Have Democratic Leaders Completely Lost The Plot?

I’ve done my best to be understanding of the tactic that Democratic leaders are taking by trying to tamp down any movement toward impeachment. But Monday’s budget and debt ceiling agreement really makes you wonder if the Democratic congressional leadership has completely lost the plot. The agreement is for $2.7 trillion in spending over the next two years with $50 billion of additional spending above the current baseline next year. Spending increases will be split between defense and domestic spending. In addition, the agreement also ends the sequester, which was part of the budget deal in 2011, and extends the debt ceiling until July, 2021. The agreement still has to be passed by the House and the Senate and then signed by Trump but it appears that the votes are there on both sides of the aisle to get it done.

Obviously, increasing domestic spending and avoiding the spending cuts that would have been triggered by the sequester are things Democrats can support. And the $2.7 trillion is merely the top line budget number. There will still be partisan battles of how that money is allocated in the 12 individual spending bills that make up the total budget and Democrats can and will fight for their priorities in those budget battles.

But the capitulation on the debt ceiling is frankly unfathomable. Pelosi and Schumer must know, or at least pretend to believe, that the Democratic candidate in 2020 has a significant chance to beat Donald Trump. They must also know that holding the House is also a strong possibility but that retaking the Senate will be a serious challenge. Assuming Republicans do hold the Senate, by setting the debt ceiling to be hit in July, 2021, the Democratic leaders today have virtually guaranteed that the Democratic president will face another debt limit squeeze from the GOP Senate just six months after inauguration, in the middle of the first and historically most productive year in a presidency. In essence, they are potentially kneecapping their own president at the height of his or her power in advance.

Incredibly, Democratic leaders apparently actually believe that McConnell would not hold the debt ceiling hostage if there is a Democratic president in 2021. This is simply mind-boggling and shows that the Democratic leadership still has no concept about the severity of the existential threat to out democracy that the current incarnation of the Republican party, with Donald Trump as its standard bearer, actually is.

Personally, I believe the debt ceiling should be eliminated entirely. But it is the current reality and it should at least be used to highlight particular issues even if you don’t believe it should ever be held hostage. As a result of the Trump/GOP tax cuts, we will be running a trillion dollar deficit next year and it might be helpful to at least force Republicans to raise the debt ceiling again in 2020 in the middle of a presidential campaign if only to highlight their fiscal profligacy and give lie to their dedication of fiscal restraint. Instead, Democrats have given Trump a free pass and undercut their presidential nominee in 2021 should he or she beat Trump.

In addition, the debt ceiling is not expected to hit until September and probably could be extended for another month or two with efforts from the Treasury Department. It might be nice for Democrats to at least ask for some action on climate change or health care or gun control or prescription drug relief in return for lifting the debt ceiling even if they plan to cave anyway in September. At least it would give the Democratic base the feeling that their leaders are actually fighting for issues that are the core of the Democratic party’s message. Instead, we get nothing and Republicans get additional spending in their districts in an election year without paying any real political price for their years of hypocrisy. Instead, we get Dick Durbin praising the deal and talking about entitlement reform.

In fact, Democrats may get less than nothing because literally within hours of the announcement of the agreement, the Trump administration announced that it is issuing a rule change that would reduce the number of people eligible to receive food stamps by 3.1 million and cut $2.5 billion of nutritional assistance. This exact proposal was rejected by specifically rejected by Congress when it passed the 2018 farm bill. But, once again, the Trump administration is defying the will of Congress and implementing policy by executive fiat.

On the budget and debt ceiling deal, Senate Democrats were largely irrelevant. But they seem even more deluded about the nature of the opposition. According to Politico, in the still relatively unlikely event that Democrats take the Senate, there is a discussion about restoring the filibuster for judicial nominees. If Democrats take the White House and the Senate, there will be enormous pressure on Breyer and Ginsburg to retire so a Democrat can finally replace them. Under existing rules, Republicans would powerless to stop the nominees agreed upon by the President and Senate Democrats. But some Democrats are actually thinking about giving Mitch McConnell the power to once again block these nominees just like he did with Merrick Garland, with the only exception being this time Democrats could actually force a vote.

