Here’s evidence of the extreme dysfunction of the US federal government in three semi-related stories from the last day.
1. President Joe Biden used executive authority to address gun violence.
This might sound like a good thing. The President did something because Congress is unable to do much of anything.
CNN’s report by Kevin Liptak explained the very limited scope of the actions and how little they actually accomplish:
The executive actions — which Biden repeatedly argued did nothing to impinge on the Second Amendment right to bear arms — include efforts to restrict weapons known as “ghost guns” that can be built using parts and instructions purchased online.
The moves are limited in scope and fall short of the steps Biden has vowed to pressure Congress to take. Still, they fulfilled his pledge last month to take “common-sense” steps on his own, and one move — more heavily regulating arm braces used to make firing a pistol more accurate –directly relates to the March shooting in Boulder, Colorado, where such a device was used.
But the larger issue is that Biden’s action is a symptom of Washington’s larger paralysis. It’s not that there isn’t a majority in the House or Senate to pass legislation that’s supported by members of both parties. The problem is that under current Senate rules, majority support is meaningless, because the minority party — right now, Republicans — can insist on a 60-vote supermajority to pass anything at all.
2. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said he would never support ending the filibuster.
This could be the death knell for Biden’s infrastructure plan, along with any hope of action on immigration or climate crisis.
What it means is that Democrats can’t get the 50 votes they need to approve changing Senate rules so that a bare majority can pass laws — so the need to reach a supermajority is here to stay, at least until the next election.
Republicans are united behind the filibuster and several Democrats, most notably Manchin — a centrist from increasingly red West Virginia — are nervous about shaking things up.
“There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Manchin wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday night. He described the stand as sticking up for small and rural states and said that only through compromise between Republicans and Democrats would the Washington paralysis end.
That may be true, but it’s equally evident that as long as there is a filibuster to exploit, lawmakers will use it to stand in the way of gun legislation, climate legislation, voting rights legislation and immigration legislation.
Manchin calls for Republicans and Democrats working together and ignores the recent evidence that they are rewarded for doing battle, not finding common ground.
What proves Manchin wrong is that in the time since Democrats and Republicans ended the filibuster for federal, judicial and Supreme Court nominations, the world has not ended and Presidents have gotten most, but not all, the nominees they’ve desired. The filibuster isn’t a law, it’s a custom handed down from a time before senators were selected by voters.
3. Kentucky passed a bipartisan voting rights bill
The third, and maybe the most important thing, that’s happened in the past few days is that Kentucky — not a blue state, but a state with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature — enacted bipartisan voting rights reforms.
This is, in and of itself, not dysfunctional. But the fact that it’s a surprise only further underscores how polarized and paralyzed the rest of American politics is right now. The reality of a Democratic governor working with Republicans to expand voting rights bucks the larger trend of GOP-controlled swing states making it harder for people to vote.
Kentucky opening access to the vote does not put it on par with other states. In Georgia, where Republicans have moved to restrict access, it’s still arguably easier to vote than in Kentucky, where the new law opens access to just three days of early voting.
It also, perhaps, underlines the need for more national standards. It’s easier to vote in some places than others, which means different Americans have different access to the polls.
Still, the idea of anything bipartisan happening in Washington at the moment seems so fantastic in part because small minorities in the Senate have the power to block any legislation they wish.
Stop calling them “vaccine passports”
I wrote here about the political controversy around verifying a vaccine in exchange for access to something — planes and cruise ships, or concerts, say.
There was a fair amount of reader comment on that edition. Mark Hall, a senior fellow at Brookings, reached with his research to argue that while the idea of “vaccine passports” is divisive, it’s not divisive in the normal partisan way.
He and David Studdert, a Stanford researcher, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that while there is not public support for a government passport system, industries and businesses should not be prohibited from verifying vaccines.
This is where the government can play a role, they argued, by setting up a system to document vaccine verification while not itself mandating a vaccine.
“Although not in the driver’s seat, government will have to help steer. Private actors need standards and bounds, including clear directives barring uses of vaccine certification that constitute unlawful discrimination,” they write.
‘Passport’ may be a divisive term. There was a similar vein in the conservative pollster Frank Luntz, who along with Brian Castrucci on CNBC that the problem with passports is one of messaging. Just call it a vaccine verification, they argued.
“The concept of a vaccine passport pushes nearly every partisan political button for Republicans who already don’t trust their political leaders and fear government overreach.”
After conducting a focus group, they argued, “If you want everyone vaccinated and life to go back to normal, it starts with using the right language. A vaccine “verification” is preferred to a passport by every population subgroup — all of them.”
It’s not just vaccines that could lead to verification. Ethan Veneklasen wrote in on behalf of the Good Health Pass Collaborative, an open source effort backed by companies to create a verification system.
“While I recognize that most journalists are using the term “vaccination passport” in a generic sense — as a sort of shorthand — it is factually inaccurate, inflammatory, and distorts a critically important public debate. It plays into the hands of extremists — on both ends of the political spectrum — who are using the term intentionally to bolster the assertion that any type of digital health pass system would, by definition, represent an affront to civil liberties and/or health equity,” he said.
He pointed out that most of the verification systems being proposed would also allow for a negative Covid test or recovery from Covid in addition to vaccination. That’s certainly true of the system being implemented in New York.
Cruise ships, which want to require vaccination to board, might be the exception.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Stanford researcher David Studdert.