Sunday, March 21, 2021

Democrats: legislate the society you want to live in first; worry about how to pay for it afterward


 - by New Deal democrat

I want to add my voice to and amplify several themes I have read elsewhere in recent weeks. To summarize:

1. If there is no majority to kill the Senate filibuster, reforming it into an actual talking filibuster is almost as good, and maybe even better.

2. Each element of the democratic constituency should have at least one tangible and visible priority of theirs enacted during the Congress, and all other democratic constituencies should support that enactment, so that at midterm election time, Democrats have something to tout to their voters.

3. In contrast to how democrats governed when they had both the Presidency and Congressional majorities in 1993-94 and 2009-10, when they adopted “pay-go,” meaning they had to come up with revenue sources before passing their actual priorities, they should reverse the order now: enact the programs they think are important, and worry about paying for them later.

Let me discuss each of the above in a little more detail in turn.

1. Right now the Senate rules are exactly what the GOP wants them to be: they were able to fill all the judicial vacancies left behind from the Obama years, plus all the new ones with right wing ideologues, via simple majority. Similarly, they only needed a simple majority for tax cuts. Since the GOP does not want any new legislation, and can strangle existing laws simply by refusing to enforce them, they don’t care about a 60 vote supermajority for passing new legislation. Meanwhile Democrats need 60 votes to pass all of the important legislation that they have been begging for in some cases going all the way back to 1980.

This situation is anathema. The filibuster must be changed. 

The cudgel that the GOP always held over Democrats is that they would be willing to repeal or privatize even the Crown Jewels of the 20th Century Democratic agenda - Social Security and Medicare - if they got majorities not subject to Democratic filibuster. At this point Democrats should be willing to call the GOP’s bluff. If the GOP were to do such a thing, not only would they be signing their own death warrants, but Democrats should promise to reenact those programs in full and retroactively once they get back into power. 

Once this bluff is called, the question remains what to do about the filibuster. I actually think that maintaining it, but requiring a real, old-fashioned talking filibuster is the best option - and it seems to be supported by Biden, Manchin, and several other old-school Democrats.

Retaining a talking filibuster means that if the GOP ever achieves a governing trifecta, while Democrats couldn’t *prevent* the enactment of the GOP agenda, they could make it front page news for several weeks while they hold the floor of the Senate in protest. During that time it’s not too difficult to imagine that outraged citizens would be deluging their GOP Senators with opposition and disapproval, in the cases of popular economic programs in particular. In such a case, even minority Democrats might wind up prevailing.

Meanwhile the derision that greeted Lindsay Graham’s threat to filibuster the new Voting Rights Act till he falls over (I.e., “do you promise???”) tells you all you need to know about the popularity of the Democrats’ agenda that the GOP is trying to hold up.

In short, maintaining a talking filibuster is likely even more advantageous to Democrats than killing it altogether. Further, going to a talking filibuster really doesn’t require anything inventive. It’s as simple as the Presiding Officer (e.g., Vice President Harris) announcing, after the failure of a cloture vote, “Debate will now resume on Senate Bill X,” rather than moving on to a separate Senate bill, or adjourning. Keep doing that for a week or two, and ultimately a substantive vote on the underlying bill will be had.

And since the Senate isn’t going to be passing *anything* for the next 20 months if the filibuster isn’t repealed, there is absolutely no reason not to tee up Democratic priorities, and keep the Senate constantly in session until the talking filibusters fail (as historically they always have), and pass as many as we can.

2. One of the processes which has killed progress in the past 40 years is that there are almost always going to be at least a few Democratic legislators who oppose parts of the Democratic agenda. The GOP has always been able to peel those pols off and pass their own agenda, while they stood in the way of a broad Democratic agenda.

This time around, each legislator needs to get behind at least one important item on another part of the Democratic coalition’s agenda, in return for passage of one of their own.

For example, Hispanic groups would be very positively benefitted by passage of the DREAM Act. And it is very popular with the public. Economic populist Democrats need to get behind that bill, in return for support of one or two items on their own agenda.
Similarly, pro-union legislation like the PRO Act, and a hike in the minimum wage (obviously not to $15, but as high as support can be found for), should be enacted in return with full support by social justice Democrats. Reinstating State income tax deductions and mortgage deductions in higher amounts will help upper-income professionals, and should be supported by both economic populists and social justice Democrats.

Simply put, each part of the Democratic coalition should get something they want with the support of the other members of the coalition.

3. Even with the recent panic in the bond market - OMG 10 year Treasury bills are paying 1 1/2% !!! - the carrying costs for additional debt are extraordinarily low. If ever there was a time to go on a spending spree - particularly an effective one like infrastructure repair and upgrades - this is it. 

Democrats should not hesitate to enact programs, such as universal health care coverage with premium subsidies, or subsidized child care for workers, that are very costly. The priorities should be: enact now, find a way to pay later. Once the important programs are in place, *then* start looking around the tax code for ways to raise the money.

A financial transactions tax, a surtax on Executive salaries and stock grants in excess of a certain multiple of the average employee’s pay, and a return to Clinton-era tax rates for the top 1% of incomes, even retroactively clawing back the 2018 tax cuts (yes, it’s Constitutional), all ought to be on the table. And the granddaddy of them all, the Estate Tax, ought to be rechristened an Inheritance Tax - to make clear that it is a tax specifically on *unearned* income by heirs rather than a “Death Tax” on entrepreneurs - and rates raised to 50% on 1st generation transfers by billionaires, and to even higher rates, like 75%, on 3rd generation descendants and further on. Also, repealing the exemption for capital gains pass-throughs for Estates ought to be a priority.

Simply put, enact the type of society you want to live in first. Then, and only then, deal with how you are going to pay for it.