Political ‘Infrastructure’ and the future of West Virginia Politics

With all the discussion of physical infrastructure in the last six months, the possibility exist that we have forgotten about a more important type of infrastructure in society.  The political institutions which comprise key aspects of a democracy arguably constitute a more important ‘political’ infrastructure in our society.  In the last decade, the West Virginia Republican Party has significantly altered these institutions, which tilt elections in their favor for the immediate future.

Democrats once held great sway in West Virginia, but since 2000, the state dramatically turned red.  Some of the reasons relate to the focus on political issues.  The Bush administration started a trend of focusing on political issues leaning more towards the social policies rather than economic policies.  Most residents in West Virginia hold anti-abortion views and the GOP capitalizes on this in every single election.  And that’s part of the game, so to speak.  Candidates and their parties have the responsibility of framing the issues in a way which appeals to voters and then help turn out those voters.  However, the systems and means by which we elect our representatives are changing in ways which unfairly help Republicans.

So what are examples of these changes in political infrastructure?

1. Most people overlook the elected position in West Virginia of Secretary of State.  This individual bears the primary responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections for the entire state.  The Secretary of State possesses wide latitude in determining how counties conduct elections and tabulate votes.

While we often overlook the this position, the entire nation should understand the importance of the position after the mess with Georgia’s Secretary of State in the 2020 Election, where he refused to overturn the results of the state’s presidential returns.  In West Virginia, current Secretary of State Mac Warner raised eyebrows after his election in 2016 by firing 16 employees in the Office of Secretary of State almost immediately.  As it happened, most of the 16 employees were Democrats.  Warner hired 23 individuals, and almost all were Republicans.  Regardless of the level of employees’ competency, the optics were bad.  

Firing a group of people and then replacing them with members of one political party provides the Republican Party with their people on the inside of key government positions on how to handle election policy.  Moreover, those 16 people who lost their jobs?  They filed lawsuits for wrongful termination and settled with the state.  The payouts totaled over $3.2 million of your tax dollars.  Small price to pay for controlling the gears of elections.

2. The state legislature also contributes to the development of Republican political infrastructure.  One of their more recent changes involves the creation of an intermediate court system.  Prior to this change, any civil or criminal complaint would originate in the appropriate circuit court and any potential appeal moved directly to the West Virginia State Supreme Court.  The intermediate court of three judges adds another layer to the legal system, which benefits those who fall into the Republican camp.  Adding another court to West Virginia makes it more difficult for individuals with less financial resources to pursue a claim or an appeal in courts.  This, in sheer percentages, would likely benefit Republicans more than Democrats.  The new law, which maintains that these judges on the court will be elected in the future, allows for the governor to appoint the first round of judges on staggered terms.  Governor Jim Justice, of course, is a Republican.  

3. Last year, the State Senate passed SB 565, which would have altered elections in some concerning ways.  Current election law in West Virginia allows for early voting in person to occur from the 13th day prior to the election to the 3rd day prior to the election.  This law would have changed that early voting period to the 17th day prior to the election to the 7th.  What’s the rationale for this type of change? 

More concerning about SB 565 was the provision which would have allowed for purging voter registration rolls if a voter did not vote in the previous election.  This would allow the Secretary of State more control over elections and the right to vote.  If a voter sat out a single election, the Secretary of State could remove their name from the voting pool.  The Republican Party would control a significant piece of the infrastructure in elections.  

Ultimately, SB 565 did not pass through the House of Delegates before the 2021 session ended.  Yet, as with most legislation, it stands to reason that the bill’s sponsors will pick this up again in the 2022 session.  

4. Republicans currently hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and this means they can pass virtually any piece of legislation they deem necessary.  Democrats can do little to push back.  One of the perks of having a majority at this particular moment is that the GOP controlled the redistricting process for the senate and the House of Delegates.  Republicans instituted some rather significant changes in this area which create more favorable circumstances for their candidates.

