What Can Democrats Do With a Narrow Majority?
In which I take a question from a reader, and reach out to historians Julian Zelizer and John A. Lawrence to help answer it
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Political Junkie will include a regular feature where I highlight a question or comment received the previous week, bringing in guest experts to help me answer more fully. Today’s guests are political historians Julian Zelizer and John Lawrence.
Photo credit: U.S. House of Representatives/Wikimedia Commons
Last week, a reader asked:
I want (perhaps naively) to find ways to hold McConnell, Hawley, et. al., accountable for their craven behavior.
Perhaps you could address how the Democrats in the House, Senate, and the White House, with razor-thin majorities and a very large portion of the population seemingly still supporting the Republicans, can move forward. How do we as citizens push them to address the white supremacists and Trump enablers still in government?
Great question. We know that Democrats in both Houses will have to maintain iron-clad unity on up-down votes but that the party includes a broad range of views, some of which might fit comfortably in the Republican party’s moderate wing.
The good news? Joe Biden will get the Cabinet appointments he desires, and none of them will be charged with dismantling the agencies they are in charge of, as we have seen the last four years.
But prepare for the debates about how far a progressive agenda should go, which were tabled during the campaign, to be revived. A fragile majority gives all wings of the Democratic party some leverage over policy, which may push policymaking to the left—but far more slowly and incrementally than many progressives want. Achieving intra-party consensus is far harder when one faction is more aspirational than others.
The need for consensus will modify the bold policy strokes that Warren and Sanders Democrats desire. It will restrain President Biden from using his executive power in ways that might aggravate intra-party division. For example, I predict we will see the cancellation of some student loan debt, but not all of it, leaving debtors from poorer families still owing substantial sums. Congress may address the financial emergency facing higher ed because of COVID-19, but not the structural financial problems caused by the education sector’s chronic underfunding.
But consensus building may make it possible to do business with disaffected, moderate members of the GOP caucus, as well through earmarks. Earmarks are supplemental legislation attached to bills, such as federal funding for a bridge, an aquarium, or other goodies that will allow members in the minority to show tangible accomplishments in 2022 or beyond.
While there is a strong bias against earmarks among some conservatives (libertarians call it “rent-seeking” and see it only as a way of spending taxpayer dollars to shore up personal influence), arguably, there will also be a strong bias against elected representatives who do nothing to bring federal spending to their districts in the midst of a major recession.
Doing small deals with Republicans may ease the way for larger compromises on votes that require a 2/3 supermajority (you can read about that here), such as cloture, treaty ratification, and—less likely—the expulsion of members. Treaty ratification could be essential in the aftermath of the Trump administration shredding so many international relationships. But don’t expect expulsions unless members are charged and convicted with crimes connected to the insurrection on January 6. It’s hard to imagine even outraged Republicans (and let’s face it, there weren’t so many of them before the mob attack) agreeing to weaken and divide their party more than it is already.
And now, let me introduce you to my friends.
Historian Julian Zelizer is Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton School of Public & International Affairs and a regular CNN commenter. His most recent book, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party (Penguin/Random House, 2020), describes the moment in the mid-1990s when Republicans set the stage for today’s divisive politics.
Zelizer sees the COVID-19 emergency as an opportunity for President Biden to re-establish the mechanisms of a functioning Congress and isolate Republican extremists:
In the same way that the pandemic ended up strengthening Biden's position in the campaign, implementing an effective set of pandemic policies between now and the summer is his best bet toward achieving legislation despite a difficult political position.
The severity of our crisis means that being able to stop the virus and revive the economy as well as civil society would put Biden in a very strong political position come the fall. It could also diminish some of the potential midterm fallout (think Democrats in 1934). The stronger that Democrats feel politically the more they will go after the right-wing extremism that shapes the GOP, through rhetoric and policy.
John Lawrence is a historian who served on Capitol Hill for 38 years, first as Chief of Staff for Congressman George Miller (D-CA), and then, from 2005 to 2015, as Chief of Staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Currently, he is a Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington Center: he is the author of The Class of '74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
John digs further into the limitations on legislative accomplishments and on expelling legislators who empowered the mob.
Two dynamics impact congressional parties when the margins between the parties is extremely narrow, as in the 117th Congress. The ideological base, which is the largest component of each party, invariably demands approval of policies it believes were responsible for the election that made them the majority. But the leadership is constrained because maintaining that majority invariably depends on the re-election of more vulnerable members who often do not embrace fully the base’s policy goals.
In addition, close majorities empower factions within each party, all of which complicate efforts to reach the 218 votes needed to pass bills in the House. In the Senate, of course, the endurance of the legislative filibuster requires 60 votes to take up most legislation which, in a highly partisan chamber with a tied membership, is a virtual impossibility.
So, the tension will be there within the narrow majorities as the leadership maneuvers to find legislation that can satisfy the various factions while still securing the votes needed for passage, a congressional fact of life that is understandably galling to the large progressive faction in the party.
As to the Trumpists who will remain in government, the answer is provided by the Georgia example: organize and beat them in elections if possible. Congress is given the authority by the Constitution (art. II, sec. 5) to “be the Judge of … its own Members” and has the ability to “punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour” and even expel members. But such action has rarely occurred except when the offender has been convicted of serious criminal activity.
Short of that, there is little prospect of reaching the two-thirds majority needed for expulsion, and there would be grave reservations about establishing a precedent that could easily be turned on other members expressing unpopular ideas. On matters like civil and voting rights, the effective course is to put legislation on the floor and force representatives and senators to choose to enhance or restrict the rights of the American people, and then hold them accountable for those decisions at the polls.
What I’m reading:
Historian of the American Revolution Terry Bouton attended the Washington coup as an observer: this is what he saw. (Threader, January 10, 2021)
On the fifth anniversary of the artist’s passing, Simon Critchley asks: What would David Bowie do? (New York Times, January 9, 2021)
Roxane Gay sees hope ahead, but the Democrats have to be willing to use the power they have. (New York Times, January 7, 2020)
Rebecca Traister: “Democrats have been presented a mandate to govern aggressively on behalf of the people and the nation, and in the face of a violently unspooling and destructive right-wing party.” (New York Magazine, January 7, 2021)