Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Hard Votes and Easy Votes

David Super

      On March 25 and 30, respectively, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Susan Collins (R-ME) announced that they would be voting to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.  The comments I saw about Sen. Manchin tended toward the derisive, presumably reflecting frustration with him over his rejection of the Build Back Better initiative last fall and his unwillingness to support efforts to scrap the filibuster this winter.  Reaction to Sen. Collins seemed quite favorable. 

     Although I understand the emotional basis for these reactions, I think both are somewhat naïve.  More generally, I think a careful examination of each of their records suggests that Sen. Manchin deserves more appreciation than he receives and that Sen. Collins merits less credit than is often offered her. 

     The votes that matter are decisive votes.  Once it is clear that a bill or resolution has sufficient votes to pass, opponents cease lobbying and party leaders allow their Members to vote in whichever way is most expedient.  Conversely, once a bill or resolution is clearly doomed, no one cares very much about the margin.  The same can be true on the Court:  how important was Chief Justice Burger’s joining an already-lopsided majority in Roe v. Wade or the failure of Justice Breyer to join some liberal dissents in cases where conservatives had a clear majority?

     Thus, to see which Members of Congress clearly have the courage of their convictions, one must look at Members providing decisive votes.  And because senators commonly announce in advance their votes on high-profile issues, the timing of those announcements relative to one another can be extremely revealing.

     With regard to Judge Jackson, Sen. Manchin effectively decided the point when he announced his intention to vote for confirmation.  After that, Republican leaders had little reason to press Sen. Collins into a negative vote that she clearly would have had difficulty explaining in Maine.  Recognizing that she may be the only Republican who can hold the seat in Maine, Sen. McConnell surely gives her a pass on inconsequential votes like this one.  She showed loyalty to her party by refraining from an early announcement and forcing Sen. Manchin to go first.  We cannot know what Sen. Collins would have done had her vote mattered. 

     Conversely, both senators voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh.  When Senator Collins announced her vote, opponents were still clinging to a slim hope that the nomination could be defeated; her announcement effectively ensured his confirmation.  Only after Senator Collins threw her support to Justice Kavanaugh did Senator Manchin announce his vote.  An earlier announcement from Sen. Manchin would have allowed Sen. Collins to vote “no” and buttress her image as a moderate supportive of Roe.  As it is, he chose loyalty to his party over burnishing his moderate image with an earlier announcement despite being in a difficult re-election battle.  We cannot know what Sen. Manchin would have done had his vote mattered, although it was widely reported that he had signaled privately that he would not cast the deciding vote for confirmation. 

     Their choices on procedural votes also are revealing.  Although Sen. Manchin ultimately soured on Build Back Better in the face of clumsy attempts to bully him into supporting provisions he opposed, he voted for a congressional budget resolution with a much higher spending ceiling than he desired.  That was a meaningful action that significantly facilitated his party’s efforts to craft the legislation.  By contrast, although Sen. Collins broke ranks with her party by meeting with Judge Merrick Garland, she never went beyond the photo opportunity to offer any motion or cast any vote to force Judge Garland’s nomination to the floor. 

     More broadly, when a conservative outcome requires both of their votes, as in the current Senate, Sen. Collins sometimes goes first in announcing a conservative vote but not in announcing a progressive one.  When a progressive outcome requires both of their votes, as in the previous Senate, Sen. Manchin sometimes goes first in announcing a progressive vote but not in announcing a conservative one. 

     My views of Sens. Manchin and Collins also reflect how they compare with prior moderates in each of their parties.  Past pivotal moderate Democratic senators included John Breaux (LA), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO), Zell Miller (GA), Ben Nelson (NE), Richard Shelby (AL), and Edward Zorinsky (NE).  Sens. Shelby and Campbell ultimately switched to the Republican Party.  Sens. Miller and Zorinsky voted consistently with Republicans on a wide range of issues.  Sens. Nelson and Breaux leveraged their lack of commitment to the Democratic agenda to extract concessions for their special interest allies, sometimes embarrassingly so. 

