Politics

The Surge: Who Is the Most Important Figure in American Politics This Week?

Major Biden.
Major Biden. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Schultz/Wikipedia.

Welcome back to the Surge, your weekly politics-ranking post that correctly predicted every event in the 2020 presidential race—the Cory Booker Moment is still coming, you’ll all see, and then who’ll be laughing?—and now returns triumphantly to explain what all of these knuckleheads in Washington are doing.

For four years, there was no question who the most important figure in American politics was. The imperial president would tweet something emphatic and confusing, his loyal party would declare it to be so, and the opposition party and the press would try to figure out what it even meant or what to do about it. This was the nation’s political agenda, and when he tweeted something opposite the next day, that would also be the nation’s political agenda. Exhausting, but straightforward.

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Now? Now we find ourselves in a new, uncertain era. The Democratic Party holds a trifecta of both houses of Congress and the presidency, behind Joe Biden’s large popular majority. But the legislative margins are slim, and with the top two goals of the 2020 united front checked off—1. Get rid of Donald Trump, 2. Deliver pandemic relief—the next steps are undecided. Key figures are still discovering how much power and influence they really hold. Even the basic rules of the political process are in flux. Do there have to be rules?

This revived ex-campaign newsletter aims to make sense, or at least an arbitrary ranked list, of the struggle, week by week. Who made their voices heard? Who quietly exercised their absurdly large amount of leverage, and who loudly failed to exercise their nonexistent leverage? Who gave up, bit somebody, was exiled to Delaware, and longs to make a Napoleonic return? Check in each Friday for a highly subjective ranking of the seven most meaningful people (broadly defined) in U.S. politics this week, interspersed with stray gags that needed a page to land on.

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Let’s begin with the man in the middle.

1. Joe Manchin

What does each brain wave tell us about the future of the filibuster?

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After President Joe Biden endorsed the idea of a “talking filibuster” in the Senate—a more arduous requirement for blocking legislation than the existing Senate system, in which a single senator need simply raise one disdainful eyebrow from the comfort of his or her office to end any discussion of civil rights—the most powerful swing senator’s reaction was inscrutable. “The most encouraging was the president of the United States understands the importance of maintaining the filibuster for the minority of the Senate,” the oracle of West Virginia told reporters. And while Manchin said he hasn’t heard anything to change his mind on eliminating or weakening the filibuster, he’s been listening to all of the ideas kicking around. The fate of the filibuster right now is in a highly Senate-y place of commotion without motion, and the hesitancy among Democrats to ditch it extends beyond Manchin. Analyzing each and every Manchin brain wave stimulated by mention of Senate procedure is a dead end. Let’s check in on where he and other senators are when Mitch McConnell’s Republicans start blocking major legislation on the floor, and the case against obstruction accumulates.

2. Marjorie Taylor Greene

Meanwhile, how the House deals with dinky obstruction.

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A minority of the House Republican minority has been revolting. First, there were various forced votes from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has little else to do now that she’s been stripped from her committees, to adjourn the House. The GOP has also, though, been working to force roll-call votes on so-called suspension bills: Uncontroversial measures that the House often passes by voice vote in rapid succession near the start of each week they’re in session. Last week, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer scrapped consideration of 13 such bills—including one awarding Congressional Gold Medals to police officers involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection—after he got wind that Republicans, like Greene, Texas Rep. Chip Roy, and Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs would force roll-call votes on all of them, which could’ve meant 10 hours stranded on the floor. As Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has tried to point out to his conference, many of the uncontroversial bills are Republican bills, and so the rebels’ tactics to frustrate Democrats could result in fewer Republican bills getting passed. Hoyer and McCarthy have been trying to negotiate a solution. If they can’t reach an agreement, though, the majority will work out its own. According to Politico, Hoyer told his members on a call this week that “by the time we come back in April, we will have resolved the obstruction via negotiation or by a change to the rules.” This is an important difference between the two chambers. In the Senate, when an individual senator stumbles across some dark procedural arcana and wields it like a piece of jagged glass to the throat of progress, it becomes a traditional Senate right that must be fore’er protected against the tyrannical majority. In the House, the individual obstructor gets a few minutes to play with their new toy, and then the game is changed.

3. Zoe Lofgren

Will Democrats bounce a Republican member?

