If Biden and the Democrats Actually Want to Get Anything Done, They Need to Transform Democracy

by Miles Kampf-Lassin

2 February 2021

Since taking office, Joe Biden has pledged to prioritise four “converging crises” under his administration: the pandemic, the resulting economic meltdown, structural racism and climate change. These are undoubtedly emergency-level issues that demand action. Yet there is another, far larger crisis facing the country, one that will need to be solved in order for the government to pass meaningful policy that meets the scale of these challenges: the crisis of American democracy. 

This crisis was on full display when a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, threatening to assassinate members of Congress and leading to the deaths of at least six people. Incited by the then-president himself, this motley crew of militia members, QAnon cultists, MAGA true believers and insurrectionists sought to overthrow the democratically elected government in order to prevent Biden from taking office. While they failed to achieve that particular goal, there can be no doubt that the threat this group poses to representative government is here to stay.  

Still, it’s important to recognise that the storming of the Capitol was not an aberration but rather a physical manifestation of a far larger and deeper rot in the US democratic system—one that has long prevented elected representatives from fulfilling the will of the people. And it’s that rot which the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats must root out if they hope to enact a broad progressive agenda to solve the other intersecting crises, while also avoiding a drubbing in the 2022 midterm elections. 

 

 

In his inauguration speech, Biden declared: “democracy has prevailed.” But while it’s true that the coup attempt abetted by the Republican party was a floundering failure, it’s still a far cry from a democratic triumph. If anything, the attempts to overturn the election—alongside voter intimidation and suppression, a corrupt campaign finance system, gerrymandered redistricting and anti-democratic structures embedded in the US electoral system—present the party with a clear mandate to address the myriad problems that exist within US democracy so that such threats are muted in the future, and Congress can actually do its job.  

 

 

Biden has signalled that his administration’s first order of business is getting the Covid-19 pandemic under control while providing relief for millions of Americans who are in dire need of support. This is a prudent goal, considering that the virus has upended peoples’ lives and cratered the economy, causing financial and personal misery—whether it’s eviction, joblessness, poverty, lack of healthcare, unsafe working conditions, isolation, or any of the other many plagues confronting working people. 

The $1.9tn Covid-19 relief bill Biden has proposed would go a long way towards helping solve these problems, though it’s by no means substantial enough on its own. Even this bill, however, faces GOP opposition in Congress, where Republicans may attempt to block its passage in the Senate through use of the legislative filibuster. 

Now that they hold power in not only the White House, but both houses of Congress too, Democrats will be judged harshly by voters on what they do with it. Just as Obama’s tepid response to the 2008 financial crisis helped lead to a “shellacking” for Democrats in the 2010 midterms when the right-wing Tea Party rose to power, the party faces a similar test today. And right now, what voters want is clear: end this hellish pandemic and help working people. The vast majority of the population backs sweeping legislation to halt the virus and provide direct economic aid, along with other measures included in Biden’s proposed legislation, such as increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. A poll from Change Research shows that 69%of the public supports the proposal, including, notably, 39% of Trump voters. 

 

 

Despite this overwhelming support, the legislation faces stiff roadblocks in the Senate. In a functioning democracy, the relief bill would come up for a vote, and representatives would either back it or reject it, and then answer to their constituents as to why they made their decision. But the US is not a functioning democracy. Under current Senate rules, any member of the Republican minority can filibuster a bill and prevent it from being voted on unless the majority can summon 60 votes to overcome the objection. Such a system is untenable, especially with a GOP dead set on obstruction. As former Senate Democratic majority leader Harry Reid recently said on MSNBC: “You cannot have a democracy that takes 60% of the vote to get anything done.”

 

 

Without the necessary bipartisan support, Democrats are reported to be pursuing the passage of their Covid-19 bill through a Senate procedure called “budget reconciliation”, which would allow them to move it through the chamber with a simple 51-vote majority. As Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders has pointed out, Republicans previously used this process under Trump to attempt to overturn bills like the Affordable Care Act, which would have stripped millions of Americans of their healthcare, and to pass massive tax breaks for billionaires and corporations. With that history in mind, Democrats should feel empowered to use it to help struggling Americans.

