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By Jamelle Bouie
Seventy-two percent of likely voters, according to the left-leaning polling group Data for Progress, want the federal government to increase its tax incentives for solar, wind and other clean energy projects. Sixty-nine percent of likely voters want the government to take steps to make electric vehicles more affordable for more people. And 60 percent of likely voters support policies that would regulate carbon emissions and force power plants to clean up their act.
But Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia does not support these policies. He said so, last week, in an announcement that essentially sank the Democratic Party’s legislative plans to fight climate change. “Political headlines are of no value to the millions of Americans struggling to afford groceries and gas as inflation soars to 9.1 percent,” a spokesman for Manchin said. “Senator Manchin believes it’s time for leaders to put political agendas aside, re-evaluate and adjust to the economic realities the country faces to avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire.”
There is plenty of blame to go around for the death of the Democratic climate agenda. There’s Manchin, of course, but there’s also the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, who played an admittedly bad hand poorly in an incredibly high-stakes game. His mistakes last summer — signing but not honoring an agreement with Manchin to devise a scaled-down version of Build Back Better — may have doomed the whole process.
Then there’s President Biden, whose vaunted skills as the one-time master of the Senate could not penetrate the venal self-interest of the senator from West Virginia, who happens to have a lot of money invested in a fossil fuel brokerage company he helped found. And there is, of course, the Republican Party, whose total opposition to climate action is what made Manchin the pivotal vote to begin with.
Above all, there’s the Senate itself.
It may seem odd to blame the institution for this outcome. It’s not as if there is any alternative to passing legislation through both chambers of Congress. But it’s also no accident that climate legislation has repeatedly been passed in the House only to collapse in the Senate. It is no accident that, as a general rule, the upper chamber is where popular legislation goes to die or, if it isn’t killed, where it is passed in truncated and diminished form, like the recent (and lackluster) bipartisan gun bill. The Senate was built with this purpose in mind. It was designed to keep the people in check — to put limits on the reach of democracy and the scope of representation.
This is separate from the issue of equal state representation, the constitutional rule by which every state gets two senators, regardless of population. If James Madison had somehow prevailed at the Constitutional Convention and secured a Senate with proportional representation, the chamber would still work to stymie popular legislation.
The reason for this is simple: American-style bicameralism with its small and powerful upper house works in most cases to put a tight lid on the interests and aspirations of the public and its representatives.
That was the point. Many of the framers of the Constitution were as interested in suppressing the democratic experimentation of the previous decade as they were concerned with building a more powerful national government. The two, in fact, were connected. “Most of the men who assembled at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were also convinced that the national government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to counter the rising tide of democracy in the states,” the historian Terry Bouton writes in “Taming Democracy: ‘The People,’ the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution.”
As Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts argued in the first days of the convention, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” Virginia’s Edmund Randolph concurred, observing that the “evils under which the United States labored” were found in the “turbulence and follies of democracy.”
And what were these turbulences and follies of democracy? Bouton argues that they were the popular efforts to make the American economy more favorable to the average person. “Popular calls for a revaluation of war-debt certificates, bans on for-profit corporations, progressive taxation, limits on land speculation, and every other measure to make property more equal promised to take wealthy away from the elite,” Bouton writes. “The same was true of the popular resistance that halted tax collection or frustrated creditors in their attempts to foreclose on their debtors.”
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