Hours after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris celebrated their inauguration, Ms. Harris swore in three new members of the United States Senate, officially giving Democrats control of the chamber for the first time since 2014. Democrats now control the Senate, the House and the presidency for the first time since 2011. Wednesday was also a day of note for Vermonters. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Senate’s most senior member, is now chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and President Pro Tempore, making him third in line for the presidency. Sen. Bernie Sanders is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and someone with a national following. Never has Vermont had this amount of influence in the Senate. According to the history books, no state has.
Having that power, keeping that power, and doing something constructive with it, are all different things. Mid-term elections are two years away and with history as a guide the party in power loses strength. With razor-thin margins in place, the odds that the Democrats will retain their control is slim.
That means the Democrats have to focus on the small, two-year window of time before them. Their single objective is to show to the American people that they can get the important work done and, in so doing, restore the public’s faith in their government. Vermont’s two senators will play pivotal roles in that process.
Mr. Sanders was quoted as saying, “This is a fight not just for the future of the Democratic Party or good policy. It is literally a fight to restore faith in small-d democratic government.”
He’s right. People are sick of Congress’s inability to get anything done.
Republicans understand this as well. Hobbling the Democrats plays to their favor and there is every reason to believe if the Democrats fail, the failure will be an open door invitation to the Trump forces of the Republican Party. It will be a prompt for them to be more extreme, not less.
The obstacle for Democrats is the Senate rule on filibusters. For most legislation to get to the Senate floor for a vote, the approval of 60 senators is needed. That’s a supermajority. All the Republicans have to do is to have 41 of their 50 members be opposed to anything the Democrats propose and nothing happens. The ensuing blame game plays to the advantage of the Republicans who will play the Democrats as ineffective.
The filibuster process involves invoking “cloture” which means placing a time limit on debate, forcing votes. From 1917 to 1970 it was invoked once or twice for each two-year session, on average. By the year 2000, it had jumped to roughly 60. In the 2019-2010 session, 328 motions to invoke cloture were filed, which reflects the high level of partisanship, with the result being a do-nothing Senate.
That’s ridiculous. It’s paralyzing. Our Founding Fathers could not have intended us to be governed by a process that cedes control to the minority. That inability applies to both parties. The filibuster rule needs to go, but it needs to be understood that, over time, the advantage plays to both Republicans and Democrats. It’s that shared responsibility, over time, that anchors our democracy,
Mr. Leahy, in particular, should use his out-sized influence to guide this change.
As for Vermont’s place in this new constellation, it behooves us to determine which of our own priorities can be strengthened through the increased influence of both Mr. Leahy and Mr. Sanders. Vermont’s small size makes it an ideal laboratory to stretch what we do into national models. Specifically, that includes our push toward the all-payer health care model, higher education, child care initiatives, rural development, and renewable energy. Vermont’s all-payer model, for example, could be a national example of how to lead the nation to lower health care costs and improved longevity. But it needs federal support.
What Vermont’s leaders need to do is to identify those opportunities and to establish the means by which to communicate these needs and opportunities to both senators. We have a two-year window. This should be a top-level priority. The odds of Vermont ever having this level of influence again are non-existent. It’s basic math. Mr. Leahy is approaching his 50th year in the Senate. Do we have another 50 years for the stars to align as they have?
by Emerson Lynn