Earlier this month, Britain’s Conservative Party effectively toppled its own prime minister after he’d had three eventful years in power. Boris Johnson’s downfall can be attributed to more scandals, controversies, and allegations of misconduct in that time than can be easily summarized here. Ministers resigned in protest. Party elders urged him to “consider his position,” which is Westminster slang for “quit or be fired.” Polling numbers plummeted. Johnson, for his part, refused to budge until he did.
All of this took place in the context of Britain’s “unwritten constitution,” which is the term used by that country’s legal scholars to refer to the countless precedents, patterns, and parliamentary acts that stitch together the modern British state. The unwritten constitution relies on a number of legal fictions, namely that Queen Elizabeth II is the country’s ruler and not Parliament and that prime ministers are simply giving her “advice,” when they’re actually running the show.
In theory, Americans shouldn’t be able to relate to this. The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of the office of prime minister—someone who sets the national agenda, launches major policy initiatives, and shepherds them through Congress. And yet America effectively has a prime minister right now in the person of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who casts the deciding vote in the deciding legislative chamber of American politics. After almost two years on the job, it’s clear that Manchin is pretty bad at it.
The latest sign came last week when Manchin announced that he would no longer support higher taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations or more spending for climate change initiatives, two of the remaining pillars of the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill. This legislation, one of the Democrats’ major legislative packages, would have invested hundreds of billions of dollars on what Biden described as “human infrastructure”: things like universal preschool, paid family leave, clean energy, and much more.
Manchin’s opposition came as a surprise to other Democrats with whom he had been negotiating for weeks. Manchin attributed his stance to the latest inflation data, stating that “no matter what spending aspirations some in Congress may have, it is clear to anyone who visits a grocery store or a gas station that we cannot add any more fuel to this inflation fire.”
The connection between inflation and the two items is mixed, at best. For one, higher taxes on the wealthy would actually be deflationary, so excluding them doesn’t make sense as an anti-inflation measure. Opposing climate change measures does make a little more sense for fighting inflation in the long run but mainly because the inflation rate will drop to zero if the planet is uninhabitable. A cynical observer could wonder if Manchin, whose lucrative family business in West Virginia is closely tied to coal power plants, might have other interests in mind here.
This is only the latest episode in a nearly two-year saga of Manchin forcing Democrats to abandon their policy goals, piece by piece. Democrats entered Washington in the spring of 2021 with no shortage of major items on their agenda. They sought to tame a then-raging pandemic, help the economy recover from its impact, address the malfeasance and corruption of the outgoing Trump administration, pass democratic and anti-corruption reforms to prevent the shenanigans that undermined the 2020 election, and much more.
There were some early successes, including the American Rescue Plan, a nearly $2 trillion stimulus plan aimed at strengthening the American economy in the doldrums of the Covid-19 pandemic. It became clear during that bill’s negotiations that the real leader of the government wasn’t Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer or even President Joe Biden. Democrats ultimately need the vote of Joe Manchin to do anything, and with that vote, he became the Democrats’ de facto leader.
But there were also early signs of the trouble that would lie ahead. Manchin wielded that power in ARP negotiations to water down some of its key provisions, forcing Democrats to add means-testing to the bill’s $1,400 stimulus checks and mandating that the expanded unemployment benefits expire that September. Perhaps most infamously, Manchin directed that the expanded child tax credit, which some studies later suggested had cut child poverty by 40 percent, would expire at the end of 2021. In practical terms, the West Virginia senator took a big dial marked “child poverty,” turned it down for a few months, and then turned it back up again.
In countries with the Westminster system, like Britain and Canada, prime ministers typically guide their party’s policy manifesto through the legislature so it can be enacted. In Washington, Manchin spent most of the last two years negotiating against his own party and its electoral interests. His opening salvo against Biden’s Build Back Better plan was to declare that he wouldn’t support it unless Republicans, the opposition party whose last leader had tried to stage a coup d’état, had a greater say in crafting its provisions. Though Democrats have the American equivalent of a majority government, Manchin has forced them to govern as a minority government instead.
