Post Rittenhouse Observations

If you’ve been living under a rock, a jury of 12 men and women returned a non guilty verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse on multiple felony charges, including reckless homicide.  Rittenhouse shot three men, killing two in the process.  Rittenhouse, an 18 year old from Antioch, Illinois, traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was his ‘job’ to guard buildings and offer medical assistance to protestors there.  (Protests, riots, and general civil unrest occurred in Kenosha when a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a black resident who suffered paralysis from the waist down.)  

Rittenhouse and his legal team never contested he shot these men, but they successfully argued he acted in self defense.  The acquittal provoked the ire of a large number of Americans, who see Rittenhouse as an exemplar of white privilege, conservative rage, and a flawed justice system.  There’s quite a bit worth exploring in this acquittal, but the legal aspect isn’t really what I want to explore in this post.

I never believed the odds of a conviction were high for Rittenhouse.  Proving all the elements of any crime is difficult, and in such a politically charged case, I didn’t believe the prosecution had much of a chance considering Rittenhouse received more than $2 million for his legal defense through crowd sourcing.  Yet, there are several aspects of this case worth mentioning.

Armed civilians shouldn’t be in the streets

Even if the letter of the law is on the side, Kyle Rittenhouse should not have been in Kenosha, with an AR-15, ‘defending’ the streets from protestors and rioters.  At the time of the shooting, Rittenhouse was 17 years old.  Who would believe that it was a good idea to arm a teenage boy with no formal training and place him in the middle of a riot?  

Police officers and armed service personnel receive hundreds of hours of training and know how to appropriately respond in situations of protesters and riots.  Even then, those trained officers of the law sometimes make mistakes.  Untrained teenage boys make foolish decisions in high pressure situations, and he probably responded how most children would.  This is precisely why a child should not be in the midst of potentially dangerous situations.  Arming this boy only heightened the possibility of danger.

Situations where armed civilians shoot at one another only make it more difficult for police officers to do their job.  In the darkness of night, a situation like Kenosha means police have a more difficult time distinguishing between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’  

Bits and pieces of information about Rittenhouse which have surfaced also show a teenager searching for a sense of belonging and purpose.  He dropped out of high school, didn’t make it through a local police cadet program, and made several posts on social media expressing an admiration for police and guns.  He bounced around a few jobs, but somehow believed he had a duty to act as though he was law enforcement.  Rittenhouse told interviewers (prior to the shooting), “Part of my job also is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.”  While we might want to admire the gusto of this teenager, his words represent a false bravado that an adult should have stopped.  Rittenhouse is fortunate that he couldn’t be convicted of irresponsibility or stupidity, because there’s no doubt he’s guilty of those.

Politicians are using Rittenhouse

Since Rittenhouse’s acquittal last week, three members of Congress have offered the teenage boy an internship opportunity.  Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-GA 1), Madison Cawthorn (R-NC 11), and Paul Gosar (R-AZ 4) made such offers in the wake of the trial and when we look at the three people making the offers, it becomes easier to see that these three clowns are offering gestures not for the benefit of any person other than themselves.  

Not so incidentally, each of these three members of Congress is dealing with a number of controversies which consistently embarrass their constituents and the nation.  Gaetz is facing a federal investigation into allegations of sex trafficking and inappropriate sexual contact with a minor.  Cawthorn is a freshman Congressman from North Carolina who faces allegations of sexual harassment from numerous women at his alma mater, Patrick Henry College.  A group of 10 students co-wrote the statement which was signed by more than 150 additional alums.  Gosar might be the biggest mess of the three, with numerous ties to alt-right entities such as the Proud Boys and the now infamous Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.  Gosar’s recent shenanigans include having someone on his team create an animated video of a character made to look like him killing a character who looked like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14).  This earned him an official censure from the House of Representatives.

Why do these issues of these three Congressman matter?  Because offering Kyle Rittenhouse an internship distracts their constituents from important matters while throwing the ‘red meat’ to the die-hard conservatives in their districts.  They hope these outlandish offers receive more media coverage than their problems.  Voters have short memories and the further these problems are from the limelight, the better odds of incumbents maintaining political office. 

