The Action Shifts to Congress

The country now depends on its most dysfunctional branch of government.

Joe Biden began his presidency with a flurry of executive orders, concerning everything from public health to immigration to racial equality. But the United States is not (and should not be) a dictatorship, so executive orders can only go so far. Executive orders can redecorate the rooms of our government, but they can’t remodel the building. To make real change, you need Congress to appropriate money and pass laws.

So as the Biden administration enters its sixth week, the action has shifted to Congress. Congress (as I have pointed out before) is the most dysfunctional branch of American government, and its weakness is the root cause the dysfunction of the other two branches: Both the White House and the courts overreach, because someone has to pick up the responsibilities that Congress drops.

Syria. We saw an example this week, when Biden ordered an air strike on Syria. The legality of this is questionable, because Congress has never specifically authorized military action in Syria. But the last few administrations have justified whatever they wanted to do in the Middle East by stretching the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolutions that Congress passed in 2001 after 9-11 and in 2002 prior to the Iraq invasion. The entire Obama/Trump campaign against ISIS, which culminated in Syria, happened under authority that Congress never realized it was granting two decades ago.

But the blame here belongs to Congress. A responsible legislative body would debate the exact bounds of presidential war-making in the area, and pass a new AUMF that repealed the previous two. Some — Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN), for example — have pushed for this, but most congresspeople would rather dodge responsibility and then complain later if things go wrong in either direction.

In this case, you can be sure that if the US suffered some major reversal in the Iraq/Syria theater — say, a high-casualty attack against our forces or a resurgence of ISIS — many of the same congresspeople who complain about unauthorized military action now would be complaining then that the President hadn’t done enough. Again, this pattern is independent of parties. It was equally true in the Trump and Obama administrations, and under congressional leadership of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Covid relief. The biggest bill facing Congress right now is the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, which passed the House Saturday without a single Republican vote and two Democrats defecting. The Washington Post summarizes the content:

Beyond the minimum-wage increase, the sprawling relief bill would provide $1,400 stimulus payments to tens of millions of American households; extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits through August; provide $350 billion in aid to states, cities, U.S. territories and tribal governments; and boost funding for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing — among myriad other measures, such as nutritional assistance, housing aid and money for schools.

The bill is popular with the American people, as well as with many Republican governors and mayors. But that isn’t enough to get it Republican votes in Congress. Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have imprinted the lesson they learned during the Obama administration: If you monkey-wrench the economy, ultimately the party in the White House will get blamed for it.

Heather Cox Richardson:

The Democrats will be able to pass a bill popular with more than 3 out of 4 of us only because they have a slight majority in the House and can use a special budget measure to work around the Republican senators who represent 41.5 million fewer Americans than the Democrats do.

The coronavirus relief bill illustrates just how dangerously close we are to minority rule.

Minimum wage. Meanwhile, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that raising the minimum wage doesn’t fit inside the rules defining the reconciliation process. So if Senate Democrats use that process to pass Covid relief — as it looks like they must to overcome the expected Republican filibuster — the minimum wage won’t be in it. Raising the minimum wage is also popular on its own, and will probably be offered as a stand-alone bill. But popularity with the American people probably won’t garner it enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster.

The New Yorker blows up one central argument against raising the minimum wage:

The fast-food chains insist that if they were to pay their employees more they would have to raise menu prices. Their wages are “competitive.” But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States. There are regional American fast-food chains that take the high road with their employees. The starting wage at In-N-Out Burger, which is based in Southern California, and has two hundred and ninety-five restaurants in California and the Southwest, is eleven dollars. Full-time workers receive a complete benefits package, including life insurance—and the burgers are cheap and good.

Matt Yglesias:

The genius of America is you need a 60-vote supermajority to raise the minimum wage, but the president can bomb some militia in Iran based on … I dunno … an AUMF from two decades ago that was about something else entirely or something.

The Equality Act. Thursday, the House passed the Equality Act, which would explicitly protect Americans against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s not inconceivable that the bill could also pass the Senate and become law, but getting the ten Republican votes necessarily to overcome a filibuster looks like an uphill struggle.

Whether it passes or not, the bill is becoming a hot-button culture war issue for conservatives, raising all kinds of dark fantasies that have little basis in reality. Most conservative attempts to argue this point don’t even try to assemble evidence, and the few that do are unconvincing. For example, a Heritage Foundation report against allowing access to single-sex facilities according to gender identity includes a nine-page appendix listing “Individuals charged with sex crimes in intimate facilities”, including such incidents as voyeuristic men dressing as women to enter women’s bathrooms.

I’m sure Heritage believes its readers should be impressed with this mound of “evidence”. But the question is not whether such incidents happen, or whether they continue to happen in venues that allow trans access to bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The question is whether changing the rules causes such incidents to increase. A trans-friendly bathroom policy exists in enough places now that the question should be answerable.

The Heritage report also does not consider the danger that a transwoman faces if the law forces her to use a men’s bathroom. It’s as if violence and harassment directed at transgender people should not count.

I also note another example of the selectivity of conservative care: They regard the possibility of opposite-sex voyeurism in bathrooms as a world-shaking problem. But men entering men’s bathrooms to look at boys elicits no policy response at all; the status quo is just fine.

The looming filibuster battle. I can imagine readers asking “What’s the point? Why pass bills in the House that Republicans can successfully filibuster in the Senate? They’re not going to change anything.”

