When it comes to legislative deadlines, Democrats can learn a lesson from a Vermont independent caucusing with Democrats. But that Vermonter isn’t Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Twenty years ago this month, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched party affiliation from Republican to an independent aligned with the Democrats. Just 154 days into the split 107th Senate, Jeffords single-handedly ended Republican unified control of government.
Fast forward 10 Senates and an independent senator from Vermont (albeit with a more socialist tilt) caucuses with the Democrats. The 117th Senate has been split for more than 130 days since the two Georgia Democrats were sworn in on Jan. 20. It’ll cross the 154-day mark later this month.
Becoming the longest consecutive split Senate since the 19th century in just the first six months underscores one thing: Split Senates aren’t meant to last.
While no Democrat is looking to defect from the party, there’s the looming risk of Democrats facing a literal deadline. Near the end of his life, Ben Franklin said, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Clearly, Franklin wasn’t thinking about the step-up in basis and the potentially $1 trillion tax gap.
But as Democrats work to make tax fairness and the rest of their fiscal agenda a certainty, death is out of their control. On average, 10 lawmakers have died in each session of Congress. The split Senates of the 47th Congress and the 83rd Congress were marred with illnesses, deaths and even a presidential assassination that upset the balance of power.
With the average Senate Democrat two years away from qualifying for Medicare, there are 11 Democratic senators representing states with Republican governors who could appoint a GOP replacement in the case of a vacancy. That includes Vermont, the oldest state delegation of the oldest Senate where both senators were hospitalized in the last two years.
Simply put, in a 50-50 Senate, one Democratic vacancy means no Democratic majority and no Democratic agenda.
If Democrats lose the 50th seat this Congress, it could be a long time before they get it back. Jeffords’ defection proved to be a temporary setback for Republicans, who came back to win the Senate majority and gain seats in the House in the 2002 midterm elections. But 2002 and the New Deal electoral realignment in 1934 were the only two midterms since the Civil War where the president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate.
When President Joe Biden says his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan are “once-in-a-generation” federal investments, he means it literally. From 2001-2020, Democrats held unified control of government for just two years (2009-2010). From 1981-2000, they held control for just two years (1993-1994). If history is any guide, the 117th Congress could very well be the last time for the foreseeable future that Democrats get to drive the legislative agenda.
This is why the legislative deadlines today matter. Every informal deadline missed (e.g. Memorial Day for “real progress” on infrastructure, the anniversary of George Floyd’s death for passing police reform) pushes back the agenda and leaves Democrats skating on thin ice for longer.
If all U.S. senators remain fit and healthy (knock on wood), that would leave Democrats with unified control until the start of the new Congress on Jan. 3, 2023. But Democrats can’t wait until the last minute. They may not even be able to wait until 2022 as campaign season makes legislating even harder.
Plus, the legislative process takes time. Budget reconciliation bills, a way to bypass the 60-vote threshold in the Senate for certain legislation, have taken about five months on average to finish. Democrats earlier this year completed the reconciliation process for the American Rescue Plan in a little over a month. But that same economic and public health crisis mentality does not exist this time around for long-term policy priorities.
The task in the weeks and months ahead is for Democratic leadership to lay out goalposts for progress on legislation well before the unmovable deadlines arrive. Meeting these informal deadlines requires exerting some top-down pressure — instilling a sort of political crisis mentality while also providing the necessary policy carrots (especially for the Joe Manchins of the party) to get every Democratic rank-and-file member aligned.
Biden’s Build Back Better agenda can become a reality, even with a split Senate. But Democratic leadership should heed the words of the current Vermont independent and the actions of the previous Vermont independent. The time to start moving forward is now.
Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, D.C.
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