By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
When President Biden first took office, I had strong hopes for the country’s recovery from Trumpism. Those hopes have been all but dashed by the Biden Administration’s failure to take any serious action against the continuing dangers to our democracy.
Biden’s term had not even begun when a mob stormed the Capitol in a violent coup attempt. The coup failed, but the attempt did not end there. It is ongoing, albeit more surreptitiously, through passage of legislation in numerous states that limit voting rights and give Republican-held legislatures the power to install partisan political hacks as election officials. Some of these laws also permit the state legislatures to throw out the majority vote in their states in order to install their own loyal electors for presidential elections.
This corruption of our political system should have been challenged throughout the entire past year in every state it has arisen. That has not happened. Thus, with the 2022 midterm elections only 11 months away, immediate strong, decisive measures at the federal level is urgently needed to undo this coordinated fascistic power grab. Without it, democracy is going to die.
There are two voting rights bills (the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act), already passed by the House, that could, even at this late date, possibly stop the relentless march toward minority rule—if they were passed by the Senate. But there are two senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—who are standing implacably in the way.
A change in the filibuster rule is necessary to permit a simple majority vote on this legislation. While shedding crocodile tears, pretending they strongly favor protection of voting rights, Manchin and Sinema have been blocking any filibuster reform that would make the passage of the two voting rights bills possible. Yet these two hypocrites managed to vote to carve out an exception to the rule when it suited them—for raising the debt ceiling. But when it comes to the saving of our democratic system of government, they remain unmovable.
The country needs a Lyndon Johnson to grab Manchin and Sinema by their lapels (or, metaphorically, by some other less mentionable parts) and make them fall in line to vote to change the Senate’s filibuster rule so these voting rights laws can be passed.
Instead, for months, we have had mild Casper Milquetoast Biden, who reportedly has met with these two recalcitrant senators a number of times, but tends to speak softly and carry no stick.
The President, who has failed, all year, to produce anything but empty words on the subject, said on December 15: “If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it. If we can’t, we’ve got to keep going. There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights.” This is far too little, far too late. And again, it is only words. The question is: what are he and his administration willing to do?
For a start, what, if anything, has the Biden Administration’s Department of Justice been doing about voting rights or, for that matter, about the investigation and prosecution of those who plotted the January 6 coup attempt? The answer: also far too little, far too late.
It was not until quite recently that Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a lawsuit against Texas concerning the state’s redistricting map, claiming it violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. But where are the challenges to the gerrymandering in other states? And where are the DOJ challenges to the many laws enabling states to overrule the will of the voting majority to put in office whomever a state legislature wants? If Garland ever plans to bring such suits—now is the time—before these laws are used to usher in a fascist regime.
And as far as the January 6 coup is concerned, currently, the only real investigation is being conducted by the House Select Committee. According to the New York Times, the committee has turned up evidence of a coup plot and of heavy involvement in it by Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and Louie Gomert of Texas. The committee is subpoenaing main actors and witnesses such as Mark Meadows, Steve Bannon, and others, and referring those who refuse to obey their lawful subpoenas to the DOJ for prosecution.
But Congress only has an oversight function. It has no power to prosecute crimes it uncovers. That power belongs to the DOJ.
And thus far, there is no indication that the FBI or DOJ are doing their own criminal investigations of those who may have led the plot. No grand jury. No subpoenas. In fact, when the House Committee referred contempt charges for Bannon’s failure to obey his legally issued subpoena, the timid Merrick Garland took a full three weeks to consider it before venturing to indict Bannon.
Last week on MSNBC, Elie Mystal, justice correspondent for The Nation, heatedly raised the alarm: “Is the FBI on the case? …I don’t see evidence of that…. What I see is Congress, which has an oversight function, doing with all deliberate speed, as quickly as they can, putting together a case. And I see the FBI doing nothing to go get these people.” Mystal asked why documents are being turned over to the committee rather than the FBI, and subpoenas issued by Congress and not the FBI.
He added: “It all comes back to Joe Biden’s decision to appoint Merrick Garland, a slow-moving institutionalist, to the Department of Justice as opposed to …more aggressive choices—like [Adam] Schiff or [Jamie] Raskin or [Sally] Yates [or others] who would have prosecuted more expeditiously than what we’re seeing from Garland.”
I agree with Eli Mystal a hundredfold.
Merrick Garland served with distinction as chief judge on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. A judicial moderate, he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama in the hope that a moderate could be confirmed. But then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans refused to schedule a vote or even hold hearings on the nomination. Garland would surely have made a better Supreme Court justice than any of the three justices Donald Trump subsequently appointed.
But he is not suitable for the position of attorney general. Whatever his reasons, Garland approaches this job as as if he were still a judge—slow, methodical, and passive. Given his apparent failure to even launch an investigation of the coup plot, it is clear that Garland lacks the aggressive nature a prosecutor needs to doggedly pursue wrongdoing. Appointing him was a grave error on Biden’s part. That position was too important—especially now—to be treated as a consolation prize for losing a Supreme Court justice position.
In July, CNN reported that “people close to Garland” believed he “has tried to hold true to his promise to avoid the taint of politics in his decisions.” If Garland continues to avoid conducting an investigation of actual crimes in order to avoid looking political, we could find ourselves living in a dictatorship run by a minority party that sees Putin’s Russia as its model and has no compunctions about bringing prosecutions that actually are politically motivated. If there is no DOJ investigation of who encouraged, orchestrated or led the coup, and no legal punishment for those found to have done so, there will be absolutely no deterrence to doing it again.
The cost of Garland not doing his job, or doing it too slowly, will be the loss of our democracy. Someone needs to light a fire under him. If that doesn’t work, and quickly, Biden should replace him with someone who will, as prosecutor, pursue justice more swiftly, both in relation to voting rights and the January 6 coup conspiracy. However, I do not have great faith that Biden will have the courage to buck the criticism he would undoubtedly receive for doing so.
That said, there is a glimmer of hope. Last week, Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock gave a rousing yet reasoned speech on the Senate floor, arguing that if the Senate could carve out an exception from the filibuster rule to raise of the debt ceiling, surely it could do so for voting rights, the foundation of our democracy. His speech seems to have stirred some action.
On December 16, Biden spoke privately by phone with Warnock and four senators who have been loath to eliminate the filibuster but might be open to reforming it. This was followed on December 17, by a meeting of the full Democratic caucus to discuss how a work-around of the filibuster might be accomplished for the voting rights bills.
Regardless of whether this latest effort succeeds, Biden needs to take a lesson, not only from President Johnson, but from President Truman, who called out the Republicans for their obstruction as the “do nothing Congress” of his day. Biden needs to shout from the rooftops—or at least from the Oval Office—that if the public wants to preserve and further build a democracy in which they have a say about their own lives—they need to vote the obstructionists and coup advocates out. He needs to actively rally the public, not only to his legislative policy agendas, but to the fight for democracy.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.