The offers of internships or interviews on national news media will dry up as the news cycle turns over.  These members of government will move on to the next symbol of gun rights they can use.  What will Rittenhouse be left with?

This will follow Rittenhouse forever

Though not criminally guilty, Kyle Rittenhouse must now live with the fact that he killed two people.  I know that many people will point out that the two men Rittenhouse shot were convicted criminals.  We should never construe that fact as somehow justification for shooting and killing people.  One the underlying concepts of Western civilization is the idea that all human life has meaning.  Of course, we love to say that until we have to include people who have committed crimes in the past.  

Unfortunately, American popular culture glorifies violence to the point where virtually no one discusses the psychological damage done to men and women when they take the life of another human being.  A recent study of the impact of police officers who use lethal force in the line of duty showed symptoms of PTSD and increased severity of depression.  What type of impact will this have on a teenager?  According to Kyle Rittenhouse’s mother, her son already has nightmares pertaining to the shooting.  Life is difficult for any of us, but now Rittenhouse must deal with added pressure at an age that is not properly equipped to handle this stress.

The prospects of a normal future in terms of employment or merely functioning in day to day life have become impossible.  Rittenhouse will always vacillate between the people who want to view him as some pro-gun heroic icon and individuals who hate him for what he did.  Who will want to hire him that is not simultaneously using him?  Where can he go in this country where he won’t be recognized or immediately doxxed?  The trajectory of his entire life changed for the worse and regardless of who you are, I would think there’s just a touch of pity for him.

End the filibuster

The United States Congress is undoubtedly one of the most peculiar legislative bodies in the world.  Writers of the Constitution established two unique houses within its legislative branch, each with its own modes of election, representations, differing qualifications, and purposes.  

Though both houses must pass any bill for it to become a law, the Senate was always intended to be (and has been) the de facto upper house.  Yet, the upper house and one of its bizarre procedures continually prevents legislation which would otherwise advance the interests of the majority of American citizens.  Yes, we’re talking about the filibuster.  

A brief background 

In the House of Representatives, time for debate of any given bill on the floor is limited, and for good reason.  With 435 voting members, allowing all members of the House to engage in debate is counterproductive.  Limited debate also means House members must come to the debate with a general understanding of the bill, committee recommendations, and the ability to discuss in a pointed manner.  

Filibusters continue to trend upward

The Senate always maintains a lower number of members, and as such, permitting longer debate is not such a bad idea.  A senator can attempt to persuade fellow members of the body to his or her side of an issue by drawing out the merits or flaws of a bill.  The Senate’s great failure, however, is that ending debate on any given bill requires a supermajority of 60 of its 100 members.  The Constitution does not call for this supermajority to end debate, but the measure is part of the Senate’s rules.  Somewhat paradoxically, Senate rules can be changed with a simple majority vote.

Because the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans vacillates by a only few senators each term, the likelihood of either party obtaining a supermajority is small.  In the last 40 years, it only happened during President Barack Obama’s first two years in office.  Democrats had 60 seats, allowing them to pass The Affordable Care Act without a Republican filibuster.

The time is long overdue for the Senate to change its rules and eliminate the filibuster, permanently. 

An anti-democratic concept 

The filibuster works against one of the central concepts of a representative democracy — a plurality vote.  In most American political institutions, the system is based on a plurality vote, meaning the side with the most votes carries the issue.  The filibuster is anti-democratic, allowing the minority party to block legislation supported by a majority of senators.

Yes, there are other instances where a supermajority is needed to act on a given change, such as amending the Constitution or overriding a presidential veto.  However, those mechanisms attempt to make changes that have more finality than merely advancing legislation out of one house of Congress.  

Legislation is stalled 

How many beneficial pieces of legislation never happened because of the Senate filibuster?  On more than one occasion, Southerners filibustered various civil rights bills.  In 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) set the record for a filibuster, speaking for more than 24 consecutive hours.  

“Each presidential administration and new Congress should receive a fair chance to implement policies, particularly at the beginning of a term, when the American people have spoken in recent elections.”

Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, the use of the filibuster expanded to nearly every topic of legislation — campaign finance, lobbying reform, health care, gun reform, economic stimulus, immigration, etc.  In fairness, the perspective of whether a bill is good or bad often depends on a person’s ideological beliefs.  

However, allowing Congress to engage in its primary task of legislating means taking the risk that they will make mistakes.  This is part of how policy formation works.  If a law establishes a policy which works well for the American people, those elected officials will have earned the right to reap the success.  If the policy turns out poorly, voters can hold them accountable and elect new officials who will vote to reverse a poor policy decision.  As the situation currently stands, the filibuster allows senators to not make difficult decisions on legislation that has widespread support among voters.

Two key pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda have widespread support in the public, but face an uphill battle due to the filibuster.  HR 1, or the For the People Act, currently has 68% of voters backing its changes to election laws.  The American Jobs Plan, or the Biden infrastructure plan, has a similar amount of support from the public.

Each presidential administration and new Congress should receive a fair chance to implement policies, particularly at the beginning of a term, when the American people have spoken in recent elections.  

Inactivity is activity 

Any party in the Senate minority counts on legislative inertia.  When a minority party can block policy changes, it means nothing happens.  In these instances, nothing is something.  When the people elect officials to improve the conditions of the nation, they do so with the expectation of positive change.  If the minority party can prevent change from occurring, they see it as a victory, and as an added bonus, it allows them to campaign that the opposition didn’t fulfill their promises.  A majority party cannot be expected to deliver on promises when need more than a majority of voters.

Disproportionate power

Each state receives two senators regardless of its population, and this is an important means of protecting smaller states from the legislative whims of larger states.  Yet, that senatorial advantage of small states is exacerbated by the filibuster,  allowing certain individuals to wield a disproportionate amount of power.

The 21 least populous states in the Union are home to approximately 35 million people, which is still significantly less than California’s approximately 40 million people.  These smaller states, by themselves, could stage legislation gridlock with their senators despite only representing slightly less than 10% of the nation’s overall population. 

When any senator filibusters, his or her fellow party members have shown reluctance to vote for an end to debate.  As such, a senator from Wyoming, the least populous state (with a scant 576,000 people), can prevent legislation from coming to a vote that would benefit the nation.

Moreover, crafty senators such as Joe Manchin (D-WV) have learned how to leverage their position as a ‘moderate’ party member to provide them with extraordinary amount of influence. 

Senator Manchin is the key vote for Democrats, and he knows it

After the 2020 Elections, Democrats miraculously pulled off a tied Senate.  Since Vice President Kamala Harris’ one Constitutional responsibility is to break tie votes in the Senate, Democrats have an opportunity to legislate.  However, no Democrat can break ranks in voting if they hope to achieve their legislative aims.  

Manchin has already exhibited a willingness to defy the party and the president and don’t expect him to change.  In West Virginia, Manchin perpetually performs a balancing act in maintaining his Democratic chops while pleasing an increasingly more conservative constituency.  West Virginia’s senior senator claims he does not wish to abandon bipartisanship, and that’s not a bad goal.  

While we can take Manchin at his word for wanting to bring Americans together and applaud the effort, I would hope even he could see that the circumstances of his calls for bipartisanship seem to indicate he’s also concerned about the ‘Trump effect’ in West Virginia.  His current position as the lynchpin of the Senate allows him to keep walking a tightrope to win another term in 2024.  

Manchin’s efforts earned him an invitation to the White House last week and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden made a trip to Charleston with the senator (and West Virginia’s unofficially official ambassador Jennifer Garner).  Also, Manchin’s wife, Gayle, was recently nominated by President Biden and confirmed as a co-chair to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Meanwhile, important legislation vital to the nation and supported by large swaths of the nation remains in limbo because … well … Joe Manchin.  

The bipartisanship Manchin seeks comes at a high price, and it’s a price he doesn’t have to pay. Manchin is 73 years old with financial assets above and beyond most Americans, let alone West Virginians.  For those outside of the Mountain State, the Manchin name is almost as politically connected as a family can be.  Legislation held up in the name of bipartisanship will neither affect Manchin nor his family.  It does, however, affect most of his constituents.  

