In their first year of full control of all three branches of government since 2006, the Republicans are pushing the limits on every possible rule to give themselves maximum leverage to pass their legislative priorities. Rule changes, such as 50-50 tie-breaker supreme court votes without filibusters, will radically eliminate the consensus culture of governance that predominated for the first 230-or-so years of our history.
In doing so, Republican leaders, and most particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are giving Democrats a helpful education in how to create a sustainable Progressive state, if Democrats can harness Americans’ widespread anger at Republican leadership to major victories in 2018 and 2020.
All of what you read below is contingent on notable Democratic victories, particularly at the governorship and state legislature levels in 2018, then building on those victories locally and in the House and Senate and adding the Presidency in 2020. In normal times, a nearly impossible order, in the current world of a 37% approval first-year president passing a malignant tax cut for large corporations and millions of foreign shareholders, its merely a difficult one requiring sustained effort.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it, and look how Democrats could harness it to build a more sustainable progressive state.
In divided government, each branch and chamber checks the power of the others. The most important is the Presidency, because the President both dictates the tenor of society and our national discourse, and has the legislative veto power. We live in an age of sufficient partisanship that two-thirds House and (particularly) Senate majorities are the fantasies of fiction writers, so the President more or less holds a veto on all legislation in current American government.
The two legislative houses also hold key vetoes on each other and the Presidency, the Houses’ being the more powerful one because the majority in the chamber controls it nearly absolutely. Consider the last year, where the House passed both the ACA health repeal and GOP Tax bill already, while the Senate failed on the ACA and the tax bill remains in process, with significant hurdles. Or consider back in 2009, when the House passed not just the Healthcare Mandate but also Cap and Trade and a host of other bills that never made it through the Senate.
If you control the House, even by a slim majority, you can either quickly advance the agenda of a friendly President, or kill the agenda of a rival one, as the GOP did to Obama after 2010.
The Senate is trickier, and this is where McConnell’s wily methods are educational. Consider, for example, McConnell’s removal of the Blue Slip rule for judicial nominees, which allows opposition Senators to kill nominees in their own state they believe to be unqualified. If, in a future 2020 scenario, Democrats use this removal to their own advantage, GOP senators across the South and West would be unable to slow or kill Democratic nominees they don’t like.
Or consider, for example, the GOP Senate Tax Bill strategy of flagrantly pushing off future costs to fit a $3 trillion cut into a $1.5 trillion 10-year reconciliation bill. That strategy call be u-turned just as well: if the Democrats want to raise some revenue but also spend trillions on Democratic priorities such as infrastructure reform, fixing the education system, and Medicare increases, they could artfully delay various implementation years to make the spending fit into a 10-year budget window.
Overall, the GOP in 2017 is taking the Presidency, a narrow House majority, and a razor thin Senate majority, hobbled by a large popular vote deficit and horrifying national approval ratings, and trying to govern through radical transformation. If it does not go well, and the experiment ends in January 2019 with a Democratic House or Senate, then fully in 2020 with a Democratic President and re-drawn election maps in 2021, Democrats will have their blueprint for how to enact Progressive ideas into law with a – likely to be very slim – only narrow Senate majority. The biggest difference will be that their policies are likely to be more popular and sustainable – in the short and long term.