Episode Summary

It’s a bit hard to believe that one year ago, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. A lot has happened during that timespan but a lot has also not happened.

As of this week, Biden and the Democratic majority in the Senate have confirmed 41 federal judges, the most ever for a president’s first year in office.

He also led a successful effort to make vaccines against Covid-19 freely available everywhere in America through the American Rescue Plan Act which also ramped up funding for manufacturing and deployment of scientific testing for the SARS2 coronavirus. No Republican in Congress voted for the law in either chamber of Congress when it passed in March of 2021.

Biden and Democrats also passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which included $550 billion in new federal spending for improvements in roads, bridges, electric vehicle charging, and broadband internet. The law was originally supposed to be passed in tandem with another bill, the Build Back Better Act, which has not passed. Both bills have been under constant opposition by congressional Republicans led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who figured out decades ago that a do-nothing Congress actually helps the GOP.

The Republican opposition has been greatly helped by the persistence of the Senate’s filibuster rule which, as currently interpreted, makes almost all legislation face a 60-vote hurdle. Most state legislatures in America don’t have filibusters and most national Democratic Senators say they want to end the outdated rule, but two of them, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have publicly committed to helping Republicans stymie President Biden, and also to opposing his more progressive proposals.

Did it have to be this way, however? What could Biden have done differently? Or is that the wrong question to ask?

Joining me to talk about this today is Heather Digby Parton, she’s a columnist for and also one of the original bloggers on the internet. She’s been operating her site, Digby’s Hullabaloo, for 19 years now.

The video from the Theory of Change YouTube channel is below. The full transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Joining me today is Heather Digby Parton. She’s a columnist for and also one of the original bloggers on the internet. She’s been operating her site Hullabaloo for 19 years now. Congratulations and welcome, Heather!

HEATHER DIGBY PARTON: Thank you for having me.

SHEFFIELD: There’s been a lot that’s happened in this first year of Joe Biden’s presidency. I did want to highlight though on the judicial front, people talked a lot when Donald Trump was the president about all the judges that he confirmed, but actually Biden is on a quicker pace for him. And that’s something that I think hasn’t been appreciated enough. Do you think so?

PARTON: Oh, absolutely. And I think everybody’s a little surprised by that when they do hear it, because it seems as though everything’s been so stymied in the Senate. But this is actually a great example of how eliminating the filibuster can actually promote progress, because had they not eliminated the filibuster for lower court judges, and of course they had eliminated them for Supreme court judges, then this wouldn’t be happening and it’s tremendously important. And it’s a lesson that one of the lessons that Joe Biden did learn from the years as Barack Obama’s vice president, he learned that in order to get these judges passed, you just push this through very, very quickly.

You don’t wait, you get, have your list at the ready, and you just go ahead with your head down and get it done. Because they didn’t do that in the first years of the Obama Administration. And it caused tremendous gridlock. And that, of course, was the reason that they ended up eliminating the filibuster for lower court judges because they had to. The Republicans obstructed every judge that Obama nominated and did until they were forced not to. So there’s an object lesson in that, in how the filibuster actually– and again, that works for Republicans as well as Democrats. So eliminating the filibuster for judges meant that they have been nominating many more judges in both administrations. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. I mean, there was a point there where there were just, there, there were empty courts. They didn’t have enough judges in there.

So I think this is one, it is one of the unsung accomplishments, I think, of the Biden administration and one that comes directly out of lessons learned from the last time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I agree. Your point on the filibuster is important because on the filibuster, during the Biden presidency, as I mentioned, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have been in favor of keeping the filibuster, but they have, in fact, been voting for the judges and been voting to block filibusters on the judges. So, it really does show that, as you said, it shows what you can do. And the thing is though, the judicial nominations are not the only area where there are exceptions to the filibuster rule.

That’s something you and I have written a lot about that over the years, but let’s maybe for those who don’t know the full history of all these exemptions that are available, there’s actually quite a few. As it currently stands. Do you want to about those?

PARTON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we just saw one just just a month ago when they put an exception through, for raising the debt ceiling. Obviously the reconciliation process, which was done to prevent obstruction of the budgetary process over whatever minor arcane issues that, that might, have held up the entire U.S. budget or any budgetary issues. I mean, these things have been there have been exceptions to the filibuster throughout its history. And in fact, up until very recently, the filibuster was used sparingly. It was not considered an, an average, ordinary tool of the opposition to stymie all legislation that they did not like. That just wasn’t how it worked.

And in fact, it was used almost exclusively in earlier years just to stop voting rights and civil rights. That was the, that was the main reason they used it. And it was a tool that they should’ve gotten rid of a long time ago because of that. However, in recent years, the Republicans just absolutely– and this was not just under McConnell, although he’s the one who’s turned it into a nuclear weapon since the two parties have really polarized, which was in a process that was happening from the Civil Rights Act of 1965, I mean, and slowly but surely, they did end up being polarized. Up until then, they had the two ideological poles were present in both parties.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I’m sorry. That bifurcation, the ideological sorting of the parties, actually began when what was called the conservative movement began trying to cancel moderate Republicans.

PARTON: Right.

SHEFFIELD: That’s, they invented, cancel culture. I don’t hear a lot of progressive commentators on TV and elsewhere pointing that out, the right wing invented cancel culture. They love it. And they practice it far more than anybody else does. But–

PARTON: Absolutely. And they’re good at it. I mean, they are ruthless with that particular tool, as we can see happening right now in the Republican Party under Donald Trump. He didn’t invent it, but they were the ones, they’ve made this litmus test after litmus test, after litmus test in the Republican Party.

And, it was: ‘You follow the party line, you follow the dogma, the doctrinal imperative of the day, that’s what you have to do. And they have been ruthless in exercising it. And that’s, you’re absolutely right. That has resulted, as much as anything in the two parties polarizing the way that they have. And there are no more liberal or even moderates. I mean, even if you consider Mitt Romney or Susan Collins, the concerned Senator from Maine, these are not moderates in the sense that, that we used to consider moderates who would be negotiating in good faith and you could find, they were on an ideological level. It wasn’t just a temperamental thing to be a moderate and go: ‘Oh, I really don’t care for Donald Trump’s personality.’

It wasn’t that wasn’t what a moderate was. And in the past, a moderate was someone who had some ideological similarities, some crossover, some things that you could work with the other party. That’s just not the case. I mean, I don’t think Mitt Romney — he’s a conservative. He doesn’t like the wild radicalism of the MAGA clan, but that doesn’t make him a moderate. He’s a real conservative. And so, there aren’t any more of those in the Republican Party because they purged them. And actually, Mitt Romney is the closest you can come. And so, as a result, it’s very difficult to do any kind of cross party negotiations anymore. And I think the Democrats would like to– out of sheer necessity because they have few it’s the Senate and they have fewer opportunities to elect more liberal senators just simply because of the, of the way the Senate is made up ,and there’s smaller rural states and they tend to be more conservative and this on and on and on. We all know that story. So, they are at a disadvantage in this situation because they actually have to have some moderates in their caucus, in some respect or another, it’s very, very difficult for them not to.

And that’s why we find ourselves in a position like we’re in today, where they have a majority, they represent the majority of the American people by far. I mean, millions, tens of millions, more people voted for the Democrats in the Senate. And yet it’s a 50 50 Senate. That structure leaves them at a large disadvantage. And the Republicans have taken full advantage of that and decided to be a full-on obstructionist party, just to stop anything that they, that the majority wants.

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