Joe Manchin Tells Democrats What They Need to Hear
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When will congressional Democrats realize that Joe Manchin is doing them a favor? In a column published Sunday in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the West Virginia senator gave them two things they haven’t had since Joe Biden became president: a message and a strategy.
Manchin has been clear from the start that he’s inclined neither to get rid of the filibuster nor to support the For the People Act, the so-called voting-rights legislation that Democrats have already passed in the House. Last month, he expressed his preference for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is more narrowly framed.
Manchin’s column implicitly raises a crucial question: Why, if the For the People Act is so comprehensive in protecting voting rights, is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act even necessary?
The truth is that the For the People Act is about much more than just voting rights — and even if it weren’t, it would still have trouble passing a 50-50 Senate. Yes, certain provisions would supersede many of the unnecessary voter-suppression measures Republican state legislatures have passed this year. And others are legitimate common-sense notions like making online voter registration easier and requiring the use of paper ballots.
Other parts of the law, however, go further than many states (including many blue ones) are willing: national standards blocking most state voter ID laws, requiring automatic “opt-in” voter registration and ex-felon re-enfranchisement as well as setting early-voting days and Election Day hours. In a constitutional framework that gives states wide latitude in setting voting laws, that’s a problem.
More troubling are measures that have little to do with voting qua voting, but fall into the more general area of “good” (though decidedly contentious) government reform. That includes mandating nonpartisan redistricting (hardly an issue on which all Democrats agree), “ethics” reforms designed to mandate the release of presidential candidate tax and financial records and, most controversially, campaign-finance provisions designed to essentially overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Congressional Republicans aren’t the only ones who think that last measure imposes unconstitutional disclosure measures on individuals and organizations raising money to participate in the political process. So does the ACLU. The For the People Act also includes a public campaign finance component not unlike New York City’s current 6-1 matching funds scheme — which has opened the door to huge swaths of outside money.
The filibuster could end tomorrow and most of these measures would be lucky to get 40 votes, forget 50 or 60. But, because Democrats are claiming the issue is voting rights, the rest of this kitchen-sink legislation is conveniently ignored. Manchin, meanwhile, is taking criticism for Democratic colleagues who don’t want to have to deal with these other measures being pushed by the more progressive members of the party.
Manchin has said that he would prefer that the Democrats pass the John Lewis Act. The bill is a narrowly focused restoration of the original 1965 Voting Rights Act. To be precise, it restores Section 5 of the law, under which the Department of Justice can essentially vet any proposed changes to voting laws in certain states (mostly in the South) to ensure they are not discriminatory. When the high court struck down the section in 2013, it allowed Congress to create a more accurate formula for restoring it. Alternately, Congress could just make all 50 states subject to the Justice Department’s so-called “pre-clearance” power.
And oh, how interesting, the John Lewis Act already has something (besides Manchin’s support) that the For the People Act doesn’t: At least one Republican — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — has said that she’ll vote for it. Separately, Senator Tim Scott said that he takes “voting rights personally.” He’s trying to get Republicans to support the George Floyd police reform bill and might be somebody Manchin and Murkowski could recruit to support — potentially bringing other Republicans with him.
If that effort fails, then yes, Democrats should circle back to Manchin and jawbone him on tinkering with the filibuster. In the meantime, Manchin has clearly outlined the problems with the overly ambitious For the People Act. If the best that other Democrats can do is accuse him of being “the new Mitch McConnell,” they may as well give up.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.
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