The future of democracy is in the hands of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, alleged Democrat. His refusal to support his party’s main voting rights bill or help abolish the Senate filibuster could mark him in history, if anyone remains free to write it, as having dealt the decisive blow to representative government in the nation that pioneered it.
In states they control, Republicans are moving beyond merely suppressing the vote to enabling themselves to steal it. They’re purging their own honest election officials and setting themselves up to control the next vote count. The Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. did not overstate the situation as creating “the architecture of fascism.”
Nearly 200 professors of political science, government and history have signed a statement warning that “these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.”
Congress could stop that. But it can’t, on account of the filibuster.
Manchin’s excuse is Orwellian doublespeak. He says he wants a bipartisan voting rights bill despite the Republicans’ utter disinterest in one. He’s willing, though, to support the bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis, which would merely restore the Justice Department’s power, killed by the Supreme Court, to preclear or disapprove state and local election law changes, provided it applies to all states. But that too faces a potential filibuster.
It’s not naivete; Manchin has made a cynical calculation that his political survival requires betraying the national interest. Only Wyoming gave more support to Trump than the 68.6% in West Virginia last year, and coal barons and other far-right financiers are influential there.
Manchin isn’t the only Senate Democrat who supports the filibuster, but if he were to come around on that, Krysten Sinema of Arizona would have to follow.
Manchin’s betrayal of the voting rights bill is enough to kill it even without a filibuster.
Contrary to Manchin’s pretensions, the filibuster is the most powerful disincentive to bipartisanship for Republicans. So long as they know that they can block any legislation they don’t like, there is no impetus for any sincere attempt at negotiating compromise. They don’t need to offer any amendments that would be acceptable to the Democrats or to President Biden.
In particular, they can continue to obstruct any voting rights bill no matter how much the Democrats might offer to amend it. Campaign finance reform, for example, could be stripped from the For the People Act, along with its anti-gerrymandering provisions. Those would be serious losses, but they could wait for another day. But the Republicans can keep all of that from even coming to the Senate floor.
This week, for example, President Biden gave up on coming to terms with Republicans on his infrastructure initiative. It will have to be enacted under budget reconciliation procedures that are exempt from the filibuster, just like the Affordable Care Act in 2010. At that point, the opposition will cry crocodile tears about partisanship.
Manchin acts as if the Republicans will come around to bipartisanship if he helps them resist it long enough. His eyes should have been opened, as those of most other people were, when only seven GOP senators voted to convict former President Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and only six voted to allow debate on creating an independent commission to investigate that mass attack on the government. The others openly expressed fear that a commission’s findings would embarrass them in the next election.
This week, a report from two Senate committees exposed massive intelligence failures among law enforcement agencies that failed to warn Congress or the Capitol police about the forthcoming attack on the Capitol. But to get Republican support, the report had to avoid the word “insurrection” and made no inquiry into who organized it or what Trump or his allies might have done to encourage it.
That sort of attitude, focused only on partisan advantage rather than the national interest, comes coupled with a sick fear of Trump’s opposition in critical Republican primaries. The 10 Republicans who would vote to break a filibuster exist only in Manchin’s mind.
In their warning that democracy itself is at risk, the government and political science experts from around the country explained that new laws “politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election. Further, these laws could entrench extended minority rule, violating the basic and longstanding democratic principle that parties that get the most votes should win election.”
They said Congress should do “whatever is necessary, including suspending the filibuster,” in order to protect the vote and prevent manufactured results.
The signers range ideologically from Laurence Tribe of Harvard to Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and include the frequently quoted University of Virginia election expert Larry Sabato.
The filibuster, which has no basis in the Constitution, crept into the Senate as a policy of unlimited debate, leading eventually to a rule allowing 60% — that’s 60 votes — to terminate debate. But the filibuster itself has strayed far from the day when it depended on the endurance of a senator’s voice, knees or bladder. Now, it is a tool for preventing debate — exactly the opposite of the democratic purpose it supposedly serves.
That only aggravates the inherently undemocratic nature of the Senate itself. Even in a straight up-and-down vote, a majority of senators can represent a small fraction of the whole population, a consequence of the great compromise of 1787 that provided for two senators for each state, along with proportional representation in the House.
Thirty-seven states are more populous than Manchin’s, which accounts for less than 1% of the nation’s citizens, and yet the nation’s future comes down to him.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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