The most noteworthy change to the system stemmed from the decision to move from multi-member districts to single member districts in the House of Delegates.  Previously, the multi-member districts played an important role in helping to maintain representation of an area proportional to the community at large.  For instance, in the old system, I lived in House District 16, which had three seats.  A voter could choose up to three people to represent the district, allowing for a range of representation.  In the Election of 2020, House 16 had two Republicans and one Democrat.  Two of the three are white and the third is black.   

Multi-member districts also have a natural immunity to gerrymandering (redrawing district lines to help or hurt a candidate or group).  It becomes more difficult to fudge with the districts if less of them exist.  The old system had 67 districts, and the new one will have 100.  That’s 50% more districts to draw in a way that would benefit particular people, groups, or parties.

Questions quickly popped up over a change to a district affecting incumbent Caleb Hanna (R-44), whose new district would have included part of Pocahontas County.  Delegates requested the change because of a white supremacist group which lives isolated in Pocahontas County (Delegate Hanna is African-American).  The white supremacist group in said county is largely defunct and would likely have no impact on any election.  Critics also pointed out that the Republicans only wished to protect racial minorities if they were of the same party.

Republicans also redrew the districts into a fashion whereby many Democratic incumbents would face one another in an election, whereas few Republicans would face such primary contests.  

If you look at the new districts, some of the shapes appear bizarre enough to suggest gerrymandering.  The accompanying demographic data also presents some curious numbers on race.  Not one of the 100 districts contains less than a 74% white grouping.  Ironically, one of the districts which has the largest non-white percentage is home to Delegate Sean Hornbuckle (D-16), a candidate so widely popular in the Huntington area, he would probably win regardless of the racial makeup. 

There are only a few of the major areas in the state where I have a deep level of familiarity, and two of those are Huntington and Charleston.  If Republicans had a commitment to protecting racial minorities, I can assure you that the committee on redistricting could have drawn a better map for the Huntington and Charleston areas.

Why does this stuff matter?  

The most significant right any citizen has in a democracy is the right to vote.  Without that unobstructed right, the people are at the mercy of those in power.  The political infrastructure which is being altered in West Virginia is worth examining:

  • The Secretary of State’s mismanagement of a system which includes his stacking his office with political allies.
  • Creating an additional layer of courts which can only benefit those with financial resources, imbued with Republican appointed judges for the foreseeable future 
  • Attempting to alter voting rights legislation 
  • Abandoning multi-member districts 
  • Gerrymandering districts to benefit one party and certain people 

This leads to a state dominated by a single party and no true representation of the people.  The move from blue to red in the last two decades finally saw Republicans surpass Democrats in number of registered voters, with 36.8% and 36.5% respectively.  Surprisingly, 22.6% of voters in West Virginia hold no party affiliation.  These percentages definitely aren’t indicative of the government the state has.

The state has also witnessed a few politicians make a flip in party affiliation.  We are all aware of Jim Justice’s transition from Democrat to Republican, but others have seen the light, as it were.  

In 2014, Daniel Hall flipped to the Republican Party when the State Senate held a 17-17 balance, giving the GOP a majority.  At the time, he noted, “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming and Mcdowell [sic] counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate. I have always picked our people over party…and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”  

This past summer, Delegate Mick Bates switched to the majority party, giving the Republicans a 78-22 advantage in the House.  Bates wrote in a statement explaining his move, “At a national level, the controlling interests and leadership of the Democratic party continue to pursue positions that alienate and anger voters in rural parts of the country and don’t reflect the priorities, values or beliefs of the people in West Virginia.”  That’s a coded message explaining that his district voted heavily for Donald Trump, and he sees the proverbial writing on the wall. 

Last week, another relevant switch occurred when former Delegate Doug Reynolds announced he was leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.  The news seems relevant because it has to precede some type of announcement for another run at office.  Reynolds is not at all someone who could be described as conservative, but after losing the 2016 Election for Attorney General to Patrick Morrissey, he, too, must have seen which way the winds are blowing.

Reynolds’ party switch is more concerning than others because he founded and runs HD Media, which owns a number of newspapers in Southern West Virginia, including the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, and the state’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  These important institutional mechanisms for conveying key information, endorsements, and other political news have largely been fairly liberal in the past.  Does that change in the future?

