JBiden’s first hundred days exceeded progressive expectations with the scope of his ambition. Its second hundred days are being assaulted by reality: the one that says Washington DC is a place where dreams go to die.
A one-generation investment in infrastructure and the climate crisis has hit a wall. Reforms on gun safety, immigration and police brutality are in limbo. Legislation to expand voting rights and reduce the influence of money in politics seems doomed.
The stalled agenda reflects Republican obstruction, Democratic disunity, and the inherent disorder of “sausage making” on Capitol Hill. But it also sheds light on the taken-for-granted American structures of government and democracy that many argue are no longer fit for purpose because they favor network lockdown and militate against radical change.
“The American system of government is a beta form of democracy,” he said. Ezra Levin, a former congressional staff member who is co-executive director of the Indivisible grassroots movement. “We have a presidential system that has not been substantially updated since the 19th century.
“No one designing a democracy today would create as many veto points as we do and no one, including the original founders, would have developed a system like Senate obstructionism where they theoretically represented senators. 11% of the population he can veto legislation that is wildly popular. “
Much has been written about Biden’s prospects for emulating Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) with a transformative presidency and overshadowing Barack Obama by casting caution to the winds. Excitement only grew with the approval of a $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package in March.
But that, it turns out, is the exception not the rule. The progressive wing of the Democrats is becoming increasingly frustrated as other promises are not kept, fearing an all too familiar pattern of dashed hopes and deferred dreams that will only fuel resentment against Washington.
Ro Khanna, a congressman from California who was a co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, told the Associated Press: “There is a lot of anxiety. It’s a question really for President Biden: what kind of president do you want to be? “
The first problem is that Biden does not have a Roosevelt-like majority in Congress. Democrats have only a minimal lead in the House of Representatives. The Senate is split evenly between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, giving Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaker vote. It is hardly a recipe for revolution.
Bill Galston, A senior fellow at the thinktank at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “There was always the gross fact that Democrats had the smallest margin in the House of Representatives that they have enjoyed since the 1940s and it can’t get any closer in the Senate than a tie broken by the vice president.
“So the fact is, Joe Biden had a pretty significant personal victory, but the 2020 election was hardly a victory for the Democratic party as a whole. Everything but. So I really had to shake my head and laugh when I read all those early comparisons to FDR and LBJ. “
The balance of power leaves Biden’s entire legislative agenda subject to the whims of any individual senator. It tested last weekend when Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, declared his opposition to the For the People Act, a voting rights bill that many activists consider crucial to protecting democracy and a direct response to the new restrictive voting. laws passed in Republican-led states.
In a newspaper column, Manchin described the bill as the “wrong piece of legislation to unite our country” and a barrier to Senate bipartisanship. This was despite polls showing clear support in his home state. His stance sparked ire among progressives and led civil rights leaders to meet Manchin on Tuesday.
Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, a member of the Just Democracy coalition said: “There is nothing partisan about this. What’s partisan is what’s happened since 2020, where Republican state legislatures propose bills and enact laws that will restrict black and brown people across the country from participating in our democracy.
“That is sad for me. especially since some of the black men we spoke to first voted in 2020 in ways that are no longer legal in some of the states in this country, simply because Republicans saw that if they allow people to vote by mail or use drop boxes, which are some of the safest ways to vote, lose elections. “
Manchin has also joined the Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona by publicly refusing to end filibuster, a procedural rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation, meaning that at least 10 Republicans would have to cross party lines to help Democrats achieve their priorities . Some senators propose lowering the voting threshold to 51.
Activists increasingly consider blasting the filibuster so essential and fundamental. Robinson added: “The fact that Joe Biden was more progressive than he thought is a testament that he understood the moment and I feel like other elected officials are not reading the tea leaves. Roosevelt had a majority that Joe Biden can only dream of and we don’t have those majorities right now.
“So all of this leads to the need to remove obstructionism. We have to keep making it clear to Senator Manchin that he has a choice to do something or to do nothing, and then someone has to insist that history will remember those elections. “
America’s founding fathers built a government of checks and balances that protected against rash action: an executive president, a bicameral Congress with veto power, an independent judiciary. Washington mythology held that they invented the filibuster to protect themselves against the tyranny of the majority, but this has been repeatedly discredited by scholars who say it was created by mistake and first used in 1837.
William Howell, a political scientist at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago said: “The editors did not create obstructionism. It is excessive even by their standards.
“What our legislative process does in general, and what obstructionism does in particular, is make it almost impossible to enact radical and comprehensive change. It leaves in its wake widespread stagnation and a sporadic opportunity to make incremental changes and that’s it. “
Every major piece of legislation successfully enacted over the past decade has circumvented filibuster through a process called budget reconciliation, Howell noted. This tool can allow Democrats to go only with the American Jobs Plan, which would invest heavily in bridges, railways and highways, “soft” infrastructure like care and clean energy.
Sheldon Whitehouse, Democratic Senator from Rhode Island, tweeted that he is “nervous” that Congress is doing very little to address the climate crisis. “We must unify Senate Democrats on climate on a real reconciliation bill, read that plunges us into the mud of ‘bipartisanship’ where we failed on climate,” he wrote.
Obstructionism is not the only design flaw. He comes at the head of a Senate that is deeply unrepresentative because each state has two seats, regardless of the size of its population. That means small, predominantly white states carry as much weight as huge, racially diverse states like California. An effort to make the District of Columbia the 51st state would begin to restore the balance, but Manchin has returned to promised opposition.
Levin, the indivisible organizer, said: “The 50 Democratic senators represent 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republican senators. I think anyone who looks objectively at how legislation is passed in this country must come to the conclusion that we are not prepared to tackle the problems of the 21st century with a 19th century democracy. “
Despite these headwinds, Levin is not giving up on Biden’s progressive project, pointing out that Democratic presidents have been here before. In 1964, under Johnson, the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate after overcoming a 54-day obstructionism, and the following year the Voting Rights Act took more than a month of full Senate debate to escape the threat. .
“None of those things happened with the snap of a finger,” he said. “It is fair to say that the For the People Act is a difficult fight. I don’t think it’s fair to say that an opinion piece by a single senator dictates the future of that legislation. It’s always easy to be cynical about these things, but there are reasons for hope. There are very real ways to achieve it. “
Groups supporting the legislation intend to press ahead with a $ 30 million campaign to pressure Democratic senators to rewrite the obstruction rules and pass the bill. Manchin has spoken of supporting another voting bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but activists insist both laws are needed.
LaTosha Brown, Co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: “What we are seeing is that, as the United States becomes younger and more diverse, the reality is that we currently do not have a political infrastructure that can support the kind of democracy that is established in the United States. constitution where people have free and fair access to vote.
“We need the Law For the People and the John Lewis Voting Rights Law as one more step towards strengthening our democracy and protecting those elements that have literally been fought and won through protest, through the delivery of lives “.