Meet Washington’s most ineffective senator: Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and his staff return from the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, December 9, 2021 to pay their respects to the late Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Greg Nash

Former Sen. Bob Dole’s death serves as one more reminder that few members of Congress are credited with historic accomplishments that cause them to be remembered long after their service has ended. Dole was the rare exception. In the many tributes to the late Kansas senator, Dole was lauded for bucking his beloved Republican Party to support passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while serving as a member of the House. As a senator, Dole worked with Democrats Hubert H. Humphrey and George McGovern to launch the school lunch and food stamp programs.

Later, allying himself with another prominent Democrat, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), Dole was key to saving Social Security from bankruptcy in 1983. In the 1990s, Dole was a vital player in making sure the most important legislative accomplishment of the George H. W. Bush administration, The Americans with Disabilities Act, was signed into law. And as a private citizen, Dole was the most important person in getting the National World War II Memorial built. Dole’s modus operandi was simple: Go to Washington, work with members of the opposition party and get things done. In his final words to the American people, Dole said: “[W]e must remember that bipartisanship is the minimum we should expect from ourselves.”

Of the thousands of U.S. senators who have passed their time in that once august body, most have faded into history, their names long forgotten. A few stand out. In 1957, Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) got a civil rights bill through the Senate, the first such legislation to become law in 100 years.

Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) was heavily involved in passing the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) worked closely with George W. Bush to get No Child Left Behind enacted in 2001, and he was tireless in his efforts to pass universal health insurance, which culminated with ObamaCare.

After the fiasco of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, Joe Biden made sure his Violence Against Women Act became law. Admonishing a recalcitrant Republican to let the bill pass, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said: “Joe’s worked very hard on this. And we’ve got to remember he cares about this. You just be quiet. It’s a good bill.” The gold standard for measuring senatorial greatness was set by Lyndon Johnson many years ago: “Write it into the books of law.” Few have measured up.

Using the Johnson method to measure senatorial greatness, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is an abject failure. Since entering the Senate in 2010, Manchin has shepherded few bills into law. Manchin-Toomey, his bill co-sponsored with Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) to provide background checks for gun sales following the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, failed. This year, Manchin’s proposal to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6 failed. His voting rights legislation has garnered just one Republican to support it, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Only in passing the important infrastructure bill did Manchin leave a significant imprint.

Back in 1960, when Dwight Eisenhower was asked what major idea his vice president, Richard Nixon, he had adopted, his answer was succinct: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” Much the same can be said of Manchin. 

In a 50-50 Senate, it’s important not to equate power with effectiveness. Prowling the halls of Congress, reporters hang on Manchin’s every word, listening for his latest utterances to divine whether he is onboard with President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. While Manchin occasionally decries the obsessive press coverage, he seems to enjoy having the power to say “no.”

This year, Manchin said “no” to raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, “no” to raising corporate taxes to pre-Trump levels, “no” to paid family leave, “no” to the Green New Deal, “no” to the DREAM Act, “no” to D.C. statehood and “no” to repealing the Senate filibuster. He could still say “no” to the Build Back Better bill. This veto power makes him the object of desire from Biden (who likes to call him “Jo-Jo”), to the daily ministrations from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to the cajoling from his fellow Democrats who will gladly rewrite legislation to cater to his every whim. Everything Manchin says and does is a headline. 

Being a key member in a 50/50 Senate and being an effective senator are two different things. The filibuster, with its current 60-vote threshold, gives every senator the power to say “no”. But senators who say “no” are often derided by history. The longest Senate filibuster was the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) fulminations against that 1957 Civil Rights bill. Thurmond spoke continuously for 24 hours and 18 minutes — including reading from George Washington’s Farewell Address, the election laws in 48 states and the Declaration of Independence. In the end, Thurmond’s protestations yielded to Lyndon Johnson’s persuasiveness, and the bill became law. Since his death in 2003, Thurmond has faded from memory. Lyndon Johnson hasn’t. 

The ability to say “no” makes one powerful in the moment. Real effectiveness in the Senate isn’t the power to say “no” but shepherding legislation into law. By that standard, Joe Manchin has been a conspicuous failure. Saying “yes” to Build Back Better could change that. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags Anita Hill Bob Dole Chuck Schumer Civil Rights Acts Clarence Thomas Joe Biden Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Orrin Hatch Patrick Toomey United States Senate

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