Historic 117th Congress: From attempted coup to groundswell support, the filibuster blocks bills strengthening the people’s voice
Introduction by Common Cause President, Karen Hobert Flynn
Never has it been more important for voters to stand together and demand candidates tell them what they will do to strengthen our march toward a multi- racial, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic democracy that respects and works for everyone. As they evaluate their representatives’ actions in office, constituents must discern truth from lies or disinformation. The stakes for our democracy couldn’t be higher.
Common Cause offers this Democracy Scorecard as one piece of information to consider: a factual, nonpartisan accounting of actions by each member of the 117th Congress on a range of democracy-related legislation. Common Cause does not endorse or oppose candidates; we simply provide constituents the facts about how your delegation voted, so you and the people you share this nonpartisan tool can make an informed and comprehensive evaluation of your legislators’ performance.
In many states, office holders are deciding on matters that present a choice between a fundamental belief in democracy or authoritarian rule; between you and me having power in our vote and voice, or others taking that away from us. We weren’t all included in the rights protected by the Constitution in 1789, and even as we fight for a more inclusive democracy and celebrate the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, this past summer saw six justices on the U.S. Supreme Court take away rights to reproductive freedom. How our elected representatives serve in office determines whether we move toward a more perfect union, see more rights stripped from different communities, or lose our democracy altogether.
The story of the 117th Congress, when seen through a good government lens, provides important information to constituents as they evaluate their choices. In many cases there is much to celebrate. This Congress was more active considering more pro-democracy legislation than previous years, as we are scoring 23 combined votes (14 in the House, nine in the Senate) compared to 12 in the last session, along with a number of bills to cosponsor. This is our 4th biennial Democracy Scorecard, and this year’s version has the highest number of members of Congress with perfect scores (101). This is likely attributable to the salience of democracy issues among millions of Americans who continue to demand reform from their elected officials, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer prioritizing democracy reform in this Congress.
In what has turned out to be a productive legislative session, the most historic effort to advance voting rights, set fair national voting standards, and reduce the undue influence of money in politics in decades, came up two votes short of passing. Partially in response to the 19 states that passed 34 anti-voter bills and to help counteract the election sabotage efforts stemming from the “Big Lie” and the January 6th insurrection, House and Senate Democrats were unified in advancing the For the People Act, Freedom to Vote Act, John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and ultimately, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. These transformative bills would have gotten secret, dark money out of politics, significantly protected and expanded voting rights against racial discrimination in voting, and curbed partisan gerrymandering.
However, Senate Republicans repeatedly refused to even allow a full debate on these bills and continually filibustered them. Despite the obstruction, a groundswell of public support has led to a more than 70% increase in the number of perfect scores among Members of Congress on the democracy legislation scored this year by Common Cause.
Within 72 hours of the 117th Congress being sworn into office, the 245- year peaceful transfer of power ended as insurgents, fueled by lies by the former president, attacked the Capitol to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes. Then-President Trump identified the counting of the Electoral College on January 6th as the last chance for those caught up in his lie to overturn the results of a free and fair election. He recruited and then incited supporters to attack the Capitol. Several sitting members of Congress have been implicated in the scheme, the subject of ongoing investigations by the bi-partisan House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Department of Justice.
Truth matters, and the Select Committee’s success was not a sure thing. But the Select Committee earned the attention and respect of the American people by doing the hard investigative work and laying out its case, including testimony mostly from Republican witnesses and one-time supporters of, and staff to, the former president, as well as election officials who came under withering personal attack. It captivated television audiences reaching tens of millions of viewers for its hearings and quickly established an undeniable fact pattern leading directly to the former president.
Whether breaching a barricade or protocol, shattering glass or expectations, or undermining reputations or our faith in each other and our democracy; those who lie, divide, and stoke, condone, or commit acts of violence in order to take power away from the people must be held accountable. More than 855 cases involving individuals who stormed the Capitol are in progress, and the earliest sentences for as many as seven years are serious. There have been further indications that the Department of Justice will continue to pursue accountability for those who plotted, promoted, and financed what we now know was clearly an attempted coup to keep the outgoing president in power.