One thing is for certain.  The Republican Party has effectively laid the groundwork for political domination of state politics for some time to come.  A one-party state benefits no one.

The Honeymoon is Over: The future of Biden agenda

ike most marriages, a presidential administration begins with a warm, fuzzy feeling of hope.  When President Joe Biden took the oath of office on January 20th, he brought a breath of fresh air after four years of poor policy decisions.  Once a president takes office, he still must govern effectively. 

The road ain’t as long as President Biden would like

The administration’s first 100 days were filled with successes and hope for the the coming year.  President Biden scored a policy victory by passing The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which authorized $1.9 trillion of spending on COVID relief and assisted in the distribution of vaccine delivery.  The administration reached its goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans within the first 100 days of the president’s term.  American citizens received a stimulus check.  The economy added jobs in recovering from the COVID shutdown.  President Biden’s approval ratings hovered in the 60-something range.  Supporters of the administration mentioned the president’s name in the same breath as Franklin Roosevelt.

The Biden administration hoped to parlay early victories into support for a broad sweeping infrastructure bill known as The American Jobs Plan.  Democrats also proposed a bold attempt at reforming the nation’s elections laws in the For The People Act, which would have likely ended partisan gerrymandering, changed campaign finance laws, and established nationalized standards for ballots and voting procedures.  Maybe he is or isn’t FDR, but you can’t say President Biden isn’t swinging for the fences.

In politics, however, even early victories in an administration sometimes can’t produce enough political capital to govern in the way he or she would like.  And unfortunately for this administration (and probably the nation as a whole), the honeymoon is over for President Biden and America. 

The problems add up

President Biden’s agenda has always hinged on the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate.  The practice of stalling a bill to death means 60 votes are required to push legislation forward.  However, changing Senate rules to end the filibuster only requires 50 votes (Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate).  Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has refused to vote in favor ending the filibuster, dealing a significant blow to the Biden administration. 


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) advanced the For The People Act though Democrats had always understood it would not pass.  A vote only served to put senators on the record about where they stood on the matter.  The measured failed on a 50-50 vote where no one crossed party lines.

With the voting rights legislation out of the picture for the foreseeable future, President Biden and his team turned their attention to the infrastructure bill.  The Senate could pass the measure using the reconciliation process (a procedure which only requires a majority of votes if the bill relates to spending / budget issues).  It’s how Democrats passed the The American Rescue Plan.  Yet, Senator Manchin threw a wrench in the works again.  West Virginia’s senior senator did not want to use the reconciliation process to pass a bill unless at least one Republican senator would vote for the bill.  Manchin has always maintained that the nation needs to work on reestablishing bipartisanship. 

In that spirit of bipartisanship, Manchin has attempted and succeeded in brokering a deal which will involve support from at least 11 Republicans, including Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).  This bill would spend $579 billion immediately and add additional money over the next decade to address a number of infrastructure projects which the nation desperately needs.  

President Biden’s agenda seems to have stalled

So, isn’t this a good thing?  Not exactly for the Biden administration the context of this article.  The politics of who receives credit for this infrastructure bill matters.  The 21 Democrats and Republicans in Congress have a chance to raise their profiles and let everyone know they made it happen, and the president was along for the ride.  Moreover, the bill has crossover appeal amongst the moderates of both parties, but the more liberal wing of the Democrats has expressed frustration over it.  

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke of her frustration with bipartisan deals, noting, “… when these bipartisan deals come together, they tend to underserve the communities that are already underserved …”  

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps the most liberal in Congress, also didn’t seem too keen about this bill.  Sanders and other members of the more progressive wing of the party believe the term ‘infrastructure’ should include pieces such as climate change, paid family leave, foster care, and funds dedicated to health care.

Members of Congress in the more liberal wing felt a sense of relief when the White House stated they would pursue a two-bill tandem process, which would include a reconciliation budget bill to take up the issues not included in the infrastructure compromise.   The president almost inadvertently torpedoed the entire thing by implying he would veto the infrastructure bill without support for the budget bill.  He later clarified that he would not veto the compromise bill.

