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Friday, April 09, 2021

Bitter equilibrium

 Two days ago, Senator Joe Manchin published a revealing op-ed in the Washington Post, explaining why he would never vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster and why he does not favor additional use of hte reconciliation process to pass legislation with a simple majority vote. The piece fails as a work either of history of of constitutional theory.  Manchin begins by pointing out correctly that the Founders created the Senate to protect the rights of small states like West Virginia, to make sure that they "would always have a seat at the table."  "The filibuster," he continues, "is a critical tool to protecting that input and our democratic form of government."  That makes no sense.  The equal representation in the Senate alone  gives small states ample protection against majority rule.  The smallest 26 states send a majority of the Senate today, even though they send only 84 out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives to Washington.  But with the filibuster, the smallest 21 states can block any legislation--and they send only 57 members of the House to Washington.  In the very first Congress, the seven smallest states (out of thirteen total) sent 22 out of 65 total seats to Washington--a full third of the total.  There is no evidence that the Founders had any intention of giving a legislative veto to as little as 20 per cent of the population, must less 13%.  In addition, the Constitution, by requiring a 2/3 vote for the ratification of treaties in the Senate, clearly indicates that a simple majority should suffice for any other legislative purpose.  Manchin clearly wants, and intends, to paralyze our democracy to an extent that the Founders never contemplated.

Manchin, however, is likely to make his position stick, with enormous consequences for the country.  As his article goes on, he suggests that no major legislation--no "sweeping, partisan legislation"--should pass without substantial support from both parties.  I can't help but wonder why he didn't write a comparable op-ed in 2017, when he and every other Democrat opposed the enormous Republican tax cut that passed on a 51-48 party line vote under the reconciliation process. That, however, is a secondary issue.  What Manchin is arguing, in effect, is that the nation is so evenly divided that we must emasculate the federal government and make it impossible for it to take effective, positive action to resolve our problems. And given the extraordinary power that he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona hold in the 50-50 Senate, there is an excellent chance that he will get his way. 

Thanks to the research I've been doing over the last 18 months or so, I can say that the situation which Manchin as frankly advocated, and in which we have been stuck since 2011 in any case, has a great deal in common with US history roughly from 1865 to 1896, in the wake of the Civil War.  The country was equally evenly divided between the victorious Republicans and the Democrats, who included all the ex-Confederates and who had opposed some of the key results of the war, such as the enfranchisement of former slaves, even if they had supported war for the Union.  In the immediate wake of the war, the Republicans didn't have to cope with Democratic filibusters, but they faced a hostile President, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, whom they had picked as Vice Presidential candidate in 1864 to to broaden their support.  They passed the key Reconstruction acts that allowed them to set up Republican governments in the southern states only after securing veto-proof majorities in the 1866 Congressional elections, and by keeping the South out of Congress until those governments had been established.  But because the Republican governments in most of the southern states did not enjoy majority voter support, they lasted only a few years.  Meanwhile, the panic of 1873 allowed the Democrats to regain control of the House of Representatives in 1874.  The Democrats actually won a narrow victory in the disputed 1876 election, but Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, took office as part of a compromise that ended Reconstruction in the last three states where it still continued, as well.  The partisanship of the era had led to many of the tactics we have become familiar with today, including fiddling with the number of Supreme Court justices to secure favorable outcomes; suppressing hostile voters (ex-Confederates in the early years of Reconstruction, black voters after that); and threatening to shut down the government to get Congress's way on particular issues, as the Democrats did under Hayes. 

Then as now, the Republicans were the preferred party of big business, although the Democrats were hardly economic revolutionaries.  The tariff was the main source of revenue, and the Republicans kept it high throughout this period.  It was their main issue the way low taxes are today.  The rival administrations of Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97) and Benjamin Harrison fought a tug-of-war over the tariff comparable to that between Bush II, Obama, Trump, and now Biden over taxes, abortion rights, and many other issues.  Cleveland definitely came out for much lower tariffs late in his first term, but could not get them through Congress.  Harrison promptly raised them again in 1890, and used the money to make a huge giveaway to a key Republican constituency, Civil War veterans.  That proved unpopular, and the Democrats (as in 2006 and 2018) won a sweeping victory in the Congressional elections of 1890, and returned Cleveland to power two years later.  Then the panic of 1893 and the subsequent Depression led to a Republican sweep in 1894.  The radical, free silver wing of the Democratic Party selected William Jennings Bryan--only 36 years old, the AOC of his time--as its candidate in 1896. William McKinley defeated him soundly, beginning 16 years of continuous Republican rule, and even higher tariffs. A new era did not begin until 1912, when, significantly, new progressive ideas had become very strong in both parties and had adherents in all sections. 

President Biden has already put a transformative agenda on the table. I cannot rule out the possibility that he will work a miracle and pass most of it, but the odds seem to me against it.  If he cannot--and especially if the Democrats cannot maintain their razor-thin majority in the House in 2022--that will finally confirm the view that I first posited here in July 2010, when I realized that the last Democratic president was not going to be transformative.  That would tend to confirm that the truly transformative moment in American politics was the Bush II administration and Obama's first term..  It would even suggest that our crisis--in the sense of a turning point in American politics--has been over for some time.


Bozon said...


Verey interesting post and analysis.

Re "Bitter Equilibrium", a fascinating term...

I recently viewed an interview. The interviewer was, unusually, James Grant himself.

The interviewee, William White, a legendary central banker.