It has also inspired a rolling coup in dozens of state legislatures that considered, including 19 that passed, laws making it harder for Americans to vote.
Not only was there increased support for strengthening our democracy within the Congress, but strong popular support also saw voters from both parties and independents clamoring for change, and the Republican leadership in the Congress knew it. In a recording obtained and released by journalist Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, Republican strategists discussed how to defeat the bill, and it was clear that conservatives had no answer.
When presented with a neutral description of the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1), conservatives were just as supportive as the general public. The New Yorker quoted the strategist as saying that “’[w]hen presented with a very neutral description’ of the bill, ‘people were generally very supportive.’ … ‘[T]he most worrisome part … is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.’ … As a result, [the expert] conceded, the legislation’s opponents would likely have to rely on Republicans in the Senate, where the bill [was then] under debate, to use ‘under-the-dome-type-strategies’—meaning legislative maneuvers beneath Congress’s roof, such as the filibuster—to stop the bill, because turning public opinion against it would be ‘incredibly difficult.’”
To give you an idea of just how significant public support was for comprehensive pro-democracy reform, Common Cause generated more than 5 million phone calls and 4.5 million texts and pushed more than 45,000 calls to the Senate. In addition, hundreds of opinion pieces and letters-to-the editor appeared in local media, and tens of thousands of people attended rallies coordinated around the country.
In the end, with high levels of support in Congress and an overwhelming outpouring of public support, Congress ran into one of the reasons our democracy needs to be modernized: the filibuster. Even with 51 votes, a majority, the arcane Senate procedure known as the filibuster requiring super majorities just to debate an issue, prevented the Democrats from passing major democracy reform and voting rights legislation or the Republicans from considering negotiating in good faith to get to 60 votes.
As the 117th Congress winds down, one of the most important questions will be about accountability. Constituents almost always have the quickest route to accountability.
As the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol issues its report and the mid-term elections draw near, January 6, 2021, is a bright line after which there is no excuse for elected officials to get away with believing in, condoning, or remaining silently complicit with the lies about the 2020 election.
The people who continue to endorse these lies and speak sympathetically of those who led the violent mob, or themselves continue to stoke the idea that political violence is acceptable, should be held accountable. Some of these people are sitting members of Congress, or are winning primaries for U.S. Senator, Governor and for election administrators in the states. Some of them are state legislators who used the Big Lie to pass state legislation that empowers states to overthrow election results.
Increasingly many of the people identified with these anti-democracy views are publicly identifying as White Christian Nationalists. Most Americans have rejected movements of White Christian Nationalists at other moments in our history, but that doesn’t make their resurgence any less troubling. Often, once these movements come out from under the rocks they normally hide under, it takes time to repudiate them.
With respect to January 6th, many people are waiting for the Department of Justice to act. But with respect to holding those involved accountable, or preventing candidates who would continue to undermine our democracy by embracing the Big Lie, or worse, being willing to undermine democracy by overthrowing future elections, voters do not have to wait. In our system of self-governance, the checks and balances can seem slow, but it is designed to prevent would-be authoritarians from getting into office and taking away the people’s power. At the same time, the people vote every two years, a time span that comes quicker than the government can act in some cases, giving the people an opportunity to do their job in holding leaders accountable.
Taking their cues from anti-voter laws at the state level, congressional Republicans have introduced more than 30 anti-voter bills in this Congress. While none of that legislation will become law this year, a less reform-minded Congress next year could do in one fell swoop at the national level what power-hungry anti-democracy state legislators are trying to do—make it harder for certain Americans, especially Black and Brown Americans, to have their voices heard and votes counted.
As you evaluate the decisions your representatives made in this Congress on issues that we care about, make sure you and your family, friends, colleagues, and others have the facts by sharing this nonpartisan 2022 Democracy Scorecard at democracyscorecard.org.