For the last week, Americans paying attention to politics have learned an important truth: Joe Biden may live in the White House, but conservative senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) is effectively president. This depressing reality can certainly be fixed, but only if progressive Democrats in Congress are willing to actually change the dynamic — and they have a rare opportunity to do that right now by using their power to raise the minimum wage.
But, so far, they aren’t choosing to use their power — which is a huge structural problem not just now, but also for the foreseeable future.
Some have argued that the way to fix this situation is by ending the filibuster, but that’s a catch-22: it is absolutely a necessary reform, but President Manchin is pledging to veto it. Even if Democrats were to eliminate the filibuster, they would still need Manchin’s stamp of approval for virtually all legislation, given the Senate’s current 50-50 split.
The way to fix this dynamic is for a decisive number of House Democrats or Democratic senators to make clear, line-in-the-sand demands, and to demonstrate they will vote down Democratic legislation that does not honor those demands. And they must do this specifically on must-pass legislation for which Biden can find zero GOP votes.
That is the way to force Biden to stop pretending he has no agency and instead motivate him to use the overwhelming power of the executive branch to press the conservative wing of the party to back down. It is also the way to get Manchin himself to negotiate — right now, he gets to operate with impunity because there is no counterforce.
The COVID-19 relief bill provides progressives this game-changing opportunity, and in the process, they can heroically deliver not on some unimportant issue or tangential agenda item — but instead on the crucial cause of delivering a desperately needed higher minimum wage to millions of Americans.
The debate over the legislation also gives the public a way to see whether self-identified progressive heroes are as serious about actually using power as President Manchin is.
The COVID Relief Bill Is a Microcosm of the Manchin Effect
We can see this opportunity in the current wrangling over a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, where Manchin has successfully pressured the executive branch to support further limiting eligibility for survival checks, devising a phase-out policy so absurdly punitive that even reliably partisan Democratic pundits and centrist think tank wonks can’t support it.
The payments — which are $1,400 instead of the $2,000 people were promised — will likely now go to 17 million fewer people than the last round of checks under Donald Trump, as a result of Manchin’s handiwork.
Though Biden depicted himself as a legislative master of the Senate during the 2020 presidential campaign, the result of his negotiation — or lack thereof — has been Manchin making austerity demands that position him to the right of his own state’s Republican governor.
Meanwhile, the Biden White House is signaling that it will ignore pleas from civil rights leaders and not support Vice President Kamala Harris to use her power as the Senate presiding officer to advance a $15 minimum wage. Even though there is ample precedent for Harris to do this, White House officials do not support this maneuver — presumably because they fear Manchin and conservative senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) would oppose it.
The reason Manchin has become the legislative center of gravity is obvious, if unstated: the implicit threat is that if he doesn’t get exactly what he wants, he will cast a decisive vote against the final bill, killing it in one fell swoop, because there will almost certainly be zero Republican votes for final passage, no matter what is in the legislation.
Manchin, in other words, seems to have all the power and is more than happy to wield it.
By contrast, Biden, the most powerful man on the planet, appears to be refusing to wield power. He doesn’t seem to have lifted a finger to try to change the Senate dynamic. He reportedly hasn’t pushed Manchin on minimum wage at all, which suggests the president is either cartoonishly lazy, believes such an effort would prove fruitless, or actually doesn’t want to deliver on his promises and has found the perfect excuse in the West Virginia senator. Frankly, it is probably some combination of all those things.
The White House insists that it will still continue fighting for a $15 minimum wage in the future. But the reality is that if nothing changes right now, then the likelihood of a significant minimum wage increase in the next few years is incredibly slim.
Any standalone, substantial minimum wage bill will face a filibuster requiring sixty votes to overcome it. Despite the White House fantasizing that Republicans might support a serious minimum wage increase, there probably aren’t ten GOP Senate votes to break such a filibuster.
Meanwhile, if Democrats try to attach a minimum wage increase to a bill that Republicans actually really want to vote for — say, the National Defense Authorization Act — Republicans could move to simply strike it out of that underlying bill, which enough conservative Democrats might agree to, and then the GOP would vote en masse for final passage of the stripped-down legislation.
Everyone in Washington knows this script, so a move to attach a minimum wage to a bill like this would likely be a performative gesture but not a legislative victory.
The Key: Must-Pass Bills That the GOP Will Not Vote For
This situation spotlights the central point: must-pass Democratic legislation that has no chance to secure any GOP votes at all may be the foundation of the current Manchin presidency, but it can also be the foundation of a long-overdue progressive realignment in Congress.
Manchin’s threat of voting down Democratic legislation is only able to disproportionately determine policy outcomes because there is not a serious ideological threat on the other side serving as a counterweight. Put another way, Manchin is this powerful because he’s willing to wield power and his purported ideological opponents are not.
Amazingly, Manchin remains unchecked even though there are enough progressives in Congress to create this necessary countervailing power.