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The House Administration Committee is doing a lot more these days than ensuring new member offices received their full allotment of pencil sharpeners. The committee chairwoman, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, has decided to hear a challenge from Democrat Rita Hart, who lost the race for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District to Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks by a total of six votes out of 393,922 total cast. Hart’s campaign argues that 22 legally cast votes would’ve given her the edge if they had been counted, and the Constitution makes each chamber the final “Judge” of its elections. Republicans, understandably, are ripshit over this and suggest that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is just trying to get an extra Democratic vote after losing a couple of members to Biden’s Cabinet. Democrats counter that this was a historically close race and Hart has a right to present her evidence, and it is nothing like President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn a much-less-close race with zero evidence. Each side will have until the end of the month to file written responses to questions before the committee figures out where to head next. Ultimately, the question could be brought to a full floor House vote.

4. Major, the Dog

Ready to rumble again?

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Joe Biden’s younger dog, Major—well, depending on who you ask, he’s a major pain in the you know what!!! Since a “biting incident” at the White House, the dang dog has decamped to Delaware for some doggy drills. Biden, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos this week, said that Major had been putting in the hours with their trainer to make sure he stops biting people. (Although he was never puncturing their skin, as Biden clarified.) Press secretary Jen Psaki said that Major and Champ (the other dog, old, doesn’t bite people all the time because he’s too old) would be returning to the White House “soon.” That will be welcome news to the 85 percent of the White House, according to the very specific statistic that Biden shared, who “love” Major. To the other 15 percent? We’d just remind them: That dog bites you? You bite him right back.

5. Joe Biden

He’ll make news if you let him.

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But really, where did that 85 percent number come from? He may be older and a bit less loquacious than prime-era Joe Biden, but he will talk if you let him. Consider his interview with Stephanopoulos, where he came out in favor of reforming the filibuster in one breath, and in another, when asked whether he thought Vladimir Putin was a “killer,” said, “Mmm hmm, I do.” He also freelanced a guess that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo could be prosecuted? Why is he saying “no offense to the Greeks” on St. Patrick’s Day? This gets to a recent dispute between the press corps and the White House about whether Biden should be holding press conferences. The press corps is correct that Biden should field more questions from reporters—and if he really cares about America and the Constitution, he should field them exclusively from the Surge—and the White House is correct that it’s not in their interest to do this. They like the narrative of a boring, competent return to normalcy in which the old man is too busy giving everyone checks and vaccines to talk to dirtbag reporters. The first press conference, though, has at last been scheduled for next Thursday. Place your bets now on which member of Congress he’ll call a “low-rent popinjay, no offense to the English” after a question about interest rates.

6. Rosa DeLauro

Earmarks are back. Will they still work?

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After a 10-year absence, earmarks are back in Congress, and it’s time to buy votes again. Thank God. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro introduced a proposal to reinstate earmarks—aka “congressionally directed spending,” wherein lawmakers can secure specific projects for their districts in spending bills, rather than leaving it all to the discretion of executive agencies—last month, with certain guardrails to prevent the corruption that killed the practice a decade ago. And this week, House Republicans voted internally to take part in the practice, recognizing that if Democrats were going to do it, they might as well get on board too. What will be interesting, after a decade of further polarization, will be seeing if earmarks can still do the trick of securing bipartisan votes. Politics has become much more nationalized in the past 10 years, and the prospect of, say, an infrastructure earmark may not be enough to outweigh the generalized hell a Republican could get by voting for a Democratic infrastructure bill that raises taxes. We’ll find out soon, because Democrats are, in fact, planning a major infrastructure bill.

7. Joni Ernst

What a shame if the Violence Against Women Act cracked down on creepy men with guns.

The House this weekend passed a long-overdue reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a top priority for the original legislation’s author, Joe Biden. Twenty-nine Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting it. So what were Republican objections—some culture war grievance against trans people or something about guns? Why not both? Republicans took issue with the bill’s expansion of trans rights, such as strengthening “protections for transgender women to access women’s shelters and serve in prisons that match their gender identity.” On guns, the bill would close the “boyfriend loophole” to bar anyone convicted of stalking from buying a gun. The NRA and Republicans are adamantly opposed to the provision as a strike against constitutional rights. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who’s been a victim of domestic violence herself, was the GOP’s lead on the issue in 2019 when Congress couldn’t strike a deal, over the same issues. Can they do it now?

Some political reads from Slate:

Biden Calling Putin a Killer Was What Both Presidents Wanted, by Joshua Keating

J.D. Vance’s Senate Campaign Is Shaping Up as a Vicious Assault on People Like J.D. Vance, by Ben Mathis-Lilley

The Atlanta Shooting Suspect Bought His Gun Faster Than a Woman in Georgia Can Get an Abortion, by Christina Cauterucci

Does Puerto Rico Want Puerto Rican Statehood? by Joshua Keating

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