The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Criticism of Democrats’ negotiations misses a bigger issue: Republicans’ absence from governing

A member of Greenpeace stages a protest outside the Capitol, depicting Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) as holding puppet strings controlling Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and President Biden, on Oct. 20. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

Nobody said life was fair, but this is ridiculous: Democrats are getting pilloried for struggling to do big and important things, while Republicans are being given a free pass for behaving like a horde of vandals.

This isn’t the way our government is supposed to work. Yes, the Democratic Party controls the White House and has the slimmest of majorities in the Senate and the House. But that doesn’t absolve Republicans from the duty to try to do what’s best for the country. It doesn’t give any of our elected representatives the right to simply ignore the work they were elected to do — and the GOP should be called out for putting political gamesmanship ahead of the nation’s well-being.

Wednesday’s vote by GOP senators to block debate — not passage, mind you, but mere debate — of watered-down legislation to guarantee basic voting rights is just the latest example. Securing universal access to the ballot box used to be a bipartisan cause. In blocking the bill, Republicans are “hurting their own constituents,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted Thursday. But apparently that doesn’t matter.

I get it. The voter-suppression laws passed by GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country are crafted to give an advantage to Republican candidates. The proposed Freedom to Vote Act, already watered down in a vain quest for Republican support, would have somewhat leveled the playing field. Yet even the few GOP senators who occasionally show a glimmer of conscience — Mitt Romney (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) — voted the party line, which was against allowing the Senate even to debate the bill.

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The many Republicans who helped pass the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 — giants such as Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Jacob Javits of New York — would weep if they could witness what has happened to their party.

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Similarly, Republicans blocked all attempts to establish a proper bicameral, bipartisan blue-ribbon panel to fully investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Pelosi then had no option but to create a House select committee, whose important work Republicans now dismiss as “partisan.”

The thing is, we become inured to such behavior. The public has come to expect it, at all levels of government, as if representing the needs and aspirations of the American people were nothing but a blood sport and all that matters is which political tribe wins and which loses. If many voters are angry or disenchanted, who can blame them?

This is not a “both sides” situation. Republicans and Democrats are not equally to blame, though the GOP would like you to believe otherwise. You don’t have to support everything the Democrats are trying to accomplish to recognize that one party is at least trying to govern — and that the other seeks only to sabotage.

Forty years of trickle-down economic orthodoxy produced growth and innovation but also created shocking levels of inequality. Working-class and middle-class incomes stagnated, while the rich became richer beyond their wildest dreams. The nation’s infrastructure was allowed to sag and rust. We failed to invest adequately in our future.

President Biden and the Democrats are trying to begin addressing these problems, whose existence and urgency many Republicans recognize. Indeed, 19 GOP senators (out of 50) did ultimately vote for the $1.2 trillion “hard infrastructure” bill that awaits approval by the House. But Republicans are forcing Democrats to conceive and pass a larger “human infrastructure” package on their own — while under rhetorical sniper fire from the GOP.

So Democrats are having the kinds of arguments among themselves that used to take place between the two parties — what new programs to start, how long those programs should last, how much to spend, how to pay for it all. Instead of participating in these important debates, Republicans are threatening to trigger a financial cataclysm by refusing to raise the federal debt ceiling. They have already tried this supremely irresponsible maneuver once, and they threaten to do it again in December.

And watch: When Democrats eventually do pass the spending packages and Biden signs them into law, Republicans will be quick to take credit for all the measures that are popular with the folks back home.

I am not happy that Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are blocking initiatives I believe are needed. But at least they are engaged in the process. The much bigger problem is that one of our two major parties — the GOP — is doing nothing but throwing rocks and bottles from the sidelines.