Nancy Solomon: This is The Takeaway. I'm Nancy Solomon from WNYC news sitting in for Tanzina Vega this week. 14 months into a global pandemic and we're still struggling with rising COVID infections. Kids home from school and the economy in tatters and all of that falls at the doorstep of governors. We're going to talk about the place I know best New Jersey, which is grappling with so many of the debates happening nationwide aging infrastructure; check.
Frustration with the appointment system for getting a vaccine; check, desperate to get your kids back to school; don't even. To talk about all of this. We're joined by Governor Phil Murphy. This is the last year of his first term. He's a Democrat and his party controls the state legislature, but it's not exactly kumbaya in Trenton. Governor Murphy. Welcome back to the takeaway.
Governor Phil Murphy: Nice to be with you, Nancy. Thank you for having me.
Nancy: I should probably say up front that you and I do this regularly for a show that runs on the public radio stations in New Jersey. You once complimented me by saying the show was like a sharp stick in the eye. Thanks for subjecting yourself yet again.
Governor Murphy: That was quite an introduction in terms of the state of affairs in New Jersey, you've gotten off to a good start.
Nancy: Well, let's jump right in and talk about vaccine access. It's opening up for everyone over the age of 16 next week in New Jersey. Of course, around the country this is something President Biden is urging States to do. Is that going to cause another log jam for the appointment system?
Governor Murphy: Listen, we already have a supply-demand imbalance, but just as when you board an airplane, someone came up with this analogy, which I think is a good one where you have group 1A, 1B, 1C you don't wait until the last person is through before you open up the next group. You've got overlapping waves. That's the approach we've taken. We crossed five million shots in arms.
We have nine million residents in New Jersey, as you know, we are-- Listen, that's not to say that there is not a supply-demand imbalance and folks who have not gotten an appointment that we don't understand why they're frustrated or have anxiety because we do, but the fact of the matter is we're one of the most efficient states in the country in terms of delivering the supply that we get. The challenge is we need more supply and that's something the Biden team knows and they're working on.
Nancy: You made the decision early on to let local school districts decide for themselves whether to teach kids in person that has led to some epic fights in communities about getting their kids back to school that it has often pitted teachers against parents. Why did you decide to leave it up to the local school districts?
Governor Murphy: Couple of reasons, first of all, New Jersey was just righted again for the second or third year in a row as the number one public education system in America. Let's start with where we are and we wear that as a badge of honor. It's a huge magnet for families, for businesses, for folks who want to be here. Secondly, we are the ultimate home rule state.
Even in a normal time, there's a lot of-- While there's a significant amount of state guidance and an enormous amount of state financial support, we pride ourselves in accepting that no two districts are the same. When you come to a pandemic, we have felt from the beginning there's no reason why you should think differently. Now, having said that we have been crystal clear that we from the get-go, that the in-person instruction is far richer than the hybrid and remote instruction, and that that's what we would like to see assuming we could do it safely and responsibly.
It's moving toward that. Right now, 70 plus percent of our kids are either in hybrid or in-person. We've said that we hope that number gets up to 85% or more this school year. We expect everybody to be back in the classroom in September. Listen, that's not to say that we don't-- There's mental health challenges that have come from this learning loss and we're throwing a lot of resources at both of those to do whatever we can to make up for the lost time.
Nancy: What do you think about the reticence that teachers have had about returning to class? You have a political relationship with the teacher's union, they've been supportive of you. I imagine this is been a real tension over the many months. Even with vaccines, teachers have said that they're afraid of putting their families at risk if they were to return to school now. What do you think about the position teachers have taken.
Governor Murphy: Listen, this has been an extraordinary stressful year on everybody, moms, dads, kids, educators, administrators, there's just no denying that. I can't begrudge anybody saying, "listen, I've got a lot of concerns about what's going on in life right now." Many of these educators, if not most are moms and dads themselves, but at every step of the way, we have tried to call balls and strikes as we see it. In fact, I'm on the phone regularly, almost every day calling a mayor, a superintendent, a local union president, going through their plans to get kids back into school.
Everybody I believe recognizes and wants to get back in person, but we just got to do it in a way that's safely done, responsible and I'm optimistic we'll get there. Newark, which is our biggest school district has signaled that they're about to go back in, at least for hybrid learning. That's a huge step in the right direction. Equity, by the way, is a huge piece of this. You want to make sure it's not just 70% of kids, but you also want to look to see while we've got the number one public school system in America, the dispersion of experience remains far wider than any of us would like. That's certainly another factor in this.
