America Impossible

Eleven years ago, about halfway through Obama’s first term, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman was an unhappy man:

We’ve always known that America’s reign as the world’s greatest nation would eventually end. But most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic.

What we’re getting instead is less a tragedy than a deadly farce. Instead of fraying under the strain of imperial overstretch, we’re paralyzed by procedure. Instead of re-enacting the decline and fall of Rome, we’re re-enacting the dissolution of 18th-century Poland.

A brief history lesson: In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Polish legislature, the Sejm, operated on the unanimity principle: any member could nullify legislation by shouting “I do not allow!” This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century.

Read the full details here. This was either a heroically noble idea – Poland would act as one, because everyone actually agrees on everything, as all good people do – or this was two or more groups of people acting out of pure spite to ruin everything – to make their point – and actually ruining everything. The idealistic change in procedure had not forced national unity and a surge in deep and sincere patriotism. It had created a weapon to ruin that.

Procedure can be tricky, and in 2010, Krugman was upset by this:

Last week, after nine months, the Senate finally approved Martha Johnson to head the General Services Administration, which runs government buildings and purchases supplies. It’s an essentially nonpolitical position, and nobody questioned Ms. Johnson’s qualifications: she was approved by a vote of 94 to 2. But Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, had put a “hold” on her appointment to pressure the government into approving a building project in Kansas City.

This dubious achievement may have inspired Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama. In any case, Mr. Shelby has now placed a hold on all outstanding Obama administration nominations – about 70 high-level government positions – until his state gets a tanker contract and a counterterrorism center.

This is stupid stuff. This is Poland again:

What gives individual senators this kind of power? Much of the Senate’s business relies on unanimous consent: it’s difficult to get anything done unless everyone agrees on procedure.

And that may ruin everything:

The truth is that given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government. Senators themselves should recognize this fact and push through changes in those rules, including eliminating or at least limiting the filibuster. This is something they could and should do, by majority vote, on the first day of the next Senate session.

But he knows better:

Don’t hold your breath. As it is, Democrats don’t even seem able to score political points by highlighting their opponents’ obstructionism.

It should be a simple message: a vote for a Republican, no matter what you think of him as a person, is a vote for paralysis. But by now, we know how the Obama administration deals with those who would destroy it: it goes straight for the capillaries. Sure enough, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, accused Mr. Shelby of “silliness.” Yep, that will really resonate with voters.

And then there’s history:

After the dissolution of Poland, a Polish officer serving under Napoleon penned a song that eventually – after the country’s post-World War I resurrection – became the country’s national anthem. It begins, “Poland is not yet lost.”

Well, America is not yet lost. But the Senate is working on it.

The Senate may have succeeded. Eleven years later, the Washington Post reports this:

Senate Republicans banded together Tuesday to block a sweeping Democratic bill that would revamp the architecture of American democracy, dealing a grave blow to efforts to federally override dozens of GOP-passed state voting laws.

The test vote, which would have cleared the way to start debate on voting legislation, failed 50-50 on straight party lines – 10 votes short of the supermajority needed to advance legislation in the Senate.

It came after a succession of Democrats delivered warnings about what they said was the dire state of American democracy, accusing former president Donald Trump of undermining the country’s democratic system by challenging the results of the 2020 election in a campaign that prompted his supporters in numerous state legislatures to pass laws rolling back ballot access.

Okay, this is not Poland. No one is demanding one hundred percent agreement on everything and anything, just sixty percent agreement on each and every single thing before Congress, or nothing gets done, period. And this was just a “motion to debate” – a vote to allow talk about these issues. That would include the audits in Arizona and planned in all the states Trump had lost that he thinks he should have won, an effort to overturn those official certified votes in the 2020 election, and all those new laws that make it hard for certain kinds of people to vote, and that allow Republican state legislatures, if anyone has heard a rumor that there’s something fishy with the vote, or heard a rumor that there’s a rumor about that, to toss out the popular vote and send their own slate of Electors to assure their guy wins the presidency. One rumor from a minor blog in Montana might change everything, That’s the law now in Georgia and a few other states. Voting might become quaint and thoroughly useless and quite pointless in a few years. Democrats want to talk about this. Republicans don’t.