Manchin has faced widespread criticism among his fellow Democrats for prioritizing the filibuster’s continued existence over his party’s legislative agenda, essentially giving Republicans a veto over anything that can’t be passed through the budget reconciliation process, which only requires a normal majority vote. There is no analogue to this mechanism in the Westminster system except, perhaps, for the House of Lords itself. And even then, the Commons effectively eliminated it in 1911 by stripping the upper chamber of its ability to block legislation outright.
Indeed, Manchin’s filibuster stance was the primary cause of death for the Democrats’ ambitious election reform proposals, which combined renewed voting rights protections with a broad new slate of anti-corruption measures. The senator occasionally engaged with activists on the subject and at times indicated which measures he would support and which ones he wouldn’t. But his refusal to allow America to be governed by majority rule ultimately doomed the package—and may ultimately contribute to the end of majority rule in this country.
The filibuster does not apply to reconciliation bills like Build Back Better. In those negotiations, Manchin instead proved himself to be an extremely unreliable partner. Last summer, for example, Manchin threw cold water on BBB negotiations because of the collapse of Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, which made little sense at the time and even less sense with hindsight. When reporters pressed him on his refusal to extend the expanded child tax credit last December, he angrily called their questions “bullshit” while privately telling other Democrats that he was reluctant to renew it because recipients might use the money to buy drugs. (It ultimately wasn’t renewed.)
It’s not just that Manchin has killed the Build Back Better bill, of course, but that he’s killed it multiple times after forcing other Democrats to give up more provisions each time. Last year, he supported decoupling it from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, creating a two-track process for the two halves of Biden’s legislative agenda. Then, with the help of House moderates, he successfully pressured Democratic leadership to pass the infrastructure bill before the Build Back Better bill, eliminating any leverage that his fellow party members could exercise in negotiations with him over BBB’s fate.
If Manchin had come out at the start and opposed BBB, his approach would be marginally more understandable. Instead, he has alternately kept alive hope that it could pass while extinguishing it every few months. Each renewed series of negotiations between the prime minister and his colleagues leads to more and more concessions from fellow Democrats in exchange for no measurable progress on a final package. An American voter who reads headlines from time to time but doesn’t pay close attention to the news saw Democrats announce sweeping proposals last year, then steadily back away from them one by one over the last 18 months. Manchin’s sadism must be as demoralizing as it is humiliating for the Democratic Party.
It would be tempting to think that Manchin is actually a Republican in disguise, someone whose failures of leadership and tendency toward misgovernance could be blamed on another party. It’s true that he is something of an outlier in his party’s caucus as a conservative Democrat from a state that Trump won handily. But he also sides with the party in some crucial ways. Without his fiftieth vote, Democrats would be unable to pass any legislation at all, perhaps even including bills to keep the government open or prevent a default on the national debt. He also usually votes with his party on appointments, including almost all of Biden’s judicial nominees, which may be the ultimate test of party loyalty these days.
In truth, Manchin chose a phantasmal image of bipartisanship and leadership over actually passing and implementing his own party’s policy goals. A more capable prime minister could have used the threat of supporting filibuster reform to extract concessions from Republicans, even if he personally had no intention of ever removing or revising the 60-vote threshold, while also moving fellow Democrats to the center. A more honest prime minister could have struck a grand bargain with his party’s competing factions early last year instead of squandering a rare period of unified control in Washington with pointless negotiations. He chose instead the path that was best for Joe Manchin and Joe Manchin alone.
When assessing Manchin’s tenure as prime minister, it’s worth noting that he didn’t work alone. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has also played the foil to her party’s own policy ambitions throughout the 117th Congress. But Sinema has proven to be an elusive and mercurial figure since her election to the Senate in 2018. She almost never holds campaign events in her home state, rarely if ever talks to the press, and at times seems to delight in upending Democrats’ legislative plans. Her exaggerated thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor to a $15-an-hour minimum wage vote last March quickly went viral and earned her a healthy amount of scorn from the Democrats’ left flank.
But while Sinema eschews the spotlight, Manchin seeks it out, embracing his role as the central mover in Washington while throttling his party’s legislative agenda and, with it, its prospects for reelection. In a just world, Democrats would be able to oust him from the party leadership role as Britain’s Tories did for Johnson earlier this month. Instead, other Democratic lawmakers will have to console themselves that if they lose their congressional majorities in November, it also likely means that Manchin won’t be as important as he wants to be any longer.