Nancy: Young Latino men make up half the deaths in New Jersey from COVID for people under the age of 50. I know that you've been getting a lot of pushback from progressive's in New Jersey on your budget. They're largely supportive of your budget, but there's been pushback about wanting relief for undocumented workers who aren't eligible for the stimulus checks. These are essential workers who kept us afloat during the pandemic. What's your thinking about supporting undocumented workers right now?
Governor Murphy: Listen, your premise is the right one, Nancy. First of all, as a general matter, this virus has been disproportionately crushed communities of color. As I've said many times, COVID-19 didn't create these inequities, but it has certainly laid them bare, everything from access to health all the way to as you rightfully point out who populates our essential workforce. We've done with our own budget, with the disbursement of the coronavirus funds that we already have.
We've done everything we can to try to address those inequities. Am I optimistic? Am I hopeful that we can find a way to drive money directly to those undocumented brothers and sisters in our state whether it's federal or other money? Yes, that's something that we absolutely want to do. We are the most diverse state in America. We wear that as a badge of honor and we know that a pandemic is like a lot of other things in life. You don't achieve success unless you bring everybody along. Not just some of us.
Nancy: Let's talk about Joe Biden's infrastructure package. He wants to spend $2 trillion to shore up roads, bridges, the internet, the green economy, the list goes on. How does the Biden package help a state like New Jersey?
Governor Murphy: It's a game-changer. Think about who we are for a second, Northeast corridor, densest state in America, located in the densest region in America, and a state that has its share of legacy assets. When you look at what could be in that package, and you look at what is already in our state, an all-time high investment in infrastructure, it's a game-changer.
The Gateway tunnel project, which is one you and I have talked about, adding two new tunnels under the Hudson River. And then rehabbing the two that are there that were built-- By the way, folks, this is not a typo, in 1910, offshore wind, other roads, bridges, rails tunnels. It's a game-changer for us, absolute game-changer. It's a huge job spinner, especially for organized labor. We are the quintessential organized labor state. In every respect, it's a big deal for us.
Nancy: I would love for you to tell the Portal Bridge story briefly if you could. That is really such a great example of what happens when you ignore infrastructure.
Governor Murphy: This is a bridge in New Jersey between Newark and the Hudson River, built again around 1910, and it's over a canal and it's a swing bridge, meaning it swings out parallel to the water when there is maritime traffic. Problem is the bridge is so old. When it gets swung back into position, you need literally manpower to hammer in the bolt that keeps the bridge in place. This is not just any bridge, the entire Northeast Amtrak spine goes across this bridge. I'm happy to say from President Trump, the green light to replace that, that's one piece of the so-called gateway project, but it gives you some sense of the legacy assets that we're dealing with.
Nancy: Right. Biden is proposing to raise the corporate business tax to pay for these infrastructure improvements. What do you think of that? You raised the millionaire's tax, there's been a big debate in New Jersey about wealthy people leaving the state, whether they would or not. Now here's more taxes on both corporations and the wealthy
Governor Murphy: Listen, I think if folks feel like they got their money's worth, you feel a lot better about what you're paying so, "Did I get value back from what I paid?" We are so overdue as a nation to have that FDR era reinvestment in our infrastructure. The spine that is the backbone of our nation, but as well in a 21st-century mode. Yes, it's roads, bridges, rails, and tunnels, but it's also and it must be also broadband, it must be offshore wind.
New Jersey has aspirations and a real plan in place to become the number one offshore wind state in America, having the feds alongside us helping to make that reality sooner, everybody benefits from that, including corporations. I would say as long as folks feel like this money is well spent, it's worth it. It's frankly, overdue as a nation.
Nancy: Has there been any evidence yet that wealthy people are leaving the state because of the rising taxes here?
Governor Murphy: We have not. To the contrary, Nancy, and this may well be temporary because of the pandemic. People have been coming to New Jersey in a big way over the past year to get that single-family home. Maybe sooner in life to raise their kids, put them in school, commute to work. That's the big trend that we've seen, in particular, over the past year.
Nancy: Okay. Well, thanks so much for talking with us, New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy. It's great to have you on the show.
Governor Murphy: Thanks for having me, Nancy. Take care.
