constitutional.
I absolutely understand that people are hungry for change. People are sick to death of Congress and want to break this gridlock. But it’s a problem that is beyond the power of any candidate or any rhetoric to fix.
So, I just cannot get interested in the differences between the Medicare for All programs proposed Sanders, Warren, Harris and Gillibrand, and I can’t get excited about free college or loan forgiveness or reparations or any of the other notable progressive ideas that are being bandied about. If people have ideas about how to accomplish things with their executive power (Obama’s famous “pen and a phone“) then I am all ears. A lot can be done through the agencies of the government. Ideas for how to break this gridlock are also welcome, so long as they don’t include the premise that we have “a revolution” in order to make it happen.
Under these circumstances, every promise a presidential candidate makes that requires Congress to act is likely to be a broken promise. I don’t think it’s a great idea to compile a large record of broken promises. But what really makes no sense is to propose things that are incredibly unpopular with the key groups the Democrats need to win that have no prospect of being enacted. Doing that gets you a general campaign liability and a broken promise if you nevertheless win, and the tradeoff is at best that you excite a segment of the electorate that is going to vote for you anyway, assuming they vote at all. And then you’ll disappoint this group and expect them to show up for the first midterm election.
I accept that no one wants to support a politician who tells you that there is no hope. I don’t expect the candidates to spend all their time talking about what cannot be done. But I wish they would please stop proposing things that people hate. It’s not smart politics.