Political Animal

Democrats Form a Circular Firing Squad

On Thursday, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled against allowing a $15 minimum wage increase in the forthcoming pandemic relief bill, several congressional Democrats heatedly pressed their fellow Democrats, explicitly and implicitly, to overcome the decision with provocative action.

Congressman Ro Khanna demanded on Twitter that Vice President Kamala Harris overrule the parliamentarian, even though the White House Chief of Staff previously said she would not do that. Also on Twitter, Congressman Ilhan Omar called on Senate Democrats to “Abolish the Filibuster” and “Replace the Parliamentarian.” Senator Bernie Sanders said he would offer a relief bill amendment “to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour” as well as create incentives for small businesses to that same end. (Sens. Brian Schatz and Ron Wyden soon said they would support the Sanders amendment.)

What you do not see in these statements—nor do you in the official reactions to parliamentarian’s ruling from the White House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—is any attempt to pressure Republicans, even though the only remaining path to a federal minimum wage increase is with 10 Senate Republicans joining the Democrats.

Instead, we see the makings of a good ol’ fashioned circular firing squad. Democrats are beginning to point fingers at the Vice President for not overruling the parliamentarian. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema get called out for not abolishing the filibuster, as well as for opposing a $15 minimum wage on the merits. (And perhaps not just those two; Sanders’ stand-alone $15 minimum wage bill is 12 short of 50 Democratic sponsors.) And considering that not every Senate Democrat supports a $15 minimum, at least not on the Vermonter’s four-year timeline, the proposed Sanders amendment to punish corporations who pay less than $15 an hour seems poised to provoke severe intra-party strife.

Why are Democrats squabbling, especially when their barest-of-margins hold on the Senate demands unity? Because many Democrats believe what Sanders believes about the likelihood of Republican cooperation: there is none. Earlier this week on MSNBC, Sanders said: “The only way that we are going to raise the minimum wage is through reconciliation or ending the filibuster. In my view, I do not see in the foreseeable future getting significant support from Republicans.” If you see no bipartisan path, you force yourself to pursue the partisan path, whatever the costs.

One can certainly understand being deeply skeptical of Republican cooperation and pursuing a partisan path, given the GOP’s failure to provide a single vote for Bill Clinton’s economic plan or Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But after Manchin and Sinema ruled out junking the filibuster, the parliamentarian ruled the minimum wage had no place in a filibuster-proof “budget reconciliation” bill, and the White House ruled out using the Vice President to subdue the parliamentarian, the legislative strategies of Democratic congressional leaders, as well as progressive backbenchers, should be recalibrated. The bipartisan path might not be available, but now we know that the partisan path is not available.

Fortunately, a glimmer of hope can be found in the proposal from Republican Senator Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Shelley Moore Capito, and Tom Cotton for a $10 federal minimum wage in four years, indexed to inflation. The bill also requires all employers to use the federal government’s “E-Verify” employment verification program, and prevent the hiring of undocumented immigrants. (Biden’s immigration bill proposes a commission to help improve employment verification but does not mandate employers use the federal program.

A minimum wage of $10 is surely too low an opening bid for most Democrats to accept, but an opening bid is just that. Plus, there is some history on the side of bipartisanship. While we have had only two federal minimum wage increases in the last three decades, those two were both grudgingly bipartisan, with small business tax breaks helping to win reluctant Republican support. George W. Bush signed one of them. Such a compromise may again be possible. The unknowns are whether Democrats and these five Republicans can meet in the middle on wage level, timeframe, and other provisions, and then whether another five Republicans can be brought on board. But compare the unknowns with the knowns: the positions of Manchin, Sinema, the White House, and the parliamentarian.

Of course, a successful bargain may not materialize. But if Democrats began putting pressure on Republicans now over a popular minimum wage hike, and negotiations do fail, then it will be easier for the more generous Democrats to affix the blame to the more miserly Republicans.

On the other hand, if Democrats continue to suggest they can take care of any minimum wage increase themselves—even at this point when they almost surely can not—then the inevitable failure rests solely on their own shoulders. Even worse, if Democrats bicker over controversial proposals during the pandemic relief bill legislative process, they risk taking the focus off the bill’s wildly popular elements—most prominently, the $1400 checks, which garnered 79 percent support in a recent YouGov poll. Turning a consensus bill into a controversial one would be political malpractice.