The filibuster has already been eroded by both parties

Filibusters do not extend to judicial nominees and other executive appointees, though they once did.  In years past, the minority party could filibuster a nominee to any federal court, including the Supreme Court.  Federal courts already faced a backlog of cases without the filibustering of appointed judges.  

In 2013, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) led the effort to change rules to allow judicial nominees (other than Supreme Court nominees) and other executive appointments to proceed without the option of a filibuster.  

“The time is long overdue for the Senate to change its rules and end the filibuster, permanently.”

Subsequently, Republicans acted in accordance in 2017, when then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, paving the way for President Trump to appoint three justices to the nation’s highest court (none of whom tallied more than 54 votes in confirmation).

Congress also passed the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which permits the Senate to waive the 60 vote supermajority on bills associated with the budget and spending.  For nearly 50 years, the Senate moves forward with legislation dealing primarily with the nation’s fiscal policies because it is necessary to the functioning of the federal government.  The time has come to extend this process, known as ‘reconciliation.’  

Federal law will still remain consistent 

Despite what Manchin and other elected officials might have us believe, the end of the filibuster will not usher in an era of back and forth legislation, undoing the actions of a previous Congress.  To effectively legislate, either major party will still need to secure the trifecta of controlling the presidency, a majority in the House, and a majority in the Senate.  Even if they achieve this end, they must still produce results or face the prospect of being voted out of office.  

For the people, for the win

Traditionally, individual American states are left to establish their own election and voting laws.  However, a number of states have created policies which placed unconstitutional and unnecessary obstacles to voting.  Southern states notoriously discriminated against people of color for decades before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended many of these practices.  This legislation also required states with a history of discriminatory practices to seek preclearance from the federal government before changing election laws.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the ‘preclearance’ requirement was no longer valid considering the Voting Rights Act was based on racial data several decades old.  The decision allowed states latitude in creating election laws again.  Numerous states have passed laws requiring photo identification to vote, which could be construed as a form of poll tax and an unnecessary obstacle for voting.  States have revised legal codes to make it much easier to purge voter registrations if citizens do not vote often enough.  In the last few months, several state legislatures have tightened restrictions on early and absentee voting for no discernible reason.

To address accessibility to voting and other election related issues, Democrats in the US House of Representatives created HR1, known as theFor The People Act.  This bill is an all-encompassing reform of a large number of policies which have made the United States less democratic in terms of elections.

Voting

In terms of voting, the bill requires automatic voter registration in each state, and citizens can still opt out if they desire.  The bill will also permit registration via internet, require states to allow same-day registration (on Election Day), and provide funds to states to promote additional registration drives and the importance of voting.  

HR1 will also maintain that states provide more accessibility features in terms of voting for citizens with physical disabilities.  States must also restore voting rights to felons who have served their criminal sentences.  On Election Day, the ballots would be standardized for federal elections and provide more consistency nationwide.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) promotes the For the People Act

Mail-in voting and absentee ballots would become easier to obtain and use and states would be required to establish contingency plans for voting in the event of natural disasters or a health related issue (you know … like a pandemic).

Representation issues in Congress

One of the more important features of this bill encourages and supports (but not require) that Washington, D.C. become a state, thereby guaranteeing them representation in the House and Senate.  The bill points out that D.C. already has more population than a few other states and promotes the idea that citizens within the capital city deserve this.  

Similarly, the bill also encourages and supports federal voting rights (but not statehood) for Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.  For those keeping score at home, these are all American territories, but they do not receive the same rights and privileges as states within the union. 

In what may be the most important aspect of this bill, states would be obligated to establish an independent commission which would draw borders for Congressional districts within a state after the census numbers determine population gains or losses.  This would take authority away from state legislatures to gerrymander districts to help or hurt parties, races, or particular candidates.  

How gerrymandering can affect election outcomes

This section of the bill also would end the practice of ‘voter purges’ where states often delete citizens from the registration database if they have not recently participated in an election.

Campaign Finance Restrictions 

Non-citizens would be prohibited from participating in any type fo electioneering activities, expanding a current ban on foreigners not being permitted to donate to campaigns.  Additionally, the new law would ban the practice of creating corporations for the purpose of funneling foreign money through those corporations for use in election related activities.

