A collage of titles of bills, including HR 959, HR 3149 and HR 3755, a donkey that is blue wrapped up by red rope coping out of the red GOP symbol, and a plaque for Senate Joe Manchin II of West Virginia, which is also covered by rope.

What Voters Need from Democrats

BIPOC representatives regularly propose policies that would benefit voters, but legislative obstructions have stunted progress that reflects the true beliefs of the modern Democratic Party.

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A lot of people are angry, scared, and frustrated. 

With good reason.

On December 22, 2015, former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton tweeted, “A Republican president could nominate as many as four Supreme Court Justices. Why that should terrify you,” cautioning the public of Roe v. Wade’s demise if Donald J. Trump were elected. Much like the Greek mythological prophet Cassandra, whose truthful prophecies were also ignored, Clinton’s statement came to fruition on June 24, 2022. 

As Roe fell, social media exploded, and the blame game was in overdrive. Most castigated President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats for not being ready to respond to Roe’s inevitable demise given the leaked May 2 Supreme Court draft stating it was prepared to strike it down. Others asked why Democrats had not codified Roe when they had supermajorities. Many asked why Republicans had long-term legislative “strategies” but Democrats seemingly had none. A late-night talk show host suggested we might want to consider holding back donations to Democrats until they showed us “what they’ve done.” Everyone demanded the Democrats present a plan and promulgate galvanizing messaging as a call to action. A few asked the White House to get creative

As someone who hails from four generations of artists, and has spent a lot of time speaking with and working with legislators, I can say with certainty that Washington, D.C. and the vast majority of electeds are allergic to creativity. This was evident when the White House attempted to push back on the plethora of performative television pundits this weekend but ended up “Gillooly-ing” activists instead. I will single out Democrats because the modern Republican Party gave up on pretending to be public servants long ago, instead, they’ve been taking to fascism like mosquitos to pond water. What, then, should we be looking for when it comes to policy and messaging from elected Democratic public servants?

First, policy is the message. People rightly want to understand what their representatives are doing to protect their rights and aid us in our daily lives. For many years, many have thought to seek answers directly from the White House, but when Biden took to the White House’s Briefing Room within two hours of Roe being overturned, many seemed unimpressed by his remarks.

“Today is a — it’s not hyperbole to suggest a very solemn moment,” he said. “Today, the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away a constitutional right from the American people that it had already recognized… Now, with Roe gone, let’s be very clear: The health and life of women in this nation are now at risk.”

While Biden proceeded to outline what his administration intended to do (investigate what protections the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services could offer), and what he needed from voters (expand the Senate, as an executive order would not restore Roe) the public was still confused about what the Democratic response and plan was.

Everyone from elected officials to TV pundits took to Twitter to ask why there was no immediate legislative response to Roe being overturned, these sentiments were echoed by the general public. Some elected officials began tweeting a wish list of policy demands. Yet tweeting is not putting policy to the floor. It’s much easier to evoke platitudes than to codify them. 

The public at large, however, neglected to review what Democrats had already introduced in the 117th Congress. That’s a critical aspect of the Democratic narrative and agenda. The Women’s Health Protection Act was introduced by Rep. Judy Chu on June 8th of 2021—A full year before Roe was overturned. This legislation “prohibits governmental restrictions on the provision of, and access to, abortion services.” It passed the House in September 2021 and stalled out in the Senate. Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH) Act was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee on March 26, 2021. This bill, “requires federal health care programs to provide coverage for abortion services and requires federal facilities to provide access to those services. The bill also permits qualified health plans to use funds attributable to premium tax credits and reduced cost-sharing assistance to pay for abortion services.” And there’s more:  Health Equity and Access under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Families Act, Protecting Access to Medication Abortion Act (in the House and Senate), Access to Birth Control Act (in The House and Senate), The Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, The Data Protection Act, The Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act (in the House and Senate), Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act (in the House and Senate).

