Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Begone With You, You Shod and Shady Senators
The Senate is the problem. It has always been the problem. It will be the problem for as long as it exists in its current form.
Democracy does not die in darkness. “Woke,” as a monosyllabic catchall for “progressive ideals,” does not die in Florida. Both die in the sclerotic upper legislative chamber that is the U.S. Senate.
This is the oligarchical half of our bicameral Congress—our American House of Lords—designed by our slaveholding Founders to award disproportionate power to the slave states, which are now the so-called red states, which are in practice the pro-fascist states. Here, the half-million residents of Wyoming—an arid emptiness with an economy entirely dependent on national parks established, ironically, by our most progressive president—have the same number of senators as California, with its population of some 40 million and a GDP that, on its own, would rank fifth in the world. A child can understand that this set-up is grossly, profoundly unfair, but the only way for the Senate to change its composition is by Constitutional amendment, which requires, among other things, a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Florida will be swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean before that day comes.
The Senate is where America waxes Soviet: very little turnover, brazen corruption, median age equivalent to the setting on my thermostat. Here, senators serve until death—and even, in the case of certain sitting and former senators that come to mind, until rigor mortis sets in. Here, the wishes of a democratic people can be stymied at the whim of a single seditious member: Josh Hawley, say, or Tommy Tuberville. Here, the parliamentary rules, which are so arcane and obscure they require a parliamentarian to make sense of them, make it so the Senate majority can do whatever it wants—unless the Majority Leader is a Democrat, in which case meaningful legislation can never happen. At least, that is how the body operates in practice.
Time and time again, the Senate has failed the American people. The pattern goes on endlessly, Lucy and the football. The House passes bill after bill, on things a considerable majority of Americans want: federal protection from mass shootings, federal protection from going broke because of medical bills, federal protection for women’s medical rights, federal guarantee of a living wage, and so on. The bills then go to the Senate and sit on Mitch McConnell’s desk until they decompose like Strom Thurmond’s corpse. Then the media writes stories with misleading headlines like CONGRESS DEADLOCK MEANS NOTHING GETS DONE and blames Nancy Pelosi.
Those bills that most of us want are supposed to be brought to the floor, debated, and voted on. They are not. And it is the Senate GOP that kills them.
This is not how democracy is supposed to work.
As I wrote almost four years ago in “Obstructionism is the New Secession”:
Compromise only works when both political parties are willing to budge. If one of those parties abdicates its responsibility to represent the American people, if it exists simply to obstruct the work of the other—if it flat-out refuses to compromise, ever, about anything—the U.S. system of government, always a fragile thing, breaks down.
After the election of 1860, the Southern states said, “Fuck it. We’re not working with Abraham Lincoln no mater what,” and they seceded from the Union. After the election of 2008, Mitch McConnell and the Republicans said, “Fuck it. We’re not working with Barack Obama no matter what,” and proceeded to obstruct every single thing he tried to do, large or small, national security be damned.
The same thing happens with appointments. Judges have to be approved by the Senate, and Cabinet members, and ambassadors, and so on. The Senate GOP slow-walks this process for Democratic appointees to the point of paralysis—worse than what Chris Christie did to the GWB, which at least had one lane open—and expedites it for its own selections. This happened most famously with Merrick Garland, nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court. Then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell simply refused to call a vote on the guy, running out the clock until Obama’s term was done, and blaming his obvious obstruction on the looming election. That runs counter to the spirit of the Constitution the GOP claims to love so well. As I wrote in that same December 2019 piece:
When it became clear that McConnell would never allow the Senate to vote to confirm Merrick Garland, President Obama should have gotten creative. FDR would have ordered Garland to take the seat after a waiting period of 60 days—something, anything to ensure not only that Garland took his rightful place on SCOTUS, but that the politics of obstruction failed spectacularly. Instead, Obama avoided a fight, assuming that Hillary Clinton would win and it would all be moot. This colossal error, an obvious blunder even at the time, guarantees a conservative judiciary—and perhaps, depending on the fragile health of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an extremely conservative one—for decades.
RBG died nine months after I wrote that, some 50 days before the 2020 election—whereupon the molasses-slow GOP ship of state suddenly turned into the Millennium Falcon, and McConnell delivered the vote on Amy Coney Barrett so fast, he might as well have been ordering a pumpkin spice latte with the Starbucks app. Again: this is not how democracy is supposed to work. Senators have the right to vote against a nominee, as my junior senator here in New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, demonstrated by voting against almost every single Trump appointee. But to not allow a vote is antidemocratic.