Online ads would become more transparent in who funded them, including requirements for disclosure of top donors to a particular group.  “Deepfake” videos would be banned from political ads, and publicly traded corporations would have to disclose financial information (including donor lists) to shareholders.

Campaign Finance Empowerment

The federal government would launch a pilot program in three states which would provide every eligible voter with a $25 voucher for a donation to a candidate.  These citizens could then take the voucher and give it to the candidate of their choosing.  The idea behind this program would be to allow for more Americans to express their voice through donating funds to a candidate that they might not otherwise donate due to a lack of finances.

Candidates for federal office would be eligible for ‘matching funds’ when they receive smaller contributions (under $200).  Those contributions would be matched up to six times the value to amplify the voice of small donors.  (To receive the matching funds, federal candidates would have to meet certain eligibility requirements. )

Small contributions would also benefit political action committees (PACs).  Under HR1, any contribution under $200 to a PAC could be placed in a special account where a contribution of up to $10,000 could be made to any one candidate (as opposed to the usual limit of $5,000).

Strengthening the Federal Election Commission 

Currently, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has a six person team to make decisions about campaign finance enforcement and the even number sometimes inhibits the ability to act.  This bill would reduce the size to five members, chosen by the president on staggered terms, to enforce campaign finance law.  

The FEC would have the ability to more effectively monitor Super PACs by an expanded definition about what types of coordination these entities could have with candidates or their campaigns.  

Congressional and Presidential Ethics Requirements 

Some other requirements which affect those running for and holding federal office:

  • The president would have the option of either divesting any stocks or financial holdings which might cause a conflict of interest or place his accounts into a blind trust.  The president would also be prevented from having any government contracts through any of his or her business holdings.
  • Presidential appointees would be required to disclose political donations.
  • Congressional members and their staff cannot advance any legislation that financially benefits themselves or members of their immediate family.
  • House members would be banned from serving on the board of any for-profit companies. (Apparently, the Senate already has rules in place for this.)
  • Staff members of a Congressional office must disclose outside compensation and reports will be available about this information.
  • Presidential and vice presidential candidates must disclose income tax returns and any returns on personally owned businesses for the previous 10 years.

What are the pros of HR1?  

I believe democracy deserves free and fair elections where voting should be as easy as humanly possible.  I cannot understand why automatic voter registration hasn’t been part of the American way.  Other democracies have been doing this for years.  Standardized ballots, early voting, mail-in voting, no more ‘purges’ of legitimate voters — these all make sense.  Having a more uniform system of voting is one aspect of a democracy where a nationwide policy is better than 50 different entities have a wide variety of rules and regulations.  When we have allowed this, marginalized groups, particularly racial groups, have been the victims of discrimination.  

Changes from HR1 mitigate some of the effects from the Citizens United v. FEC decision, which gave rises to Super PACs and more ‘dark money.’  Requiring more disclosure of funding sources and how campaign finances are spent lets citizens know who funds the candidates and to what extent.  This can only help democracy, not hinder it. 

The impact of Citizens United on campaign spending is undeniable

The experimental voucher program and matching funds program could considerably alter elections for the foreseeable future.  Candidates who have widespread appeal among citizens who do not have monetary resources would now possess the ability to financially express support for candidates.  Currently, most Americans do not contribute money to campaigns or candidates. This would be an entry point for many Americans to consider donating to a candidate.

HR1 might effectively end the ridiculous practice of gerrymandering, where state legislatures have the ability to draw congressional district lines to the benefit of their preferred candidates or political party.  This practice, by both Democrats and Republicans, establishes districts where no real competition exists.  As a result, members of the House of Representatives often do not fear losing their seat because they never have to make difficult decisions on legislation.  

And the cons … ?

The most significant problem with this bill might be the same problem most bills present:  the cost.  Added expenses to the federal government for the necessary standardization of voting equipment, ballots, and other devices would only increase an ever expanding budget.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to possess any motivation to reduce government spending, and this issue already existed prior to the COVID pandemic.  

HR1 also adds more layers to an extremely large federal bureaucracy.  Who will monitor the expanded regulations?  The FEC will most likely need more employees and states will need additional resources to comply with a number of the requirements this law would demand.

