Opinion Senate Democrats strike a blow against cynicism — and hopelessness


HR King
May 29, 2001
By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Columnist |
August 7, 2022 at 3:31 p.m. EDT
In a democracy, cynicism is the enemy of progress and realism is progress’s friend. A realistic view would insist that what happened in the U.S. Senate on Sunday is a big deal.
On a straight partisan vote, Democrats approved the largest investment in history to fight climate change married to first steps toward controlling prescription drug costs and helping Americans buy health insurance.
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The bill also raised corporate taxes and increased tax enforcement to begin what should be a sustained effort to reform the tax code by way of bringing revenue closer to long-term alignment with spending.
Pause for a moment to consider what the world would look like if this bill — expected to pass the House later this week and go to President Biden for his signature — had failed.
Anyone with a modest interest in the news and in the work of scientists (and, for that matter, anyone who has stepped outside during this scorching summer) knows that the climate crisis is real.
Biden had pledged to put the United States at the forefront of efforts to reduce the world’s dependency on carbon-emitting fuels and proposed an ambitious program to begin this journey.

If Congress had done nothing, the United States would have squandered any claim of global leadership on one of the central challenges of our time. It also would have been a signal that our political system is so dysfunctional that it could not even enact comparatively painless, positive incentives for moving toward cleaner energy.
We were very close to this policy cliff until Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) negotiated an agreement with the two holdout members of his caucus, first Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and then Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), leading to Sunday’s victory.
Here is where an oh-so-easy cynicism about the messy workings of any democratic process could take hold, especially a system such as ours with a wildly unrepresentative Senate that gives more sway to conservative-leaning states than their populations justify in a one-person-one-vote system.
Of course, a lot of good was negotiated away, including, to get Sinema’s vote, a much-needed reform in how hedge-fund millionaires and billionaires are taxed. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was entirely right in insisting that this bill falls short of the hopes Biden and his party once had of constructing a sturdier platform of public support for families, children and Americans without health coverage.
The measure would have been better had it extended the poverty-fighting child tax credit; built a robust child-care and paid-leave system; and included money for the 2.2 million mostly low-income Americans who lack health coverage because they live in states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
But Senate rules are what they are, Democrats have only 50 votes to work with, and Republicans put up a solid wall of resistance.
The GOP attitude on climate was epitomized at around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told his colleagues: “Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter to real people.” I don’t know what Rubio’s definition of “real people” is, but a warming planet sure as heck threatens a lot of real people in his state, surrounded as it is by rising seas.
There’s much quarreling about whether concrete legislative achievements play much of a role in how voters cast their ballots. Here again, the cynic/realist distinction is helpful.
A purely cynical view says the average citizen won’t much care that a government under the control of Biden and other Democrats — in some cases with Republican support — managed to enact “a whole string of significant accomplishments,” as Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) put it Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week.”
They include a big infrastructure bill; a substantial measure to strengthen the country’s technological competitiveness; the first new gun-safety law in decades, modest though it was; a major expansion of help to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances; and now the climate and prescription drug proposal.
The realist view accepts that voters don’t tote around lists of bills passed by Congress but insists that most of them do notice when the system seems to be working — or failing.
Democrats have promised to contain drug costs for years. They finally did something. (And 43 Republican senators did themselves no political good by casting procedural votes on Sunday to block a cap on the cost of insulin for people who are not on Medicare.) Younger Americans especially were angry when Congress seemed ready to leave town without doing anything about climate change. Frustration gave way to something close to elation when a climate deal was finally reached.
Nothing feeds cynicism about democracy and collective action more than abject institutional failure. That’s why what happened on Sunday matters. Despite partisan obstruction, arcane rules and dilatory habits, the Senate struck a blow against hopelessness.