But no upper chamber failing is as obvious—and as obviously corrupt—as the Senate’s acquittal of Donald John Trump. This is a career criminal who fudged his way into the White House, and then, after he lost, compelled his violent minions to besiege the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Those GOP senators were themselves in harm’s way on January 6, 2021. Lindsey Graham reportedly whimpered like a frightened child—you know, like one of the schoolchildren who have to hide from active shooters on the regular because he and his colleagues refuse to pass meaningful gun control legislation. During the insurrection, Trump’s MAGA army was trying to kill the Vice President.
Even so, just seven of the 50 Republican senators voted to impeach. Forty-three traitors let Trump walk. Among them: Graham, Trump’s hostage; Rand Paul, who delivered a handwritten note from Trump to Putin and who even John McCain thought was working for Putin; Kremlin sock puppet Ron Johnson and his fellow Fourth of July Traitors; Josh Hawley, whose J6 fist-bump and subsequent tail-turn is a live action “how it started / how it’s going” meme; and the loathsome Ted Cruz. The Senate GOP condones open insurrection.
To be fair, while Senate Republicans are to blame for the un-American obstruction that freezes all attempts to legislate, the rot in the upper chamber is a bipartisan problem. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, ostensibly a Democrat, is the senatorial version of the guy in Goodfellas who buys his wife a fur coat and himself a pink Cadillac after the Lufthansa heist. When Kyrsten Sinema won in Arizona, progressives celebrated the election of the country’s first openly bisexual senator; turns out, she just wanted to fuck everybody. Those two egregiously bought-and-paid-for Democrats stubbornly refuse to kill the filibuster, stymying any and all attempts to legislate.
Then there is the tepid leadership. As a senator from my state of New York, Chuck Schumer is terrific. As Majority Leader, he is a dinosaur, incapable of the sort of creative thinking, strategic planning, and willingness to try new tactics necessary to pants the Republicans and preserve democracy. Worse, Schumer and too many of his effete colleagues seem oblivious to the fascist threat our country faces.
Yes, the majority is slim. Yes, the aforementioned DINOs confound all of us. But there were plenty of innovative proposals in the days just after the 2020 election, on these pages and elsewhere, for how to get around those obstacles. Schumer did not even attempt to buck the status quo. “If we do it to them, they’ll do it to us” is the gutless rationale given, as if the Republicans normally play by the rules. I mean, Schumer is still being bested by a guy last seen having mini-strokes on live TV (twice). It’s time to pass the car keys to Amy Klobuchar, who at least understands what we’re up against.
The easiest path to meaningful legislative change in this country is for Jack Smith to indict all the seditious conspirators in the Senate, and for Schumer to take advantage of their temporary absence—perhaps on the day of their arraignment—to kill the filibuster, and immediately bring the backlog of popular bills out for a vote.
I wouldn’t bank on that scenario. We are more likely to see an alien invasion, or competent quarterback play from Zach Wilson. Our only recourse is to elect more Democrats to the Senate, because we need more than 50 to compensate for the DINOs like Manchin and Sinema. Maybe if he had a true majority, Schumer would be more willing to flex his muscles and test the limits of his power.
There have been six presidential elections in the 2000s. Two of them have been “won” by the loser of the popular vote, thanks to the other gimmick the Founders cooked up to help the slave states, the Electoral College. Those two “winners” have been the worst presidents since the Civil War era. George W. Bush used the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11; the War on Terror, combined with his recklessly irresponsible tax cuts, cost the country over two trillion dollars, charting our course for financial ruin. And Donald Trump killed a million Americans with his negligent pandemic response and came this close to ending the American experiment. Together, the Electoral College and the Senate create minoritarian rule.
We’re either a democracy or we’re not. Democrats should run on a platform of preserving and expanding democracy. Every citizen should be allowed to vote, without exception—even the most gnarled criminals, even the seditious Proud Boy and Oath Keeper leaders, everyone. Vermonters and Wyomingites should not have inherently more political power than Texans and Californians. A single dipshit senator should not be able to make like a capsized tanker, mucking up the Suez Canal of military appointments. And if the Republicans want to preserve the vestigial antidemocratic apparatus of their slaveholding forebears, let them justify that choice to the American people.
We’re either a democracy or we’re not. If we don’t insist on the former, we’ll always be the latter.
Photo credit: Office of Mitt Romney. Senators Romney and Sinema make like Ted Lasso and Rebecca on Halloween.
Note: the title of this piece is from this song.