hardline political news and analysis

Much of what we see in Washington started 50 years ago this week

[first published in “The Hill,” June 14, 2022]

The Watergate break-in and the congressional inquiries, journalistic exposés, impeachment hearings it instigated convulsed the nation a half century ago. The bungled burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters on June 17, 1972, occurred just four and a half months before Richard Nixon won the most lopsided victory in American presidential history. But the seeds had already been planted that would produce historic changes few could have contemplated on that Election Day.

Two years later, only 12 weeks after Nixon had resigned the presidency and ruined the Republican brand, the nation went to the polls and chose a very different type of political leadership. The Class of 1974 — particularly in the House of Representatives — was younger, less deferential to seniority, more liberal on policy matters and more activist in demeanor than the sclerotic Congress they joined. “We were a conquering army,” recalled freshman George Miller of California, who at 29, was closer in age to anti-war demonstrators in the streets than the average age of House members. Some of the incoming freshmen seemed shocked at their own achievement. “We were young. We looked weird,” said Connecticut’s Toby Moffett. “I can’t even believe we got elected!”

With few exceptions like political scientists Andrew Maguire (N.J.) and Tim Wirth (Colo.), few appreciated how the archaic structure of the institution they were about to join precluded the implementation of the progressive policies they favored. Once in Washington, however, they discovered a sizeable coterie of reformers who had conspired against the powers of conservative and autocratic chairmen since the late 1950s with little success. With the arrival of over 70 Democratic freshmen in January, 1975, however, the balance of power abruptly shifted.

“The reinforcements have arrived!” crowed New York’s Bella Abzug. Even before they had been sworn in as members, the freshmen allied themselves almost unanimously — and regardless of ideology — with the phalanx of reformers like Phil Burton (Calif.), Don Fraser (Minn.) and Dick Bolling (Mo.) to form a progressive majority that would upend the Caucus and the House. It was what one freshmen, Les AuCoin or Oregon, called a “hinge point in history” although, he acknowledged, “we didn’t know it.”

The post-Watergate class is primarily remembered for having challenged the 64-year-old seniority system that ensconced as chairmen a disproportionate share of conservatives who, secure in their one-party districts, had faced little opposition and therefore dominated an increasingly liberalizing Democratic Caucus. The decision to oust three of the chairmen sent a powerful message to those who remained: Continue to vote more with the Republican minority than with your fellow Democrats and the Caucus would deprive you of your gavel.

The conservatives, who had dominated the leadership for decades, knew the jig was up. “Watch out,” said the segregationist Phil Landrum (Ga.), who was beginning his 22nd year in the House, “the revolution is going to get you!” Over the next two years, another half dozen chairs retired (as did Speaker Carl Albert) or were defeated as the reformers cemented the linkage between leadership positions to conformity to the national Democratic agenda.

The post-Watergate reformers did far more than weaken the seniority system.

Additional changes enhanced the power of the Caucus and the elected leadership and disseminated power far more widely on Capitol Hill. The ability of senior members to dominate the membership on powerful subcommittees was replaced with a bidding process that gave access to junior members. The Old Guard was also barred from holding a chairmanship of more than one subcommittee, empowering new members concerned with issues like the environment, weapons control, energy policy and disability rights to seize power on increasingly autonomous subcommittees that churned out progressive legislation the chairs and other senior members dared to ignore at their peril.

Practices that allowed senior members to dominate hearings, such as relegating junior members to the very end of the questioning period, were discarded. So were restrictions that prevented members from offering amendments to legislation on the House floor where the Caucus majority could challenge the work product of a committee that sometimes seemed a bit too sympathetic to the interests it was supposed to be regulating. The number of floor amendments exploded, causing party elders to flare against the reforms, but proposals to restrict even the Republican minority were resisted in the name of open debate and transparency. If the conservative Republicans wanted a vote, insisted Miller, “they are entitled to it … We cannot risk being efficient and do away with a democracy.” Some day, he presciently warned, Democrats might find themselves in the minority.

Frustrated by being denied information by the imperial presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, reformers institutionalized an aggressive system of oversight that, in the case of the Ervin Watergate hearings, Rodino impeachment hearings and Church CIA inquiries, had demonstrated a level of congressional competence few Americans had ever observed in the era preceding television coverage of committees and the House and Senate floor. The reformers insisted that every committee devote one subcommittee to oversight, and both Democrats and Republicans alike quickly acclimated to a more activist and inquisitive role concerning the operations of the executive agencies.

The changes the Watergate scandal and its aftermath brought to Capitol Hill were revolutionary and democratizing, but they were not without controversy, especially in the remaining years of the century.

A new generation of conservative Republicans from the party in the revitalized South and border states began arriving in the late 1970s, bringing a sharp-edged ideological outlook that, like those in the Class of ’74, often targeted their own stultified leaders as much as the political opposition.

A new generation of journalists (and the emergence of unregulated, ideologically-driven talk radio and then cable news programs), the Watergate scandal, combined with the alienation following nearly a decade of Vietnam protests to fuel skepticism about elected leaders, government and the political system itself.

Many of the reforms initiated after 1974, combined with the ideological realignment of parties and heightened competitiveness for the congressional majority stemming from the narrowing of margins between Democrats and Republicans, helped to draw sharp distinctions between the parties and harsh divisions among Americans on a broad range of cultural and policy issues.

Historians are cautious about ascribing inflated significance to any one event in the shaping of our history. Unquestionably, reform was circulating on Capitol Hill before Watergate. But the scandal fueled a level of reaction to the archaic legislative structures that might otherwise have taken many more years to emerge.

As with all political change, there were many unforeseen outcomes and unintended consequences as a result of those reforms, but what is not debatable is that the accelerant that brought reform and its consequences to the Congress was planted by those five men at the Watergate office building — and their handlers at the White House — a half century ago.

Democrats: Focus on Republican Extremism

Say what you will about congressional Republicans, they aren’t trying very hard to conceal their plans for the 218thCongress, should they win the majority in November, even if every item on their priority list is opposed by a majority of voters (including, in some cases, Republicans!). 