Nancy: One of the biggest debates emerging around President Biden's infrastructure proposal is how to pay for it. The Biden administration wants to raise the corporate income tax from 21% to 28%. Republicans, prominent business leaders, and even some moderate Democrats say 28% is too high. According to them, the higher rate would lead US-based corporations to leave the country damaging the economy. This week, President Biden expressed some flexibility on raising the rate.
Reporter: Are you willing to go lower than the 28% corporate tax rate?
President Biden: I'm willing to listen to that. I'm wide open too, but we got to pay for this. We got to pay. There's many other ways we can do it, but I'm willing to negotiate that. I've come forward with the best most rational way, in my view, the fairest way to pay for it, but there are many other ways as well, and I'm open.
Nancy: Here with me to break this all down is Laura Davison tax reporter for Bloomberg News. Welcome back to the show, Laura.
Laura Davison: Thanks for having me.
Nancy: Why does the Biden administration see an increased corporate income tax rate as the best, most rational, and fairest way to pay for the infrastructure plan?
Laura: Well, there's a couple of reasons here. One is that they said since Donald Trump became president and lowered the corporate tax rate, that rate has been far too low and corporations haven't been paying their fair share and could pay more. The second part of this is that they say, "Look, there's all this revenue out there that's going untapped when the corporate rate got lower it just went to stock buybacks. It didn't go to investment in the economy, so let's capture that money and spend it on things that we need, upgrades to roads and bridges, rural broadband, healthcare." All sorts of policies that Democrats want and see a lot of room for improvement.
Nancy: Some companies including Amazon and Lyft, have put out statements, signaling at least some support for the infrastructure proposal. Why do you think they're willing to get on board with higher corporate tax rates?
Laura: Well, this is potentially a very smart move both strategically, as well as politically for them. When you look at what the tax increases are funding, it's a lot of things that Lyft and Amazon would benefit from. Things like improved roads and bridges. Amazon drivers and Lyft drivers are basically spending all of their days driving on roads. If the roads are improved, that could help their bottom line. Things like rural broadband, that could help get more customers connected to Amazon and also connected to Lyft.
They're looking at this proposal and saying, "Could we pay a little bit more in corporate taxes and get some benefits here funded by all of the corporations in America?" They're weighing this here and see some net benefit. The second thing is, one, this gets them at the negotiating table. If they signal and especially if they're one of a handful of companies that are saying, "Yes, we would support higher taxes."
They could then have a stronger case to go in and meet with Biden, meet with the White House and have their case heard in terms of, "Here's what we could agree to. Here's what we're concerned about. Maybe stay away from this kind of tax increase." It's a smart move strategically to at least be moving in the same direction that the administration wants to go.
Nancy: It gives them a seat at the table. What are some of the business leaders and politicians who are opposed to the higher tax rates? Really the argument that you made for say an Amazon or a Lyft, I could see that argument really being true for just the vast majority of business in the United States that could benefit by improved infrastructure. Why are they opposing it?
Laura: Well, there's a couple reasons. They said, "Look, if the corporate tax rate does go up, if we are charged more for our profits that we earn overseas, we as American companies become targets for foreign takeovers." In other countries where taxes are relatively lower, they're more competitive. They could come in and say, "Hey, American company, you're a good deal for us to buy. We're going to take you to Ireland or to France or to China or wherever." Then, essentially, the US would lose out on the tax revenue from that country. It's unclear exactly how big of a problem that would be under the Biden plan, but that is one argument that's being made.
Secondly, Republicans are saying, "Look, we finally got to a place where American companies were paying tax rates that were more in line with the rest of the world." Companies have finally started to grow, but there hasn't been enough time for this plan to really play out. That was passed under Trump. It's just three, almost four years old. If it needs more time to play out to prove that it's really working. Democrats countered that and said, "Look, you had three years, we didn't see the growth that you promised. It's time to try something new."
Nancy: Let's talk about the politics of this. The Trump tax cuts lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Considering how much higher it used to be why are some moderate Democrats now unwilling to go above 25?
Laura: There's a couple of here's. One, everybody pretty much agreed that that 35% rate was too high. Even under President Obama, Democrats were pushing for a 28% tax rate. That's where you see Biden end up here, and the vast majority of Democrats are behind that. However, for a handful of more moderates, Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the prime example here. They're looking at the politics, as well as the policy here. They're hearing some of the arguments from Republicans that 28% could be too high, 25% gets the US more in line with where the global average is for a corporate tax rate, at least for developed countries. That's where the debate is here.