 A $15 minimum wage may not be quite as popular as government checks—it registered at 56 percent in the YouGov poll. But state ballot initiatives for minimum wage increases of varying degrees have proven very popular, even in deep red states including Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri and South Dakota. Just last November Florida voters enacted a plan for a $15 minimum by 2026. So by putting pandemic relief and minimum wage on separate legislative tracks, Democrats could force votes on each and really turn the screws on Republicans.

Biden appeared to grasp the potential of separation by calmly preparing fellow Democrats for an unfavorable parliamentarian ruling, and assuring they could still win a wage increase after the relief bill passes. Biden is playing chess. Other Democrats are checkmating themselves.

Congressional Republicans Who Want to Win Should Vote for COVID Relief

Most Republicans in Congress—perhaps all of them—appear prepared to oppose President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief bill. Senator Mitt Romney, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, called the proposal a “clunker” that is “filled with bad policies and sloppy math.” The House Minority Whip’s office dubbed the bill “Pelosi’s Payoff to Progressives Act” and now even Congressman Tom Reed, a Republican member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, announced his opposition. Politico reports that “Republicans are now gambling that there will be more backlash over schools staying closed, the Covid bill’s massive price tag and a partisan process.”

“Gambling” is the correct word. After a month without any coordinated messaging in opposition to Biden’s relief plan, Republicans are playing catch-up, and risk having already lost the argument. Polling to date has given Biden’s plan huge numbers; on Wednesday a Morning Consult poll found 76 percent support for the bill among all voters, including 60 percent support among Republicans. And a YouGov poll gauging support for the individual planks found majority Republican support for $1400 relief checks, an additional $400 monthly unemployment benefit, an extended ban on evictions and an expanded child tax credit (but not for state and local government aid, or a $15 minimum wage.)

As a general rule, giving people money is popular, whether by tax cut or government check. In turn, opposition parties usually fracture when facing a first-year president on a political honeymoon who is committed to giving people money.

What’s important for today’s Republicans to know is: those who have crossed the aisle to give people money tend to keep their jobs.

In an April 1981 Associated Press/NBC News poll, among those who had heard of President Ronald Reagan’s proposed tax cuts, the plan earned 71 percent support. A few months later, 131 House Democrats and 37 Senate Democrats joined Republicans to pass the tax cut bill. (Shortly after passage, a Gallup poll put support at a solid but more modest 51 percent with 26 percent in opposition.)

Twenty years later, President George W. Bush was gearing up for another round of tax cuts. Over the course of the spring, polling generally showed support for the tax cut between 56 percent and 61 percent. In that 50-50 Senate, 12 Democrats crossed over, along with 28 Democrats in the House.

President Barack Obama did not get nearly as much bipartisan support for his stimulus plan—a plan that subtly cut taxes by reducing the government withholding in people’s paychecks and was yoked to billions in Democratic government spending. Support in polls was decent but not overwhelming. A Gallup tracking poll taken regularly during January and February 2009 usually gauged support at 52 or 53 percent, with a bump up to 59 percent shortly before final passage. A CNN poll also taken near final passage showed a deeper divide: 54 percent in favor, 45 percent against. Obama finagled only three Republicans in Senate, and none in the House.

Republicans are no doubt nostalgic—and Democrats traumatized—for how they turned their near-unanimous opposition to Obama’s stimulus into a 2010 midterm election blowout. (Republicans may also remember how one of their renegades, Sen. Arlen Specter, soon switched parties, then lost the 2010 Democratic primary to an opponent, Joseph Sestak, who then lost that fall to Pat Toomey, once considered super right and is now the bane of Trumpists.) That recent memory of the 2010 GOP landslide clearly is steering both parties away from robust negotiations, with Democrats reasoning they are better off going big without Republican votes they’ll never get, and Republicans hoping Democrats will overreach. But Obama’s stimulus was never as popular as Biden’s relief package is today, partly because Republicans expended far more energy denigrating Obama’s proposal right out of the gate.

Reagan’s 1981 tax cut proposal, in stark contrast, reached a level of popularity near when Biden’s relief plan is today. Anti-Trump conservative Bill Kristol recently opined on Twitter: “This is such a political opportunity for Democrats. They can hammer this message: Republicans are voting against money for vaccines, tests, schools, small businesses, and the unemployed. Dem leaders opposed the 1981 Reagan tax cuts; it took them a decade to recover politically.”