Democrats are going to have to present a unified and coherent message to entice Democrats to turn out and to retain support among swing voters, especially white, suburban women who were attracted to the party in 2018 and 2020. At the moment, Democrats seem more focused on passing a slew of progressive measures through the House, knowing the Senate will be unable to consider them, in order to provide members with talking points. But most voters will never know about those bills and basing a campaign about something that didn’t happen is unlikely to fire up the enthusiasm level.

What Democrats need to do is to use the Republican record to scare the bejesus out of voters about what awaits them if Republicans are rewarded with power. Joe Biden is right: don’t compare us to the Almighty, compare us to the alternative. And in 2022, the plans of the  “alternative” are downright terrifying.

  1. Impose a nation-wide legislative ban on abortion services with few if any restrictions. This one is a no-brainer (in so many ways): Mitch McConnell has already put it on the table. No word yet on whether Republicans would apply the same “no right to privacy” analysis to other privacy rights embraced by the Supreme Court: contraception, marriage freedom. Anybody willing to trust they stop with abortion?
  2. Raise taxes on the lowest-income workers but keep tax benefits for the rich. The Republicans are onto something here; they believe what’s wrong with our perverse tax system is that the rich pay too much and low-income workers, struggling to so support their families, pay too little. (NOTE: they all pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, the most regressive in the tax system). There’s a workable GOP slogan: Soak the Lower Working Class!
  3. Deny Ukraine the military and humanitarian assistance needed to stave off Russian aggression. A quarter of the Republican Conference in the House favored denying the Ukrainians additional assistance. This opposition reflects GOP plans to walk away from world responsibilities. Donald Trump tried it, undercutting US-Asia ties by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership and sowing doubts about our commitment to NATO (which sent a very clear message to his buddy Vladimir Putin). U.S. isolationism worked out so well in the 1920’s and ‘30’s; why not try it again?
  4. End assistance to Americans who need medical care in response to the covid pandemic. Yeah, they voted against that, too, not to mention encouraging a third of the US population – the highest of any industrialized country – to resist proven medical preventive treatments (a high proportion of whom then get sick and send the bill to the government or other health insurance premium payers).
  5. Repeal health insurance for tens of millions of Americans, including safeguards for millions more, including prohibitions on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. (Yes, they claim they will “replace” the Affordable Care Act, although they have failed to unveil an alternative for a dozen years.) 
  6. Restrict voting rights! The Republicans’ best response to the most successful and fraud-free election in history is to pass state laws that demonstrably complicate voting for minorities, the elderly, the disabled, rural people and younger voters. Hey, you can’t lose an election if your opponents can’t vote! Works in North Korea, and we know how Donald Trump feels about their leader. 
  7. Obstruct efforts to assure the quality and supply of baby formula. It’s true; nearly every Republican voted against legislation to help the Food and Drug Administration address the shortage of baby formula. (A few days earlier, they complained Biden was not doing enough to … expand the supply of baby formula.) Rep. Elise Stefanik bizarrely insisted “Joe Biden’s failed leadership is responsible for America’s baby formula crisis,” while ignoring GOP resistance to anti-trust and safety inspection legislation that would reduce the risk of such widespread impacts. 
  8. Make American vulnerable again! Republicans, with one – one! – exception lined up to oppose the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, the dissident being the soon-to-depart Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the January 6th select committee. Despite reports documenting a huge upsurge in such violence, Republicans abandoned earlier support for legislation focusing on the rise in white supremacists and neo-Nazis and the infiltration of law enforcement agencies and the military by members of those groups.  

And that’s just on the legislative front. You can be certain a Republican majority will obliterate the January 6th select committee and whitewash the most shocking assault on our democracy since 1814, freeing up valuable time for oversight inquiries into Hunter Biden and an already-promised impeachment of his father and members of his administration (charges TBD). 

Republicans run successful campaigns cynically attacking Democrats for favoring policies virtually no Democrat actually supports: open borders, teaching critical race theory in public schools, defunding the cops and imposing socialism. Democrats need to stigmatize Republicans for the extremist, radical policies they actually do embrace. For those dismayed by the tone of such a campaign, Adlai Stevenson offered a deal back in 1952 that could work again today. “If the Republicans will stop telling lies about the Democrats,” he pledged, “we will stop telling the truth about them.

Is It Democratic “Déjà Vu All Over Again”

Over a year after the Congress had passed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the first month of the Obama administration, the benefits the new law remained a well-kept secret. In July, 2010, as the mid-term election loomed ominously, a  Newsweek poll found that 63 percent of voters felt the hard-won law had provided no benefits. Few jobless Americans were receiving paychecks from working on “shovel-ready” construction projects that were “not as shovel-ready as we expected,” Obama himself admitted. The law showered over $230 billion in tax cuts on individuals, but two weeks before the election, only 8 percent of voters realized they had received any tax cut at all; far more mistakenly believed their taxes had risen.

There were plenty of problems facing Democrats as they prepared for the 2010 mid-terms, most notably the economy had not recovered and the persistent, deep-seated anger over the Wall Street bailout.  Meanwhile, Republicans  including the nascent Tea Party fomented hysterical conspiracies about Democratic initiatives (“death squads” in the health law), beginning more than a decade of  a furious, fact-free assault on truth.

The Democrats’ problem, as Sherlock Holmes might have observed, lay in the aggressive messaging effort to promote their legislative successes. “What ‘aggressive messaging effort?’” you might ask. “That,” Holmes would reply, “was the problem.” A dozen years later, Democrats may well wonder if they are experiencing, in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase, “déjà vu all over again.”

As I describe in my forthcoming book, The Arc of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership 2005-2010, Democrats anguished over the Obama administration’s lackadaisical  promotion of the party’s achievements. The “branding for the recovery bill wasn’t any good,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly told the White House team. Her members felt “like they were thrown under the bus.” 

