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And here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Is 2021 the Year of the Coup?
2. Parliamentarian Decision Sinks $15 Minimum Wage
3. Some Elites Race to Cut Vaccine Lines
Members of the Myanmar Military. Getty Images
Is 2021 the Year of the Coup?
Just two months into 2021, the world is witnessing a deeply troubling trend: an increased number of coup d’etats that aim to reject the results of democratic elections. In the last four weeks alone, coups or attempted coups have destabilized governments in Myanmar, Armenia, and Haiti. A month before, a violent mob staged an attempted coup in the United States, directed at preventing the certification of a duly elected leader.
Each of these attacks on democratic governance was unique in its own way. Some were violent; some were not. Some attempted to oust a current leader, some were led by current leaders themselves.
This notable diversity of circumstances leads to an important question: What is a coup, anyway?
1. What is a coup and do these examples actually qualify?
A coup d'état (French for a “blow of the state”) is a “sudden and irregular removal, or displacement, of the executive authority of an independent government." The Cline Center for Democracy recognizes at least 9 categories of coups. Some of the most common kinds are military coups, dissident coups, foreign backed coups, and auto-coups.
- Military coup: a coup led by members of the armed forces who are not a formal part of the government.
- Dissident coup: a coup initiated by a group of citizens not currently serving in government.
- Foreign-backed coup: a coup in which a foreign power attemps to remove a leader and install a government more sympathetic to its interests, often collaborating with domestic actors.
- Auto-coup: a coup where the acting chief executive assumes illegal powers or takes extreme measures to eliminate or render powerless other branches of the governmend, including the legislature and judiciary.
The events in Myanmar would be considered a successful military coup, as Myanmar's military violently ousted the president, taking control of the government and instituting martial law.
In Armenia, top military officials publicly claimed that the Prime Minister was not fit for office, calling on him to resign. The Prime Minister initially described this event as an “attempted military coup.” Foreign influences were also likely involved, judging from reports that a top Russian General encouraged Armenian military leaders to unseat the president, who has long been at odds with Putin. Ultimately, the military’s efforts failed; the PM remains in power.
In contrast to Armenia and Myanmar, the events in Haiti may fit the definition of an “auto-coup,” although it’s complicated. The current president, Jovenel Moïse, refused to step down last month, claiming his term had not expired. The United States supports his legal argument; Haiti’s Judiciary disagrees. Recent days have seen further tumult in Haiti, as Moïse has arrested opposition members he claims are trying to obtain power through a coup of their own. Importantly, in the last year, Moïse has ruled by decree, ousting three Supreme Court judges and suspending two-thirds of the Senate, the entire lower Chamber and every mayor in Haiti, leaving only 11 elected representatives in a nation of more than 11 million people.
Finally, in the United States, the Cline center has classified the attack on the capitol as an attempted “dissident coup,” led by a group of discontented citizens attempting to use mob violence to overturn the results of an election. The events of January 6th could also potentially be classified as an “autocoup,” since President Trump encouraged the mob immediately prior to the attack on the legislature.
2. Why have there been so many coups this year?
In the 2010’s, the world saw an average of 2.7 coups a year. Despite having ten months to go, 2021 has already passed that marker. It is impossible to predict the course of the coming months; perhaps the number of coups will level off, and the start of the year will prove a random aberration. Nonetheless, pro-democracy groups and democratic governments should remain wary.
This year represents a particularly vulnerable time for democratic governance. A global pandemic has destabilized governments and economies around the world, providing cover for strongmen seeking to gain power. As the United States largely abdicated its leadership on the world stage, two growing superpowers--China and Russia--have increasingly attempted to influence world events in their favor.
The good news is that the world remains a much more stable place than it was decades ago. In the 1960’s, there was an average of 12 coups a year. In 2018, there were none at all.
We should recognize how far we’ve come, while remaining vigilant against the threat of democratic erosion. In an era when many see coups as a relic of the past, this winter has shown that such attacks remain a threat to democratic governance into the present and the future.
Protestors from the Progressive group Our Revolution demonstrating for the minimum wage on Thurs., Feb. 25. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Parliamentarian Decision Sinks $15 Minimum Wage
Over the past week, Democratic congressional leadership scuttled proposed $15 minimum wage legislation. They were forced to abandon it not because of the actions of any legislator, but rather, due to those of a relatively obscure non-partisan official, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough.
Congressional Democrats had hoped to attach the measure to their $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, which would make it eligible for the reconciliation process, a legislative “fast-track” exempting certain budgetary bills from the filibuster. That way, the increase would have required just 51 votes to pass instead of effectively needing 60 due to the threat of a filibuster. However, on Thursday, Feb. 25, MacDonough, who arbitrates what does and does not qualify for reconciliation, ruled that the provision could not be included.
Progressive Democrats such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) called on Vice President Kamala Harris, acting in her capacity as President of the Senate, to take the rare step of ignoring MacDonough’s ruling, which is technically an “advisory” opinion. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) even suggested firing the Parliamentarian, an extreme action taken only once before, by Republicans in 2001. But these actions do not appear likely, as the Biden administration and many more moderate Democrats have rejected them.
