When Democrats and their allies in media describe a $3.5 trillion “budget blueprint” that includes essentially the whole progressive agenda, they’re careful to focus primarily on what it would accomplish.
It would be “the most significant expansion of the nation’s social safety net since the Great Society,” the New York Times reported. Indeed, “some say” the legislation is “on par with the New Deal of the 1930s” in both scope and cost, according to the Associated Press. The measure would expand access to Medicare, balloon paid family and medical leave, create federal child-care programs, establish “free” universal pre-k and community college, impose green mandates on energy producers, increase subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, and impose “fees” on industries that emit carbon and methane gases.
Any one of these aspects of the progressive agenda would be a slog to pass through an evenly divided Senate and the narrowest of Democratic majorities in the House. But when you lump the whole thing into one comprehensive package, it changes everything. Perhaps most attractively from the progressive perspective, by cramming the smorgasbord of leftwing longings into a “budget” bill, this “bold” and “transformative” legislation does what progressives have always wanted: It short-circuits the conventional legislative process. They’ve put aside all the messy compromises that are usually necessary to pass incremental reforms in favor of one revolutionary blow to the status quo.
The process of budget reconciliation, an arcane parliamentary maneuver designed to speed budgetary issues through the upper chamber, works by making an end-run around the legislative filibuster (to which reconciliation bills are not subject). If liberal Democrats are to be believed, governing this way—with abject contempt for the conventions that stymie radical transformations to the civic compact in the absence of overwhelming, bipartisan consensus—is what they’ve always wanted.
“I think it’s unacceptable to campaign on issues and to say you care about them, and then hand [Republican Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell the ability on behalf of powerful special interests to block those efforts,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley of the filibuster. “I will not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn,” Delaware Sen. Chris Coons agreed, even while conceding that the filibuster’s elimination would remove “what’s left of the structural guardrails” in the upper chamber of Congress. Even the vaunted institutionalist Joe Biden entertained the prospect of ditching the filibuster to get what he wanted out of the legislature. “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” Biden said of Senate Republicans. In other words, whether the filibuster would survive hinges on whether Republicans intended on using it. Truly generous.
The activist left isn’t any more circumspect. The Center for American Progress denounced the “disproportionate power” the filibuster “provides to a small segment of society,” which was precisely its intent. The “filibuster is a tool that [Republicans] use to impede progress,” declared She the People founder Aimee Allison. Sen. Harry Reid’s former deputy chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, claimed that the filibuster is a “procedural tool that was invented by segregationists to uphold Jim Crow and white supremacy.”
Progressives’ efforts to lobby for the legislative filibuster’s abolition failed, but their frustrations with the conventions and norms that govern American legislative politics persists. That frustration is reflective of the sentiments shared by the Democratic Party more broadly, even if the party is reluctant to sacrifice the minority privileges they used to great effect throughout the Trump era. In this $3.5 trillion moonshot, Democrats get to have their revolutionary transformation without having to touch the filibuster. It’s an innovative strategy.
And yet, it doesn’t seem likely to succeed. Without a majority in the Senate (at present, there is no majority and Democrats control the chamber as a result of a mutual agreement with the GOP), the party cannot afford to lose a single vote, and they already have. “I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion,” Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema declared in July. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin isn’t sold either. “Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession,” he said in a formal statement, “not an economy that is on the verge of overheating.”
Having successfully cleaved the “hard infrastructure” initiatives away from progressive demands for social, human, caregiving, and metaphysical “infrastructure,” America’s less revolutionarily inclined legislators are once again imposing restraints on their intemperate colleagues. If they succeed in scuttling this $3.5 trillion exercise of the imagination, it will deal a profound psychological blow to the left on two fronts. Not only will their agenda be imperiled, their totalitarian vision of a Senate that does what they want when they want whether the voting public’s representatives like it or not will once again be exposed as a flight of fancy.
It is a testament to their self-absorption that progressives retain the capacity to be surprised when they discover that not everyone hates the conventions of American politics as much as they do. If this latest effort to circumvent those time-tested protocols fails, progressives will surely be shocked once again. And it will be everyone else’s fault but their own.