The issue is that's pretty big spread when it comes to the amount of revenue that the corporate tax rate can raise, 28% to 25%. That's a difference of a couple hundred billion dollars. Biden has said, "Look, if you want to lower the rate, if you want to get rid of any of these tax increases that I've proposed, we're willing to talk about that, but you need to come up with some counter of how we are able to plug that revenue hole, either with additional taxes elsewhere or come up with a plan that we can all agree to reduce spending on the infrastructure side of this proposal."
Nancy: What are the economists saying about the impact that the corporate tax rate raise would have on the US economy?
Laura: Economists are spread on party lines here. Democrats are saying more or less leading economists, are saying that this would be good, this would create a more fair tax system. Right-leaning say that this could lead to competitiveness issues. Though it's really, really unclear that a rise to 28% would cause massive harm to the economy. There's not the evidence there.
The real kind of issue and the unknown is all of the changes that Biden has proposed to all of this offshore taxation. This is where really the big changes-- Biden is proposing a minimum tax rate of 21%, which is almost double what US corporations pay now. That would the big issue, would affect a lot of technology companies, pharma companies that have gotten really creative in their tax accounting in recent years and can see significantly higher rates as a result of this.
Nancy: Okay. Laura Davidson is a tax reporter for Bloomberg News. Thanks so much for joining us, Laura.
Laura: Thanks for having me.
Nancy: You're listening to the Takeaway, I'm Nancy Solomon in for Tanzina Vega. This Wednesday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, signed into law a bipartisan bill to expand voting access in the state, the bill HB 574 passed in both chambers of the Republican-controlled state legislature before making it to the Democratic governor's desk bucking the recent trend of GOP efforts to restrict voting access in states like Georgia, Texas, and Arizona.
Andy Beshear: While some states have stepped in a different direction. I'm really proud of Kentucky.
Nancy: Here to walk us through Kentucky's new bill is Republican state representative James Tipton, who represents Kentucky's 53rd district and is a sponsor of HB 574. Representative Tipton. Welcome to the show.
Representative James Tipton: Nancy, is great to be here today.
Nancy: Tell us what exactly does this legislation do?
Representative Tipton: House Bill 574 came about as a result of last year during the pandemic that we had some emergency regulations on elections where we had to make some changes and we looked at what some of the positive outcomes of those were and we try to incorporate those into our permanent law. I think there are four or five main things. Number one, currently the only in-person voting at election day voting prior, this would add an additional three days of in-person voting with no excuse on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the election.
The second main point it does is it allows our communities and we have 120 counties to request to have what we refer to as voting centers. Traditionally, in Kentucky, we have our precincts and our voting has been done at the precinct level. By utilizing these voting centers, we're able to have greater efficiencies and cost, but also increased convenience to the voters and it worked out really well. Just as an example, one of the counties that I represent, Anderson County, actually did draft route voting last year it didn't work very well.
They had a facility set up and that was a great improvement. One other significant part of the legislation dealt with curing, what we refer to is curing voter signatures. Many times someone's signature changes over time. When somebody on an absentee ballot signs that and sends it in, if it does not look right, the County officials have the opportunity to contact that individual and correct that. The other parts that we dealt with, I think dealt with security. Previously, people would call in, they would have write an email to request an absentee ballot.
Last year we set up what we call the online portal, where someone can go online to request a ballot. We're going to continue that on a permanent basis, that is more convenient for the clerks, they can get those absentee ballots out in a quicker amount of time, but it also provides a greater deal of security and they can monitor those applications and make sure there aren't things going on that don't need to go on. There were several other parts of the legislation, but those are some of the main highlights that we included in HB 574.
Nancy: What was the motivation for including the security measures? Has there been any reason to be concerned about that in Kentucky?
Representative Tipton: I think there's always isolated cases where there may be fraud or attempts at fraud and trying to divert from the election, but I think a lot of it came from our citizens. There's been a lot of discussion around the country about election security. We tried to put in measures, I think just to give a greater-- Number one, every vote should count. It shouldn't be countered by vote that should not count. I think what we put in these measures, it's prudent thing to do to make sure these sorts of things don't happen to try and give our citizens a better understanding that their vote actually does count and these things aren't going on.
Nancy: You've been a lawmaker for a few years now, what was the push to get this going right now, the changes to the voting system?
