What’s the Endgame for Democracy Reform?
By Ezra Levin, Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director, Indivisible
We’re in the middle of the Deadline for Democracy campaign (more than 300 local events so far — get in on this!!), so I want to focus on how we expect the For the People Act legislative fight to play out in the coming weeks.
But first a little preface, and I say this as a former congressional staffer: the entire legislative process is designed to be difficult to understand from the outside. The complexity benefits donors and lobbyists who can buy access or spend time learning the lingo. The obfuscation helps elected officials avoid taking responsibility or being held accountable. If things were clear, we the people could easily understand what’s happening and could make our voices heard — and that just doesn’t work out well for the powerful.
My goal in this piece is to cut through the noise, BS, and grandstanding, and just give you as clear a sense as I can of where and how the For the People Act is moving forward in Congress. I’m not trying to scare you or paint a rosy picture. I want you to have a realistic view of where the legislative fight is now so that you feel more confident talking about the bill and planning actions. Because as confusing as all this is, one thing is clear: this is a live fight, and what we do right now very well could determine the outcome.
And in a desperate effort to cut down the word count, I’m going to mostly refer to the For the People Act as “S.1” below. Ok with that, let’s nerd out and strategize together a bit.
The twists and turns that brought us here
In an earlier draft of this piece, I wrote an entire long narrative history of S.1, but I realized nobody has time for that. So instead I’m going to give a CliffsNotes timeline followed by some analysis of what these developments actually mean for the fight ahead.
- 2019: For the People is introduced as a messaging bill in the House. It passes the House. The bill is cosponsored by all Democratic Senators (including Sinema and Manchin) but McConnell kills it quietly in the Senate without any vote or debate.
- Nov 2020: Democrats win the Presidency (fist bump).
- Jan 2021: For the People introduced in the House again. The next day, Dems win the Georgia Senate seats, clinching a Democratic trifecta (high five).
- Jan 2021: McConnell refuses to relinquish power until Schumer agrees to not change the filibuster, but Senate Republicans get no support from Democrats and have to back down.
- March 2021: House Democrats pass the bill, slightly updated from its 2019 version.
- March 2021: Manchin tells Meet the Press that he’s open to filibuster reform (here).
- March 2021: S.1 gets its first ever Senate Committee hearing.
- April 2021: Manchin writes an op-ed (here) saying he will not vote to “eliminate” or “weaken” the filibuster.
- May 2021: S.1 passes out of Senate committee with unanimous Democratic support (including Sinema).
- June 2021: Manchin writes another op-ed (here) saying he does not support S.1. Conventional wisdom in D.C. quickly declares the bill dead. (But not us! See my response the next day here).
- June 2021: Days later, Manchin reverses course and announces support for a big chunk of S.1 but with some amendments that would weaken the overall bill, if adopted.
- June 2021: In a leaked recording of a private meeting with his donors, Manchin describes the kind of filibuster reforms he supports (here).
- June 2021: Sinema writes an op-ed (here) saying she opposes “eliminating” the filibuster, but also argues that “it is time for the Senate to debate” the issue.
- June 2021 (yes, still June): Schumer attempts to bring S.1 up for a vote. Every Democratic votes to move forward with debate on the bill, but McConnell filibusters. That temporarily ends the floor fight, and the Senate goes into July 4th recess days later.
Let me put on my congressional nerd glasses and read between a few of those lines. Specifically there are two highlights I want to pull out:
First, when Democrats won their trifecta in November and took control of Congress and the White House in January (yay!), congressional leadership immediately treated this like a real legislative fight they wanted to win. Speaker Pelosi came out of the gate strong — she not only prioritized the bill, but also protected it and strengthened it in the process. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Schumer has repeatedly insisted that “Failure is not an option” for S.1. All this is meaningful — if Pelosi thought S.1 was a loser messaging bill destined to die in the Senate, she would have prioritized other things. If Schumer planned to lose, he wouldn’t have insisted on success at any cost. Signs from congressional leadership in public and behind closed doors have been good, and that’s how we got to the bill through the House in the spring, and saw every Senate Democrat vote to begin debate on the bill in June (which McConnell filibustered, as expected).
