Sen. Joe Manchin’s hopeful view of Congressional bipartisanship is going to be put to a severe test in the months ahead as big pieces of legislation coming from the Biden administration will wind their way through the sausage making to critical, narrow votes where our state’s senior senator holds an unusually outsized influence as to what will make the cut and what will not.
And, of course, question No. 1 for the Democrats is whether to bypass, as it can if it must by rule, the Senate filibuster, which Manchin has vowed to defend – for better or worse.
If he chooses that path, Manchin will be standing in the way of much needed progress for our country via what has been regarded by majorities of the American people as popular policy proposals.
By way of example, there is the For the People Act, also known as H.R.1, which proposes to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy.
The bill is excessively expansive, even for some – beyond Manchin – on the Democratic side of the aisle. It includes a number of provisions that are hardly necessary to protect American democracy. Do we really need to see a presidential candidate’s tax returns? And yet, there are measures well worth the ink and debate, especially given the contemporary context of GOP legislatures across the country that are rushing passage of their own voting rights bills that echo the ugly and discriminatory Jim Crow era. In Florida, Georgia, Texas and elsewhere, access to the polls is being closed for most anyone with a D on their voter registration card – especially those who are Black or brown and live in a large urban center.
On the flip side, the Democrats’ H.R.1 seeks to thwart attempts to further lock in gerrymandered districts, aimed to put and keep one political class or the other in the minority. The Democratic proposal would turn that work over to independent commissions. As it stands today as it has the past couple of decades, the table is tilted in favor of Republicans. As pointed out by a recent article in Vox, you need to look no further back than at last November when Democratic House candidates won the national popular vote by 3.1 percentage points, and yet just barely held on to their House majority.
If we, the American people, demand a fair and balanced playing field so that the better candidate wins, there is no better place to start than with gerrymandered districts that are giving lopsided advantages to what is, in this instance, a minority party hungry not to do what is right but to hold onto power.
And yet, just this past week, Manchin proposed an idea that shows promise.
Under the Voting Rights Act, prior to 2013, states and local governments with a history of racist voting practices were required to “preclear” new election rules with independent officials in Washington, D.C., before letting them go into effect. The idea was to catch rules that would disenfranchise voters of color.
But then the Supreme Court shut that down in Shelby County v. Holder, freeing up Republicans in states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas to pass laws that serve no purpose other than making it harder for racial minorities to cast a ballot.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, separate of H.R.1, would restore the full protections of the original, bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was last reauthorized by Congress in 2006 but gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
So what is Manchin’s idea? Make the John Lewis Act apply “to all 50 states and territories.” Thus, all states, not just the handful of states with the worst record on race, would be required to submit any new voting rules for review.
While H.R.1’s passage looks increasingly doubtful, Manchin’s support for the John Lewis Act suggests that there is a way forward to making very real and effective changes to voting rights in the country.
And so are there proposals in H.R.1 worth advancing.
But if Sen. Manchin believes he can make his idea with the John Lewis Act work, while playing by his own filibuster rules, he will need to find 10 votes in the Republican side of the Senate.
We think it important that Sen. Manchin remember what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said recently about how he would work with the new Democratic administration: “I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America.”
There is only one road around that obstruction, Sen. Manchin, and it does not include riding an ancient filibuster rule until America is broken.