That question has both a principled and a practical answer. The principled answer is that you always want to give people a chance to do the right thing, even if you don’t think they will. When politicians make excuses for not serving the people, they should never be able to say, “Nobody asked me.” All the major advances in civil rights started with people making demands that (in the short term) they knew would be turned down. Asking the question is how you get from a vague “It’s just not possible” to a specific “It would happen if those people stopped blocking it.”

The practical answer is that a showdown over the filibuster is looming, and Democrats need to be united to win it. Currently they’re not: Both Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have come out against eliminating the filibuster.

Turning them around is going to require building popular support. But the filibuster itself is a procedural Senate thing that the average voter doesn’t care about. So the debate will turn on what the filibuster means to ordinary people as they live their lives. Popular bills need to come up and go down — along with the For the People Act, which would ban gerrymandering and many voter suppression tactics, as well as controlling dark money and encouraging small-donor campaign financing — to connect the filibuster with problems that people can see.

Defenders of the filibuster sometimes warn that Democrats will be sorry if they end the filibuster and then lose the Senate, as they might in 2022 (while still representing more voters than the GOP). But that observation ignores how the Republican Party has changed in the last decade: It has no legislative program beyond tax cuts, which can pass through reconciliation.

Conversely, Democrats are more likely to lose the Senate if voters see that a Democratic Senate can’t accomplish its goals.

Biden’s nominees. Politico published a summary of how Biden’s nominees were faring in the Senate as of Thursday. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland is likely to be approved by the Judiciary Committee today, sending his nomination to the Senate floor for final approval.

PBS Newshour notes the “pattern of minority nominees encountering more political resistance than white counterparts”. A look at Politico’s list demonstrates that the difference isn’t across-the-board. Some Black (UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin), female (Greenfield, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines), Latino (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas), and gay (Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg) nominees have gotten through the process relatively unscathed.

But where Republicans have unleashed fireworks, the targets have largely been people of color, particularly women, and white transwoman Rachel Levine, who endured some abusive questioning from Rand Paul. The Newshour article focuses on Deb Haaland, who seems likely to become the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, but took some harsh grilling from Republicans on the Energy Committee. Afterwards, John Kennedy of Louisiana told reporters she was “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job”. (Haaland’s sin appears to be a desire to phase out fossil fuels. I suspect Lenin was pro-fossil-fuel, so Kennedy may not be completely wrong.)

Newshour continues:

The confirmation of Neera Tanden, who would be the first Indian American to head the Office of Management and Budget, was thrown into doubt when it lost support from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He cited her controversial tweets attacking members of both parties.

Critics also have targeted Vanita Gupta, an Indian American and Biden’s pick to be associate attorney general, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary. Conservatives launched campaigns calling Gupta “dangerous” and questioning Becerra’s qualifications.

I think the apparent racism is less personal animosity than an attempt to exploit the implicit racism of the Republican base. (Manchin is a Democrat, but needs Republican votes to stay in office.) The GOP strategy is to paint Biden’s nominees as way-out, far-left, bomb-throwing extremists. As Republicans noticed during the Obama administration, and later refined in their attacks on the Squad, that kind of mud doesn’t stick as well to a white man as it does to a woman of color. (That’s why when Bernie Sanders and AOC support the same thing, the attack goes against AOC. The GOP has made AOC the face of the Green New Deal, while poor cosponsor Ed Markey can barely get any credit.) The base doesn’t even have to notice that they’re responding in a racist or sexist fashion, they just have to unquestioningly accept accusations against the chosen targets that they might doubt if the same things were said about white men.

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes about Deb Haaland:

What Haaland actually brings — and what the Republican Party seems to consider so dangerous — are experiences and perspectives that have never found representation in the leadership of the executive branch. In fact, Republicans’ depiction of the first Native American ever nominated to the Cabinet as a “radical” threat to a Western “way of life” revealed something about the conservative id: a deep-seated fear that when the dispossessed finally attain a small measure of power, we will turn around and do to them what their governments and ancestors did to us.

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  • vog46  On March 1, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    Well if the action is shifting to Congress hold on we’re in for a rapid deceleration in forward momentum.
    Look, I get it
    if the MW had kept up with inflation it would be $24/hr right now
    Sen Thune who said he worked for a $1/hr back in the day paid $44K for his college education, “back in the day” – which now costs $244K for the same education.
    And thats just education. Never mind housing costs.
    What idiots

  • LdeG  On March 1, 2021 at 5:01 pm

    $244,000/44,000=5.54 – so bringing it up to the same number of hours of minimum wage would be $5.54 an hour. On the other hand, working full time at $1 an hour would take 21 years to pay for a $44,000 education.

    • Bill  On March 2, 2021 at 8:04 am

      I believe the rate of inflation between 1969 and 2021 would put the $1 minimum wage of 1969 at $12 in 2021 adjusted for inflation. I would also challenge the accuracy of the $44,000 college cost from 1969. That wasn’t my experience and I think Thunes grasp of math, facts and details are a bit fuzzy. Not surprising.


  • By Phantoms of the Night | The Weekly Sift on March 1, 2021 at 12:40 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts are “North Dakota Is About to Kill the National Popular Vote Compact” and “The Action Shifts to Congress“. […]

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