The same was true of the muddled effort to promote (and later, to roll out) the new health law, complicated by the lengthy lag before many of its provisions went into effect. “It’s all very slow,” one member complained two months after the bill signing. “There is no sense of urgency about selling the Democratic message.”

One cannot help but feel an apprehensive sense of déjà vu as the country lumbers towards the November elections. Once again, Republicans, indifferently sitting on their hands when it comes to offering solutions, are castigating Democrats for defunding the police and obsessing about the definition of “woman,” neither one a preoccupation of the party. Most Democrats agree in large part with the eminently quotable strategist and gadfly James Carville who dismisses such peripheral issues as “faculty lounge bullshit.” 

But Democrats appear divided and ineffective and the nation remains all but oblivious to what the party has achieved. The implication of repeating the errors of 2009-2010 are anything but obscure. Just ask former Delegate Lashrecse Aird who lost her seat in the 2021 Virginia election.  The American Rescue Plan, which promised a $2 trillion investment in local communities and families, was of “no value whatsoever” to the routed Democratic candidates. “It just does not connect,” the former legislator declared. 

Democrats famously have trouble touting their successes and there is no question that in the messaging wars, Republicans enjoy certain advantages. For four decades, the GOP message can be summed up in eight succinct words: “less government, lower taxes, less regulation, strong military.” The Republican legislative wish list has been remarkably indiscernible beyond those themes (and, of course, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act); two years ago, Republicans did not even bother to offer a party platform, leaving voters to wonder about its specific plans for addressing income inequality, immigration, health care costs and climate change. 

Democrats are not only eager to legislate on complex and divisive issues but when they succeed, they seem incapable of effectively marketing their achievements. Every community in the country will benefit from the infrastructure law (Republicans are already happily claiming credit for local projects they opposed, as was also the case with the 2009 stimulus). Nearly every family benefitted from the income assistance in the ARP; millions of small businesses survived because of that law. And yet far more Americans, it appears, are mainly disappointed Democrats have not done more in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. 

As I have noted earlier, however, messaging is not enough. Voters will not be enamored of Democratic legislative successes unless they feel the benefit directly – in their city, in their state, and in their wallets. You can message from now until November, but if the benefits are no more concrete than those non-existent shovel-ready projects, it is fanciful to believe voters will give credit, or votes, to the Democrats.

At the same time, Democrats need to assign culpability for the absence of greater progress where it belongs: with congressional Republicans. Yeah, yeah, I know; it’s all Joe Manchin’s fault. No, it isn’t. True, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been huge impediments to enacting the Biden agenda, but critics should not allow Republicans to escape significant culpability for their chronic obstructionism. After all, when 96 percent of Senate Democrats support a legislative policy and 0% of Senate Republicans do, is it rational for voters to blame  the party that delivered overwhelming support and reward the party that does nothing? 

A crucial part of the message for 2022 and 2024 must be  to hold Republicans accountable and to remind voters that, given the opportunity, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell intend to turn Capitol Hill into the same “legislative graveyard” they gleefully celebrated during the later Obama years. Republican energies will be devoted to converting their looney conspiracies into formal congressional investigations. In the meantime, conservatives are issuing spooky threats against longtime allies like the Business Roundtable for embracing policies like a carbon tax as a means of reducing climate-endangering emissions. Steve Scalise, the GOP whip, menacingly warns such apostasy means the Roundtable will “find itself alongside other fading organizations who lost their way.” 

None of this is new to Democrats: the messaging needs to get tougher, the benefits need to be tangible, and the certain indifference of Republicans to solving problems needs to be reenforced. But knowing what to do and actually doing it are very different challenges and to this point in 2022, the lessons of 2010 do not seem to have been learned, and time is running out.

My new collection of historical mysteries, The Undiscovered Archives of Sherlock Holmesis currently available at Amazon books and elsewhereThe Arc of Power is scheduled for  publication after the November election.

A New Republican Contract?

News reports emanating from the House Republican retreat in Florida tell of a strategic shift by putative Speaker-designate Kevin McCarthy away from the “scorched-earth years of the 90s” to a more constructive “policy wishlist” for the 118th Congress. The believability that these efforts genuinely represent an embrace of a positive agenda was somewhat tarnished by the strategist enlisted to help them retreat from the scorched political battlefield – former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In more conventional times, the notion of procuring Gingrich to dampen down negativism would convulse any rational person in hysterics. Gingrich fashioned his House career as a partisan pyromaniac, needling the country club Republican leadership into taking hard-line, uncollaborative stances and salting the political rhetoric of the 1980s with accusatory hyperbole: Democrats were enemies, liberals were traitors. He was, in the words of biographer Julian Zelizer “a political wrecking ball” whose goal was to reshape American politics by driving “a wedge” between the American people and the Democratic Party that had controlled the House for 58 of the 62 years prior to 1994. 

Ironically, the great achievement of the Gingrich speakership was his collaboration with President Bill Clinton in achieving balanced budgets (mostly because of an expanding economy and Clinton’s refusal to sanction massive tax cuts the Republicans wanted) and changes to welfare law. After throwing Gingrich out in 1998 and especially once they had a Republican in the White House, the GOP returned to its profligate practices, slashing taxes and running up massive deficits under George Bush.

During much of the eight year majority under Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan (2011-2019), the Republicans proved incapable of legislating any major policies except emergency efforts to prevent fiscal collapses and even more tax cuts that exacerbated the deficit crisis. Periodic government shutdowns were avoided only because Democrats provided the votes to reach the 218 majority required to pass budget deals and continuing resolutions. Left to their own devices, as in 2013, Republicans just embraced failure and let the government close.