1. Is the Parliamentarian correct?
The standard governing whether a given proposal can be included in the reconciliation process is the Byrd Rule, named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). The rule was intended to curb some of the most egregious abuses of reconciliation, which in the early 1980s was often used to pass legislation clearly unrelated to the budget (for example, changes to lawnmower safety regulations).
The critical portion of the Byrd Rule states that measures with “merely incidental” impacts on the federal budget do not qualify for reconciliation. In the past, this language has been interpreted to allow welfare reform in 1996, portions of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and tax cuts in 2017, but it forced changes in Republicans’ 2017 ACA repeal effort.
This case hinged on issues regarding the esoteric distinction between discretionary and mandatory spending. Ultimately this did not come as too much of a surprise; even before MacDonough’s decision, President Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, openly speculated that the increase would be rejected (making it a “Byrd dropping”).
2. Is “rule by reconciliation” good for democracy?
Currently, the viability of highly consequential legislation often depends on the subjective judgement of a single unelected bureaucrat on the rather arbitrary question of whether its fiscal effects are “incidental.” In other words, no.
Furthermore, extensive reliance on reconciliation to subvert the oft-abused filibuster impairs the quality of legislation. Gregory Koger, author of Filibustering, explains that “Good laws often incorporate non-budgetary components, but this is prohibited by the reconciliation process, especially the Senate’s Byrd Rule. The result is stunted legislation.” This could be seen in the ACA: Democrats’ use of reconciliation to finish the bill meant they were unable to revise non-budgetary portions, which may have contributed to subsequent implementation troubles.
However, one cannot discuss the merits of reconciliation without also considering the practice which prompts its use: the filibuster. In recent years, many have argued that the filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era. Even those who believe it promotes compromise, debate, and moderation acknowledge that it has become a tool of scorched-earth obstructionism. Some Democrats are even pushing for its abolition.
It is important to remember, though, that rolling back institutional guardrails should not be taken lightly. Thinly-veiled partisan power plays risk backfiring and precipitating a dangerous cycle of tit-for-tat destruction of constraints. One way to show that the filibuster is being scrapped in good faith would be for the ruling party to agree to wait for a newly-elected Senate for the change to take effect.
Reconciliation is a deeply imperfect solution. However, the filibuster may well make it a necessary evil, a way to overcome otherwise intractable gridlock.
Ecuador’s Health Minister, who resigned after abusing his power to send early vaccines to his relatives. Santiago Arcos/Reuters
Some Elites Race to Cut Vaccine Lines
As the world races to vaccinate itself against COVID-19, scandals have erupted in South America over access to this scarce resource. But while most countries are actively prioritizing vulnerable populations, some elites are taking advantage of their power and influence to bypass the immunization systems in their respective countries. A recent NYT story detailed the extent to which corruption has “rocked” South America in particular.
In Peru, a deputy minister used doses from a clinical trial to vaccinate himself, his wife, two children, sister, nephew, and niece. In the country’s first clinical trial, doctors inoculated 250 politicians and their relatives, even going so far as to give some notables three separate vaccine doses. Ecuador’s health minister redirected the country’s first vaccines––reserved for vital public sector employees––to his mother’s luxury private nursing home. In Brazil, authorities are investigating thousands of cases where local politicians have allegedly abused their power to vaccinate themselves and their families first.
Governments need to function, and it is important that civil servants who need immunization to carry out their daily tasks are protected. The scandal is not that civil servants or elected officials are receiving vaccines. It is that politicians are breaking their own rules about who should get the vaccine when, and abusing their power to help relatives cut in line.
1. What has the response been?
Many of the officials who have taken part in this corruption have already been held responsible, according to the NYT article. Brazilian prosecutors have already moved to arrest the mayor of the northern city of Manaus; Ecuador’s health minister faces an impeachment trial and a criminal investigation; Argentina’s Health ministers have resigned; and Peru’s health minister and foreign minister have resigned after public outcry that they cut in line to get vaccines.
At a time when many Latin American nations face crippling economic crises, this corruption has undermined an already tenuous trust in the democratic process.
2. Have VIPs cut in line in other countries?
The corruption sweeping across Latin America echoes scandals in Lebanon, Spain, and the Philippines. Lebanese lawmakers have prioritized themselves over medical workers and the elderly, breaking regulations they themselves had laid out. In Spain, over 500 politicians cut in line, causing some high-ranking leaders to step down after news outlets exposed their corruption. Filipino politicians are also under investigation for having smuggled unauthorized vaccines into a country in which any kind of COVID-19 vaccine is currently inaccessible to the general public.
And the United States is not immune to this favoritism. Hospitals across the country are facing questions as wealthy donors and board members have been reported to receive precious vaccines before the elderly and immunocompromised citizens who need them first. And in Florida, a sheriff’s office is investigating after a county commissioner organized a vaccine drive limited to just two wealthy zip codes, including her own, at the request of Governor Ron DeSantis. For those with enough money and influence, it seems that sometimes immunity—both from bureaucratic delays and COVID-19—is for sale.