There are 100 members of the United States Senate.
Unlike in the House, where a simple majority rules everything, the math can get a little complicated in the Senate. There's that pesky cloture rule that effectively means you need 60 votes to avoid a filibuster for a lot of things. Other times, a mere 50–50 tie is good enough—as long as you've got the vice president on your side to cast the tie-breaking vote.
But the one thing that you can never, ever do is pass legislation with 48 senators in support and 52 votes against. Because, again, there are 100 members of the United States Senate.
These are basic facts with which a longtime member of the country's most prestigious legislative body should be well familiar. So when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), a member of the Senate since 2007, suggests that "two people" are somehow preventing 48 others from getting what they want, he's not only demonstrating a lack of basic math skills (which, given Sanders' role as the head of the Budget Committee, might explain a lot about America's fiscal situation).
He's also saying that he doesn't quite understand how this whole democracy thing works. And even that wouldn't be so bad if Sanders were a college professor or a plumber, but it is at least a little bit unsettling because Sanders happens to be one of the people that some Americans have chosen to represent them in a democratic form of government.
Yet Sanders keeps saying this. He tweeted it last week:
2 senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want. We must stand with the working families of our country. We must combat climate change. We must delay passing the Infrastructure Bill until we pass a strong Reconciliation Bill.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 1, 2021
And he said it again on Wednesday afternoon, this time accusing "two senators" of trying to "sabotage" a bill that 48 others want.
RECONCILIATION: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) says "it is really not playing fair" for two Senators to "sabotage" a bill that every other member of the Democratic party wants, although he accepts they may want to negotiate on some points in the bill. pic.twitter.com/YIAgL32h8A
— Forbes (@Forbes) October 6, 2021
In each case, the "two people" standing athwart Sanders' warped version of democracy are Sens. Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D–Ariz.). They have publically balked at the idea of supporting a $3.5 trillion spending binge due to concerns about the size of America's national debt and the disconnect between how much the government spends and how much it collects in tax revenue.
If Manchin and Sinema cannot be convinced to vote for the package, however, it would not be two senators preventing 48 others from passing the reconciliation bill. It would be 52 senators opposing what 48 want.
Sanders probably knows this, of course. But the continued attempts to frame opposition to the reconciliation bill as some sort of anti-democratic plot against the rightful majority is revealing on a few different levels.
For one, it says something about how the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—for which Sanders is an apt avatar—views its ascendant position within the party and Congress and a whole. It is true that progressives have not had this much influence over policy making in Washington in decades, and they're using the opportunity to push a bill that would permanently expand the power and cost of the federal government in all sorts of ways. President Joe Biden, who has never been much of a progressive but also doesn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, has compared the reconciliation bill to the New Deal and the Great Society, the last two Democratic-led major expansions of the entitlement state.
— Lawrence B. Jones III (@LawrenceBJones3) October 2, 2021
Manchin and Sinema are stuck in progressives' craw because they won't go along with the plan. Even ending the filibuster wouldn't solve this problem.
It is really that simple. Manchin's and Sinema's votes are just as legitimate and valuable as those of every other lawmaker in Congress, but they've had the audacity to suggest that maybe someone should be worried about the utterly unsustainable trajectory of the national debt. For that, they must be exposed. Not only as anti-Democratic but even anti-democratic, as MSNBC's Ari Melber suggested:
"Look at the Senators who are making these decisions here… Manchin, less than one percent of the U.S. is what he represents. Sinema, just about two percent… and yet they hold all the power right now," @AriMelber on the clash in Congress pic.twitter.com/yP6jpyRPUW
— The Beat with Ari Melber on MSNBC ???? (@TheBeatWithAri) September 30, 2021
Those numbers are supposed to shock you, but just do the math. There are 100 senators, remember. Sure, not each one represents exactly 1 percent of the population, but 0.5 percent and 2.1 percent are not wildly disproportionate figures. If anything, Melber is saying that Sinema represents more people than the average senator should. For that matter, Sanders represents significantly fewer people than either Manchin or Sinema, but somehow his vote is never considered illegitimate simply because he represents the country's second-least-populous state.
If progressives have a problem with the fundamental structure of the Senate—and some of them certainly do—then that's an entirely different argument. It's true that the Senate is somewhat undemocratic by design. It is structured differently from the more proportional House of Representatives in order to serve as a "necessary fence" against the "fickleness and passion" of popularly elected governments, as James Madison put it.
Would a more parliamentary-style system pass the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill? Who knows. But arguing that the Senate's very structure is part of the problem is tantamount to arguing that progressives' preferred policies are unworkable in the American democratic system. Weird flex, you guys.
And, of course, even in a different system it would still be true that 48 percent of a legislative body cannot make law against the will of 52 percent.
Back when Democrats were talking a lot about blowing up the filibuster earlier this year, they were also saying a lot of (sometimes quite valuable things) about the importance of protecting American democracy from an increasingly illiberal political right. That's good and necessary. If one of America's major political parties is going to be taken over by populists who undermine elections and elevate authoritarians, then the country is in dire need of a counterbalancing party that will defend democracy for the sake of democracy.
That's why some of what Sanders and other progressives are doing right now is so disheartening. Some right-wing windbags might fantasize about doing away with America's representative government, but Sanders is the one literally proposing that an actual piece of legislation should be able to be passed by 48 senators over the objections of 52 others. That's just not a majority.
No, that's not to say that Sanders and his progressive allies are the greater threat to American democracy. The roiling authoritarianism on the right is a deeper, more profound concern. But if Democrats are going to be the party that defends liberal institutions, they should not be dismissing the basic math of democracy—not even rhetorically. This should be an easy bar to clear!
There are 100 members of the United States Senate. Forty-eight don't get to run the show.
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