Otherwise, Republican legislative priorities were thin, other than a relentless and ultimately futile effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even when attempting to do so through the filibuster-free reconciliation process. Remarkably, a dozen years after ACA’s enactment, there still is no Republican replacement; indeed, in 2017, Boehner admitted his party would “never ever agree on health care” and that the basics of the law would remain in place. As to other national priorities, Republicans proved clueless about how to respond to policies favored by significant and bipartisan majorities of voters: immigration reform, deficit reduction, tax reform, climate change, infrastructure and voting right protection. The Senate busied itself on simply packing as many Federalist Society judges onto the bench as Mitch McConnell could manage. The GOP’s reliance on bloviating in lieu of legislating reached its zenith with the nomination of the absurd cockwomble Donald Trump in 2016 and exceeded even that impressive degree of cynicism when in 2020, it did not even bother to present voters with a policy platform at its national convention.

Republicans have gotten away with 30 years of policy obfuscation because they have mastered a durable electoral appeal based on eight simple words: lower taxes, strong defense, balanced budget and less government. They have succeeded in the first two by abandoning any real interest in deficit control and achieved the latter only in the sense of abandoning responsibility for children, the environment, education, energy innovation and a long list of other priorities that wither during periods of Republican control.

So we await the bold new GOP policy “wishlist” for 2023 with some considerable degree of incredulity. If anything, the party has a larger proportion of nihilists than during prior Republican majorities. Persuading his conference to provide the votes to pass anything but tax cuts, ACA repeal and environmental rollbacks will surely test the dubious political skills of Kevin McCarthy. If the past offers any guidance, a Republican leadership would find itself hard-pressed simply to persuade its members to pass the appropriations bills needed to keep the government functioning let alone any complex policy initiatives.

Is there something rattling around in McCarthy and Gingrich’s heads besides a border wall, more oil and gas drilling and, of course, repealing ACA? Or will the party merely devote itself to investigating and impeaching the president, biding its time till 2024 when conservatives hope, under a Republican president, they can get back to their preferred approach to governing: inaction.

For something a bit lighter, pick up a copy of my new collection of seven original history mysteries, The Undiscovered Archives of Sherlock Holmes, now available on Amazon, B&N and MX Publishing.

A Democratic Message for the Mid-West

Here is an experiment in the forgetfulness of American voters. Ask why Donald Trump was impeached – the first time. The action by the House occurred over two years ago, a lifetime in the political calendar but one that is of enormous importance as Americans vent their fury at Vladimir Putin for his reckless and deadly invasion of Ukraine.

The probability is that you will have to remind most voters that Trump was impeached by the House for withholding defensive weapons the Congress had voted to supply to Ukraine. He leveled the threat against President Volodymyr Zelensky in a purportedly “perfect” phone call on July 25, 2019  — a call in which Trump unambiguously threatened to delay the weapons Ukraine desperately needed to ward off an attack from an increasingly aggressive Russia. 

It is also worth remembering that Trump undermined the NATO alliance that is crucial to the defense of Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, and to several other countries that were either former Eastern Bloc members or incorporated within the USSR. Trump famously dismissed the 73-year old alliance as “obsolete,” although he later backtracked, claiming as a defense that he did not know “much about NATO.”

Taken together, the two Trump actions – withholding crucial aid from Zelensky and Ukraine and undermining NATO — could easily have persuaded Putin that invasion of the former Soviet state would be easy pickings. Putin had not counted on President Biden’s effective work knitting the NATO countries together in an unprecedented defense of a non-NATO member, or the willingness of those countries and more – even Switzerland and Sweden, who remained neutral during World War II! – to lavish billions of dollars in aid to the Ukrainian military.

Republicans in Congress, who didn’t raise a peep at Trump’s undermining of Zelensky and Ukrainian democracy, have begun to do what they do best and most often: turn the tables and accuse Democrats of being culpable for sending signals of weakness to Putin. They cite the withdrawal from Afghanistan (conveniently forgetting that it was Trump who set the early 2021 withdrawal date, which Biden actually pushed back) or delaying the provision of aid to the embattled Ukrainians (although they shirk from embracing the war-expanding “no fly zone” or transfer of Policy MiGs just like Biden).

Unencumbered by (and in defiance of) the facts, Republicans are going to raise a war cry for the 2022 election that will make William Randolph Hearst’s advocacy of war against Spain in 1898 seem like a two-year old’s temper tantrum. But Democrats have a strong message that needs to be carefully honed, heavily financed, and promoted ceaselessly over the next several months to remind people of the calamitous record of the Republicans in standing by Trump at the expense of the Ukrainians they now profess to embrace.

The message of Democratic support for Ukraine and Republican calumny and collaboration can have particular resonance in states where voters of Eastern European ancestry are heavily concentrated. Over 9 million Polish-Americans, whose ancestral home would face constant intimidation from a resurgent Russia, are concentrated in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, where decisive House and Senate races are taking place. Ukrainians are especially concentrated in Illinois and in Pennsylvania, one of the top Senate battlegrounds. Smaller but potentially important  groups of Latvians, Lithuanians and Romanians are found in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Trump message has resonated with many of these voters, especially since it seeks to enrage them against more recent immigrants. All the more reason for Democrats to invest message and money in honing and driving home the narrative that Republicans – Trump and his allies in Congress – are responsible for placing Ukraine and Eastern Europe within the Russian crosshairs by withholding crucial aid and by undercutting NATO. 

Is making this case dispositive with respect to voter decisions in November? Probably not, but it is an important and completely achievable way to undercut the Republican storyline by reminding ethnically-conscious voters which party has put their ancestral homes and relatives at risk for crass political gamesmanship. Frankly, I’d rather run with this message than many others Democrats might be thinking of spending tens of millions of dollars promoting.

Test it: when Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine needed help, Donald Trump and his Republican congressional allies offered blackmail. When our European allies looked for American leadership, they received Trump’s scorn. When US intelligence agencies warned of Russia’s growing aggressiveness, who ignored those patriotic professionals and placed his trust in Putin’s truthfulness? Who do you trust to safeguard our alliances and democracies in Europe and around the world: Republicans who encouraged Putin or Democrats who armed Zelensky and the Ukrainian resistance?

It isn’t a tough message; and if Democrats need help crafting it, they can always consult with the most effective messaging strategist in the world today, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Get out the Vaulting Poles and Parachutes!