Republicans will surely cry foul if Democrats take this route, but that shouldn’t stop them. Effective governance requires using all of the available levers of power to make life better for the people you represent, and in this case, as a short-term fix, that means sidestepping the anti-democratic filibuster. 

But, of course, the Democrats shouldn’t stop there. Budget reconciliation is a limited solution—and it’s still unclear whether all the aspects of the relief bill could pass through the procedure. In fact, the core of the issue lies in the undemocratic nature of the Senate itself, a chamber marked by dysfunction and delay, where Democrats currently hold the same number of seats as Republicans, even though they represent over 40 million more people. Budget reconciliation does not apply to other policy areas that require immediate action, from civil rights to immigration reform, environmental protections, boosting of labour rights and—critically—the expansion of democracy. To finally address these deep-seated issues, Biden and the Democrats need to think beyond stopgap measures and towards systematic change.

The first bill introduced by Senate Democrats under president Biden was the For the People Act, a bold set of reforms that would radically expand voting rights and protections while reining in the corruptive influence of dark money, partisan gerrymandering and attempts to suppress the vote by local and state officials. The legislation would allow for automatic, same-day voter registration, early voting, an end to voting roll purges, campaign finance reform and independent commissions for redistricting. It’s a critical step to enshrining the principle of “one person, one vote.” Yet, with the filibuster in place, it’s likely dead on arrival in the Senate.

The same goes for other necessary reforms such as abolishing the wildly undemocratic electoral college voting system so that presidents are elected by the popular vote, reducing the power of the unelected supreme court in setting public policy, granting statehood to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico so that their residents have representation in Congress, and ending the pernicious influence of corporate money in the American political system that was enshrined in the disastrous 2010 Citizens United ruling. 

All these actions would no doubt go a long way towards making the US a more democratic country with a more representative government. They would also likely help Democrats electorally since the restriction of voting rights has long been an instrumental tactic in the GOP playbook. That said, making such reforms a reality would mean implementing what critics across the political spectrum have described as a “nuclear option”: killing the legislative filibuster.

 

 

This is something Democrats actually can do with a simple majority vote to modify Senate rules. However, since it would remove the check on legislating now held by the minority party, some Democrats have warned that, if the party kills the filibuster and then loses control of Congress in upcoming elections, they could be handing new powers over to the Republicans. But that should be a risk they are willing to take given that the “check” currently serves to stymie the bills that majorities of Americans actually want passed—and which Democrats have promised. 

 


And what’s more, the filibuster itself isn’t even in the US Constitution. This change would simply allow Democrats to actually move on passing other aspects of their agenda, thus evading the gridlock that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is already promising. It’s also the only route they have to deliver the kind of material benefits to Americans’ lives that Democrats promised on the campaign trail. If they want voters to reward them at the polls in two years, they should act now to send the filibuster to the dustbin of history—then pass a suite of reforms to expand democracy, consolidating their power to protect these changes in the process. 

Failure to do so would likely mean Democrats facing the same outcome as in 1994 and 2010, when voters handed back power to Republicans in Congress, after only two years of a Democratic administration. Such a result would be a disaster for the Democrats, not just electorally, but for the future of popular government too, given that the Republican party is quickly radicalising in opposition to free and fair elections and would carry out its anti-democratic agenda once back in power. Taking decisive transformative action now would therefore not only benefit the Democrats in terms of their short-term political fortunes, but would also help move US politics in a more democratic direction in the long term as well. 

The challenges currently facing the US are grave, but the opportunity for a progressive political path forward is more tangible than it’s been in years. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, providing direct economic relief and enacting democratic reforms to address systemic racism and climate change are just the most immediate issues Democrats need to address on this new path.  Realising these goals would open the door to moving forward on other pressing policy solutions such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free public college—and injecting more democracy into both the economy and the workplace.     

Biden and Congressional Democrats now have a unique opportunity to not only make good on their vows, but to reinvent American democracy while they’re at it. Whether they recognise this opportunity and seize it is another question altogether.  

Miles Kampf-Lassin is a writer and web editor at In These Times.

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