Today there are three stories in the news about the mechanics of government that add up to a much larger story about American democracy.
First, by a vote of 216 to 208, the House of Representatives passed a bill to grant statehood to the District of Columbia. The measure would carve out the area around Capitol Hill, the White House, and the National Mall to remain much as they are today, but the rest of what is now the District would get one representative in Congress and two senators. About 712,000 people live in Washington, D.C., only about 37.5% of whom are non-Hispanic white.
Republicans are furiously arguing that this is a naked power play on the part of the Democrats, for D.C.’s inhabitants are presumed to be Democratic voters. In response, those in favor of D.C. statehood point out that the Republican Party, quite famously, admitted six states in twelve months between 1889 and 1890. They were not shy about what they were doing. The admission of North Dakota, South Dakota (they split the Dakota Territory in two), Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming, Republicans said, should guarantee to the Republican Party a permanent majority. (They were so blatant that they convinced a number of Republicans to turn against them.)
But today’s vote to admit D.C. to the Union is not quite the same as the power grab of the 1890s for the simple reason that Washington, D.C., in 2021 has a lot of people in it. Republicans pushed for the admission of their six new states as quickly as they did because they knew that the 1890 census would reveal that the new states did not have enough people in them to become states (unlike Arizona and New Mexico, which did have a lot of people, but those folks supported the Democrats).
In contrast to that push to create states purely for political power, today’s D.C. has people in it. A lot of them. It has more people today than Vermont… and Wyoming, one of the states the Republican brought in in 1890.
The second thing that happened today dealing with the mechanics of government was that on the steps of the Supreme Court building, in a talk to reporters, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), alongside Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), linked the vote for D.C. statehood to control of the Supreme Court. Cruz accused the Democrats of trying to pack the Supreme Court both by trying to add Washington, D.C., as a state—which would add two Senate seats, presumably going to Democrats—and by adding more seats to the court. Then Cruz went on to say something astonishing:
“You didn’t see Republicans when we had control of the Senate try to rig the game. You didn’t see us try to pack the court. There was nothing that would have prevented Republicans from doing what they’re doing other than respect for the rule of law, other than basic decency, other than recognizing that democracy matters, and packing the court and tearing down the institutions that protect our rights is fundamentally wrong.”
This is classic Cruz: straight up gaslighting. Because, of course, Republicans have been stacking the Supreme Court since the Reagan administration, when Attorney General Edwin Meese deliberately politicized the Department of Justice in an attempt, as he said, to “institutionalize the Reagan revolution so it can’t be set aside no matter what happens in future elections.”
Currently, on the court there are 6 justices appointed by Republican presidents and 3 appointed by Democratic presidents. Of the five justices appointed by a Republican president, only one—Clarence Thomas—was appointed by a president who won the popular vote (George H. W. Bush). Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito were both appointed by George W. Bush. Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett were all appointed by Donald Trump. That is, five of the Republicans on the court were appointed by presidents who did not represent the majority of voters, not to mention the majority of Americans.
The story of “rigging” goes beyond this, though. Gorsuch got his seat only because then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declared that President Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in March 2016 was too close to the date of a presidential election, the following November, to allow for the nomination to go through. That left the seat free for the president who followed Obama—Donald Trump—to fill, even though McConnell had invented that rule.
Even so, Gorsuch could not get the votes he needed for confirmation until McConnell had invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster so that Gorsuch’s appointment could get through with just 51 votes.
And then, of course, although he had declared that eight months before a presidential election was too late to nominate a Supreme Court justice, McConnell pushed through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett on October 26, 2020, eight days before the end of a presidential election in which voters had already begun to cast their ballots.
The third thing in the news today is the filibuster. The admission of D.C. as a state, as well as the popular new voting rights bill (which would protect the right to vote, stop gerrymandering, and end the flood of corporate money into our elections), the infrastructure bill, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (which bans chokeholds, limits military equipment on our streets, and requires body cameras) all come down to whether the Senate will preserve the filibuster, which enables the 50 Republicans in the Senate—who represent 40.5 million fewer Americans than the 50 Democrats in the Senate—to stop the passage of bills unless the majority can nail together 60 yes votes.
It seems to me that these three stories about the mechanics of our government show that our democracy is in a bad place right now. Republicans have stacked the deck in their favor for a long time and have come to rely on that unfair system, rather than policies that appeal to voters, to retain power. Now that Democrats are trying to level the playing field, they howl that the Democrats are cheating.