Since the last column was published, the American Rescue Plan has made it through both chambers of Congress and been signed into law by President Biden (who had plenty of kind words to say for Bernie Sanders on the topic of whipping votes for it to pass.) I may write a column in the future that goes more in depth on the bill itself, since it’s a mammoth piece of policy that I barely understand the full implications of, but many people smarter than me have already pointed out many of the limitations of the plan (and the breathless liberal analysis proclaiming the end of austerity politics once and for all). Matt Karp’s article in Jacobin is a particularly good example of this that punctures the trial balloon of ‘social democracy coming to American shores with the American Rescue Plan’ quite decisively, and I encourage folks to read it. What’s actually more interesting to me is what comes next.
One of the most pressing pieces is something I just learned a lot more about, and which I think is a good example of how we can look at the normal day-to-day functioning of the state and its capture by a ruling class that doesn’t change much from party to party (despite the apparent monumental shifts that have occurred from Obama’s first 100 days to Biden’s). That piece is the Congressional Review Act.
The CRA, first passed under a Newt Gingrich-controlled Congress during Bill Clinton’s first term in 1996. The law’s basic gist is that a newly elected Congress should be able, within a certain time-limited frame, to reverse regulations passed by a previous Administration if they are able to get a majority vote. This was used with devastating effectiveness by Trump’s incoming administration alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2017, when many of President Obama’s late-term executive actions and regulatory pushes were quickly reversed. Many of these were Department of Labor, Department of Education, and Environmental Protection Agency rulings. White House Chief Strategist at the time, Steve Bannon, called it ‘deconstructing the administrative state’. And that deconstruction did serious damage! There’s been a lot of looking back on Trump’s time and claiming that very little was done damage-wise on a scale of what could have been done – but with rapidly accelerating climate breakdown and wealth inequality unlike any time in the history of this country.
So, the question now is: will Democrats use the power they have with Biden in the White House and majorities in both chambers to do the same? David Dayen, in The Prospect, says, “The point is that Congress has an opportunity to reverse damaging regulations from the Trump era, in a way that cannot be challenged in court, the way that a laborious reversal at the administrative level can be. It’s the only majority-vote process immediately available to Congress, and it would be in Biden’s interest to flush out these rules. There’s literally a two-month window where this can get done; it’s a little baffling why there’s been no movement.”
So – the Democrats are flexing some, but they’re also not actually doing everything they can to turn back ‘45’s reign of terror’. This should hardly come as a surprise to socialists, but it’s a good reminder when we see nearly 2 trillion dollars get a sign off from the top deputies and whipped votes to move on party lines.
Another piece that isn’t clear yet is whether Democrats will finally use this opportunity to cripple, or possibly obliterate, the filibuster – an arcane, outdated procedural rule in the Senate that has been used for decades to hold up legislation and uphold minority rule. More and more key Democrats are speaking out about possible reforms of the filibuster or outright abolishing of it (including ones very close to the center of power, like our own Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin in IL and the Democrat that everyone loves to hate, Mr. Joe Manchin.)
As always, the point of going this far in depth into procedure is not to innately trust the process – it’s to illuminate what’s happening behind closed doors in a flurry of news, and identify points of leverage. This is the knowledge we need to do politics – and with working class institutions like the AFL-CIO starting to throw their weight behind such moves like eliminating the filibuster, we socialists may have an opportunity to continue punching above our weight and passing transformative reforms like the PRO Act. After all, it was Lenin himself who said ““whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy, will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense.” So let’s keep fighting to make our institutions more democratic, closer to majority rule!