The bill is a monster of nearly 800 pages and it would change quite a bit of policy in one fell swoop.  Congress might be more pliable in changing election laws in a more piecemeal approach, where one bad provision doesn’t sink a bill full of good changes.

Statehood for Washington D.C. and federal voting rights for territories  would not be required by HR1, but the bill would create a commission to study changes for federal territories and encourages statehood for D.C.   This is most likely to be construed as a power grab by Democrats.  If territories were granted electoral votes in the presidential elections (similar to D.C. in the 23rd Amendment), these areas would likely vote in a more liberal fashion, handing any Democrat an easier path to the presidency.  The possibility of statehood for D.C. or any of the territories would also receive a healthy dose of skepticism because it would likely mean more Democrats serving in Congress.  The United States has an obligation to do more for its territories, but we should be asking why Democrats appear so concerned about this now?  

This bill would weaken state sovereignty.  In our federalist system, the line of demarcation between the national government and state governments will become more blurred.  States generally make their own policies about elections and this bill will take one more power and place it under the vast umbrella of the federal government.  

A compelling argument exists for the uniformity of elections nationwide.  Southern states, in particular, have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to enact discriminatory practices in elections which either prevent voting or establish unnecessary obstacles to participate in the most important form of political participation.  Moreover, the federal government does maintain an obligation to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of Liberty for the American people.  

Will this bill pass?

HR1 has already passed through the House of Representatives by a 220-210 vote, almost entirely along party lines (one Democrat voted against, two Republicans did not vote, and two other seats were vacant at the time of the vote).  The Senate will advance the bill since Democrats are in the majority, but the road will be long for the bill to become law.  Why do Republicans not like the bill?

The simplest explanation is that the passage of this bill translates to a strategic loss for Republicans.  If this bill passes, they will lose more elections.  The makeup of Americans in terms of Democrats and Republicans in modern history has leaned towards Democrats.  To offset a numerical disadvantage, Republicans have utilized vast financial resources and gerrymandering to win elections.  (Both parties gerrymander districts when they think they can get away with it, but the Republicans just happen to be better at it.)

Passing this bill would mean independent commissions with members of both major parties would work together in creating fair boundary lines.  If they cannot agree on a redistricting plan, a panel of federal circuit court judges in that state would take over the task.  This would diminish the ability of Republican controlled state legislatures to establish districts that maximize their representation in the House.

Republicans would also lose ground in the financial arms race of elections.  Money does not guarantee a win in an election, but candidates don’t win without it.  Allowing matching funds for small donations helps individuals who do not have access to significant wealth.  These contributions and the experimental voucher programs would benefit people more likely to identify as Democrats rather than Republicans.  Furthermore, the requirements of disclosures of top donor lists from Super PACs would demonstrate who funds the groups with some of the most ridiculous and dishonest attack ads.  These individuals who fund and operate Super PACs would also face more limitations in terms of what types of interactions they can have with those candidates.  

Republicans do not want this bill to pass and they currently have 50 votes in the Senate.  Since HR1 is not a budget related bill, debate is not limited and the GOP members would filibuster this bill if necessary.  Breaking a filibuster and ending debate would require 60 votes and obviously, it’s a difficult hurdle to overcome.  But, Democrats can pass this bill based on what transpires in the next few months.

President Joe Biden and his team can move this bill across the finish line, but it will depend on a few factors:

  • Can this administration deliver on its promises of vaccination availability for Americans?  Biden promises 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office and the administration says it is on track to meet that goal.  The more this administration delivers on promises and meets objectives like this, Senate Republicans will face more pressure to vote for legislation supported by Biden. 

  • What will happen with the Biden team’s infrastructure bill in Congress?  The success or failure of this legislation will help to determine the fate of other legislation in the future.  The more momentum Democrats build now in not only passing legislation, but efficiently carrying out those policies will make it increasingly difficult for Senate Republicans to vote no on HR1 (or any other legislation).
  • Can the administration tamp down distractions?  In any given moment in the United States, issues manifest themselves and government must response.  Gun violence has already returned and the pandemic is still an ongoing reality.  Jobs reports, GDP, market activity, and international crises will also take attention away from other legislative priorities.  