That’s true, yet it also overlooks two key facts. One, as noted above, large numbers of Democratic backbenchers voted for the Reagan tax cut. (There were still lots of moderate and conservative Democrats back then.) And two, Democrats had a great 1982 midterm election, picking up 26 House seats and one Senate seat. Only six of the 131 House Democrats, and one of the 37 Senators who voted for the final bill lost re-election.

I had the opportunity to talk to Chris Matthews, who in the 1980s was Chief of Staff to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, about the 1982 elections. Matthews reminded me that Democrats “ran on Social Security in 1982,” while Reagan pushed a “stay the course” message. But with America suffering from economic recession, “stay the course” fell flat. And Democrats took advantage of a late news report quoting an anonymous White House official saying Social Security cuts were in the works. Since Reagan’s tax cuts passed with a strong bipartisan vote, Republicans couldn’t use that as a wedge issue, while Democrats could more easily shift the focus to favorable turf.

In 2002, Democrats were not able to reap immediate electoral gains after some helped Bush enact his tax cuts. The national security panic after the 9/11 attacks greatly aided Republicans who, in the days before Donald Trump, were widely seen as the hawkish party. However, the 2002 elections saw very few incumbents lose on either side and most of the Democrats who voted for the Bush tax cuts kept their seats.

Of the five Senate Democrats who voted for the tax cuts and were on the ballot in 2002, three won. The defeated were Georgia’s Max Cleland, who was falsely smeared as an opponent of a Homeland Security department. Missouri’s Jean Carnahan lost too, but she had been appointed to the seat after her husband died just before winning in 2000—yes, a dead man won. The hastily appointed Carnahan didn’t have a long-standing base of support. Only two of the House Democratic “yea” votes lost, one who was felled by a scandal and another who had to face a Republican incumbent because of redistricting.

Of course, the common refrain today is that Washington is more polarized than it used to be, making it hard for Republicans to break ranks. But there’s no reason for Washington to be more polarized than America, and no reason for Republican politicians to oppose legislation supported by many, perhaps most, Republican voters.

Surely, Republican senators who initially tried to negotiate with President Biden are frustrated that he hasn’t offered any concessions. And maybe concessions can still happen, especially if Senators Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema withhold their votes, making a Democrats-only bill impossible. Or maybe Republicans can, as Sen. Susan Collins hopes to do, alter the bill with amendments passed on the floor. But even if Republicans can’t change the bill, a late attempt to stoke opposition to the bill looks like a riskier bet than simply siding with the American majority. No one can know exactly which way the political winds will blow come 2022 but giving voters money has long been a great way to keep one’s seat.

To Stay Strong Against Any White House, Congress Can’t Be at War With Itself

On a December evening in 1986, I shared a backroom of the U.S. Capitol with this country’s top legislative leaders. One of them, a wounded World War II serviceman, asked for help with the coffee urn. Totally disabled in his right hand, he used his left to hold the cup. He asked if I would draw the coffee.

That simple pour came during one of those Capitol Hill rituals that rarely, if ever, gets reported. Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. was retiring. On this day, the last night of his ten-year speakership, leaders of both parties were spending some quiet, respectful time with him.

It was just that, men (sadly, no women yet) sitting together honoring O’Neill and with that sendoff, they were tacitly acknowledging their years of service in each other’s company: Jim Wright of Texas, Tom Foley of Washington State, Bob Michel of Illinois, Senators Bobby Byrd of West Virginia, and Bob Dole of Kansas.

I thought of that affectionate evening with these leaders of both parties when I heard about President Biden’s visit with Dole, now 97, earlier this month. The one-time Senate Majority Leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee still bears his injuries suffered during the American liberation of Italy. Now, he has throat cancer which is why the new president went to see him. They had spent 23 years in the U.S. Senate together.

It struck me as just the kind of event to keep off the president’s public schedule. Why? Because it’s not about the usual public persona. It’s about something more. It’s the human kind that makes all the other possible. It’s the social cement that holds the bricks together. It’s the element in legislative power that has been under assault not just during Trump’s poisonous reign but under Newt Gingrich and others who turned rough politics into blood sport.