Second, while congressional leadership was pushing the bill forward, senators were also staking out ground on the filibuster. McConnell attempted a blitzkrieg victory here in January, back when Schumer and McConnell were negotiating a power-sharing agreement in the Senate given the 50–50 split. McConnell tried to block Democrats from taking over majority powers unless they agreed to make no changes to the filibuster. He wanted Manchin and/or Sinema to join him in this demand, but no Democrat agreed to go along with him, and McConnell ultimately relented. Instead, periodically over the course of the next few months, both Sinema and Manchin have been very careful with their language on the filibuster. Neither senator supports “eliminating” the filibuster. But Manchin has said publicly and privately that he supports certain types of filibuster reform. Sinema, for her part, has called for the Senate to debate the filibuster issue directly.
That leaves us where we are now:
- Unified Senate Democratic support for some version of S.1.
- Publicly or privately stated openness from every Senate Democrat to at least debate reforming — if not eliminating — the filibuster.
- A few weeks of legislative days left before the beginning of August recess, when Congress leaves town until mid-September.
Got it? Ok here’s what comes next.
The three fronts remaining in the fight for democracy reform
There are three questions in the legislative fight to come for S.1:
- What legislative substance will Democratic senators agree to?
- What type of filibuster reform will Democratic senators agree to?
- When will this agreement come?
Let’s take these one by one.
#1: The fight over substance
Background. 49 Senate Democrats cosponsor S.1 in its full form. Manchin, who himself was a cosponsor of S.1 in the last congress, recently proposed several mostly bad changes to the S.1. His proposal maintains some key reforms on ethics, transparency, voting rights, and gerrymandering reform, but he takes out public financing of elections, weakens the automatic voter registration provision, eliminates nationwide same-day voter registration, and adds a national voter ID requirement (among other shifts). On the (small) plus side, he does add in a new federal holiday on election day.
Our goal in this fight: Keep S.1 intact and strong. Ok, so what does that mean for what ultimately will become law? After Manchin came out with this proposal, much of the professional pundit class immediately defaulted to “OK, great, that’s the new bill!” That’s a mistake. Manchin is opening up a negotiation — and we should treat it like a good faith negotiation and treat his proposals seriously. I believe most of his proposals make the bill worse, and the things he takes out are wildly popular (covered here). He believes his changes will attract GOP support (I find that laughable, and McConnell immediately rejected his proposal out of hand).
The bottom line though is that this is a healthy debate on substance that should take place. By all means, Senators like Manchin should offer amendments, and if he can muster the support for his proposals, he should win — that’s how legislating works. For our part, we will be fighting to keep S.1 intact. It’s good policy and the public supports it — and that makes for good politics. That’s a debate we are eager to have.
But we can’t even have a debate on those provisions until we agree to allow debate on the bill — and that means filibuster reform, which brings us to #2.
#2: The fight over the filibuster
Background. A lot of ink has been spilled on whether and how Senate Democrats will reform the filibuster. For the record, Indivisible has been for eliminating the filibuster since we started talking about the issue publicly years ago. The very policy proposal in our national bestselling book (ahem) on saving American democracy is…eliminating the filibuster. I won’t belabor the point here, but the filibuster is an accidental 19th century loophole in Senate procedure that was popularized by southern segregationists to block civil rights bills for decades and was weaponized by McConnell to block everything else.
Despite all that, there’s a quiet conversation in D.C. right now in progressive and left-of-center circles over whether to push for filibuster reform at all. Everybody knows that S.1 and democracy reform of any type can’t pass unless the filibuster is at least amended. Still some folks, including influential people in the White House and Democratic Senate staff, believe Democrats should focus on a bipartisan infrastructure bill and passing economic proposals through reconciliation, a process that only requires 51 votes. Reforming the filibuster is hard and uncertain, the argument goes, so why not just focus on easier stuff like infrastructure and budgets?