Representative Tipton: From my perspective, I was actually contacted by one of our county clerks that I represent. He's a member of the Kentucky County clerk's Association. I have worked on election legislation with him in the past. He asked me if I would consider sponsoring a bill to implement some of the changes they wanted to make. After talking with some other members in the house, I learned that there were a couple of other people who were working on bills and we got together and decided that it would be best to have one piece of legislation working together.
That's exactly what we did. We had the Kentucky County Clerk's Association, we had the state board of elections officials, we had the secretary of state's office, and we got together and we collaborated, and we came up with what I believe a very good piece of legislation.
Nancy: The bill got support from both Democrats and Republicans in the state. Why do you think Kentucky is bucking the trend where we were seeing Republican legislatures restrict voting rights rather than opening up access?
Representative Tipton: Well, I believe what we did is we did not approach this legislation from a partisan perspective. This is about what's best for our citizens. It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent, we all have the right to vote and we all need to be guaranteed that right to vote in a fair process and that was our goal moving forward with this.
Nancy: Even with the new laws, some voting rights advocates say that voting access in Kentucky is still pretty strict even compared to states like Georgia, which has been of course in the limelight so much recently, is that a fair criticism?
Representative Tipton: I believe that's a correct statement. Really, there hadn't been many major changes in our election laws since our state constitution was last ratified or changed in 1891. It's been pretty consistent over the years and while it may not be as open as maybe some other states, I believe it's a big step for Kentucky. One thing you've got to understand in passing legislation, if I were sitting down and drafting this bill, I might draft it completely different, but it's about working together. It's about coming up with compromise and sometimes it's not about what you want to pass it's what you can get to pass. This was a package that we got consensus on and we took a big step forward.
Nancy: Can you give me a couple of examples of some of the things that are on the books from the 19th century that maybe you would like to have changed, but haven't been able to get consensus on that?
Representative Tipton: One of the big discussions that we had was how many days of early voting to have. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Georgia may have 17 days, something like that. Of course, we're only going to three days and we had a lot of back and forth about the discussion. Part of the discussion centered around the cost of having early voting or more expanded absentee voting.
We had one of our counties did a cost analysis and the cost for an absentee ballot to them was a little over $6 per ballot. Early in-person vote was around $350 and election day vote was around $220. Kentucky, we're a relatively poor state, we have a lot of pitching obligations. We had to keep that in mind as well, and try and balance that need with the practicality of how we can move forward in as positive a way as possible.
Nancy: Do you think looking nationally at the political dynamics going on, do you think we'll see more Republican-supported efforts to expand voting access? Is Kentucky going to become the thing that people start following and doing around the country?
Representative Tipton: Well, one interesting thing in Kentucky in 2021 is we have no elections and that's why this was an ideal year to pass this legislation. It would give our local election boards the opportunity to get ready for the changes. I am confident as we go through the year there will be some points brought up. There's always a word should be changed here or there. I anticipate that we will probably come back and make some needed tweaks and updates to the legislation. We'll just have to wait and see.
Nancy: State Representative James Tipton represents Kentucky's 53rd District. Representative Tipton. Thanks so much for joining us.
Representative Tipton: You are very welcome. It's a pleasure to share with you today.
Nancy: On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a number of executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence.
President Biden: We've got a long way to go, it seems like we always have a long way to go, but also today we're taking steps to confront not just the gun crisis, but what is actually a public health crisis.
Nancy: The announcement comes after several violent mass shootings that shook the country in the last few weeks. Also, years of gridlock on the issue. President Biden's new executive actions address a number of issues, including the ghost guns without serial numbers, red flag legislation to remove firearms from a person who may be in danger. He'll redirect five agencies to address community violence. Joining us now to help us break down Biden's executive actions is Sabrina Siddiqui White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Sabrina, welcome to the takeaway.
Sabrina: Thank you for having me.
Nancy: Let's start with the proposed changes to ghost guns. What exactly are they?
Sabrina: Well, what president Biden is doing is taking steps to ensure that so-called ghost guns are more closely regulated under the background check system because right now these are firearms that are often assembled at home from kits or parts that are bought online, and as a result, they don't have, or often don't have a traceable serial number. President Biden wants to require serial numbers on key parts, and there in doing so required buyers to have background checks so that these don't slip through the system.
Nancy: Oh, okay. Then, there's the red flag legislation, how would that work?
