The big things Democrats can accomplish with an itsy-bitsy Senate majority

Fix the economy with $2,000 checks, and fix American democracy

A scale.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

It appears that Democrats have won both Senate runoff races in Georgia. At time of writing Raphael Warnock had clearly beaten Kelly Loeffler by over 1 percent, and while Jon Ossoff had a lead of just 0.4 percent, most of the remaining votes are in heavily-Democratic regions. Absent some kind of major development or large counting error, both Georgia senators will be Democrats this year, and they will have control of the chamber with the help of Vice President Harris. Frankly I did not believe this would happen — the Democratic Party, with control of Congress on the line, did not whiff. Incredible!

But now comes the question of what the Dems will do with full control of Congress and the presidency. The wise choice would be to fulfill the promises the party has made to the American people (and particularly Georgians), and repair the damage the Republican Party has done to American democracy.

The most obvious place to start would be to pass the $2,000 checks that both Warnock and Ossoff ran on, and which President-elect Biden recently endorsed.

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When a political party has made a promise to the voters, it is wise to follow through. But the checks have also been a very instructive lesson in what might be called political epistemology. They were less than half the cost of both the CARES Act and the most recent economic rescue package (with its $600 checks), yet got vastly more attention than the huge boost to unemployment, or the small business grants, or the business loan program.

This is surely because universal checks are obvious, inclusive, and easy to get. The vast majority of people received them, even if they made quite a lot of money. Now, they were means-tested — and according to people's income in 2019, which no doubt left a lot of people out who lost their jobs this year. But that also meant that people did not have to do anything to claim them. No complicated paperwork, no application process, no waiting on hold with some bureaucracy for days, the money just showed up in your mailbox or bank account (for most people, at least).

Getting free, zero-effort money from the government, it turns out, is pretty nice — $2,000 checks poll at 78 percent approval, with even a majority of Republicans in support. Donald Trump, with his demagogue's nose for pandering to the masses, was smart to take credit for them as blatantly as he could. It makes for a marked contrast with the payroll tax cut in President Obama's Recovery Act, which was idiotically designed not to be noticed because liberal wonks thought people would be slightly more likely to spend the money that way. Democrats would be wise to call these checks "Biden Bucks" from here on out, and the incoming administration should have them embossed with a big picture of the next president in sunglasses.

But checks — together with other progressive economic policies like maintaining the boost to unemployment insurance, building green infrastructure, and so on — are smart politics and policy over and above their immediate popularity. They will, as Slate's Jordan Weissmann jokes, make American balance sheets great again — even now, credit card debt is falling and the saving rate remains high. Another round of checks might just seed enough future spending to drive a genuine economic boom and rapid return to full employment, once everyone is vaccinated (if Biden can follow through on his promises on that front). That would start undoing the terrible economic damage created by the weak post-2008 recovery, and cement Democratic popularity as the party that brought back jobs. If the unemployment rate is as high in 2022 as it was in November 2010, Democrats can kiss their tiny congressional majority goodbye.

But that brings me to protecting democracy. Fixing the economy is the best chance Democrats have of retaining control of Congress, but historically the incumbent party tends to lose seats in their first midterm election. Realistically, Dems should assume they only have two years to ensure they are allowed to compete in future elections.

The Republican Party has done terrific damage to American democracy over the last 20 years. The party has steadily evolved from tearing up democratic protections like the Voting Rights Act and rigging district boundaries to straight-up attempting to overturn the election that Trump lost by seven million votes. It's not stopping, either — on Tuesday the Republican majority in the Pennsylvania state Senate refused to seat a Democratic senator who won fair and square and whose victory was confirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and on Wednesday most of the Republican congressional caucus is going to protest the Electoral College certification of Biden's victory. If the GOP is not stopped, sooner or later they are likely to succeed in overturning democracy and installing themselves in power permanently.

What is to be done? Briefly, Americans need protection of their right to vote, and our dysfunctional constitutional structures need reform. We need a refresh of the Voting Rights Act that covers the entire country (very much including vote-suppressing blue states like New York, which would follow the logic of the Supreme Court decision that gutted the original VRA). In my view, this ought to establish an explicit right to vote for all Americans 18 or older, and empower the Department of Justice to force state and local authorities to respect this right. It should also require states to draw fair district boundaries so legislatures reflect the will of the voters. Then we need statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, which would enfranchise American citizens and partly redress the preposterous Republican bias in the Senate. Democrats could also put serious money and effort behind abolishing the Electoral College at the state level, and on the outside edge of possibility, reform the House to be elected through ranked choice in mixed-member districts.

All this would probably require abolishing (or at least amending) the Senate filibuster, which allows 41 senators to block most legislation. The swing senators of Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kristin Sinema (D-Ariz.) surely would not support getting rid of it entirely, but they might just support a rules change allowing certain pro-democracy reforms through. Whether their political careers end permanently sometime in the next decade may just depend on it.

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