The solution to Joe Manchin's concerns is to ditch the filibuster
For the Senate to work, it needs majority rule
Last week, Joe Manchin pumped the breaks on Democrats’ legislative agenda, criticizing leadership’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package as too inflationary.
It’s not a big surprise that Manchin would ask for cuts. Left-wing members already view the $3.5 trillion as the compromise position in the sense that it comes down from Bernie Sanders’ original proposal. But that’s a compromise the left reached with the leadership, one the White House and Chuck Schumer are comfortable going on television to defend. Now the moderates get a chance to extract their pound of flesh — and recall that $3.5 trillion is a very large number, as we are talking about a much bigger investment in the welfare state than the roughly $1 billion Affordable Care Act. And while lots of provisions in the proposed legislation are non-inflationary or even disinflationary (especially the prescription drug pricing provisions and efforts to accelerate the deployment of green technology), some really might further increase price pressure.
You can imagine a world in which Joe Manchin and his staff, backed by a half-dozen outside macroeconomists, go over the proposal with a fine-toothed comb and strike the most inflationary elements to produce a somewhat smaller package. On some level, that would be useful.
Instead, Manchin seems to reject the entire premise of the bill, writing that “establishing an artificial $3.5 trillion spending number and then reverse-engineering the partisan social priorities that should be funded isn’t how you make good policy.”
But you could make it a $2.9 trillion bill or a $1.7 trillion bill or whatever you want, and it’s still going to have this quality. Democrats want to write a budget reconciliation bill that raises taxes on rich people and spends money on progressive priorities. They’ve been negotiating the precise scope of that package, but Manchin seems to be rejecting the very idea of doing a package like this, even though it’s precisely Joe Manchin and like-minded senators who’ve made big, kludgy reconciliation bills the main way to do things.
If they don’t like this style of legislating (and there are good reasons not to), then these senators should reconsider their commitment to supermajority procedures.
The reconciliation bill isn’t arbitrary
Manchin is completely correct to point out that there’s something weird about picking a big headline number and then backfilling with $3.5 trillion in spending that progressives think will help people.
But there’s nothing arbitrary about it. Bernie Sanders started with a much larger wishlist, essentially rounding up all the ideas that are popular with mainstream Democrats on the Hill and mashing them together into one very large bill. That didn’t fly because it cost too much money. So they looked at a big list of potential revenue-raisers and gauged which of them were potentially viable with more moderate senators (Manchin’s staff had input during this phase), and they came up with about $3.5 trillion in acceptable revenue. Then they went to work with that number.
I think this was always an aggressive revenue figure. It relied on some optimistic scoring and didn’t really consider the views of some of the moderate House Democrats whose local politics differ from Manchin’s.
But the basic idea — raise taxes on the rich (which is popular) to the extent that it works for moderate Democrats, then use that revenue to advance ideas that progressives are enthusiastic about — should result in a package that passes and improves people’s lives in ways that are hard to roll back in the future. It should result in a bill that’s attentive to moderates’ political concerns and lets mainstream Democrats tell the left that working with the moderates delivered real gains for people.
So it’s not arbitrary at all. Now, is it a bit weird to legislate this way? Yes, it is weird. But the reason it’s done this way is because of the filibuster.
The filibuster forces mega-bills
In a sane legislature, you would not be attempting to pass a suite of climate provisions in tandem with free community college, a Child Tax Credit, and an expansion of dental benefits to Medicare recipients.
I’d like to live in a world where you try to get two or three Republican votes for your community college plan in exchange for stipulating that the colleges won’t indoctrinate students with critical race theory or whatever. Marco Rubio used to have some community college ideas that are not that different from Biden’s. Maybe they could work something out.
In that same world, on a totally separate track, you’re trying to work with Mitt Romney on his version of the Child Tax Credit idea. And you pass prescription drug pricing reform on a party-line basis because it’s super-popular, and you implement the permanent increase in the generosity of Affordable Care Act plans because Democrats learned in 2018 that defending the ACA is good, and voters trust Democrats on health care.
You can keep going down the list on this. It’s easy to imagine splitting this $3.5 trillion package into, I dunno, 11 different bills. And maybe four or five of them could pass in some modified version as bipartisan legislation and three or four could pass as partisan bills. One or two might be so half-baked that they die. Others could be “message bills” in the traditional sense. Right now, Republicans overwhelmingly win the votes of senior citizens. But lurking in the current proposal is a plan to give seniors dental benefits under Medicare. Because seven bajillion other things are happening in this bill, almost nobody is paying attention to the Medicare dental benefits provision. But this would be a great thing to pull out and run on in 2022 as an example of the good things that will happen for somewhat Biden-skeptical voters if Democrats expand their majority.
