The Corner

Politics & Policy

When Jonathan Capehart Says ‘Recalcitrant,’ He Means ‘Majority’

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain points to the audience as he arrives to speak before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, June 2, 2008. (Jim Young/Reuters)

In the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart laments the challenge that Joe Biden faces in getting his agenda through a 50–50 Senate:

Thanks to Georgia voters and the two Democrats they sent to the Senate, that party does have control of the chamber, but only by Harris’s tiebreaking vote. That dynamic gives recalcitrant Republicans and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) incredible and irritating sway.

This is an extremely weird way of describing the situation in the Senate — especially in a piece about democracy. A far simpler way of describing the “dynamic” is that there are 48 votes — maybe fewer — for changing the Senate’s rules, and 52 votes — maybe more — against changing the Senate’s rules. Of course the 52 senators who are not on board with the wishes of the 48 have “incredible” “sway.” Whatever arguments there may be for lowering the Senate’s threshold from 60 to 50 (and I dissent from them), and whatever arguments there may be for permitting rules changes with 50 instead of 67 votes, there can be no arguments whatsoever for reducing these numbers to 48. There are many parts of the American system that require majorities or supermajorities to effect alterations. There are none that allow changes to be made by a minority.

Since the Democrats won their 50th vote in January, it has proven extremely difficult for many in the party to grasp this elementary point. As a result, we have heard Bernie Sanders complain repeatedly that the Democratic party’s agenda is being held up by “just two” senators, instead of by 52, as is the case; we have heard activists routinely lambast a system in which “a single senator” (Joe Manchin) can hold up the president’s will, when it’s actually 51, and when there is no presumption that the president will get what he wants anyhow; now, we are hearing this Senate class being divided into two Manichean groups: the good and the “recalcitrant.” This is absurd.

If Capehart were merely griping about the political positions held by the 50 Republicans, his presumption would make a little more sense. But he’s not. Indeed, he seems flatly unable to comprehend that, in a 50–50 Senate, one cannot meaningfully add a “but” after the term “control of the chamber.” The sole reason that Democrats “have control of the chamber” in the first instance is that Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema have decided to caucus with them. When discussing the pair, annoyed progressives like to treat them as distinct from the Democrats’ majority. But they’re not. They are the reason that majority exists in the first place.

In essence, Capehart seems to share Bernie Sanders’s weird belief that, once a party has gained a majority, it should be able to wield dictatorial powers until such time as it does not. But this is simply not how the Senate — or any part of our system — is supposed to work. We do not pass bills with a minority of votes; we do not require our lawmakers to acquiesce to the demands of the party with which they caucus; and we do not decide which party will enjoy a temporary majority and then cut the minority out of consideration completely, as might the architects of a Politburo.

It is telling that we did not hear complaints such these back in 2017, when the Democrats in the minority were filibustering everything that moved, and when divisions within the Republican majority led to the spectacular failure of a piece of legislation that the party had been promising for eight years. Having been disappointed by what that Congress failed to do, I understand well why Jonathan Capehart is “irritated” now that the shoe is on the other foot. I do not understand, however, why he thinks that this time it’s different.

It’s not.

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