     Sen. Manchin, by contrast, has meticulously kept fellow Democrats informed about his intentions.  At times, this early warning allows deals to be negotiated.  On other occasions, leaders have avoided bringing up matters that had no chance of succeeding. 

     Particularly helpful is when Sen. Manchin lets Democratic leaders know about conservative amendments he would support but neither offers such amendments himself nor informs Republicans that his support would be available.  Brazening through when you know you would not have the votes if challenged is unnerving, but it has led to a lot of significant legislation.  Sen. Manchin fights for his constituents like any other senator, but he is not known for the kind of crude, unprincipled bargaining that earlier moderate Democrats employed.

     Past pivotal moderate Republican senators included John Chafee (RI), Lincoln Chafee (RI), William Cohen (ME), John Danforth (MO), Dave Durenberger (MN), Mark Hatfield (OR), John Heinz (PA), Jim Jeffords (VT), Olympia Snowe (ME), and Arlen Specter (PA).  Sens. Lincoln Chafee, Jeffords, and Specter ultimately switched to the Democratic Party. 

     Senator Hatfield kept the Appropriations Committee, which he chaired, from succumbing to the ideological polarization then creeping across the Capitol; earlier, he also co-sponsored the most aggressive resolution to end the Vietnam War over the objections of the President of his own party. 

     Sens. John Chafee, Durenberger, Heinz, and Danforth formed a moderate bloc on the Senate Finance Committee that supported expansion of Medicaid and offset the opposition to anti-poverty programs by the Committee’s conservative Democrats. 

     Sen. Snowe later served on the Finance Committee, too, and was the only Republican to engage seriously with what became the Affordable Care Act – over Sen. Collins’s objections.  Sens. John Chafee, Hatfield, Jeffords, Snowe, and Specter defied their party to prevent the Food Stamp Program from being liquidated; Sens. Cohen, Snowe, and others even did so on an earlier vote where Democratic defections threatened to hand the Republican leadership a victory. 

     For all the criticism Sen. Manchin has received for withdrawing his support for Build Back Better, it is striking that virtually no one has asked why Sen. Collins’s vote is not in play.  Earlier incarnations of the bill may have been too large for a moderate’s tastes, but now that any package is assured of being much smaller, she could step forward to put universal pre-K, or broader child care availability, or the enhanced Child Tax Credit, or family medical leave over the top.  Many of the earlier Republican moderates surely would have tried to work out a deal. 

     To her credit, Sen. Collins did join with Sens. Snowe and Specter to support President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 after securing substantial reductions in its scope.  Even here, however, her vote was not decisive:  the other two senators’ votes would have sufficed to break the Republican filibuster. 

     Perhaps Sen. Collins’s most important vote was against the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  There her vote was not only decisive but, because she announced it relatively early, crucial to keeping the opposition alive and shining the spotlight on Sen. Lisa Murkowski and, ultimately, on Sen. John McCain.  She deserves real credit for this vote.  It should be noted, however, that the ACA was broadly popular in Maine and its repeal would have been particularly devastating for rural areas (a key factor in Sen. Murkowski’s vote as well). 

     On the other hand, the ACA was broadly unpopular in West Virginia – to the point that Sen. Manchin felt the need to run a campaign ad showing him using a copy of the ACA for target practice.  Yet Sen. Manchin quietly voted against the repeal as well, likely making a similar judgment about repeal’s impact on his rural state. 

     My point is not that progressives should adore Sen. Manchin:  he is not one of them, and he is quite open about that.  Nor is my point that Sen. Collins’s more moderate attitude has not mattered:  it most assuredly did on ACA repeal, on securing some room for other Republicans to depart from extremism, and likely in deterring her Party from taking even more outlandish steps.  I argue only that although each of them genuinely diverges from their parties’ respective orthodoxies, each is first and foremost a loyal member of his or her party and deserves to be treated as such.  Progressives’ vilification of Sen. Manchin often goes far past what his record can support, while they accept exceedingly thin evidence in support of Sen. Collins’s claims to moderation. 


Older Posts
Newer Posts