When Franklin Roosevelt took the podium at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, it marked the first time a presidential candidate of either major party appeared in person to accept his party’s nomination. Roosevelt made it known that this unprecedented appearance symbolized his approach to guiding the country out of the Great Depression.
“Let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions,” he said.
President Joe Biden came into office with hopes of an “FDR-sized” presidency that would increase taxes on the very wealthy in order to spend large sums of money on health care, elder care and child care: things that the rich take for granted, but that are often out of reach for poor or middle-class people. He also pledged a historic effort to begin a transition away from fossil fuels.
This agenda pales in comparison to the power-shifting created by FDR’s New Deal. It even falls short of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It certainly doesn’t meet the needs to reverse our march towards a hotter, less habitable planet. But it would mark a shift, however mild, away from the consensus policies of austerity and upward wealth redistribution that have dominated the country since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Today, that agenda, and Biden’s presidency, is threatened with failure due to his party’s unwillingness to break foolish traditions. The filibuster still stands in the way of voting rights legislation and more. Senators deny their agency by pointing to opinions from the parliamentarian that cite little or no precedent. The threat of government shutdown is perpetual ― at least when a Democrat occupies the White House. The debt ceiling looms again as a tool the minority can use to reimpose austerity through threat of global economic meltdown.
All of these traditions flow from a political system that has coagulated since Reagan’s election. The refusal of Biden and congressional Democrats, in particular, to rid themselves of them is now preventing the government from functioning and giving the American people the policies that they voted for.
It is not as though they do not have the power to do so. Senate rules are not enshrined in the Constitution. Changing them requires a simple majority vote. The parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, is a staffer offering an opinion on Senate rules and precedents, which sometimes do not exist. She is not issuing orders from a judicial bench, nor is she the Oracle at Delphi reading the intention of the gods. Her opinions can be overruled, again, by a simple majority vote. And Biden’s Treasury Department has the legal authority to avert the debt ceiling all through its own legal authority.
None of these options are on the table, so far. Eight members of the Democratic Senate caucus voted against overruling the parliamentarian on her opinion that raising the minimum wage could not be included in budget reconciliation. It is unlikely any vote to overrule her opinions on excluding a path to the naturalization of undocumented immigrants in reconciliation would succeed either, even though both opinions were wholly devoid of precedent.
A change to filibuster rules is not under consideration for raising the debt ceiling, although it may yet be done to pass voting rights legislation. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has explicitly ruled out averting a breach of the debt ceiling either by minting a trillion (or gazillion) dollar coin or invoking the 14th Amendment’s provision stating that the public debt “shall not be questioned.”
There are two reasons Democrats allow these rotten traditions to bedevil them. First, they don’t have the votes to get rid of them. Second, they lack the will to break with them.
“When Senate leadership blames the parliamentarian for why a policy cannot be adopted, it is simply an assertion that they don’t have the votes to enact the policy.”
Democrats control Congress by practically the thinnest majorities possible. They hold just 50.9% of the seats in the House and exactly 50% in the Senate, where only Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote gives them control. The death of one of three octogenarian Democratic senators would cost Democrats their majority.
These are not the massive majorities that FDR or LBJ governed with. With such little room for error, the party needs almost every single vote from every member to enact any law or change any rule.
This is particularly true in the Senate, where the entire Biden agenda hinges on the votes of conservative Democrat Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and the self-anointed “maverick” Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). Nothing can pass without their say-so. And both senators remain haunted by the no-longer relevant 20th-century hobgoblins of debt, deficits and inflation.
But it isn’t just Manchin and Sinema. The vote to overrule the parliamentarian’s opinion excluding an increase in the minimum wage to $15 from budget reconciliation showed that there are more Democrats who either do not agree with the party’s agenda (Biden endorsed a $15 minimum wage) or simply want to uphold the Senate’s rules and precedents. This showed that when Senate leadership blames the parliamentarian for why a policy cannot be adopted, it is simply an assertion that they don’t have the votes to enact the policy.
Unfortunately for Biden and both moderates and progressives who support his agenda, Manchin is right when he says the only way to enact it all through Congress is to “elect more liberals.” It is, however, harder and harder to do so as Republicans enact their third decade of partisan gerrymanders and the Senate overrepresents rural areas that now heavily lean toward Republicans.
One or two more Democratic senators who don’t represent a state that went for Donald Trump by nearly 40 points, like Manchin, would change the entire equation.
Biden’s administration has also either categorically refused executive action or dragged its feet in its effort to end the governmental dysfunction, obstruction and gamesmanship plaguing national policy-making. The Department of Treasury could take the debt ceiling issue off the table for good, but it won’t. Biden could similarly use executive authority to enact a host of his campaign promises, like reducing prescription drug costs, through the agency rule-making process or his own pen. While he has made appointments to enact some of his agenda through rule-making and enforcement processes, he has so far been unwilling to use his authority to change the terms of debate that have held for 40-some-odd years. Ridding himself of the foolish debt ceiling debate for good is a prime example.
This is what presidents with big ambitions, like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, whom FDR modeled his ambitions after, did when they governed. They rid themselves of burdensome traditions, used power no one had exercised before and remade American politics in the process. There’s a reason their faces are on our money, mountains and monuments.
And here is the fundamental contradiction facing Biden. He ran as a restorationist candidate, promising to bring back the old order that Trump threatened to destroy. “If Joe Biden stands for one idea, it is that our system can work,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in August. At the same time, he ran as a transitional candidate paving the way for a future generation of politicians. This idea combined with his dreams of an FDR-sized presidency spoke to a desire to finally break from the Reagan era politics that have been slowly drowning the country in a bathtub.
And while Brooks claims Biden is showing the system does work, the same choke points that clog the system year after year and prevent the enactment of a substantial policy program that majorities of Americans vote for remain intact. Voters have consistently expressed their dissatisfaction in the results produced by this system by voting for change in the 2006, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections.
At some point, a politician will come along to unclog the system. We saw how Trump would do so on Jan. 6. Biden and Democrats have a chance now to show a different, democratic direction to stop this foolishness. If only they had the votes to do so.