The bill isn’t a done deal, and a revolt from his own party isn’t out of the question, and this might be more damaging to his administration than if Republicans kept stonewalling in the Senate.


President Biden also must contend with a growing number of mass shootings across the country.  At the halfway point of this year, more than 270 mass shootings have occurred.  The president’s ability to respond to gun violence is limited to executive orders and these cannot supersede law.  Making any meaningful change to gun policy would require new legislation and Republicans will not yield on this issue.

The president’s accomplishments with regard to vaccine distribution and economic relief seem like a distant memory for most Americans.  Most of the Americans who wanted a COVID vaccine have probably already received one, and stimulus money is long gone.  Throw in a heat wave that is crushing the Northwest and other ‘normal’ problems and no one cares about the fact that unemployment numbers were down in May.

Earlier this year, President Biden tasked Vice President Harris with focusing on the crisis on the southern border and that situation has not improved.  The number of illegal crossings hit a record high in March, and initially, analysts believed those numbers might decrease.  However, the numbers for April and May have eclipsed the record set in March.  Each of the last three months has seen more than 170,000 illegal crossings.  

Vice President Harris complicated matters when dropped the ball in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.  When confronted with a question about why she had not been to the border to personally visit, Vice President Harris responded in a flummoxed manner, “And I haven’t been to Europe … And, I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”  It didn’t go over well with anyone.  

What’s holding back the Biden agenda?

1.  A divided Senate — When President Biden took office this year, he did so with a slight majority in the House of Representatives and an evenly divided 50-50 Senate.  This limits his ability to persuade Congress to act.  When Franklin Roosevelt took office, Democrats held 58 of the 96 Senate seats and 311 of the 435 House seats.  In the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, his party controlled 65 Senate seats and 268 House seats.  Barack Obama’s initial numbers were 60 and 256, respectively.  Modern presidents who were known for substantially advancing legislation had an easier path to establishing meaningful policies because they had Congress’ backing.  Without a unified government, any president will struggle. 

2.  Heightened partisanship — The degree to which members of both major parties stick to their tribe affects the Biden agenda, or any president’s agenda.  Members of Congress are too scared to deviate from the official party line.  Democratic and Republican leaders have made it clear they are willing to punish members who go too far off the reservation.  You can believe that Republican leadership made this principle quite clear when they removed Liz Cheney (R-WY) from leadership after her criticism of former President Donald Trump.  Party officials also hold sway over committee assignments, campaign finances, and potential primary challenges.  Only a few members, such as Joe Manchin, have any immunity to this.  If Democrats, for instance, wanted to fund a primary challenger against Manchin, he would only benefit from this.  West Virginia’s generally conservative nature would view a primary challenge against Manchin as a sign that he’s doing the right things.  Also, Manchin’s age must be factored in.  He isn’t facing re-election until 2024 and at that point, he might retire.  He’s one of the rare members of Congress who is as close to bulletproof as you can be.  However, Manchin is the exception and not the rule.

With the 2022 mid-term elections right around the corner, both parties understand what’s at stake.  Democrats need more legislative victories to cement their hold on both houses of Congress (and free them from the tyranny of Joe Manchin).  Republicans hope to stall out the rest of this front half of Biden’s term, with the premise of telling voters that the president did not deliver.  The 2022 mid-terms mean both parties have incentives not to stray from the party line.

3.  Joe Manchin — On one hand, I really like Manchin because, in many ways, he represents a number of political ideas I like.  He’s an old-school Democrat and that’s where I fit in, but he’s also (unintentionally) obstructing policies which an administration has a right to implement when they occupy the White House.  The tactics of the minority party’s ‘run out the clock’ mantra have to change, and Joe Manchin isn’t helping that.  The divided Senate wouldn’t be an issue if Manchin would vote to eliminate the filibuster.  It would be less of an issue if he would be willing to vote for the reconciliation process.  

4. The short memory of voters — American voters only see what’s right in front of them, and the present situation shows us problems and inefficiency. Republicans have more than a decent chance to reclaim both houses of Congress in 2022 and a plausible reason is that the American public won’t remember the positive changes that arrived with the Biden administration. You can see this in a slow decline of President Biden’s approval ratings. The president’s political capital is drying up and there is little room for significant legislation to move forward until after the Election of 2022.

