For several days now, nationally and locally, progressives have been whipping themselves into a frenzied outrage over a vote last week on an amendment in the US Senate, co-sponsored by Amy Klobuchar and (BE STILL MY THROBBING HEART!!) Bernie Sanders. Their amendment, the narrative goes, would have allowed Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
The amendment failed by a relatively narrow margin, and several Democrats voted against it. Nationally, rising corporate Democratic star Cory Booker (D-NJ) has gotten the most heat for his “no” vote, but it so happens that both of Washington State’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, also voted against the measure. And these votes are being taken, usually with a good deal of online spittle, as obvious evidence that the “corporate Democrats who killed this bill” are Big Pharma sellouts in particular and. more generally, Part of the Problem that is leaving us with President Trump this week. Literally millions of words have been said or written to this effect over the past five days.
There’s only two tiny, itsy-bitsy problems with using this vote to flagellate Booker et al:
1) That’s not what happened.
2) That’s not why it happened.
If it makes you feel better, Booker is and always has been a tool of Wall Street with a feel-good biography. Cantwell has been a technocratic centrist since she was in the House of Representatives 25 years ago, a policy wonk who gets good nerdy regulatory work done but was a DLC member before it was cool the first time. Patty Murray’s votes are a little more liberal, but in a quarter-century in the Senate she’s almost never sponsored anything controversial (quick, name me a senator, any senator, who says they hate military veterans). She rapidly rose to power in her party by raising a ton of corporate money for herself and especially her colleagues and party.
Needless to say, they all loved Hillary Clinton. And absolutely, their disconnection from Sanders’ priorities and (especially) the concerns of ordinary people are prime examples of the kind of timid-to-useless deadwood now clogging the highest levels of the Democratic Party. You want to blame corporate Democrats for giving us Donald Trump? These three are as good as any to blame.
But last week’s vote has nothing, zip, nada to do with any of that. And none of the outrage pouring out of people in the last week contains any acknowledgement, let alone understanding, of Senate procedure and what the vote was about – let alone why senators voted as they did. In parading their ignorance, progressives come off as just as ill-informed and conspiratorial as any low-information Trump fanboy. We’re better that that. So bear with me for some tedious procedural explaining.
What Actually Happened
Sanders’ amendment was not to an ordinary bill. It was an amendment to this year’s Senate budget reconciliation bill, a part of the budget process that does not get signed by the President and that does not become law. Instead, it is a framework for use by Senate committee chairs as they prepare and then hold hearings on the budget.
Sanders’ amendment would not have legalized importation of prescription drugs from Canada, or anything else. It would merely have authorized the Senate Budget Committee’s chairman, Tea Party Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming, to propose such a measure should he choose to do so.
Enzi, however, didn’t want that authority – he said so publicly, and he also voted against the Sanders amendment. Even if the amendment had passed, it would have accomplished nothing, because a troglodyte like Enzi isn’t interested, and Wyoming voters aren’t about to throw him out over it. This was a meaningless vote, one of a batch of amendments offered by Democrats with no expectation at all that any of them would pass.
Why It Happened
That batch of amendments was all meaningless in terms of influencing the actual budget, let alone becoming law. Everyone involved understood that the Republican majority would make sure that the amendments would all fail.
But they did have a purpose, and it’s the same sort of game Republicans play when it’s the Democrats controlling a house of Congress: to get the opposing party’s legislators to take a vote that can be used in campaign ads against them when they run for re-election. In this case, “Bob Smith – VOTED AGAINST CHEAPER PRICES FOR YOUR PRESCRIPTION DRUGS!!!,” and on to the next three second hit. However, invariably, when you introduce such amendments, some of your own people will find it more politically useful to vote against it, too. So if you’re from a state with a lot of Big Pharma jobs, like, say, New Jersey, and your state is just as likely to elect a Republican as a Democrat, you don’t want your opponent’s campaign blurb to be, “Bob Smith – VOTED TO TAKE AWAY YOUR JOBS!!!”
(That explains Booker’s vote – he actually gets a lot less in Pharma donations than your new Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, or a number of other Democratic senators, including some who voted “yes.” Why Murray and Cantwell voted “no” is anyone’s guess, and really does not matter.)
Conversely, Republicans know what this game is about, too. So they can afford to have a few of their members vote “yes,” knowing that it won’t pass. You coordinate which of your members would benefit most from avoiding this particular headache. Thus, John McCain voted “yes” because he’s going to have a hard time getting re-elected. Ted Cruz doesn’t exactly hate Big Pharma, but Texas is the state with by far the highest number of uninsured residents, so why hand ammunition to his next opponent? So he, too, voted “yes.” And so on.
This is not s new game. A decade ago, when new Congressman Dave Reichert was barely surviving re-election in his then-swing district on the Eastside, he got huge benefits from the perception that he was an independent moderate – a perception helped greatly, as he revealed on video to a friendly suburban audience, because his party leadership would tell him when it was safe to break ranks on meaningless votes like this one. If a vote was going to be close, Reichert would vote the party line.
With the Klobuchar/Sanders amendment everyone’s all worked up about this week, that’s what would have happened, too. It’s all political kabuki, tedious and predictable, staged solely to cater to or avoid the wrath of the rubes. Except that it turns out that, on this of all weeks, what the left-leaning rubes want is the blood of their own ostensible allies. If this sounds like an exact mirror of why even rational Republicans no longer dare play rational ones on TV, that’s because it is. IT’S ALL OPTICS.
With all of the truly destructive votes cast by Democrats like Booker and Murray in any given year, it makes less than no sense to go after them on this one – a vote with no impact, not even any force of law, even if it had passed, which there was never a chance of happening. The nicest thing that can be said is that the lunatic far right’s tactics worked, and they now have absolute control of the federal government. And it’s true that as Trump’s Cabinet Nominees From Hell sail through their Senate confirmation hearings, Democrats playing tiny business-as-usual games like these – rather than, say, trying to save the Republic from outright fascism – is remarkably tone deaf.
But the far right isn’t in complete control of the federal government now because they’ve embraced hatred and ignorance as core values. That’s not a tactic we need to embrace. Progressives can hold our elected allies (and pseudo-allies) accountable without going down that road. Right?