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When did good governance become an “armageddon option”?

The price for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat can’t be democracy itself.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks to reporters about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In his Sunday newsletter, Axios’s Mike Allen laid out “the Democrats’ armageddon option” in the fight over a new Supreme Court justice. Here it is (emphasis in the original):

Furious Democrats are considering total war — profound changes to two branches of government, and even adding stars to the flag — if Republicans jam through a Supreme Court nominee, then lose control of the Senate.

On the table: Adding Supreme Court justices ... eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to end filibusters ... and statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico.

This is disturbing. Not that Democrats are considering these options, but that they’re being framed as “armageddon” and “total war.”

Statehood for Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, for instance, isn’t a punishment Democrats could mete out against Republicans. Statehood for DC and Puerto Rico is the right thing to do because US citizens deserve political representation.

I’d make a similar argument for ending the filibuster; the Senate’s 60-vote threshold is a recent procedural anomaly that has made routine legislating functionally impossible, as I explained in this recent episode of The Weeds:

I’ll note, by the way, that Republicans ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017, just four years after Democrats ended the filibuster on non-Supreme Court judicial nominees, and executive branch appointees, in 2013.

It is a strange principle: Lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court can pass with 51 votes, but 60 votes are required for even the most inconsequential of legislative changes. Want to hand the Supreme Court to the right for a generation? You need a majority. Want to slightly increase fuel standards for light trucks? Supermajorities only, thanks.

Of the ideas Democrats are weighing, only adding justices to the Supreme Court should be seen as reprisal for Republicans jamming a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg through the Senate mere weeks before the presidential election. Democrats are now considering court-packing because it’s an equal and opposite response to hardball moves Republicans have made to maximize their power on the Court. All the other policies, by contrast, were being seriously debated before Ginsburg’s death. Nothing about the Supreme Court vacancy, or what happens to it, changes the arguments for or against them.

I wouldn’t yet hazard a guess on how all this will play out. But here’s one outcome I fear: Democrats — in a desperate attempt to convince four Republicans to side with them in the Court nominee fight — trade away overdue reforms to enfranchise the disenfranchised; make the Senate a functional legislative body again; and solve the problems they’ve run for office promising to address. Or, even worse, they present those reforms as a political crisis, and then they both lose the Ginsburg fight and find that they’ve turned their own agenda toxic by presenting it as some kind of armageddon plan.

It would be a terrible mistake for Democrats to agree to not actually govern if they win the election. That would be a betrayal of their voters, and of their responsibilities.

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