Sabrina: Well, this is something that president Biden is doing in a limited capacity, I think because he's using his executive authority, he can't actually enforce so-called red flag laws, but what he wants the justice department to do is to effectively create a template for states to use as they craft their own red flag laws. Now, those are laws that paved the way for family members or law enforcement to seek court orders to remove firearms from people who are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
It's making it easier for family members, friends, or law enforcement officials to prevent someone from possessing a firearm if they do not believe that person is fit to do so. Again, it's really a template that the justice department will come up with for states to use. There's no real way for president Biden to enforce this across states. It's really just recommendations coming from the federal government.
Nancy: What is he proposing to do about military-style weapons like the AR-15?
Sabrina: This is interesting because the announcement, of course, comes after a pair of mass shootings in March including that in Atlanta or where the victims were predominantly Asian-American as well as in Boulder, Colorado. Now, the one in Boulder, the suspect in that shooting reportedly used a stabilizing brace that makes AR-15 style pistols. Those are generally subject to fewer regulations than assault rifles. What Biden has done is he's asking the justice department to draft the rules that would regulate these stabilizing braces because they effectively transform pistols into rifles.
This is something that, again, would create more regulations around a certain type of firearm that is not currently regulated like assault rifles under current laws. I think what we're seeing more across the board is some more modest regulation, but he's not actually through his executive authority able to take any steps that we so far or hasn't taken any steps so far that would actually within of themselves either expand background checks or ban certain types of rifles.
Nancy: He's also asking the justice department to produce a report on gun trafficking. What's that about and what's important about that?
Sabrina: Well, this is important because according to the administration has not been a report on federal gun trafficking since 2000, in more than two decades. What Biden is asking the justice department to do is to issue an annual report on firearms trafficking. I think that is going to effectively be a way for the government to have more data on firearms being illegally trafficked across state lines.
A lot of firearms are, of course, obtained through the black market, they're obtained legally, but there is not currently a statute in place that makes firearm trafficking a federal crime. That is something that actually did incidentally come up for a vote. The last time, Congress really seriously debated the issue of gun control after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, when there was a debate around gun legislation in 2013.
There was an amendment to try and make tougher laws around firearms trafficking, but it did not ultimately pass the Senate at the time. I think this is just a report. This is a report that the federal government would produce each year on firearms trafficking, but I think the administration hopes that it could help inform possible legislation to identify where there are loopholes and how many people are obtaining firearms illegally, and where exactly is that taking place?
Nancy: You mentioned how hard it is to get gun legislation through the deeply divided Senate. What about this proposal? Where do you see president Biden trying to narrow the scope of this to get it through the Senate, and what do you think his chances are?
Sabrina: I think it's interesting that they're not putting a lot of their political capital behind gun control as an issue through the legislative process. His next big priority is infrastructure. I think that's just a reality that there are votes in the Democratic-controlled house to expand background checks, to ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines, but in a 50/50 Senate where you need support from Republicans to get to 60 votes and pass any legislation, there simply is not much appetite.
Certainly, among Republicans, there's very little support for any legislation that would enforce more strict or stricter gun laws. I think they know the math really isn't there. It'll be interesting to see how much they try to expend their political capital on this issue moving forward, but right now under the current rules, unless Biden does away with the filibuster, which is a whole separate conversation, I don't think that any major gun control legislation is going through Congress at this time.
Nancy: Sabrina Siddiqui is a White House reporter at the Wall Street Journal. That's a perfect transition for our next topic when we dig into the filibuster. This week, Washington received some interesting procedural news after the Senate parliamentarian, the rules expert determined that Democrats could pass additional legislation through the budget reconciliation process.
Now, we're going to get into the weeds a bit here, but come along with me, it's wonky, but it's important. Democrats can use the budget process to pass legislation relating to taxing and spending with just 51 votes instead of the 60 votes most bills required to pass. They most recently used the reconciliation process to pass the 1.9 trillion COVID relief package. It's a way to avoid the filibuster, but it can only be used in a limited fashion.
While Democrats are pleased to have an additional method to enact their agenda, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have signaled that they are resistant to using the reconciliation process again. To discuss what the Senate parliamentarian's latest decision means for the Democrats policy wishlist and the future of the legislative filibuster. I'm joined by Caroline Fredrickson, law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brennan Center. Thanks for joining us.
Caroline Fredrickson: It's a pleasure to be with you.
Nancy: Caroline, tell us about the Senate parliamentarian's ruling from earlier this week and what it actually means in practice?
