Bipartisan nihilism

Michele Goldberg’s column today was great, damn do I love her term, “Nihilistic Bipartisanship” in describing Manchin and Sinema:

Two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, could save us by joining their colleagues in breaking the filibuster and passing new voting rights legislation. But they prefer not to.

On Tuesday, Sinema, touring migrant facilities with her Texas Republican colleague John Cornyn, defended the filibuster by spouting an alternative history nearly as delusional as Trump’s claims to have actually won the election. “The idea of the filibuster was created by those who came before us in the United States Senate to create comity and to encourage senators to find bipartisanship and work together,” she said.

This is nonsense. The filibuster was created by mistake when the Senate, cleaning up its rule book in 1806, failed to include a provision to cut off debate. (A so-called cloture rule allowing two-thirds of senators to end a filibuster was adopted in 1917; the proportion was reduced to three-fifths in 1975.) The filibuster encouraged extremism, not comity: It was a favorite tool of pro-slavery senators before the Civil War and segregationists after it.

More than any other type of legislation, the filibuster was used in the 20th century to derail civil rights bills, from anti-lynching measures to bans on housing discrimination. During Barack Obama’s administration, Republicans began using it to an unprecedented degree to block his nominations. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, “Out of the 168 cloture motions ever filed (or reconsidered) on nominations, 82 (49 percent) were cloture motions on nominations made since 2009.” The filibuster’s history is both ignominious and ever-changing.

It is impossible to know whether Sinema believes what she said, or whether she simply doesn’t care. Both she and Manchin are committed to bipartisanship as a supreme good, which in practice means bowing to the wishes of a party that doesn’t believe Joe Biden is a legitimate president and wants above all to see him fail. (“One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said last month.)

When you have a system that’s not working effectively, said Sinema, “the way to fix that is to change your behavior,” not the rules. This is a bizarre stance for a legislator, whose work is all about changing rules. But it also ignores the fact that the system is working perfectly well for Republicans.

Democrats hope that Manchin, who has said Democrats should have faith that there are “10 good people” in the Republican caucus, will lessen his opposition to filibuster reform when Senate Republicans repeatedly prove him wrong. It’s harder to know what Sinema actually believes and thus what could sway her; she seems above all dedicated to a view of herself as a quirky maverick, and delights in trolling the Democrats who elected her. In April, after infuriating progressives by voting against including a federal minimum wage increase in the coronavirus relief package, she posted an Instagram photo of herself wearing a ring spelling out a dismissive obscene phrase that begins with “F” and ends with “off.”

This gap between the scale of the catastrophe bearing down on us and the blithe refusal of Manchin and Sinema to help is enough to leave one frozen with despair. Democrats have no discernible leverage over Manchin and little over Sinema, though they ought to consider primarying her. (Unlike Manchin, she’s not the only Democrat who could win a Senate seat in her state.) Those who want our democracy to endure have no choice but to keep asking, imploring and cajoling these two lawmakers to value it above the false idol of bipartisanship, but so far there’s little sign they will.

So we’re stuck.

Likewise, good stuff from Brian Beutler:

Before Republicans filibustered the January 6 commission last week, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema issued a statement basically pleading with them not to. I don’t think they wrote it imagining they’d change any minds, but rather in recognition of the fact that the filibuster itself—coming after Democrats negotiated the bill with a Republican leadership proxy, and conceded to all GOP demands—would make the two of them look ridiculous. They’ve both justified their commitment to the filibuster on the false grounds that it’s a tool that forces the parties to reach consensus, and here were Republicans mocking their naïveté. 

If Manchin and Sinema were open to being proven wrong, though, the statement wouldn’t have been necessary. Or it would have been worded as an ultimatum: We gave you the benefit of the doubt, now you’re putting us in an impossible position, reconsider your actions or we’ll reconsider ours. Instead the filibuster came and went, and there were no consequences for it. ‘Please don’t humiliate us,’ they begged, ‘or we’ll be forced let you.’ Manchin groused in disappointment; Sinema just mindlessly repeated her defense of the filibuster at a press event with Republican Senator John Cornyn.

What a broken system we have when on the one hand we’ve got one party that is increasingly showing that it doesn’t actually believe in democracy and another one that is basically being held to the completely nonsensical whims of two individual who worship at a fantastical altar of “bipartisanship!”  Not good.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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