Incredibly, there is an even more serious discussion about once again restoring the “blue slip” which would allow a Senator from a nominee’s home state to silently veto a judicial confirmation for a federal court other than the Supreme Court. We’ve seen this movie before. In George Bush’s second term, Republican weakened the blue slip process only to have Democrats restore it when they won control of the Senate in 2006. Republicans used that decision to abuse the blue slip process which, combined with the refusal to hold votes for Obama nominees that survived that process when they regained control of the Senate, kept open all those judicial seats that Trump and McConnell have filled with Federalist Society hacks. As an example, Thom Tillis in North Carolina abused the blue slip to keep a seat open in the Eastern District of North Carolina for over a decade. Needless to say, as soon as Trump became President, Republicans ditched the blue slip entirely. And now Democrats are talking about giving that veto power back to Republicans. This is insanity.

There is no doubt that the House has passed a number of historic bills in this session, including the $15 minimum wage. But those simply die in McConnell’s Senate. But when it comes to confronting the crimes of the Trump administration, everything Democrats have done screams weakness. Even beyond the question of impeachment hearings, real oversight has been lacking. Where are the multiple hearings on the Emoluments violations. Where are the multiple hearings on the crimes on the border. Why haven’t Pruitt, Zinke, and Price been hauled up to explain their own embezzlement of government funds. Why has it taken so long to get Trump’s taxes. Why isn’t Betsy DeVos being dragged up to the Hill today to answer for the corruption of the Education Department and the fact that one of her top officials openly lied to Congress.

Let’s make the unlikely assumption that Mueller’s testimony today creates some real movement toward impeachment. Democrats are ready to follow that up with…a month long recess which Trump will fill with another hundred or so outrages and lies so that Mueller will be long forgotten by September. They are threatening to finally bring in Don McGahn but they will be lucky to have that negotiated and litigated by November just so they can squeeze him in between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is truly pathetic.

Ari Melber was on WNYC yesterday and he made an important point about Mueller. One of the reasons that Mueller is such a respected figure in Washington is that he can read the political tea leaves. That is how he has survived above the political fray for so long. According to Melber, Mueller saw that Democratic leaders were reluctant to go down the impeachment path even as he was writing his report and he was determined not to do their work for them. And that belief that Democrats are continually asking Mueller to do the work that the Constitution demands be done by Congress has colored his general unwillingness to go anywhere beyond the report he submitted.

I understand the desire for a return to normalcy, to return to the rules that generally applied to governance since the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s. But those days are gone. You have an opposition party that has broken all the rules to their own advantage, that refused to defend democracy when confronted with evidence that the Russians were attacking it, that openly espouses a white Christian ethno-nationalism, that has given up on actual democracy and wins elections by denying the franchise, and is now using government police forces to jail what they deem as undesirable American citizens for weeks without any recourse to the rule of law. The party supports a President whose campaign manager was passing critical polling information to the Russians at the same time they were launching targeted social media attacks on our democracy, whose selection for National Security Adviser was an active agent of a foreign government, and both of whom have lied to federal prosecutors or the FBI. They do not play by the rules.

Trump has governed by rhetorically catering to his voting base and actually governing to cater to his donor base. His pivot to abject racism is further indication that Trump will be running a base election. The weakness of Democratic Congressional opposition to Trump has the exact opposite effect of alienating the progressive base and risking a repeat of 2016 where millions of Democrats sat out the election. Their refusal to aggressively perform the oversight the Constitution requires shows they are a bunch of gutless wonders. And the idea of some Democratic leaders that we can just restore the rules that Republicans have decimated and everything will be hunky dory shows as much ignorance of the crisis situation our democracy is in as Chamberlain’s belief that the Munich Agreement would bring peace in Europe.

Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on July 24, 2019.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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