White noted some of the conceptual framework ideas rooted in the discipline of economics which hamstring both central bankers and lesser mortals indifferently.

One of those concepts, of all things, is equilibrium.

All the best

Bozon said...


How about a little basic math?

US fillibuster zero sum game = China win win double sum game.

No win win for US, no zero sum fillibuster game, no going back, no tears.

All the best

Koufax said...

David -

Your reference to the filibuster has created an opening for a topic of interest. Chapter 16 of Henry Adams's history of the Madison presidency contains a description of tussle over the revival of the non-importation act, one that favored France over Britain. To overcome a filibuster, the Republican majority of the House of Representatives established the use of the "previous question" as a means of shutting off debate. Adams says: "The Republicans came into office in 1801 to protect special and feeble interests, and had no other reason for their existence than as the enemies of centralized power; yet circumstances drove them to impose silence on the voice of a minority that wanted only to prevent an improper act, and they did so by methods substantially the same as those used by Cromwell or Napoleon."

While the math of today's Senate - and the disproportionate voice given to states with small populations - is not so similar to the composition of the House in 1811, I find it interesting nonetheless to read Adams's passionate defense of the filibuster.


Energyflow said...

We must truly hope that the worst is over. In your terms however it is an analysis of internal politics, which you know as a historian very well. However the basic problem with this is that since this time the USA has expanded its footprint abroad, beyond the Monroe doctrine of those times to a general belief in its exceptionalism in dictating its policy, ideology to all nations, even within their own borders. Pulling back from this concept, ideologically, economically or militarily is like Rome suffering defeat ignominiously as happened several times or slowly withdrawing from the north and east due to lack of funds. Once the imperial objective collapses then the emperor stands naked as in the fairy tale. Multitrillion dollar deficits are not financeable without foreign money. Inflation or depression must result. All our internal bickerings are, like in the previous era of the late 19th century, perhaps equivalent in real emotional terms which we expect in generational sequencing. However the continental isolation has been lost and the American personality, a frontier psychosis of idealistic know it allism and endless expansionism will meet its match in the broad Eurasian expanses with their millenial experiences, deep rooted cultures and huge resources and populations. In effect America' s youthful surge of creativity looks to have met its match for the long term in the international sphere. This is likely where the generational crisis lies, not in a backwater in the fertile crescent of Bush era. Those were easy pickings, like Panama invasion, comparative to the current endeavour. The economy of the globe is intertwined and based on dollars. The global economy is unhealthy and indebted. Demographics in general suggests a decline in Europe, Asia and America. Transition to a green economy meams wind and sunshine power everything. My solar water heater got very little energy this year. As resources dwindle and we gobble up ever more per capita for internet, mobile phones, even currency use( bitcoin, ethereum) how is such an unreliable energy source going to maintain our lifestyles. Chinese and Asian, African ambitions towards a middle class Amerivcan lifestyle seem destined to shatter if ours is in decline due to resource decline and an overaging population structure and unhealthy lifestyles and environmental damage. I had a thought the other day on how we used to all be so local, provincial, insular and now so much of the world is so open, cosmopolitan, diverse. The backwaters have woken up and advance to similar technical and financial capacities as The West. Similarly many of us adopt yoga, tai chi, meditation, sufism, qabbalah, vegetarianism, asian cuisine, Feng shui. I posit that western scientifuc proof of concept and material advances for the masses is America' s true gift to humanity and the practical takeup of a melange of races and cultures which can then be spewed out again to be the basis of a global village, nonprovincial. I read an article on jazz and blues which said the admixture of our cultures in New Orleans brought about a whole new culture, neitner African nor European. The same will occur with Asian culture in America and Europe. Indians look to Californian standards for yoga and its practise has become rejuvenated, increasing pride in their ancient culture, of which they were ashamed in colonial times as backward. Everything comes full circle. Our crisis point is now a global cris much as that of the Italian peninsula in Rome' s early phase of conquest there became a civilizational work of West Asia to Western Europe hundreds of years later. From a POV of someone in a couple hundred years the conquest of the new world means the integration of all continents into a single culture over perhaps a millenia, of which we are halfway through. After this perhaps a new stability of cultures all at a similar cultural and technical level could occur in all geographic areas. So our crisis test of 2000/2008 was likely a test run for the real deal, to see who holds the upper hand out to 2100.

Bozon said...


The fillibuster situation you describe:

"The fillibuster," he continues, "is a critical tool to protecting that input and our democratic form of government." That makes no sense. The equal representation in the Senate alone gives small states ample protection against majority rule. The smallest 26 states send a majority of the Senate today, even though they send only 84 out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives to Washington. But with the filibuster, the smallest 21 states can block any legislation--and they send only 57 members of the House to Washington. In the very first Congress, the seven smallest states (out of thirteen total) sent 22 out of 65 total seats to Washington--a full third of the total. There is no evidence that the Founders had any intention of giving a legislative veto to as little as 20 per cent of the population, must less 13%." DK

is rather like Poland, the laughingstock of European chanceries before its well deserved partition.

All the best

Bozon said...

Re bitter equilibrium, and Voting again, why not consider this:

A majority of the white men of the country, both North and South, (the only truly legitimate voters) favored the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, in 1868.

Much of the South couldn't vote, so Grant easily won the electoral college decision.

Grant's popular majority evaporated without the 450,000 freed illiterate negro slaves, marched by Grant's Radical Republican troops, voted and revoted, around Southern polling stations.

J G Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 798, citing C H Coleman, The Election of 1868.

All the best