Yesterday, the Senate Parliamentarian, a baloney made-up advisory office with absolutely no real authority within or over the U.S. Senate, held by an unelected bureaucrat so anonymous and unimportant that her name—Elizabeth MacDonough—does not even appear until the eighth paragraph of the Washington Post‘s story from last night only and entirely about what she did yesterday, issued an opinion that a provision setting a new $15-per-hour federal minimum wage is written in such a way that it violates Senate parliamentary rules and therefore must not remain in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill wending its way through Congress.
Never mind that the Senate is not in any official way bound by anything the parliamentarian says. Never mind that, even to whatever (fictional) extent this powerless advisor’s proclamation even counts as any kind of “ruling,” it can be overruled or just flat-out ignored by basically anyone who wishes to do so. Never mind that, to the extent this ruling actually governs anything—it doesn’t—it’s only whether the bill as written can be passed through budget reconciliation and thus circumvent the threat of filibuster, and the Democrats could do away with the filibuster altogether and render the whole thing moot. Never mind that none of these things—the Senate parliamentarian, Senate parliamentary procedure, the filibuster, budget reconciliation—appear anywhere in the Constitution, and that to allow any of them to constrain the operations of the Congress is, in effect, to allow the nation to be governed by some older version of Congress instead of the one it just elected.
Never mind that, back in 2001, the Republican majority leader, Trent Lott, just straight-up fired and replaced a parliamentarian who’d issued unfavorable decisions on a couple of bills favored by the George W. Bush administration, not incorrectly judging that the Congressional majority’s mandate to govern supersedes some unelected functionary’s opinions about the finer points of entirely made-up parliamentary procedure. Never mind that virtually no number of Americans give even the tiniest of shits about the dubious norm of deferring to the Senate parliamentarian, or about parliamentary procedure. Never mind that probably not even one out of 200 random Americans could have told you who the Senate parliamentarian was, or what the Senate parliamentarian does, or absolutely anything about Senate parliamentary procedure, prior to the Democrats agreeing, yesterday, to further the pretense that these things amount to legitimate constraints on their ability to govern.
Never mind, for that matter, that a large majority of Americans consistently support a $15 federal minimum wage. Never mind that it polls better than virtually any living politician; or that it polls far better than Joe Biden’s share of votes in the presidential election.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the Presiding Officer of the Senate, will not act entirely within her power to overrule the parliamentarian for the sake of materially improving the lives of millions of Americans. The Biden White House “has dismissed” the idea of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer challenging the parliamentarian’s decision. Rules are rules, even made-up fake ones without the force of law that effectively give unelected functionaries control of the legislative branch of government. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do, even when there are whole entire handfuls of things you can do.
“The vice president’s not going to weigh in,” [National Economic Council Director Brian] Deese said. “The president and the vice president both respect the parliamentarian’s decision and the process. We don’t agree with it; we’re disappointed by it. But we’ll respect that process, and our focus is now going to be to get with congressional leadership to determine the best path forward for the minimum wage, and at the same time move quickly to get the American Rescue Plan passed.”
The translation from Spokespersonese to plain speech here goes We’re happy to accept this as a pretext for saying the minimum-wage increase can’t be done, and moving forward without it. In that context, here is something very funny to laugh at:
I do not want to single out Harris, here. Her old tweet is just particularly hilarious in light of the unique opportunity she has, as the Senate’s Presiding Officer, to be the person who theatrically boots the parliamentarian’s ruling into the toilet on behalf of the lots and lots of people whose lives would be made instantly better by more than doubling the federal minimum wage. But the cowardly choice to defer to The Precious Norms belongs at least as much to her boss, Joe Biden, and to Schumer, and to the entire rotten agglomeration of shitbrained elitist credential-seekers that passes for the Democratic party’s braintrust—all of whom have so deeply absorbed the idea that sober caution and triumphal pre-negotiated surrender define their party that they’d rather pursue anything that can be passed off as a credible excuse for having failed, if the alternative involves taking any risks.
The most generous interpretation you can extend to the choice to defer to this crossing-guard nonsense is that it’s a way of ducking a public confrontation with Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, two lonely conservatives within the party who’ve expressed opposition to including a minimum-wage increase in the pandemic relief bill—and also to eliminating the filibuster, in practical terms the only other means by which Democrats stand any chance of passing a minimum-wage increase through the anti-democratic Senate. (Sure as you are born some number of Wise Knowers will pop into the comments below to angrily insist that nothing is all that can be done.)
As Alex Pareene put it over at the New Republic, “Centrist Democrats representing vulnerable seats have a very strange tendency to search for reasons not to have to do popular things”—but all the more bizarre is the party leadership’s tendency to make this The Boy Who Held Back The Sea routine a risk-free proposition for those centrists. If they want to be the brave heroes who stand tall in the breach and defeat a provision vastly more popular among the public than they themselves are—and if their opposition would amount to defeat for that provision one way or another—then they should have to actually do it, and face their constituents having done so. The Persian army didn’t go “Ah, shit, guess they got us here” and sail back home because Leonidas and his Spartans were willing to die defending Thermopylae; Leonidas and his Spartans still had to actually die defending it.
The $15 minimum wage may yet pass as part of the pandemic relief bill; who knows. The Democrats in the House, admirably, intend to go right ahead and pass the relief bill with the minimum-wage increase included in it, in effect daring anybody in the Senate to be the one who’ll sign their name to having stripped it out. But this, exactly this kind of dithering and capitulating, is why the Democratic party is always so much less popular than incredibly well-liked ideas—Medicare For All, gun control, COVID-19 relief checks, minimum-wage increase, a federal government that does more to help people directly, etc.—whose only support in government comes from its own members. Given the rare opportunity to flex some power, and a clear and obvious moral mandate to do so, they’re throwing their hands up at non-binding parliamentary procedures and well actually-ing their own supporters over what exactly the phrase “$2,000 checks” means.
Bigots and billionaires and culture warriors can at least count on the Republican party to gleefully immiserate the classes of vulnerable people they despise, whenever it’s entrusted with the power to do so. The only thing you can count on the Democratic party to do is to develop a sudden paralyzing case of situational Budget Concern or Norms Respect, whenever it can cripple or stall or dilute the fulfillment of a pledge to make common people’s lives better, to materially address any of the myriad ways American society has been warped into incoherent brutality by capitalism and white supremacy.
All the rest of the time, well … about that. The Biden administration launched an airstrike against a border-crossing station in Syria yesterday, killing some number of what the Post called “Iranian-linked Iraqi militia” members, in retaliation for an attack against a building housing American personnel in Iraq earlier this month. Only Congress can declare war; that is neither an unofficial civic norm nor non-binding parliamentary ruling by an anonymous functionary, but rather written out in Article One of the Constitution. Congress has never declared war on either Syria or Iran; nor has the Biden administration asked it to. But I guess the need to rain death on a handful of faceless people 6,000 miles away is just urgent enough to supersede all that procedural crap.