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.  

Punched in the mouth: No scripted presidency for Biden

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” 

— Mike Tyson, former heavyweight boxing champion 

Mike Tyson was asked about an upcoming fight with Evander Holyfield, another great heavyweight champion, specifically as to how Tyson would try to disrupt Holyfield’s fight plan.  This is when Tyson uttered his now famous maxim about taking a punch to the mouth.  That was part of Tyson’s fight strategy all the time.  He hit them with such power and ferocity that most fighters would freeze in the moment and their plans would crumble under the weight of a devastating uppercut.  

President Joe Biden’s administration now faces its first real punches in the mouth.  Through the president’s first 100 days, few major challenges presented themselves.  Members of the Republican Party threw a few jabs, just feeling out the new chief executive.  Now into a steady rhythm, the administration is absorbing a few power shots that will try to throw Biden and his team off balance.  

The jab 

The latest and perhaps most devastating setback for Team Biden is the latest jobs report.  In April, the United States added 266,000 jobs, according to the Department of Labor.  That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that analysts predicted a significantly higher number, about four times that number to be more precise.  Unemployment rose slightly from 6.0% to 6.1% and the jobs numbers from March were revised (to 770,000 jobs added and down from the original estimate of 916,000).  This is definitely not the news the administration hoped to see.

Though the president cannot single-handedly control the economy (for good reason), he or she takes credit when the country prospers (re:  Bill Clinton) and also bears the blame when the economy spirals out of control (poor Herbert Hoover).  This is part of the game, so to speak.  

So what’s the play for the administration?  The jobs report obviously gives the GOP ammunition, but the president and his people should spin this as simply one month’s worth of data, and the long term predictions for economic growth still show a positive trend.  Moreover, this is an opportunity for Biden to stress the need for his infrastructure bill, which could establish millions of jobs.  

The right cross 

The problem of the jobs report will dissolve with the next news cycle, though it stings.  A greater problem has been brewing at the southern border of the United States, and thus far, it’s the serious threat to The White House’s agenda.  So far, the administration has not used the term ‘crisis,’ but it’s a crisis.  Previous presidential administrations have consistently passed down this problem to their successors, and that’s unfortunate, but the problem belongs to Biden and he must own it.

Migrants came across the border in record number in April 2021

In March, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection tallied over 170,000 encounters and apprehensions of migrants illegally entering the country.  This staggering figure represents the most in a 20 year time frame, and stretches manpower thin.  The numbers for each of the first four months of Biden’s presidency compared to President Donald Trump’s show significant increases in illegal border traffic.

What’s causing the increase in the number of migrants crossing the border?  Men and women have been coming from South America, Central America, and Mexico for decades, and that’s not new at all.  However, the surge of migrants has increased under the inability of many of those nations to adequately provide care and vaccinations for COVID-19.  The recovery from the pandemic also limits economic opportunities in nations already short on jobs.  During the pandemic last year, Central America endured a series of brutal hurricanes which inflicted significant damage.  It’s also likely that many poor migrants saw a Biden administration as far more permissive on its immigration policies than former President Trump.

The Biden administration is currently transferring unaccompanied children who crossed the border from the custody of Customs and Border Protection to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  This is not an insignificant action, considering Customs and Border Protection are responsible for detention whereas HHS provides care and shelter.  President Biden also increased the number of refugees the United States would take from 15,000 to 62,500 — a salve upon the wound, at best.  

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also has a role to play in this situation, as they have been tasked with reuniting families who had previously been separated in crossing the border or during processing by Border Patrol agents. 

President Biden has personally made an appeal via the media for migrants to not come to the United States and to definitely not sent their children.  However, to stop the humanitarian crisis at the border, broader policy changes need to happen on immigration.  Any president’s authority to take unilateral action has limits.  Congress must establish legislation for any long lasting change to occur, and that might be a problem … 

The body blow 

About that need for legislation?  It shouldn’t be this much of an issue for President Biden to guide legislation through Congress during this early portion of his term.  Not only does the president enjoy a 54% approval rating, but Democrats currently control the House of Representatives (218-212 with five vacancies) and the Senate (50-50 with the Vice President casting tie votes).