Democrats need to find ten Republicans who think talking about this might be useful, to get to the sixty votes in favor of talking about this stuff, there are and never will be ten such Republicans:

“Are we going to let reactionary state legislatures drag us back into the muck of voter suppression? Are we going to let the most dishonest president in history continue to poison our democracy from the inside?” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said before the vote. “Or will we stand up to defend what generations of Americans have organized, marched, fought and died for – the sacred, sacred right to vote?”

But Republicans stood firmly together in opposition, following the lead of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Tuesday lambasted the Democrats’ bill, known as the For the People Act, as “a transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently in Democrats’ favor” and as “a recipe for undermining confidence in our elections.”

McConnell seems to be saying that any federal voting laws would be unfair, because that’s none of the federal government’s business. The states make those laws, each for their own state. The Constitution says so. This is a matter of states’ rights. And it’s all kind of hopeless:

Although many Democrats and liberal activists insist the fight is not over – pledging to launch a final, furious push over the coming weeks to change the Senate’s rules to pass the bill – they face long odds as key lawmakers have insisted that they are not willing to eliminate the chamber’s supermajority rule to override Republican opposition.

The minority may need to stop the majority now and then, from doing something stupid. Keep the rule. The current minority has vowed to stop everything, so that Biden fails when the nation disintegrates into unrecoverable chaos, and it’s all his fault. Dump the rule.

Nothing is easy:

The effort to pass the bill has risen to the highest ranks of the Democratic Party. President Biden on Monday privately counseled a key senator, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), to “find a path forward” on voting rights. On Tuesday, Schumer consulted with Biden on next steps after excoriating Republicans ahead of the test vote for their unwillingness even to debate voting rights.

“They will sweep it under the rug and hope that Americans don’t hear about it, but Americans will hear about it,” Schumer said. “We’re going to make sure of that.”

But of course the other side wants to stop this nonsense. They sense danger:

McConnell and other Republicans have taken aim at numerous provisions in the Democratic legislation, including a proposal to publicly finance congressional campaigns, potential new disclosure requirements for political donors and a realignment of the Federal Election Commission meant to break partisan gridlock in enforcing election laws.

They are clear – no public funding for anyone – use only big donors and keep those political donors and their donations hidden, and hide any record of the money they sent along – and keep those vacancies open at the FEC so they’ll never have a quorum and cannot vote on anything and are forced to just fade away. And there’s still this:

They have maintained solid opposition to the ballot-access provisions in the Democratic bill – such as a guaranteed period of early voting, mandatory availability of no-excuse mail voting, and a broad new automatic voter registration system – by arguing that the federal government has no role in dictating state election laws.

But that’s an issue now:

The state laws impose changes including restricting access to mail voting, creating new hurdles to voter registration, establishing new voter ID requirements and expanding the definition of criminal behavior by voters, election officials and third parties.

Manchin’s proposal won plaudits from key Democratic voices, including Georgia activist and former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and former president Barack Obama, who said Monday that the West Virginian had proposed “some common-sense reforms that the majority of Americans agree with.”

But not quite:

Democrats have splintered on how to go about combating the GOP state laws. Manchin, for instance, did not endorse the For the People Act and sketched out a narrower compromise only this month under pressure from his colleagues and activists. Under his proposal, some of the more debated provisions of the broader bill, such as the public financing system, would be dropped entirely, while others, such as automatic voter registration, would be narrowed. He also proposed adding a traditional GOP election priority, mandating voter identification, in a bid to build bipartisan support.

Fine, but the only people he impressed were on his side:

Manchin’s proposal won plaudits from key Democratic voices, including Georgia activist and former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and former president Barack Obama, who said Monday that the West Virginian had proposed “some common-sense reforms that the majority of Americans agree with.”