In a narrowly divided House in which no Republicans will vote for a COVID-19 relief bill, it would only take somewhere between six and ten Democratic congresspeople to join together as a bloc and make a game-changing declaration that they will not vote for final passage of a Senate-passed COVID relief bill that does not include a minimum wage increase.
Similarly, in the Senate, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren or Ed Markey could pull their own version of Manchin and make the same declaration, saying they would not vote yes on final passage unless the legislation includes Sanders’s amendment to increase the minimum wage.
The relief bill is a must-pass for all Democrats.
If Manchin can threaten to withhold his vote, so can Elizabeth, Bernie, and the Squad+
They should wield their power.
Make the bill better, for the substance and the politics.
— Ady Barkan (@AdyBarkan) March 3, 2021
Such declarations would trigger a political earthquake, tectonically shifting the power structure and the assumptions built into legislative debates.
Suddenly, Manchin would not be the political solar system’s sun, whose gravity forces everyone to revolve around him — he would be one of two poles, forcing the Biden administration to try to find compromise between them, and pressuring Manchin to move.
Suddenly, the Biden White House, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and majority leader Chuck Schumer would have to carefully weigh how much to give up to Manchin for fear of losing the other bloc of lawmakers on the other side of him. And they would have to do that knowing they can’t triangulate, simply ignore the progressives, and replace them with some GOP votes.
Suddenly, House progressives’ demand for Harris to ignore the parliamentarian and advance the minimum wage wouldn’t just be rhetoric. With a real threat of progressives voting down a minimum-wage-less COVID bill in final passage, ignoring the parliamentarian would become crucial for Biden himself. He would need to support doing this and use his power to actually pressure Manchin, because he would need to get that minimum wage attached to the bill.
With no GOP votes available, progressives would be making clear that that would be the only way Biden could hope to pass the COVID relief legislation on which he’s staking his entire presidency.
At the Table, Rather Than on the Menu
If this would work, then why hasn’t it happened? Almost certainly because congressional progressives are more moral than Manchin — as Representative Ro Khanna articulated in a live chat on March 3, they genuinely do not want to delay desperately necessary legislation to help millions of people and extend federal unemployment benefits expiring in ten days, and the assumption is that Manchin would be more than okay with doing that.
But whether from the film Back to the Future or from the experience of the last four years of Donald Trump, we’ve learned over and over again that the only way to defeat bullies is to stand up to them. Congressional progressives must be willing to be as strong, clear, and unwavering as Manchin is villainous.
They must be willing to follow through on a promise not just to cast votes against a bill Biden wants, but to cast decisive votes when there are no Republicans for Biden to peel off — votes that actually take down the legislation unless progressives’ eminently reasonable demands are met.
Yes, the COVID-19 relief bill must pass. It includes desperately needed help for Americans who are struggling. And yes, progressives who actually take a stand would be falsely accused of killing the legislation and trampling their own honorable principles of harm reduction that typically lead them to support inadequate legislation because it includes some good stuff (and I have no doubt that, for even writing this essay, I will be instantly — and falsely — accused of not caring about the plight of people struggling though the economic crisis, even though we’ve spent months holding Democrats accountable to their promise of immediate aid).
But those arguments don’t fly here. If, as they assert, progressive lawmakers were predicating their votes for the COVID relief bill on an eminently reasonable demand like a long-overdue, much-promised raise of the country’s starvation wage, then the legislation’s momentary delay would be the fault of the party and president that refuses to deliver on that promise. It is not the fault of the party’s rank-and-file progressive lawmakers who themselves were elected on the same minimum wage promise and who are simply taking legitimate, reasonable steps to make sure they deliver on the pledge right now.
Additionally, precisely because the bill is so desperately needed and a must-pass initiative, there is absolutely no reason to believe it would permanently die. If a COVID relief bill with no minimum wage is voted down in the House, lawmakers can immediately go back and revise the legislation and bring it right back up. We’ve seen that happen before, most prominently during the financial crisis, when the Bush administration’s initial bank rescue bill was voted down and then quickly revised and passed.
For those who rightly demand a serious minimum wage increase, this is the way to have a real shot at making it happen right now. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that “the entire negotiations of this package, for a lot of people, were predicated on the $15 minimum wage.” The way to actually make that wage increase happen is to follow through and make clear that no bill will pass unless it is included. Otherwise, progressives’ votes weren’t actually predicated on the $15 minimum wage at all.
This isn’t rocket science. This is game theory 101. This is the ancient idea of countervailing power — and, however difficult and scary it may be for progressive legislators, it is the only strategy to end the Manchin presidency before it takes over politics, eliminates the prospect of fundamental change, and delivers an electoral disaster to Democrats in 2022 and 2024.
Such opportunities do not come around very often. It is incredibly rare for there to be truly must-pass legislation that no Republicans are willing to sell their vote for. Congressional progressives must be willing to use such an opportunity to make a threat and follow through, knowing that, even if they momentarily delay legislation like the COVID relief bill, their party’s leaders will be instantly forced back to the negotiating table to revise it.
At that point, progressives would finally be at that table rather than on the menu — which would at last provide a chance to materially improve millions of Americans’ lives.