What I’m referring to is the personal relationships that come from common service. People who give themselves to a similar quest, a life in electoral politics, find themselves forming bonds. Working on the same issues, inhabiting the same workplace, they become comfortable associates, often more than that. There are lots of reasons, of course, for the decline of comradery in Congress: The decline of parties means more powerful interest groups who push more bellicose candidates in primaries. The ideological separation of the parties—there are basically no more conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans—removes what was once a barrier to conflict in a two-party system. You could fight like hell, but it was harder to savage personally if a sizable minority in your own party were with the other guys on abortion or defense.

There’s still a definite comradery in the Congress, an enjoyment of being in the company of colleagues who, for all of their differences, have much in common. A good example is the annual “gym dinner.” This is the event run by the people who run the House gym. Each year they host a supper in the Longworth cafeteria for House members, past and present.

The menu is top-of-the line diner food: steaks, baked potatoes, a bottle of beer, apple pie for dessert. But it’s not the chow that draws the huge turn-out. It’s the simple chance to sit together at long tables and chat about whatever’s on the next person’s mind. It’s simply about getting together: no speeches, no program, just familiar company. And there’s no division by party, no aisle down the middle among those happy tables.

You’ll never read in the newspapers about the “gym dinner.” Yet it matters. I remember the night the first George Bush, a former House member from Houston back in the 60s, brought Ronald Reagan to one. He knew it was a way the new president could pay proper respect to the Congress, by showing up when there were no cameras, no way to take advantage except with where it was deserved by his coming.

This is the world Newt Gingrich tried to destroy in the 1990s. He decided this goodwill across party lines was killing Republican chances. Like Lenin, he decided his revolution required the politicization of personal life. Having risen to his Speakership attacking any effort to get things done as appeasement, and being the first C-SPAN demagogue, Gingrich’s one innovation was to tell incoming freshmen members to keep their press secretaries back in the district. That way they could keep the new member tied into the hometown news.

His second bit of advice was for new Members to keep their spouses there. That way they could keep involved socially with their political base. And the shift in culture from moving your family to DC when you won made a huge difference. If you were just here for ideological jousting, why bring the family? If you brought the family, you were more likely to see the Beltway as home and not just a rhetorical flourish. You were more likely to do social things with your spouse and folks from work, same as if you were an accountant or a cop.

As for the marriages? Well, they could see them on weekends, or rather in those weekend hours when they weren’t campaigning or raising money.

If Newt’s advice was good politics, it was terrible for Congress. If members were to go home every weekend to see their spouses, they were not going to spend time with other congressional couples. Wives and husbands of members were not going to keep things friendly when the divisions on the House floor grew heated. Without the possibility of weekends together, Washington’s politicians were even less likely to become friends with anyone from the other political party.

It didn’t surprise me that Joe Biden and Bob Dole are friends. In the Congress, I served as Tip O’Neill’s guy for all those years when such friendships were accepted. This is not misplaced nostalgia. It’s what allowed the first branch of government to function. The more we’ve lost of that comradery the less power the legislative body will have in a system where Congress is meant to check the president. The more we get back that life the stronger both chambers will be. Congress has fallen behind the imperial presidency in so many ways and has struggled to come back. It created the Congressional Budget Office to keep pace with the president’s Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Technology Assessment so it wouldn’t get snowed by the White House’s expertise on science. But personal ties are essential if Congress is going to be the first branch of government. It can’t be when character assassination replaces sharp elbows.

So, don’t undercount the human factor. I still feel affection for that evening when Bob Dole showed the strength of the wounded warrior—and showed me the honor—to help him pour his coffee.

Why We Should Rethink Voting Rights from the Ground Up

In the wake of the slow moving but powerful blue tide that ushered in a Democratic-controlled Senate, all eyes were on Georgia and the unmatched skill of Stacey Abrams. Not hours had passed before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to put voting rights on the agenda.

Since then, Congressional Democrats have introduced H.R.1. The For the People Act, a sweeping reform bill meant to modernize and democratize our elections, with a vote on the bill planned for the first week of March. This sprawling 700-page document, covering everything from voter registration and vote-by-mail to ballot security and campaign finance reform, has drawn the ire of Republicans charging legislative overreach.