Republicans saw no sense at all – any voter identification had to be expensive photo ID of some sort, not utility bill stubs or whatnot, a West Virginia thing – and many of them, when they saw Stacey Abrams’s name, vowed to never work with any Democrat on anything ever again. Still, there was this:

Democrats did win a small victory Tuesday in persuading Manchin to vote to start debate on the voting rights bill, with the understanding that senators would then vote to make his compromise proposal the new baseline for further amendments. Democratic leaders wanted to keep their caucus united in a symbolic show of force against the GOP blockade, and Manchin ultimately obliged.

“These reasonable changes have moved the bill forward and to a place worthy of debate on the Senate floor,” Manchin said in a statement that also criticized Republicans for blocking the bill anyway.

He gave the Republicans what they had said, for months, that they had wanted, all of it, and he had pissed off all of his friends in his own Democratic Party, and then the Republicans kicked him in the face. He was learning, but he’s still Polish:

The senator said he remained “committed to finding a bipartisan pathway forward” but made no statement to indicate whether he was willing to revisit his opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

He needs time to think about this:

Republicans have rejected Manchin’s proposal as a nonstarter, and the chances of winning GOP support for any meaningful election legislation appears to be remote. Lawmakers across the GOP’s ideological spectrum have found themselves comfortable fighting from the territory that McConnell has staked out: that states, not the federal government, are best equipped to write voting laws.

“I don’t think it is a tough vote,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Monday. “The country’s been well served by elections run by state and local officials who could respond to state and local problems.”

Tell that to the Mississippi Freedom Riders from the sixties, those who lived through that. Roy Blunt seems miss the Jim Crow days, when a few burning crosses and a lynching or two, and the poll taxes and literacy tests, were simply state and local officials responding to state and local problems, but the big problem remained:

The more consuming debate inside the Democratic ranks has surrounded the filibuster, which for 45 years has allowed a minority of 41 senators to block action in the Senate.

Many Democratic lawmakers and a slew of liberal activists are hoping that Tuesday’s vote sparks a new push to eliminate the rule, allowing legislation to pass with a simple 51-vote majority. While the rule has been eroded in recent years – senators voted to waive it for most nominations by presidents in 2013 and for Supreme Court nominees in 2017 – several Democratic senators have been uneasy with the push to eliminate it entirely.

Among them is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who reiterated her support for the 60-vote threshold in an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Monday. Bipartisan negotiation, with buy-in among Republicans and Democrats, she wrote, is the “best way to achieve durable, lasting results.”

She argued that any law passed with only fifty-one votes would be gone soon, when the next congress, with a different fifty-one votes, would repeal it. It happens all the time. But no one could find an example of that. Obamacare passed with fifty-one votes. It’s still here, but she has a point with this:

Sinema noted that Democrats used the filibuster as recently as last year in a majority-GOP Senate to block debate on a Republican-written coronavirus relief bill and federal policing overhaul. “Those filibusters were mounted not as attempts to block progress, but to force continued negotiations toward better solutions,” she said.

Perhaps so, but that’s not enough:

Some Democrats responded to Sinema with exasperation, questioning the logic of letting a congressional rule – not a constitutional provision or a federal law – stand in the way of a federal response to the GOP voting bills.

“This idea that we’re going to value consistency over democracy, I think, has some real problems,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I commend Senator Sinema for going on the record and putting pen to paper on her beliefs. But let’s really have an open debate about what it means to keep these rules in place.”

That has to happen now:

Vice President Harris, who was deputized by Biden last month to lead voting rights efforts, presided over debate of the bill Tuesday afternoon and gaveled the failed vote closed. “The fight is not over,” she told reporters after the vote.

But activists and some Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to make a much more aggressive push for action.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden and Harris already had made significant efforts on voting rights through executive actions and the Justice Department and that they would “continue to use the bully pulpit, but also every lever in government,” to move the issue forward.

But that’s all they have now. Joe Manchin is dreaming of Poland centuries ago. Total unity! Everyone agrees! And the nation collapses, because that’s impossible. But maybe America is impossible now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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