Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The curious record of Senator Sinematic

You might recall, from years past, that I (your Scriber) have flipped and flopped when it comes to U. S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema. I’ve complained about her voting record in the House. But then I’ve published data showing that she voted mostly progressively and against Trump. If you want to sample her voting use the search feature on this blog for “Sinematic”. Most recently she dramatically, Sinematically we could say, nixed the $15 minimum wage and then joined Sen. Joe Manchin in rejecting filibuster reform. Following are two posts on the latter matter.

On the filibuster’s future, Arizona’s Sinema makes a flawed case What should happen when Republican senators are asked to “change their behavior,” and they respond, “No”?

When it comes to efforts to reform the Senate’s filibuster rules, proponents of institutional changes clearly have plenty of momentum. Many senators who, as recently as a few years ago, wanted to leave the chamber’s status quo in place indefinitely have changed their minds.

But in the Senate Democratic conference, support for an overhaul is not yet universal. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) receives the bulk of the attention in this debate, in part because he’s Congress’ most conservative Democrat, and in part because he’s been quite vocal in his opposition to major institutional changes.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), however, is every bit as opposed to filibuster reforms as Manchin – and by some measures, more so. She just tends not to talk about it as much.

In early March, the Arizonan wrote a relatively long letter to a constituent, making the case for leaving the filibuster alone. It was good to see the senator tackle the issue in some detail, but Sinema’s letter included suspect historical claims.

This week, the Democratic senator elaborated on her perspective to the Wall Street Journal.

“When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” she said in an interview after two constituent events in Phoenix. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

I read this paragraph several times, trying to better understand where Sinema is coming from, but it’s a difficult perspective to understand.

To be sure, it’s encouraging to see the senator acknowledge concerns that the Senate is “broken” and “not working.” After all, the status quo is awfully tough to defend. But by all appearances, it’s the abuse of the rules that has turned the chamber into such a mess. Restoring the Senate to a majority-rule institution – the way it operated for generations before the routinization of abuses – would allow it to start functioning again, but that’s a change Sinema will not consider.

To restore majority-rule, she says, would be to “erode the rules” that are being abused.

But it’s that next sentence in her quote that I found especially important: “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together.”

Wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple?

Senate Republicans have broken the institution, refuse to compromise, and have abandoned any interest in responsible governance? This could be fixed if GOP senators simply “changed their behavior.”

And while I can appreciate the appeal of such a wish – I’d be delighted if Senate Republicans behaved more responsibly – there’s an unavoidable follow-up question: what if senators don’t “change their behavior and begin to work together”?

What if Americans elect a Democratic House, Democratic Senate, and Democratic White House, expecting elected officials to deliver on a Democratic agenda, and Republicans stand in the way of constructive policymaking? What if GOP senators are asked to “change their behavior,” and they respond, “No”?

Sinema appears to believe that, at that point, the nation should simply tolerate a Senate that is “broken” and “not working,” leaving it intact until voters elect members who’ll behave more responsibly. Given the ideological direction of the Republican Party, that’s a recipe for indefinite dysfunction.

In my thinking, it also does a disservice to her constituents.

Kyrsten Sinema is misleading her constituents. And she almost surely knows it.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is one of the Democratic caucus’ most determined opponents of doing away with the filibuster. If Democrats are ever going to pass sweeping new voting rights measures, they must be prepared to end the filibuster if necessary, but that will likely remain impossible as long as Sinema — and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — remain unmovable.

Which means Sinema’s current arguments could have enormous consequences, both for the future of the Democratic majority in Congress, and for our democracy more generally.

Sinema recently made the case to constituents for keeping the filibuster on grounds that it will smooth a “bipartisan process” that will respect “the opinions of senators from the minority party” and “result in better, common sense legislation.”

Now Sinema has expanded on this argument in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

"When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” she said in an interview after two constituent events in Phoenix. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

This argument is not only misleading; it’s cynically misleading.

After all, Sinema concedes that the Senate is in fact “broken,” in that the parties aren’t working together. Yet we still have the filibuster. That means by Sinema’s own lights, its existence isn’t doing what she has claimed it does, i.e., facilitate bipartisanship.

So instead of addressing that, Sinema moves the goal posts. Now the problem is the conduct and lack of civic virtue of individual Senators, irrespective of the rules. If only they would “change their behavior and begin to work together,” the Senate would no longer be broken. So changing the rules is not necessary.

But the conduct of senators actually is influenced by the chamber’s rules — in exactly the opposite way from what Sinema has suggested.

In reality, the filibuster frustrates bipartisanship. We have direct experience of this from the last Democratic presidency, that of Barack Obama: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell relied on the filibuster to facilitate the withholding of bipartisan cooperation.

Here’s how this works. Precisely because a partisan Democratic majority cannot pass things alone in the face of GOP filibusters, the handful of GOP senators who might be inclined to reach compromises with Democrats are actually incentivized not to. The pressure is on them to deny Democrats bipartisan victories, because that’s bad for Democrats and good for their own party.

By contrast, if things can pass by simple majority, that actually has a better chance of incentivizing bipartisan cooperation. That’s because, if a partisan majority can pass something anyway, those few opposition senators now have reason to negotiate with the majority to try to influence the measure en route to passage.

It actually makes sense that the rules would shape incentives, and by extension, the individual conduct of lawmakers. Generally speaking, that’s what institutional rules are designed to do. When they don’t have the influence on individual actors we want them to, and incentives go awry, we seek to change them.

In this regard, Sinema’s position is deeply self-contradictory. First she defends the filibuster’s existence by noting that keeping the rules as is will result in virtuous, public-spirited conduct. But then, when forced to admit this isn’t happening, she declares that this conduct can be attained outside of any incentives created by the rules.

What’s so frustrating about this is that Sinema seems to be relying on an awareness that her arguments seem superficially plausible. It sounds true that the filibuster facilitates bipartisanship. It sounds true that the real problem is that lawmakers just won’t “work together.”

But relying on such superficial plausibility to tell your constituents these things is to mislead them. It risks scrambling their expectations about what’s really possible under the status quo, and confusing them about why it isn’t happening and how that might be changed. The self-contradictory progression of Sinema’s arguments suggests she is aware of this.

No comments:

Post a Comment