President Biden was facing a harsh reality at his marathon press conference last week when he acknowledged that his Build Back Better package was on the legislative equivalent of a respirator. After decades devoted to the Capitol Hill traditions of hand-holding and pleading, which had served him well as a senator for 36 years, the new president has figured out that he cannot negotiate as fast as Joe Manchin can move the goalposts, which has produced months of teeth-gnashing anguish and plummeting poll numbers.  

Build Back Better was always a reach. Biden and Democratic leaders on the Hill envisioned a sweeping change to the nation’s domestic policy, including the tax code, that sometimes drew parallels to the vision of the New Deal and the Great Society. But unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson – both of whom also won the presidency in part based on public disdain for their opponents – Biden’s margins in Congress are infinitesimal. FDR began his term with 72 Democrats in the Senate and 332 in the House and LBJ had 68 senators and 295 Democrats respectively. Biden entered the White House with just 222 House Democrats – a margin of 4 – and 48 Democratic senators (he had to wait two months for Georgia to elect Jon Osoff and Raphael Warnock, giving Democrats a tie and effective control of the chamber).

Legislating sweeping policy change of any kind, let alone expensive policies in touchy areas like health care and tax policy, is never easy; trying to do it on top of the already costly Covid relief and infrastructure laws was always going to be a reach and, it appears, a reach too far.

But Biden is nothing if not upbeat – he still insists he has never been more optimistic about the future of the country, a fanciful view shared by a microscopic group of Americans – and at his presser, he endorsed breaking BBB into “chunks” that hopefully could find favor with his fifty senators and the House Democrats who already approved the more expansive measure.

Even this incremental approach might be a tough sell. “‘Chunks’ is an interesting word,” commented Speaker Pelosi, who has a notoriously sour view of incrementalism as a governing philosophy. “What the president calls ‘chunks’ I would hope would be a major bill going forward,” she responded, one that would “be more limited, but … still significant,” including climate change, expanding health insurance coverage, lowering prescription drug costs, universal preschool and maybe even some form of the expanded child tax credit that proved so successful in lowering childhood poverty.

Pelosi’s hesitation about breaking up BBB into passable chunks was that each would confront a potential filibuster in the Senate. But there remains at least one reconciliation option for the current fiscal year – the one BBB occupied – and the prospect for two or more if Democrats can again approve a budget resolution, the precondition for reconciliation bills that evade current filibuster rules. 

As is always the case when slimming down ambitious House-passed legislation to conform to the Senate’s self-serving rules, Pelosi will face a challenge in explaining to her caucus that many of their cherished provisions won’t make the cut when BBB is sliced into chunks. As recounted in my upcoming book “Arc of Power,” this is familiar territory for Pelosi and dissenters will surely complicate her selling job. But unless they can produce 218 House votes and 50 in the Senate to pass their wish list, the backbenchers will have to face the unpleasant choice of selected portions of BBB or nothing at all.

Of course, none of this scenario is possible unless Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (who was recently censured by the Arizona Democratic party for obstructing voting rights legislation she claims to support) sign off on the chunks. One would have to be something of a cockeyed optimist to be confident they will do so. But it bears remembering that they face pressure, too; there is important money for black lung beneficiaries in BBB, and you can bet Manchin will be certain that chunk isn’t left behind; similarly, Sinema is an outspoken proponent of climate legislation, and she must recognize such initiatives have no future in a Republican-led Congress that is a virtual certainty unless Democrats conclusively demonstrate a capacity for governing.

Pelosi is careful not to slam doors by delivering ultimatums. “We’ll go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in,” she famously remarked when it appeared the Affordable Care Act was stuck in 2010.  “If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in.” Last year, she backed away from her promise to House progressive that the infrastructure bill would be inextricably tied to BBB when the linkage threatened to kill both measures and infrastructure, a goal since 2007, was finally passed.

Will the speaker consent to a series of smaller bills? In all likelihood, yes, once the Senate demonstrates an ability and inclination to pass them.  House progressives won’t be enthusiastic, but Democrats need victories and that means the vaulting poles and parachutes are almost certain to be needed.

Do Filibusters Make the Senate “Work Better”?

Joe Biden, speaking in Atlanta on Tuesday on behalf of voting safeguards and filibuster reform, came as close to calling opponents retrogressive racists as Joe Biden is likely to do. The usually genial and reflexively bipartisan president employed terms like “Jim Crow 2.0” and harkened up George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis as mentors to those standing in the doorway to block efforts to reverse restrictive state voting and vote counting laws. 

As noted in this blog on numerous occasions in the last year, Democrats rightly face a stark choice: does a Senate rule (that has been repeatedly modified over the last century) deserve greater protection than the fundamental right of eligible citizens to vote? If, in 2022, any officeholder – Democrat or Republican – determines Rule XXII eclipses the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, they deserve the approbation Biden dished out yesterday, and more. Unfortunately, it is likely only Democrats who will be punished if the voting rights protection effort fails since, it appears, neither Republican officeholders nor their voters could care less.

Which brings me again to the subject of Joe Manchin who is obviously having the time of his life in his self-appointed role as Guardian of the Sanctity of the Senate. Having successfully derailed the Build Back Better legislation, at least for the moment, the petulant Manchin now has refashioned himself as the Horatius at the Senate door, saving the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” from something worse than tyranny: majority rule.

Manchin is channeling the former West Virginia senator (and majority leader) Robert C. Byrd, whose seat he now occupies. Byrd famously warned his colleagues against tampering with something as sacred as the filibuster, which racist southern Democrats had long employed to block civil rights legislation. Byrd was a one time member of the Ku Klux Klan, but he insisted his defense of the filibuster had nothing to do with acquiescing in the persecution of African Americans (although that was manifestly what it was doing).

 “Filibusters are a necessary evil, which must be tolerated,” Byrd proclaimed, “lest the Senate lose its special strength and become a mere appendage of the House of Representatives.” There isn’t much evidence to back up that statement; the Senate might become the equivalent of the House in the management of floor debate but given the intrinsically undemocratic design of the upper chamber, there  is no reason to believe it would simply parrot whatever the House passed were the filibuster to go away.