I want to see this bill pass, but the odds are against it at this point.  Democrats need all the stars to align to sufficiently pressure Senate Republicans into passing this bill.  The odds seem to be against these things coming to pass, particularly since the Biden team prioritizes the infrastructure above election law.  I put the odds of it passing as low, but it would be instrumental in making the United States a more democratic nation.

The Biden Agenda and Infrastructure

We know politics is returning to normal.  How do we know this?  Shootings, scandals, and actual policy fights in government.  It’s not as if these are necessarily the ordeals are entirely desirable, but they do signal that life in the post-COVID era is not only happening, but eerily reminiscent of life before the pandemic.

The policy battles of Washington, D.C. are a welcomed sight.  After four years of an administration with no actual domestic agenda (other than potentially subverting democracy), it’s  encouraging to see real debate and legislation taking shape at the federal level.  

President Joe Biden’s first policy win stemmed from the passage of The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, more colloquially known as the third stimulus bill.  This piece of legislation authorized $1.9 trillion of spending for relief due to the COVID pandemic.  

President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan into law, but hopes for more legislation soon

The key pieces of the legislation include direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, extending unemployment benefits (including an additional $300 supplement per payment), expanded tax credits, grants to small businesses, funds to fight COVID-19, and increased educational program spending.

The bill passed both houses of Congress by narrow margins with few members crossing party lines.  Republican opposition protested not the intent of the bill, but the amount spent on relief and recovery in a year in which the federal government has already spent an unprecedented amount of money.  

Most Americans support the passage of the relief bill, and now the Biden team must build on this success, but they face a difficult path.  The administration has two other bills forthcoming, but their agenda may be unavoidably sidetracked.

The next big thing for Team Biden

Repairing a weakened infrastructure has long been a mentioned priority for both major parties in the United States and the Biden administration looks to deliver.  The skeletal system our nation needs to operate as a modern society has steadily deteriorated.  America’s roads, bridges, electric grids, waterways, and internet delivery currently rank 13th in the world.  This is inexcusable and leadership in both parties seems to actually agree on this point.  Just remember the crisis in Flint, Michigan over the course of the last decade and you can see why infrastructure matters.  

In West Virginia, we understand the dire need for solid infrastructure because it seems we always have terrible problems.  Weather related issues cause damage to power lines, overburden storm drains, and deteriorate the existing structures.  Of our 7,000+ bridges, 21% are structurally deficient, while 31% of the roads are rated in poor condition.   West Virginia needs the investment.

The White House recently released a fact sheet about the uses of the $2 trillion planned investment (over a period of several years) in what is being labeled The American Jobs Plan.  Aside from the typical infrastructure, the Biden team wants to add other projects, including a commitment to more electric automobiles and charging stations, broadband internet access in rural areas and low-income urban locations, make existing homes more energy efficient, and investing more of the nation’s finances into research and development of solving these problems for a more sustainable infrastructure system.  It has a number of great ideas.  The real sticking point is how we pay for these projects.

President Biden has proposed changing the corporate tax rates from a flat 21% to 28%.  This is likely to draw the ire of many Republicans, who will claim this would stifle economic growth, particularly in small businesses.  This change in corporate tax rate would also serve as a strong rebuke of President Donald Trump, whose signature policy achievement was an overall tax reduction.  

The White House has been quick to point out that while corporate taxes would increase, they would still remain below their pre-2017 levels and would be lower than corporate rates in the 1980s, a decade dominated by Republican leadership, including the GOP standard bearer in tax policy, President Ronald Reagan.  

Changes to corporate tax policy would also close various loopholes many companies utilize to avoid paying federal taxes, including allowing their headquarters being located in a tax haven.  

One aspect of the proposed legislation which is a shining light is that the bill, in its current format, would not increase income taxes on any tax bracket.

A large scale investment into development of infrastructure will add jobs to the American economy in a time where they are sorely needed.  An analysis of the economic impact from Moody’s estimates that The American Jobs Plan would yield millions of jobs and produce a ripple effect that would benefit businesses and communities well into the future.  