Unfortunately, the nature of the Senate’s rules on debate make it possible for the minority party to stifle any legislation which they might find too objectionable.  Under Senate rules, debate on a bill cannot end unless 60 senators agree.  Since it is rare that either party ever has this many senators, it’s often difficult for legislation to pass even if a party has a majority of senators.  Thus, any senator who wishes to continue ‘debating’ a bill can stall the process under what is known as a filibuster (it comes from the Dutch word for ‘piracy,’ so draw your own conclusions).  

Members of the Senate can vote to change the rules of the body, with only a majority needed to eliminate the filibuster.  Okay, so Democrats can do that, right?  Not exactly.

Senator Joe Manchin, a very moderate Democrat from a very red state (my beloved West Virginia), believes he can somehow restore a sense of bipartisanship to American politics.  As such, he wrote in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”  

To be fair, Manchin’s argument pertaining to why he won’t vote to end the filibuster has some merit.  He rightfully pointed out that without the minority party’s ability to potentially halt legislation, there could be drastic swings in federal policy.  This is true when we consider the pendulum-like nature of party control in Congress.  Popular or successful policies could be eliminated simply because the majority party disagreed with them.  

Manchin might be correct about swings in policy making at the federal level, but while he stands firm, legislation important to the nation sits idly in committee rooms of the Senate.  Two of these pieces of legislation (already passed by the House), are significant in the future of this nation, and both would genuinely benefit his home state.  Of course, any vote for a Biden initiative appears to many West Virginians as some kind of betrayal (it’s a wonderful, yet strange place to live).

Is it possible that President Biden’s agenda hinges entirely on Joe Manchin?

The For the People Act (also known as HR1) would prevent partisan gerrymandering, mitigate the influence of big money in elections, and require states take significant actions to make voting easier.  Additionally, The American Jobs Plan would make a significant investment into the infrastructure of this nation (long overdue) and provide millions of jobs for Americans (mostly blue-collar jobs according to The White House).

While I think some moderate Republicans are open to negotiations about these pieces of legislation, the current leadership structure of the GOP does not want either of these bills to pass the Senate.  If either of these bills passes, President Biden will have two signature pieces of legislation passed in less than a year.  The implementation of these policies would win elections in 2022 for Democrats and Republicans want to prevent this.  The GOP treats these bills as a zero-sum game, where a victory for Democrats means a defeat for them.  While they cause more gridlock in lawmaking, the American people miss out on opportunities. 

If anyone thinks the GOP cares about bipartisanship, look no further than the recent infighting in House leadership where Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) caved to the right wing of his party in moving to hold a vote to remove Liz Cheney (R-WY) from a leadership position, due to her vote to impeach former President Donald Trump and her refusal to perpetuate the lie that Trump was cheated out of the 2020 Presidential Election.   The GOP seems to be sending a clear message to anyone in the party that stepping out of line will come at a price.

The GOP also didn’t seem to care much about bipartisanship in the Trump administration, when they passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts of 2017.  This law passed both the House and the Senate with zero votes from Democrats.  (Note:  The 51-48 margin in the Senate was achieved through the reconciliation process.)

I understand what Joe Manchin is hoping to do for the country, but the Republican Party has not, and will not play by the same rules.  This is why his insistence is such a blow to the Biden administration.  In past years, presidents from either party were given an honest chance to implement their agenda without the opposing party becoming the party of ‘no.’  

This is where the Biden administration seems to find itself at the moment, hit with some serious punches to the mouth.  Yet, the Manchin situation is the most devastating shot.  How does President Biden counter?  What does he do about one rogue senator?

Oh, about that Mike Tyson fight against Evander Holyfield?  Tyson was right, to an extent.  We do see what happens to a plan when someone gets punched in the mouth.  Holyfield, known as one of the great counterpunchers in boxing history, took Tyson’s best shots and stuck with his plan.  He TKO’d Tyson in the 11th round.  Here’s to hoping Biden can channel his inner-Holyfield.

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.