There is more truth to Byrd’s assertion that absent the right to filibuster, “there would also be no Senate, as we know it.” If it only required a majority vote to take up legislation and if the Senate abandoned its reliance on unanimous consent procedures and single senator “holds” on nominees and legislation, the Senate unquestionably would more closely resemble the House – and also almost every other democratic legislative chamber in the world where supermajorities are not required to consider legislation. Basing legislative action on the will of the majority – which itself is no small feat to achieve in Congress – is hardly a revolutionary concept. In fact, Americans who knew a fair amount about revolutions like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton specifically rejected the use of supermajorities to approve legislation, limiting their use to a small number of issues like impeachment convictions and treaty approvals.

Hamilton cautioned his fellow Founding Fathers that allowing a minority of votes to block legislation would “destroy the energy of the government” by ensuring it remained in “a state of inaction.” Such a state of gridlock not only ties up the consideration of urgent legislation but feeds public cynicism about government itself, which, of course, serves the interests of conservatives who habitually embrace any means to discredit the Congress and the federal government. 

Just last year, Manchin had vowed that “inaction is not an option” in confronting the suppression of voting. Now, he insists that the rights of tens of millions of Americans to vote must be conditioned on the decidedly tenuous hooks of bipartisanship and super-majoritarianism. For reasons that ignore the explicit declarations of his Republican colleagues, Manchin continues to proclaim the ability to work with “Republicans [in] changing the rules to make the place work better.” If he has any reason to believe ten Republican senators harbor such an interest, he ought to identify who they are and why they have refused to indicate their support for reform.

Manchin is not willing to embrace majoritarian government even with all the built-in procedures and organizational elements that assure the minority adequate representation and sufficient participation in the process. “Getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” he insists, and the press lets him get away with such a meaningless statement. 

“Work better” for whom? For people who want to deny fellow citizens the right to vote? For those who sanction manipulation of voting and the vote-counting processes? Does allowing a small minority – and often just one – to prevent the majority from even considering legislation, let alone passing it, constitute making the Senate “work better”? Quite the contrary: with the filibuster, the Senate doesn’t work at all, which is just the way Mitch “The Grim Reaper” McConnell likes his “Legislative Graveyard” to disfunction.

Some argue that changing the filibuster rules for legislation will come back and bite Democrats, as occurred when the late Sen. Harry Reid scrapped the filibuster for the confirmation of lower courts judges and executive appointees being stalemated by McConnell. And it is true, McConnell cited Reid’s precedence when he vitiated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees and otherwise bent Senate traditions to stuff three Trump justices onto the Court. But the danger of future misdeeds by one’s political opponents is hardly a rationale for inaction. If that were the case, a majority would never enact legislation at all because it might be reversed when its  opponents acquired the majority. No legislative body can function with such self-imposed constraint.

Despite his 36 years representing Delaware, Biden isn’t a senator and has limited ability to demand that Manchin (or Arizona’s Krysten Sinema, the other filibuster enabler) acquiesce to the positions of the other 96 percent of Democratic senators. Nor does majority leader Chuck Schumer have much power to force a concession from senators he will need down the road to approve judges and pass other legislation. Nor does it appear that Manchin is much affected by admonitions from fellow senators that his intransigence will discourage minority voter participation (and why wouldn’t it?) and cost them their seats and Democrats the majority. 

At this stage, it isn’t clear what rationale might lead Manchin to change his mind and allow consideration of voting reforms to reach the Senate floor. But neither his constituents (whose enhanced black lung benefits are jeopardized by his opposition to the Build Back Better bill), his colleagues, or the press should give any credence to his assertion that maintaining the archaic filibuster will help the Senate to “work better.” That’s self-serving claptrap; it might pass for statesmanship in West Virginia, but it is demonstrable hogwash and deserves to be called out.

The Enigma of Harry Reid

There will be a plethora of panegyrics honoring the late Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) who passed away on December 28th after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. And deservedly so. Reid was a cagey and strategic leader of an institution whose independent members have little interest in being led anywhere by anybody. His predecessor as leader, Mike Mansfield (D-MT), described the limited power he wielded. “I’m not the leader really,” advised Mansfield, who shared Reid’s unruffled managerial style. “My job is just keeping the party together, smoothing over the differences, keeping tempers, and trying to achieve the possible despite the differences inherent in the party.”

Reid’s Senate was considerably more challenging to manage than the one over which Mansfield presided. The rules, especially the use of the filibuster as an obstructive tactic, had been distorted enough to make passing any major legislation or confirmation a herculean effort. During discussions with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Reid would sometime express an admiration for  her ability, under the tighter House procedures, to put a bill before the members and force a vote. “I often wish I was back in the House,” he said unconvincingly, where gridlock imposed by the minority was nearly impossible. 

Reid faced criticism, as does the current leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), for not imposing his will more forcefully on his truculent caucus members. If Schumer is driven to distraction by Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Synema (D-AZ), Reid faced similar impediments from the likes of Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Joe Lieberman (D/I-CT) when striving to pass major bills like the Affordable Care Act or the Obama stimulus. Like Schumer, he faced nearly a solid wall of Republican resistance from Mitch McConnell, already on his way to turning the Senate into a legislative graveyard. 

In an institution some describe as populated by prima donnas, Harry Reid was an enigmatic exception. Slight (despite earlier careers as a boxer and Capitol Hill policeman), soft-spoken, untelegenic and occasionally brusque (particularly when peremptorily ending telephone calls), Reid avoided the badinage that is second nature to many prominent political figures. Consistent with his impoverished upbringing in Searchlight – his father committed suicide and his mother supported the family by washing the linens in a Nevada brothel – Reid disdained the glitter of high office, opting instead for the exasperating drudgery of maneuvering his members to “yes.”