All of these pieces of legislation were introduced before Roe was overturned, all of them were introduced by women, Black women, and people of color. That’s the story. But the story people demanded an explanation for was, “Why Roe had not been codified since the 1973 Supreme Court decision.” A few said there were many opportunities to have done so. Is that true?

First, let me state no legislation becomes law without the Senate. Without a Senate supermajority, the opposition party can filibuster, grinding any and all legislation to a halt. The filibuster is not a law, it’s a rule. Biden cannot end that rule through executive order because it is not his rule, it’s the Senate’s rule to keep, amend, or end. This is because of the separation of powers. Executive orders are not legislation. They are issued by the head of the executive branch, POTUS, and direct, “a federal official or administrative agency to engage in a course of action or refrain from a course of action.” They don’t need congressional approval but have the effect of law. Executive orders are “subject to judicial review” meaning they can be overturned. Executive orders can be a tour de force, but they can only get us so far. 

For Democrats to gain public trust, they need the public’s help. For Democrats to pass legislation into law, we must all work together to aid congressional Democrats in keeping the House and Senate during midterms, grow their majorities in both chambers, and end or reform the filibuster. Forty-six Democratic senators and the two Independent senators that caucus with them are on record stating they want to end or reform the filibuster, meaning we need to elect two more Democratic senators willing to do the same. If this happens, we can have a majority in the House; a functional Senate that won’t be stymied by the filibuster, and a President who can sign Congressional legislation into law. This is what a unified Democratic government can do.

Democrats have had majorities in Congress since 1973 when Roe was decided, yet abortion access wasn’t codified with those majorities. Why?

Congressional Democrats only had a unified government, meaning both chambers and the presidency, five times since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973: President Jimmy Carter’s 95th, 96th Congress; President Bill Clinton’s 103rd Congress; President Barack Obama’s 111th Congress, and President Joe Biden’s 117th Congress. A Senate supermajority is defined as two-thirds (67) or three-fifths (60) of the chamber. A two-thirds supermajority of 67 Senators is filibuster-proof and can override a Presidential veto. As of 1975, a supermajority of 60 (three-fifths) is filibuster-proof. 

By those definitions, Carter had a supermajority for half his term in office, the 95th Congress, in which no women served as Senators in the upper chamber. Obama’s supermajority lasted for 72 working days, during which time, he gave us the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Also, Obama didn’t have the votes. At least two Democratic senators would have voted against it, and/or it would have been filibustered. As a candidate and president, Carter opposed public funding for abortions. In 1976, he had a 292-seat majority, which included 125 anti-abortion Democrats. President Carter didn’t have the votes, nor did he have the will, to codify Roe.

Many willfully forget that other than a brief moment during Reconstruction, when approximately 2,000 Black men were elected to office at the federal, state, and local level, the vast majority of our federal government has been comprised of white, cisgender, Christian males. It still is. The current 117th Congress is the most diverse Congress we’ve ever had. Yet women still only make up a negligible portion at 27 percent. Congress is still overwhelmingly white (77 percent), cisgender male (73 percent), and Christian (88 percent)

While the modern Democratic Party and modern Republican party are profoundly different, Republicans’ long-term “legislative strategies” are easy objectives. To paraphrase the Irish comedian Dylan Moran, the current Republican Party only wants to know if they can fuck it, steal it, or kill it. In other words, Republicans weaponize white grievance through dog-whistle politics to fortify historical right-wing entrenched power (e.g. culmination of the 1850s Know-Nothing Party and pre-1964 Southern Democrats), safeguard the profits of their wealthiest donors, and protect white supremacy through codifying racism and bigotry. 

Policies that would create equity have never been the goal of the Republican Party, nor has it always been in the purview of policy priorities for many of the elected white Democratic men, either. These white Christian men mostly represented or centered their white constituents, and drafted legislation that prioritized them.

