With Victory in Georgia—and the Senate—It's Time for Democrats to Take the Handbrake Off

Jack Holmes
·8-min read
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images

From Esquire

What's that? Is something good happening? I'm not sure what to do with my hands. It appears that both the Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock and the not-reverend, not-doctor Jon Ossoff have triumphed in the Georgia Senate runoffs. That means the two cartoon plutocrats they were running against, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, will no longer be United States senators, a job they seemed to see as a pipeline for stock tips. But it also means that the Democratic Party will control the Senate along with the House of Representatives through Joe Biden's first two years in the White House. And it also means Mitch McConnell is now the Senate Minority Leader. He has lost his scythe as the Grim Reaper, and will no longer be able to deal death to vital legislation addressing major national problems on the basis that "the donors want it" and "he can." That job will now fall to Joe Manchin.

That's only partly tongue-in-cheek. Nobody could hope to be as big a megalomaniacal ghoul as Mitch McConnell in this or many lifetimes, but Manchin—and perhaps Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, the chamber's next-most conservative Democrat—will likely hold huge power within new Senate Leader Chuck Schumer's razor-thin majority. Manchin has already signaled he's going to be a problem with a completely delusional statement this morning. There's also a possibly infinite number of Senate Democrats who will get cold feet at various junctures, particularly if they're up for re-election in 2022 and think the way to win is for voters to think of them as a Moderate Who Won't Rock the Boat. Schumer cannot afford to lose any of them on any vote, considering he'll need Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to serve as a tiebreaker to get anything through in the first place. (This is the 50+1 majority you may have heard about.) But there really are no excuses for Democrats. They should destroy the filibuster and any other rule that might prevent them enacting their agenda. At the very least, they should maximize budget reconciliation, which allows some tax and spending measures to be expedited through Congress. Even then, it will not be an easy road.

Photo credit: Michael M Santiago/GettyImages - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael M Santiago/GettyImages - Getty Images

The most glaring solution here is to bring back the pork. In the Obama years, the two parties seemed to settle on a rollback of earmarks and pork-barrel spending out of some insane fealty to austerity politics, when most Western countries tried to cut their budget deficits during a global recession. This was dumb on the economics—John Maynard Keynes would be appalled—but also with respect to Getting Things Done. The fact is that in a country as large as the United States, with so many diverse and narrow and conflicting interests at work, it is insanely hard to cobble together a majority of senators to vote for anything. That particularly goes for those Democrats who have been afraid of their own shadow since Ronald Reagan trounced them in the go-go 1980s. The way to get the big machine going is to grease the wheels. Get senators on-side by spending money in their states that will create jobs and economic activity—and make them look good to their own voters. That's pork, and it tastes good. What's a little horse-trading if it means we can make serious moves towards, say, revolutionizing our energy sector so that we stop making the planet increasingly inhospitable to human life?

And the best part is that it's the right thing to do on the merits. It's not just that Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell—not exactly a leftist—has essentially said Congress cannot make the mistake of going too big on spending during this pandemic-fueled economic downturn. (The National Debt is not a pressing issue right now, despite whatever bad-faith heel-turn Republicans are about to make, and interest rates are low.) It's also that a state like Joe Manchin's, West Virginia, is crying out for an infusion of federal investment that will jumpstart its economic engine. Why not establish some new federal agency to be based in West Virginia? Have it oversee the campaign to rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure, or the push to provide broadband to all Americans, particularly in rural areas. Give Manchin something concrete to vote for—and to present to his voters—so that he signs onto things we all need.

Photo credit: Esquire
Photo credit: Esquire

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That ought to start with the $2,000 checks that Warnock and Ossoff ran on—with the explicit backing of President-elect Joe Biden—in the homestretch of the Georgia runoffs. Democrats must deliver, and the chatter that they are also looking at extended unemployment aid is also welcome. (The current expanded benefits are set to expire in March, but the pandemic will not have fully expired by that point.) After that, they ought to turn towards legislation to shore up our decaying democratic republic. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be a poetic start, considering it would be made possible by a surge of renewed democratic energy in the civil rights icon's home state of Georgia—including a victory for Raphael Warnock, a preacher from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church. They should also take a hard look at Elizabeth Warren and Pramila Jayapal's Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a fine piece of legislation that would also enable Democrats to say they actually did the work of draining the swamp.

Then things could get interesting. Democrats could next move to look at statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico—if the latter wants it. This is a no-brainer as a justice issue: these areas are home to American citizens who are subject to taxation without representation in the federal government. (D.C.'s congressional representative is not allowed to vote.) They should be made states, even if it will be jarring to people like me who like round numbers. Fifty sounds better than 51 or 52, but we all make sacrifices. This would also help to address some of the massive imbalances in our system, where Republicans exercise hugely outsized power in the Senate and the Electoral College thanks to the geography of their voting coalition. This doesn't mean rural Americans don't deserve representation, but things are currently way out of whack. In the last Congress, Republicans controlled a majority in the Senate despite those senators representing 15 million fewer Americans than the Democrats did. This needs to be addressed.

Photo credit: Aaron P. Bernstein - Getty Images
Photo credit: Aaron P. Bernstein - Getty Images

And then there's the spending. Democrats should do a lot of it, whether or not they choose to roll back the Republican tax bill Trump signed—a piece of legislation that served to balloon both the already soaring problem of wealth inequality and the budget deficit. They should pass further pandemic relief, but they should also move on Biden's campaign pledge to spend $2 trillion on green infrastructure. The president-elect won by 7 million votes. That's a mandate. (Or, put another way, he got 306 Electoral Votes, the same margin Donald Trump won by four years ago, and that Republicans claimed as a mandate.) He should deliver on his promises with the help of his co-partisans in the legislature, particularly because it's the right thing to do. The economy needs a boost, we need more union jobs that pay a living wage, and we need to get started on confronting an existential threat to human civilization as we know it. Spend the money—it's cheaper than cleaning up after all the natural disasters to come.

This is, one hopes, just the start of what Democrats are now planning. The time for fantasies of high-minded compromise are over. It's time to embrace the pragmatic transactionalism of Tammany Hall. Tell voters you will deliver things that will make their lives better, deliver them, then make sure everybody knows it was you who delivered it. The Democrats finally seem to be grasping this, particularly with how they campaigned down the homestretch in Georgia. They should act boldly because it's good politics, because it will help people who have been ground up in the gears of the American political-economic machine for decades, and because if they don't, there are more fascists waiting in the wings who may well have learned all the right lessons from Trumpism. Get it done fast, while you still can. Don't hold compromise with Republican vandals above delivering for the people who put you in office. Do not allow the specter of our corrupted court system to stop you from passing the legislation that's needed. Make Amy Coney Barrett strike them down, then make the case to voters that the judiciary needs to be reformed for citizens to get what they need. There are no excuses, not with the American republic itself on the line.

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