I had known Reid during his two terms in the House. Once he discovered I had a Ph.D. in history, with an emphasis on labor, he would often strike up conversations about the mining wars in Nevada, especially the radical Industrial Workers of the World —  the Wobblies. For reasons known only to himself, Reid was the sole person on Capitol Hill (or anywhere else) who insisted on calling me “Dr. Lawrence.”

We saw less of each other when he moved over to the Senate, but early in the Clinton administration, we had a less than pleasant encounter. He burst into a staff meeting to excoriate me for something I had purportedly said about him during the tense battle over the president’s proposal to raise the price for grazing cattle on federal lands, an unpopular initiative in Nevada. I was the staff director of Rep. George Miller’s (D-CA) Natural Resources committee and, having had my fill of Senate efforts at intimidation, was furious at Reid’s inaccurate accusation. I told him so in blunt language while the other staff gaped. Reid disappeared, returning a few minutes later to apologize; he had checked out my version of the events and agreed his allegation had been unwarranted. It was an act of contrition he could have bypassed or conveyed privately, but he offered it up in front of the other staff before whom he had made the original charge. Those who have never worked on the Hill may not appreciate the uniqueness of that moment. 

Over the course of the next dozen years, as Democrats slid into the minority and had little to do with shaping House legislation, I rarely if ever saw Reid. Shortly after becoming Mrs. Pelosi’s chief of staff in 2005, however, she informed me that Reid – by then the Senate minority leader – was heading over for a meeting. I chose not to recount our 1993 confrontation. 

“Harry, I don’t know if you’ve met my new chief of staff,” she said as Reid came into her office. I had little reason to believe Reid would remember the minor disagreement, and certainly hoped he did not. The Senate leader shook hands with a thin smile and said, “Dr. Lawrence, we haven’t seen each other since that grazing dispute!” My heart sunk, but Reid never again mentioned the long-ago confrontation and our offices’ collaboration was productive for the next eight years.

Numerous other encounters with Reid, sometimes tense, are recounted in my forthcoming book Arc of Power: Politics and Policy During the Pelosi Era 2005-2010, and they shed important light on the relationships between our highest political leaders and the institutions they manage. During the years we collaborated, Reid was a tough and knowledgeable leader, one who, like Mrs. Pelosi, knew his members and the difficulty of securing their votes, even when Democrats enjoyed unified control of government. His word was good; when he promised to pass the ACA-related reconciliation bill in 2010, he delivered. When he needed throw a punch, as when peremptorily altering the cloture Rule XXII for executive appointees and federal judges, he connected like the lightweight boxer he once was.

Perhaps due to his slight stature, diffident style and soft voice, I have always believed he was under-rated and underappreciated. Some found fault with his less than progressive positions on issues including mining, nuclear waste disposal, and abortion, but no one doubted Reid’s ability to read the politics and win elections, which he sometimes did by a few hundred votes. He was a skilled practitioner of the sweet science of politics, and he will be missed.

Arc of Power: Politics and Policy During the Pelosi Era 2005-2010 is scheduled for publication by the University Press of Kansas in late 2022.

RIP BBB? Where the Blame Lies

The seemingly final decision by Sen. Joe Manchin (D[sort of]–WV) to oppose the Build Back Better bill is a bitter pill for Democratic progressives and President Joe Biden to swallow. After all, guaranteeing a vote on BBB in the Senate was promised to House progressives when they acquiesced and passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill that some liberals had wanted to hold hostage to assure both measures passed simultaneously. Manchin’s refusal to support BBB, after months of negotiations and concessions on its price and the bill’s provisions – slashing trillions from the costs and likely sacrificing popular components like paid parental leave – is certainly his prerogative as a senator, but it sure reeks of bad faith and deception.

There are some important lessons to be learned from this debacle, if Manchin can’t be convinced over the holidays to reconsider his Sherman-esque declaration of opposition. While there are several key differences between the current political environment and the first two years of the Obama presidency (as discussed in my forthcoming Arc of Power) – especially today’s razor-thin House and Senate margins and even greater hyperpartisanship that leaves the legislative burden entirely on Democrats – there are some important parallels, too.

In both periods, leaving crucial legislation hanging out over the president’s first summer in office hurt both Obama and Biden. Having won the White House more narrowly than Obama, Biden’s approval rating on Inauguration Day was just 55% compared to Obama’s 68% in 2009. Despite having passed major recovery legislation soon after taking office – the stimulus in 2009 and the American Rescue Plan in 2021 — the complexities of passing broader legislation led to a summer slump due to Democratic voter disappointment and a withering Republican assault. Obama, whose popularity collapsed to just 40% in mid-August, 2009 did not recover until his re-election campaign in 2012, but along the way, Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House, permanently handicapping the president for the remainder of his time in the White House. A similar trajectory could well befall Biden and congressional Democrats with far more questions about the party’s prospects in 2024.

In 2021 as in 2009, the House – even with a margin of 3 seats rather than 38 – proved able under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership to pass sweeping versions of the president’s policy priorities  only to face obstruction from a Senate that had 59 or 60 Democrats. Senate demands forced cuts in the 2009 stimulus to accommodate Republicans needed to secure cloture and delayed health care until Christmas Eve. BBB seems to have suffered an even more tragic fate after months of winnowing down from the House version.

Although critics demand that Biden or majority leader Chuck Schumer ramp up the pressure on Manchin, the options for doing so are very limited, especially when dealing with a senator who expects little campaign support from traditional Democratic sources. Moreover, Schumer will need Manchin on other, less high-profile votes including another budget resolution that will enable the current members to pass one or two additional reconciliation bills before the next election as well as for nominations for the courts, ambassadorships and executive agencies. Critics don’t think about those considerations; majority leaders and speakers must.

But Schumer does have a responsibility to demonstrate to Americans that the problem is not “the Democratic Party” but rather one or two people who, because of the narrow margins and the nature of their states, break with the overwhelming majority of the party. It is too easy for critics to overlook the fact that the Democratic House did approve BBB on a party-line vote and that perhaps 49 of 50 Democrats in the Senate would likely do so as well. 