Since Congress was established in March 1789, it took 176 years for the first woman of color to be sworn in. Patsy Matsu Takemoto was the first Asian woman to be seated in the House of Representatives. It took 187 years for a Black woman, Shirley Chisholm, to take a seat in the House of Representatives. It took 204 for the first (Democratic) Latina, Lucille Roybal-Allard, to be elected to Congress. It took 230 for the first two Native women, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, to take the oath of office in Congress. Tammy Duckworth would be the first disabled woman in Congress in 2012. There are 11 open LGBTQ+ members of Congress, a record number serving at the same time. All of them ran for office on the Democratic ticket.

Black representatives and POC representatives were elected, many times, in spite of anemic campaign financial infrastructure. The modern Democratic Party has yet to admit that the face and the base of the party are its growing multiracial, multicultural, and religious minority representatives. In part, because they fear alienating white voters. It’s fear-based in fiction. White Democratic voters, for the most part, want and support the policies Black, POC, LGBTQ+, and disabled legislators are introducing. 

The modern Democratic Party had no long-term legislative plans or narrative arc because it didn’t know where it was heading. It went from leaning into civil rights in 1964 to becoming the party of civil rights, not purposefully, but because of our two-party system, Black Voters, Voters of Color, Disabled Voters, and LGBTQ+ voters, and the intersection of all made the Democratic Party their home and demanded that. 

It’s critical that we have a more representative and inclusive government, but that means money, in the form of donations. Campaigns are expensive. In political campaign fundraising, there is a racial and gender gap. Black women, women of color, queer and disabled candidates, tend to much less than what is minimally required to run a successful campaign. It cost an average of $2 million to run and win a Congressional campaign. It shouldn’t. It means a lot of people with a lot of great ideas who are from diverse and/or low-income backgrounds will have a much harder time running for office. It also means the majority of our incumbents will spend most of their time raising money. This takes time away from constituent services and legislation. Yes, that’s why you get fundraising emails after mass shootings, and when Roe was overturned; it might feel craven, but it’s because those Democrats want to keep their seats in Congress and expand their majorities. 

People who flippantly declare we should hold back money from Democrats (hi, Trevor Noah) are disproportionately harming Black, LGBTQ, POC, and disabled candidates.

Democrats have a big tent, from leftists to pragmatic progressives to moderate Democrats. We may not perceive to want the same end goal, but we all need to start admitting that the path to preserving fundamental rights is quickly deteriorating, and the road to a fully enfranchised democracy is rapidly crumbling. This means we need to stop calling each other names and start working together. Democrats can’t plan for long-term goals without majorities, and we can’t end the filibuster without protecting our current slim majorities and adding to them.

As much as we want Democrats to be slick communicators, like former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who neatly outlined his Contract for America, we should recognize a few things: Contract for America was codifying racism under the smoke screen of ‘ending corruption in the government’. Newt might have had a House majority and a Republican Senate majority, but because there was a Democratic moderate president, Newt and his House Republicans only got three out of 10 policy goals met, and of those three they were much lesser versions than what he wanted. This is why if Democrats want legislative policy goals met they must hold the presidency and have solid majorities in the House and Senate, enough to end or overcome a filibuster.

Lastly, I don’t believe in hell, but I don’t think we should follow the blueprint of a devil-like Newt or any other Republicans in office, nor could we even if we wanted to. We are the party of civil rights, and they are preserving white supremacy. Those two philosophies are antithetical. If you need a plan, here is one for midterms: keep and expand the House and Senate, end or reform the filibuster, and demand Democrats reintroduce the entire slate of policies they introduced in the 117th Congress into the 118th Congress. If all you got out of that is me saying “voter harder”, then I’ll say to you what my grandmother Marta would say to me, Con paciencia y calma se sube un burro a una palma”. Literally translated, “With patience and calm, a donkey can climb a palm”  Diligence and patience can move us toward our goals. Cynicism, on the other hand, is not an action and doesn’t protect our fundamental rights or democracy. Do you know what does? Voting.

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