And you can’t do it with the filibuster. You have to be able to say to Mitt Romney that his vote, plus those of maybe one or two friends, makes all the difference in the world, so there’s a big upside to him engaging. You have to be able to say “ugh, we’re just one vote short on the dental benefits, and if you send John Fetterman to the Senate it’s going to happen.” Most of all, you have to be able to add and drop and split and merge bills in creative ways, and you have to be able to object to specific provisions without sinking the party’s whole legislative agenda.
In other words, you need a legislature that can actually legislate, not one that has to force all ideas through the funnel of this weird budget reconciliation loophole.
Moderates without a plan
I have dedicated many columns to critiquing the poor political judgment of the progressive activist wing of the Democratic Party and will do so again here.
The Sunrise Movement responded to Manchin’s break-pumping op-ed with a simple statement — “abolish the Senate” — that I sympathize with in the abstract, but that reveals the basic truth that they have no viable theory of how to create political change in the United States of America that actually exists.
That said, Joe Manchin is in the catbird seat in America right now.
I think he is well within his rights to object to the size and scope of the $3.5 trillion project and the determination to do it all on a partisan basis. But precisely because he’s the key actor here, he’s the one who ought to be talking about which measures he does believe in strongly enough to push on a party-line vote.
But he’s not, and his intransigence isn’t a coherent theory of political change any more than the left’s. With the ability to actually legislate, Democrats could make a credible argument to voters that there is an important class element in politics and that the Democratic Party is the one that raises taxes on the richest people in order to meet the human needs of the majority. All the Democrats I know on Capitol Hill, from the most moderate to the most progressive, believe that is a thing that they are doing, and are very critical of the Republican Party’s fanaticism about not taxing rich people. But a huge share of the electorate doesn’t see it that way. They don’t see politics as being about tangible material things. They see the Democratic Party as just the party for snobbish people who live in big cities.
Manchin isn’t a big city snob, and if he thought Democratic Party politics was just about being a big city snob, he could easily switch parties. But if you make it impossible to legislate, then politics really is just culture war posturing, and everyone in West Virginia should vote Republican. I know that’s not what Manchin thinks, but it’s where his affection for filibustering inevitably leads.
The road not traveled
Absent the filibuster that Manchin has insisted on preserving, moderate Democrats who aren’t enthusiastic about pursuing an aggressive expansion of the welfare state could instead have insisted on shoring up their own position by addressing the structural weaknesses in American democracy.
But that’s not the world we live in, and doing nothing while staring down expected midterm losses like a deer in the headlights is not a viable alternative. Pursuing welfare state expansion is the thing that’s possible in a world where the filibuster blocks most legislation, but budget reconciliation offers a loophole.
If the Senate were instead operating under majority rules, Democrats could focus on the more pressing issue of political equality.
That would include a voting rights bill (Manchin personally wrote a good one).
You’d also want a strong anti-gerrymandering bill, ideally addressing not only congressional elections but state legislatures, too.
You’d want a D.C. statehood bill.
And last but by no means least, you’d want to create a series of binding statehood referenda for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other American territories.
Instead, Manchin has told progressives that, due to his affection for the filibuster, they can’t even pass the voting rights measures that he himself says he supports. Of course Democrats aren’t going to “abolish” the Senate, but absent the filibuster, they really could create a situation where the median Senate seat is something like R+2 rather than R+6.
Insisting on bipartisan tracks for other stuff — working with Rubio on community college and Romney on family allowance — or reserving things like expanded Medicare benefits as a campaign issue would annoy progressives. But you could say you were counseling the path of political prudence and that addressing Democrats’ underlying structural weakness is the most important thing. You could also say that working on bipartisan bills isn’t hopeless. Trying to get one or two or three GOP votes for a bill that contains provisions progressives like is a much easier sell than insisting on 10 or 12 votes.
If that were the path moderate senators took, I’d be their top defender against impatient progressives. Instead, we’re in a situation where Manchin has a lot of complaints with the course progressives are steering, and while some of those complaints make sense, they fundamentally reflect the design flaws of a ship that he and other less vocal moderates constructed. If you want the Senate to mostly consider modest-sized bills, then you need a set of rules that’s conducive to legislating and to small-scale bipartisanship where a few members working across party lines can get something done.