Caroline: What she actually ruled on was the question of whether the Democrats could take the budget resolution they already passed and revise it. The budget resolution is the legislation that includes the reconciliation provisions that you mentioned. Those are the ones that allow the Senate to consider legislation that is not subject to the 60 vote filibuster, but it has to be budgetary, which makes sense since it's under the budget act. There had been some understanding that the budget reconciliation could be only used once in a calendar year. She ruled that no, in fact, they could use the budget reconciliation more than once.
Nancy: Did this surprise you?
Caroline: Not entirely. It's just something that they haven't tried, nobody's really thought about it, but when you really consider the language, I don't think it would give rise to the interpretation that it has only one use per year, but normally they only passed one budget resolution. So your assumption is that's only gonna happen once, but there's no reason to think that they couldn't revise it as budgetary needs change.
Nancy: Democrats have the opportunity to use the budget reconciliation process to pass president Biden's $2 trillion, quite a bit more money, $2 trillion infrastructure plan, but that would mean all 50 Democrats need to be on board. What options do Democrats have if one or two senators aren't willing to go that route?
Caroline: Well, there would be the option of getting a few Republicans to vote with them. Certainly, I think that is what president Biden has indicated, he is working on. He is bringing Republicans to the white house to talk about infrastructure. He's indicated an openness to compromise, to negotiation. Obviously, it makes more sense to have your party vote with you. It's really an evenly divided Senate with the vice-president being able to vote on the side of the Democrats, giving them the added vote.
Senator Manchin, and Senator Sinema, who you mentioned earlier, are clearly very powerful in this situation, but so is Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and a few of the others who might be really inclined to want to talk to the president about infrastructure funding because their states might have particular needs.
Nancy: One of the reasons why this is such a big deal is because it's a way to get around the filibuster. Let's go there to explain what it is exactly and why the filibuster matters.
Caroline: Well, the Filibuster is basically-- That is an informal term for an attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter through extended debate. There is a rule called the Cloture petition under rule 22, which enables the Senate to bring a filibuster to a close. Under the Senate rules, bringing a debate to a close when there's filibuster requires 60 votes. That's why as you mentioned, most legislation now in the Senate requires 60 votes, but that's not because the Senate requires normally 60 votes to pass any legislation, it's only when there's a filibuster, but the filibuster has, unfortunately, become the standard practice now, whereas in the past it was more of a rarity.
Nancy: Both former President Obama and President Biden have referred to the filibuster as a relic of the Jim Crow era. Can you explain that for us?
Caroline: Sure. For any of your listeners who watch Turner classic movies, or like old movies, they might've seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is this sort of the mythological view that people have of the filibuster and in its glory. This earnest idealistic Senator comes to Washington prepared to fight corruption, holds the floor expounds at length. The reality is that the filibusters that are most famous are those that were used to block civil rights legislation in the '50s and '60s, particularly senators like Strom Thurmond used the filibuster frequently.
Thurmond was actually known for having the longest time on the floor. He'd spend 24 hours himself on the floor as part of a much longer filibuster to hold up the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The filibuster really when senators did used to actually speak on the floor were about disrupting civil rights legislation, about blocking it, about preventing it from passing. It's not been a tool to fight corruption as much as a tool to fight progress.
Nancy: We only have a minute left, but how much would getting rid of the filibuster change gridlock on Capitol Hill?
Caroline: I think it would change it a lot because when you have Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema, Senator Collins, Senator Murkowski, and a few others, they'd actually really be pushed to negotiate. Their votes would really matter if either side was trying to get to 51 when you're trying to get to 60 and you only have 50, it's such a big hill to climb. It's almost not worth negotiating.
Nancy: Okay. Caroline Fredrickson is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brennan Center. Thanks so much for joining us.
Caroline: It's been a pleasure.
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Nancy: All right, folks, it's been a pleasure being with you today and this week. I'm back on Monday, Rebecca Ibarra is here on Tuesday and Tanzina is back with you all on Wednesday. Where we're glad she'll be back in the big chair with all of you. Quick shout out to the team here at The Takeaway. Our line producers are Jackie Martin and José Olivares. Our producer crew is Ethan Oberman, Meg Dalton, Patricia Yacob, and Lydia McMullen-Laird.
Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Vince Fairchild is our board operator and broadcast engineer. Jay Cowit is our director and editor and Polly Irungu is our digital editor. David Gebel is our executive assistant and Lee Hill is our executive producer. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Nancy Solomon, and this is The Takeaway.
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