Schumer may not be able to change Manchin’s mind, but he can try to put BBB on the Senate floor, forcing a vote that will demonstrate the solid Republican opposition that is the real obstruction to climate change, pre-K and parental leave. Doing so may require him to bypass Senate traditions like holds and unanimous consent, but as he knows, there aren’t 3 people outside the Senate chamber who could care less about such procedural excuses. Manchin may well object to having to actually cast a vote that demonstrates his position; that’s too bad. House members have to do it every day rather than hide behind antiquated rules that protect senators from accountability.

Perhaps there will be another shot at BBB in the new year, and certainly the Senate Democrats will need Manchin to advance the voting rights reforms whose failure would almost certainly spell electoral doom for Democrats. But Schumer needs to make clear to the West Virginian that if he insists on killing the Democrats’ top policy bill, one way or another, it will have to be clear  to the public who bears responsibility – one Democrat and 50 Republicans.

Arc of Power: Politics and Policy in the Pelosi Era 2005-2010: coming in late 2022.

What Would Lyndon Do?

The massive tornados that devastated Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky last weekend have caused unspeakable losses– scores of human lives lost, thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. A comprehensive response from the federal government is being demanded and many billions of dollars in aid will be forthcoming.

But the storm and its aftermath also remind us of  Winston Churchill’s observation during World War II: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The states impacted by the tornados are represented in the U.S. Senate by hard-Right, anti-government Republicans who have shown nothing but total indifference to the needs of tens of millions of Americans victimized by the recession, pandemic, and the entrenched racism that aggravated both, for over a decade; they have steadfastly ignored pleas to assist working parents and young children, aid unemployed workers, support voting rights, and address the climate crisis. Rand Paul (R-KY) and his Kentucky colleagues in the House, Andy Barr, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie have loudly opposed past disaster aid for victims of hurricanes like Sandy, Harvey and Maria.  Now, unsurprisingly, Paul – who insists his opposition has been predicated on paying for emergency relief by cutting other spending — has called on Biden to “move expeditiously to approve the appropriate resources for our state.” 

There probably isn’t much Biden can do to persuade Rand Paul to change his mind on paying for emergency aid (if he even makes such a demand in this case), but there is a golden opportunity for a grown-up conversation with another Kentuckian seeking aid from the federal government he has spent a career vilifying. Recalling Churchill, I can’t help but wonder how Lyndon Johnson might respond to Mitch McConnell’s entreaties.  

LBJ: “Mitch, my heart is heavy with grief tonight. And I want to assure you I want to help the people of Kentucky in times like these.”

McConnell: “Thank you, Mr. President. I appreciate your support for my constituents.”

LBJ: “But you know, Mitch, my support isn’t enough to make sure everybody down there gets all the help they are looking to get.”

McConnell: “What do you mean, Mr. President?”

LBJ: “Well, you know, Mitch, you haven’t exactly made yourself a lot of friends these past few years. Jerking Obama around on the Supreme Court with that ridiculous argument about appointments in the last year of a term. And opposing that ‘American Rescue Plan’ covid aid bill earlier this year.”

McConnell: “Well, those are pretty different issues, Mr. President.”

LBJ: “Maybe so, but a lot of your Senate colleagues think there’s a connection. Now, they notice you supported the infrastructure bill ’cause it’s going to get Kentucky a whole bunch of money. But now you’re blocking the Senate from even considering Joe’s ‘Build Back Better’ bill.”

McConnell: “Again, Mr. President, a different issue.”

LBJ: “And voting rights, too. You know, I care a lot about that one! What about stonewalling all those appointments to Defense and other agencies and the ambassadors and judges.”

McConnell: “Well, you know, that opposition is coming from a lot of other people like Josh Hawley.”

LBJ: “Yeah, I know, Mitch, but the last time I checked, you’re the top Republican in the Senate, right? And I sure don’t see you doin’ much to help us move along some things that are awfully important to my people. I hate to say it, but I think it’s gonna be tough to move along some of that assistance to Kentucky until we see a little bit more cooperation from your people.”

McConnell: “Manchin! It’s Joe that’s holding up those bills, not me!”

LBJ: “Well, Joe’s a bit of a problem, but he sure would be less of a problem if there was one damn member of your party willing to help out, and I don’t see that happening! So don’t blame the 95% of my people who are on board while your folks ain’t doing squat.”

McConnell: “Well, Mr. President, that sounds like a threat and I don’t cotton to threats. My folks need help and I need you to provide it now.”

LBJ: “And I want to, Mitch, I really do. But you should make more friends in the Senate. You know, one hand washes the other. Really important, especially these pandemic days.”

Hardball? Yeah, of course. But my guess is a lot of people would cheer exercising a little leverage against McConnell and other Republicans who stand on principle only as long as it doesn’t get in the way of what they want. (Like forgetting about deficits when showering tax cuts on the ultra-rich.) The tornado disaster is a good reminder that when the unthinkable happens, people want the help of the federal government and they aren’t too concerned about whether Congress pays for it. That is true in the current crisis just like it was for Ted Cruz after the Texas hurricane or for the Gulf conservative deficit hawks who wanted post-Katrina aid or the West Virginians who begged for federal relief in 2014 when the Kanawha Valley water supply was contaminated by a 10,000 gallon leak from a coal processing facility.

Of course, there will be those who cringe at using this crisis to break up the Senate log-jam. “I have always voted for disaster aid,” says Democratic whip Dick Durbin. “We shouldn’t hold it against disaster victims when their politicians are not doing their job.”

With all due respect, maybe we should. McConnell, Paul and nearly every Republican in the House and Senate are hunkered down in a no-compromise, no negotiation posture on vital legislation affecting families, jobs, young children, public health, voting rights, immigration and other priorities. If the Republicans know the compassionate Democrats will fold without demanding equity, they will never make concessions.

President Biden and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer should think about how LBJ would exert pressure to assure the Democratic agenda receives as much expedited consideration from Mitch McConnell as they are likely to give to his suddenly urgent requests.