Our goal in this fight: reform the damn filibuster to pass S.1. Put simply, we disagree. We believe S.1 is the single most important piece of legislation this congress (along with D.C. statehood and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act), and it simply isn’t an option to accept defeat on it. We believe Majority Leader Schumer when he says “failure is not an option” — and we’re holding him to that. That means our goal is simple: we want a vote on the Senate floor on a filibuster rules change so that the Senate can pass S.1.
A vote on a filibuster rule change has not been attempted yet this year, but Schumer has the power to call the vote. McConnell did it under Trump (that’s how he got three Supreme Court justices without 60 votes for any of them). We want the Senate Democrats to take that step.
The specifics of the filibuster reform remain up in the air. Is it a carve-out for democracy bills? Is it a set limit on debate? It is a gradual ratcheting down of the required number of votes to end debate? Is it a requirement to hold the floor while filibustering? There are many options here. What we will be looking for in any filibuster reform is to ensure that the majority is able to, without undue delay, ultimately bring the S.1 to the floor for a simple up-or-down vote. To get all Democratic senators onboard with that reform though, Schumer will ultimately have to make them vote on it.
So that brings us to the third question: when does this all go down?
#3: The fight over timing
Background. Ask any objective, pro-democracy elections administration expert in the country, and they’ll tell you we’re facing a tight timeline to fight back against the wave of GOP voter suppression and gerrymandering in the states. Take for instance the provisions in S.1 that prohibit gerrymandering. States will begin drawing up new congressional district maps as soon as this August. GOP-led states will get to work gerrymandering immediately…unless S.1 has already been signed into law by then.
Complicating things further is the August congressional recess — the longest congressional break of the year. Congress is currently scheduled to leave town at the end of July, and not fully return until late September. When they get back, there will be a lot on their plate: the end of fiscal year, a possible fight over debt ceiling, and the still-to-be-passed infrastructure and reconciliation bills. Simply put, it’s hard to see where Congress will find the time for democracy reform if they don’t get it done in the summer.
Our goal in this fight: get this done before the August recess. All this points to a clear goal for us: we need to do our damndest to pass S.1 before the August recess. Failing that, there may simply not be enough legislative days to pass it in the fall. And even if Congress found a way to tackle this later in the fall or winter, some of the bill’s key provisions — like anti-gerrymandering reform — might not be implemented in time to affect the 2022 elections.
Full disclosure though, the red line deadline is not bright red. Schumer and Pelosi could delay the August recess, giving additional days or weeks to work on democracy legislation. That is possible — Mitch McConnell did it when he was Majority leader. If they do that, it’s conceivable this legislative fight drags out until August, or even September. That uncertainty shouldn’t affect our urgency though — the clock is ticking. And whether Congress has three weeks or five weeks, the message they need to receive is simple: reform the damn filibuster and pass the damn bill before you go on recess again.
Let’s wrap this up
We know S.1 has come a long way — from a set of pro-democracy proposals, to an aspirational piece of legislation during the Trump era, to an honest-to-goodness legislative fight today. We know the substance we want in the bill. We know that filibuster reform is necessary to begin debate on this bill. We know we need to get this done before August recess.
And we know one more thing: it’s up to the senators to pass the bill, and it’s up to us to make them do it. Politicians will always rely on obscure processes and behind-closed door meetings to claim credit they don’t deserve or avoid blame when things go south. But by paying attention, focusing pressure, and never letting them off the hook, we can change how they act — and that changes what’s politically possible.
If you’ve got a good Democratic senator, your job is to make them an active advocate. If you’ve got a squishy Democratic senator, your job is to get them off the sidelines and into the game. If you’ve got a Republican Senator, your job is to make them famous for supporting voter suppression in your state.
If we all do our own jobs in the fight in our own communities, we’re going to get the filibuster amended and the For the People Act passed. Click here to find an event near you this week!