The Real Reasons Behind the Mess on Capitol Hill

Passing popular legislation is harder than it looks.

This has been a very confusing week to be a Democrat. First, a number of political analysts looked over the details of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s larger-than-expected victory in the recall election and concluded that the results were consistent with Democrats losing the House and Senate in 2022.

Second, the good folks at Navigator Research released their latest polling on Tuesday morning, which found that two in three Americans, six in ten Independents, and nearly four in ten Republicans support the Biden economic plan.

Seems like a slam dunk right? Not so fast. Finally, Politico followed up that good news with some less stellar news:

Moderate Senate Democrats Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) continue to be a major headache for party leadership’s $3.5 trillion target. The Senate parliamentarian just nixed the party’s yearslong push to enact broad immigration reform. House members may tank the prescription drugs overhaul the party has run on for years. And a fight continues to brew over Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) push to expand Medicare.

To summarize, Democrats are facing an uphill battle to hold on to their majorities. They have the opportunity to pass a wildly popular piece of legislation that appeals to the exact voters they need in 2022. Yet, they are struggling — and possibly failing — to pass that legislation. And oh yeah! I forgot to mention that if the Republicans take the majority, President Biden’s legislative agenda will be dead, he will appoint no more judges of consequence to the court, and the Republicans just might use their newfound power to overturn the results of the 2024 election.

What the hell is going on? I wish the Democrats had a secret plan. But, alas, that is never the answer. If this seems familiar, it means you were around the last time Democrats had unified control of Government. Here are some thoughts about why Democrats keep ending up in these legislative logjams.

Worry, Don’t Panic (Yet)

There is a natural rhythm to these big legislative fights, and near-death experiences are part of the process. Last rites were read on Obamacare more times than I can count. Even Trump’s tax scam teetered on the brink of collapse several times before Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan pushed it over the finish line and into the pockets of their billionaire supporters. All is not lost.

Traditionally, a panicky Politico report written with palpable glee at Democratic disarray is the first sign that things are about to turn around. Under ideal circumstances, passing a bill of this size and scope would be challenging. The Obamacare fight was as messy as could be and Democrats had 59 Senate votes and a historically large House majority. With 50 Senate votes and no room to spare in the House, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer have zero margin for error.

If I were a betting man, I would put money on the Democrats eventually getting something done. But the questions of how, what, and when are still up in the air.

Even with that caveat, the traffic jam is unnecessary and, frankly, a little surprising. Earlier this year, every person in the party told reporters they most definitely learned every lesson from 2009 and would definitely make none of the mistakes that bedeviled Obama and the Democrats during the first two years of the last Democratic presidency. What happened? Did everyone just forget what they learned after a few months? Or is something bigger at play? Here are my thoughts:

Structure v. Strategy

Leading the Democratic Party is an inherently more challenging task than leading the Republican Party. For the most part, the GOP is an ideologically and demographically homogeneous group. Democrats represent everyone from Joe Manchin to AOC and we need every one of those votes. Expecting us to move in lockstep or sing from the same song sheet is impossible. The broad coalition — and our narrow majorities — means that Democrats need a bunch of centrist politicians to support any and every bill that passes through Congress.

Now, and in 2009, reporters and frustrated activists look at the mess on Capitol Hill and go looking for strategic errors. What could Biden do differently? Should he have given more speeches? Invited more members to play golf? Was he so intent on a “bipartisan win” that he burned too much time or expended too much goodwill?

I don’t want to suggest that Biden, Schumer, and Pelosi have done everything perfectly. They haven’t. Nor do I want to suggest that Obama et al. (myself included) did everything perfectly a decade ago. We certainly didn’t. But the challenges of passing big legislation for Democrats are not strategic; they are structural. We are a party that agrees in principle on a lot of things, but Democrats have substantial regional, ideological, and political differences regarding the details. Put another way, members of Congress operate in part out of their perceived political self-interest. And Joe Manchin’s interest is wildly different from Bernie Sanders’ or AOC’s interests.

The Primacy of Political Reform

In 2019, Senator Elizabeth Warren appeared on Pod Save America as part of our series of interviews with the presidential candidates. Tommy Vietor asked Warren which of her many proposals she wanted Congress to tackle first. The question of prioritization is critical because a newly-elected president’s first initiative has the best chance of passing. After that, everything gets progressively harder. Surprisingly, Warren didn’t answer with Medicare-for-All, a wealth tax, her climate plan, or Wall Street reform. She said her first bill would be her anti-corruption and political reform plans. Warren’s reasoning was that reforming our political system to reduce the influence of special interests was a necessary precondition to “big structural change.” Her plan was to take on special interests like Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, and fossil fuel companies.

Barack Obama had a similar theory in 2009, but his efforts to reform our political and campaign finance systems were stymied by the urgency of addressing the financial crisis and a lack of appetite for those proposals among congressional leaders. The tremendous influence of the insurance industry and drug companies made the Obamacare process more difficult and the final product less patient-friendly.

That pattern is repeating itself in 2021. Lobbyists — including former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp — have already defeated some of the most progressive tax reforms.

The pharmaceutical industry’s power has influenced Senator Kyrsten Sinema and a handful of House Democrats to put one of the most important and popular policies at risk — allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.

Progressive policies require taking on powerful special interests with bottomless pockets. We will never be able to truly accomplish our goals until we reform the system to reduce the influence of those entities.

The For the People Act will go a long way towards addressing this problem. The House passed that bill last year and it still sits in the Senate. This brings us to the next problem.

The Filibuster

Stop looking for someone to blame and look for something to blame. In one fell swoop, Democrats are trying to rebuild our roads and bridges, unrig the tax code, lift millions out of poverty, address climate change, create jobs, expand access to high education and help families afford childcare and eldercare. Any of these on their own would be hard. Doing them all at once is nearly impossible. But this is the only option because Senate Democrats won’t fix the filibuster, and Republicans will not lift a finger to help their constituents or save the planet under their feet.

Democrats are forced to use the one remaining budget reconciliation bill to accomplish their entire agenda. The process is cumbersome and depends on the capricious whims of the unelected Senate parliamentarian, who decides which policies can be included in budget reconciliation bills. It was the parliamentarian who decided that a minimum wage increase and immigration reform would not be included. Her reasoning was nonsensical because the entire process is nonsensical! As my friend Ben Rhodes pointed out on Twitter:

In 2009, Democrats had 59 Senate votes and couldn't overcome a Republican filibuster. Obamacare was paired with student loan reform and then pared back in various ways to satisfy the parliamentarian. We are repeating this pattern — and will continue to do so — until the filibuster is gone. The rest is just noise.

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