The development of infrastructure would also provide blue-collar work (electricians, pipe fitters, construction workers, etc.) with a significant portion of the jobs associated with this legislation.  The services and output of these workers means white-collar work benefits also.  After all, offices need electricity, water, internet, and reliable transportation routes.

Can this bill pass?

Short answer — maybe.  The President must find a way to focus the American public and Congress on the need for this bill rather than other issues.  What other issues exist?  Well, the return to ‘normalcy’ in America has meant the return to mass shootings (any act of gun violence with four or more victims).   

In the last two weeks, several mass shootings have occurred in the United States.  Four people died in Orange, California (including a nine year old boy) on March 31st.  Just nine days earlier, a man killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.  On March 16th, a gunman shot and killed 8 at massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia.    In fact, Americans witnessed 20 serious acts of gun violence in the last two weeks where multiple people were killed or wounded.  

The recent acts of gun violence have many Americans asking for something to change.  President Biden cannot ignore the requests from citizens and members of Congress for him to lead the charge at changing something.  Biden has publicly commented that he would like to see a return to the 1994 ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, gun buyback programs, and universal background checks.  

Right now, Biden has some political capital to work with.  He could strong arm some individuals (particularly within the Senate) to go along with some of these policy recommendations, but that would mean Biden would miss out on making any other serious policy changes until at least after the 2022 Elections.

Additionally, the president must contend with the immigration crisis happening at the southern border.  Migrants from Mexico, and Central America have been crossing the US border for a long time.  This is nothing new.  However, the current surge of undocumented or illegal immigrants (choose your own term, I don’t object to either) is the largest of the last two decades, according to the U.S. News & World Report

Border agents reported more than 100,000 apprehensions or expulsions in the month of February.  That is an absurd total, and the crisis becomes more critical when we consider the record number of unaccompanied children coming to the United States.  A recent report estimated that in March alone, more than 18,500 unaccompanied children entered the nation, creating a massive humanitarian problem which the federal government is currently not equipped to handle. 

The Biden administration did not create the problem, but it is now their issue to solve.  Though critics point to Biden’s policies at the border as a reason for the surge, it’s more likely the pandemic’s effects on poorer nations in Central America are the culprit in sending record numbers of people to the United States.  Biden hasn’t been in office long enough for his policies to have caused such an effect, but it’s clear that he must own it now.  

Immigration policy seems more focused right now on stopping the influx and providing basic services for the people detained, especially the children.  This issue cannot be ignored and, like the infrastructure problem, Americans want a solution to a longstanding problem.  It reminds the Biden team that you can plan and script anything, but the reality never lets you govern like you would want.

President Biden’s infrastructure bill will hinge on how he handles gun violence and immigration issues.  He needs friends on the other side of the aisle and I can’t see him sacrificing the infrastructure plans over these two issues.  

The problem is that he doesn’t have many friends on the other side of the aisle.  The American Rescue Plan passed through the House by a 219-212 margin while the Senate was evenly divided 50-50.  Vice President Kamala Harris, per the Constitution, cast the tie-breaking vote.  If Democrats struggled to pass a piece of legislation most Americans believed necessary, then it’s highly unlikely they will receive any assistance for infrastructure, gun policy, or anything else, for that matter.  

Would implementing the ban on assault weapons, buyback programs, and background checks be helpful?  I believe it could move the needle in preventing dangerous people from acquiring weapons.  However, the amount of political capital it would take to change gun policy would not be worth the limited effect those measures would have.  The same could be said about changes to immigration policy.

What’s next for President Biden and Democrats?

This administration will focus on the infrastructure bill and shepherding it through Congress.  Other issues of immigration reform and gun policy will rely on President Biden utilizing executive orders and the help of cabinet departments and other agencies within the executive branch.  This allows President Biden to make some changes within already existing law, but these issues must wait.

Moreover, another important piece of legislation looms large for the administration and Democrats in Congress.  A large progressive contingent is determined to pass the For The People Act, which would radically change elections and voting in the United States.  It’s an important policy piece that the House has already passed (220-210), but Democrats face a more difficult challenge in the Senate.  I’ll tackle that piece of legislation next week.