If it appears that way, it is only because we operate under a faulty understanding of voting rights, one which focuses on the prevention of discrimination rather than the promotion of an affirmative right to vote. It’s time to finally rethink that. If we do, H.R.1 will seem more like a good start than a radical measure.

We tend to think of voting rights in terms that political philosophers would characterize as a negative liberty—as freedom from discrimination, from obstruction, from intimidation. This is no surprise given how voting rights have evolved in the United States. There is no constitutional guarantee of the right to vote, and the Bill of Rights is silent on the matter. This, of course, is by design.

The founders had no intention of extending the franchise beyond the wealthy white men who held power at the time. As increasing wealth and access to property made this restriction on the franchise moot, states began removing tax and property qualifications for white men, but made no substantive assurances of an affirmative right to vote. Subsequent acts enfranchised other segments of the population—Black men through the 15th Amendment and later white and Black women through the 19th—but again offered no guarantee of the right to vote, only the right to be free from discrimination in voting. This has now been entrenched through decades of litigation linking voting rights with the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. And this is effectively what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its subsequent amendments codified.

The problem with conceiving of voting rights in terms of negative liberty is that it limits us to a defensive strategy, litigating egregious cases in a piecemeal way and targeting only those things that would prevent individuals from voting. Understanding voting rights in terms of positive liberty would require attention to not just the things that prevent citizens from voting, but also to those that empower them to do so.

A truly progressive agenda would treat voting rights like economic rights, which also are not guaranteed in the Constitution, but have been earned through decades of struggle. Various groups mobilized throughout our history to demand that the government not just protect us from harm, but also provide the resources necessary to secure our well-being. (Think of the labor movement or the fight for entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.) So, too, must we demand that our government support citizens in exercising the franchise, anticipating and meeting the needs of voters at every step from registration to casting a ballot.

This was the genius of Stacey Abrams and her network of advocacy organizations. Their work began with voter education and extended to mobilization, identifying the pitfalls that get between voters’ desire to vote and their ability to do so. In 2020, given the challenges of the pandemic and the subsequent and rapid shift to vote by mail, this was especially crucial. Ensuring that voters understood the different steps took outreach and education. Abrams’ success built on the work of previous generations who had laid a solid foundation for protecting voting rights in Georgia. But Abrams’ great achievement was understanding that it was not enough to guard against discrimination and that in fact our laissez faire approach to elections disadvantages all but the most well informed and politically connected. Hers was a more proactive approach that addressed the obstacles, both malicious and benign, that stand in the way of the right to vote with a systematic strategy to help citizens overcome them.

This is what we need to demand now, not of voting rights activists, but of our government.

Today, the work of voter education and mobilization falls either to private advocacy organizations or to political campaigns. This presents serious challenges since advocacy groups tend to be limited in their reach, and campaigns have incentives to focus only very narrowly on voters who they believe will be favorable to their candidate. Historically there have been many other organizations involved in these efforts including trade unions, civic organizations, and religious groups. But as these institutions have atrophied or withdrawn from their roles in civil society, a tremendous gap is left behind in terms of the support voters may receive.

Those who have called for a constitutional amendment to secure the right to vote are on the right track. But the truth is, we do not need a constitutional amendment to make demands on our government. The most substantial advances of the 20th century including welfare policy, education policy, and health care policy, have come not through the Constitution, but through advocacy. This advocacy has to start with a shift in what we think is appropriate and worthwhile to demand.

H.R. 1 is a step in this direction. And messy as it may be, it brings us closer to achieving an affirmative right to vote in the United States. Many of its provisions still focus on the prevention of discrimination. But others move past this issue to introduce automatic voter registration, secure mail-in voting, and many election administration improvements that would streamline in-person voting. Such provisions remove known obstacles to participation and simplify what can often be a confusing multi-stage multi-deadline time-consuming process for voters.

But more can still be done. Our government can and should require all employers to provide time off for employees to vote, provide sample ballots ahead of time so that voters know what will be asked of them and have time to gather the necessary information and establish an independent non-partisan agency to contact voters in advance to answer questions and provide support.

It is time to shift the frame. While the prevention of discrimination is worthy and noble, it cannot limit our political imagination, especially with so many increasing challenges to voting access by those claiming irregularities and fraud. Right now, our best defense is a more robust offense.