This week, hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld were joined on The Brief by two guests: Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who talked about the attempted terrorist coup at the Capitol, another economic stimulus package for coronavirus relief, and priorities under the Biden administration; and Adam Jentleson, former Deputy Chief of Staff to former Sen. Harry Reid and author of the new book “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate,” who shared his thoughts on the shifting makeup of the Senate, the emergence of a new centrist Republican contingent in Congress, and ending the filibuster.
Sen. Schatz kicked off the episode by reflecting on last week’s attempted violent coup by Trump supporters and discussing what’s at stake as Democrats move forward with impeachment proceedings and welcome Joe Biden as the new president. In the aftermath of last week’s violence in the Capitol, Schatz emerged with an even stronger resolve to ensure that democratic processes would continue as normal in the face of threats and other acts of intimidation, saying, “We weren’t going to allow an attempted insurrection to intimidate us or to prevent us from discharging our constitutional duties.”
On priorities, Schatz is passionate about climate action, but he believes a COVID-19 relief package is the most crucial priority at this time—which is especially important for the millions of Americans who are jobless and struggling to make ends meet. He also believes that it is not contradictory for Congress to work on impeachment and also help the Biden administration carry out its policy goals within the first few months of his presidency:
I guess I just want to reject as publicly as I can this premise that the Senate can or should only do one thing at a time. The amount of damage that has been done to American institutions, and to Americans, is just too vast for to say, ‘Well, I mean, can we just fit that into a reconciliation bill? I don’t know.’ And the framing, even among liberals, has always been sort of that Rahm Emanuel conversation with Barack Obama: Do you want to do healthcare, or do you want to do immigration, or do you want to do climate, and in what order, because you know, you’ve only have so much political capital you can spend? … I really do think that we should reject that thinking.
In thinking about the impeachment process and passing legislation during the next four years under the Biden administration, Schatz also criticized another roadblock that has been normalized, which is the slow pace of passing legislation — making Congress less efficient: “Our inability to process legislation quickly is a huge part of the problem in the United State Senate.”
Next, the pair welcomed Jentleson onto the show, a veteran U.S. Senate staffer who weighed in on what the new chamber dynamic will like be now that Democrats have regained the majority after last week’s victories in the Georgia runoffs. But even with the majority, Democrats could find themselves obstructed due to the filibuster. To Markos’ question about whether or not Republicans might join in to help bring an end to the filibuster, Jentleson said:
You can sort of see this centrist party taking shape before our eyes, and mainly taking shape in the Senate, where you have Murkowski, Collins … Romney, and on our side, Manchin and King, and the thing about majority rule is that it would actually dramatically empower that group of centrist Republicans. That’s, you know, not my goal here. But it is still a fact that in a majority-rule Senate, those people, like Murkowski, are far more powerful than they would be in a sixty-vote Senate. In a sixty-vote Senate, they’re just one faction among many that you’d have to assemble to get to sixty. In a majority-vote Senate, they are the ones straddling that threshold, and they’ll be the kingmakers on every single bill.
When a minority of the Senate represents as little as 11% of the U.S. population, Jentleson emphasized, the filibuster process can result in particularly skewed policy results. Even the framers of the Constitution understood this:
Fundamentally, the problem that we face, and the reason Democrats are going to face obstruction from Republicans—and the reason that Biden’s agenda is likely to be blocked—is that Republicans will simply use this power to force a sixty-vote hurdle and block everything the Democrats want to do. And so reforming all the hours, and all that stuff, I don’t oppose it. But it doesn’t fix the fundamental problem—which is taking away the power from the minority to block the majority from doing anything … The reason that is such an important dynamic is that we live in such a polarized environment where … once side succeeds by making the other fail.
Ironically, this is exactly what the framers foresaw when they argued vehemently against imposing a supermajority threshold in the Senate. They wrote in the Federalist Papers that you can’t give what they called a ‘pertinacious minority’ the ability to block the majority, because if you did, they would be unable to resist that temptation, and they would use it to embarrass the majority repeatedly. So they knew exactly what was going to happen—they foresaw Mitch McConnell, they saw him coming … We have to take the option away from the minority to just block the majority for the purposes of making them look bad, and then the minority rides voter discontent back to power in the next election.
You can watch the full episode below: