Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. As Biden Fails to Take Decisive Action, Navalny is Dying in Prison
2. Biden Proposes Ambitious Infrastructure Bill
3. Marijuana Legalization Effort Highlights Inconsistent Federal/State Laws
As Biden Fails to Take Decisive Action, Navalny is Dying in Prison
An undated photo of Alexei Navalny in prison, posted on his Instagram.
Imprisoned, starved, and on the verge of death: this is the fate of Alexei Navalny, a leading critic of Vladimir Putin, and one of the greatest hopes for Russian democracy left in Russia.
Denied access to his doctors, he is said to be suffering from debilitating acute pain and “catastrophically high” potassium levels, a condition that can cause sudden heart failure. Since he began a hunger strike nearly three weeks ago to protest a lack of adequate medical care in prison, Navalny has lost more than 37 pounds. His spokeswoman now says that she expects him to die within “a matter of days.”
Navalny has been in one of Russia’s most notorious prisons since returning to Russia after a previous failed assassination attempt left him in a coma this August. Yet jailing him was not enough to deter his activism. Navalny has continued to threaten the regime from jail, calling for historic protests and releasing scathing critiques against Putin’s corruption.
Now, Navalny is fighting for his life once again. Though transferred to a prison infirmary, his supporters say he is still not receiving adequate care. His top aides called for massive protests on Wednesday to save Navalny’s life. As of Wednesday evening, rallies had taken place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and dozens of other cities across Russia. Over 1,000 protestors have been arrested nationwide.
Meanwhile, the international community, including the United States, has responded to Navalny’s deteriorating condition with little more than words. For his part, Biden called the opposition leader's jailing and neglect “unfair” and “inappropriate,” and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said there would be “consequences” if Navalny dies.
What can the world, and specifically the US, do to save Navalny?
The United States must take the lead in condemning Russia’s actions and holding Putin accountable. It is not enough to threaten consequences if Navalny dies. The Biden administration must act now to deter the Kremlin from killing him.
To date, the administration has failed to act decisively. In a call with Putin last Tuesday, President Biden did not inquire on Navalny’s condition or demand his release. Instead, the president proposed a summit with the Russian President, a move that offered mixed signals to Putin just weeks after Biden called him a “killer.”
Moreover, though the United States imposed additional sanctions on Russia last Thursday in response to election interference and hacking, notably absent were steps that would cause immediate and personal discomfort to Putin and his allies. If Biden wants to keep Navalny alive, he should follow up in these three ways:
- Apply the Magnitsky Act to all 35 individuals identified by Navalny’s team as aiding and abetting his poisoning and detainment, including members of Putin’s inner circle. This will allow the U.S. to freeze their assets and impose travel bans on them and their families.
- Authorize sanctions to impede the completion of the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a vital project to the Russian economy.
- Condemn Russia’s treatment of Navalny, not just to the press, but directly to Putin.
A rapid and decisive response is vital. Words and weak sanctions will not save Alexei Navalny’s life. If the world lets him die, Vladimir Putin will feel emboldened to murder future critics and to violate further international norms with impunity, which, with 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border, could prove devastating.
Biden Proposes Ambitious Infrastructure Bill
President Biden speaking in support of his proposed infrastructure plan on Wed., April 7.
Credit: AFP via SCMP
Following the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration is pitching a massive, new $2.6 trillion infrastructure plan. Depending on the audience, the American Jobs Plan (as it’s called) has earned comparisons to various New Deals (both Green and original), but most agree that at a minimum, it’s bold.
The proposal includes large investments into traditional infrastructure, as well as climate initiatives and “human infrastructure.” The $2.6 trillion plan would spend:
- $621 billion on transportation: rebuilding 20,000 miles of roads, repairing America’s 10 most important bridges, and promoting electric vehicles.
- $311 billion to expand broadband, repair the electrical grid, and ensure clean drinking water.
- $328 billion to modernize buildings like schools and VA hospitals.
- ~$1.4 trillion on more green and “human infrastructure” investments: $590 billion for domestic manufacturing, R&D, and job training; $400 billion for elder care; and $400 billion for clean energy tax credits.
However, many Republicans oppose the proposal, including John Thune and Mitch McConnell, who emphasize that only 6% would go towards roads and bridges. Rep. Liz Cheney went further, asserting only 6% will go to infrastructure, period. McConnell also disparaged the plan as a “Trojan horse” for Democratic priorities.
It is likely that the proposal will be pared down. Republicans are expected to counter with a more narrow $600-800 billion proposal, and “Senate swing vote” Joe Manchin insists the process be bipartisan. Some speculate that Biden’s proposal may be split into separate pieces of legislation and that Democrats will ultimately prioritize more traditional infrastructure.
Is the plan really only 6% infrastructure?
No. McConnell and Thune are correct that only 6% is earmarked for roads and bridges, but more than four times that (26%) is devoted to what most experts consider “infrastructure” (e.g. railroads, public transit, electrical grid, and broadband). Furthermore, many of the plan’s other investments, including those in capital, green energy, and manufacturing, fall under a “gray area,” according to Politifact. Admittedly, other major items, like the $400 billion for elder care, don’t constitute actual infrastructure. That said, the definition of infrastructure also changes over time—broadband would not have been considered infrastructure 50 years ago.
Why is infrastructure important to democracy?
Infrastructure is vital for our democracy for two reasons:
First, infrastructure is a litmus test for government accountability. Filling potholes and repairing roads and bridges is one of the most basic ways government serves its constituents. And, especially during a time of hyperpartisanship, fulfilling these duties shows that the government can come together to accomplish something tangible for the people.
This function is all the more important because American infrastructure is deficient: despite modest recent improvements, the American Society of Civil Engineers still gives it a “C-” and America has slipped in the World Economic Forum rankings from fifth in the world in 2002 to thirteenth in 2019.
Second, infrastructure is a prerequisite to social mobility in America. It isn’t just that many Americans depend on public transportation to commute or drive on public roads. Think of rural Americans who lack broadband, Texans afflicted by blackouts, and residents of Flint—they underscore the vital role infrastructure plays in guaranteeing opportunity. It is no wonder then that a study analyzing 60 years of U.S. data found infrastructure significantly improves economic opportunity, particularly for the poor.
The TVA electrified Depression-era rural America. The Intercontinental Railroad was a technological triumph. Our nation has a proud tradition of bold infrastructure. It’s time to carry that heritage into the 21st century, hopefully in a way that includes all classes, areas, and even, just maybe, both parties.
Marijuana Legalization Effort Highlights Inconsistent Federal/State Laws
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers / Credit: The Daily Beast.
Led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Democrats have recently decided to move forward with efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule I substance, defined as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
The proposal comes in the wake of New York legalizing marijuana for recreational use on March 31st, becoming the 17th state to do so since 2012. 36 other states have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes.
This drive for federal legalization, however, might potentially hit a road bump in the form of the Biden administration. Since taking office, President Biden has reiterated his previous opposition to legalization, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki stating in March that the President’s “position [on legalization] has not changed.”
This puts the Biden administration not only at odds with Congressional Democrats, but with the American people as well. 67 percent of Americans support legalization in public opinion polling (78 percent of Democrats, and even a majority of Republicans).
With that said, Biden has argued that states should be free to implement their own cannabis laws, and that the drug should be rescheduled and decriminalized federally. Senator Cory Booker has called the President “a great partner” on the issue, stating that “as soon as you decriminalize marijuana, you open up states... to give way for [legalization].”
Nevertheless, in March, it was reported that White House staffers were fired or demoted, at least in part, for having admitted to past marijuana use on background checks. Some of those staffers had only admitted to use in states that had legalized cannabis.
Why is the status quo a problem for our democracy?
Given that so many states have legalized or decriminalized to date, what is the problem with the status quo? Why does it matter what the federal law is when the states have the power in our federalist system to pass their own marijuana laws?
First, the possession or sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the state laws legalizing cannabis do nothing to alter this reality. This means that it is entirely up to the discretion of the federal government whether to pursue prosecutions for violations of the Controlled Substance Act, even in states that have legalized marijuana. And indeed, in 2018, Trump’s DOJ rescinded guidelines issued in 2013 by Obama’s DOJ that halted federal prosecution for the regulated sale of marijuana and its usage in states where marijuana had been legalized.
Even though the Trump DOJ did not technically prosecute anyone under the CSA, this may have partly been because of a Senator who threatened to withhold support for any justice department nominee if such prosecutions took place. The rights of citizens across the country, let alone a $13.6 billion dollar a year business that employs 340,000 people, should not rest on such a whim. And whether or not a law is enforced should not depend on who is in power. The fact that it does undermines the Rule of Law.
Second, as a practical matter, this inconsistent regime of laws has created an absurd situation for marijuana businesses nationwide. Banks and credit institutions have been hesitant to work with such businesses because of federal anti-money laundering legislation. What’s more, even states that have legalized cannot engage in the cannabis trade with one another, because such conduct would constitute federal drug trafficking. Importantly, the federal prohibition has slowed research into the safety and therapeutic benefit of cannabis because institutions must get permission from the federal government before conducting studies.
Last, the inconsistency between the different state laws presents its own unique problems. In certain states, many are going to prison for simple marijuana possession, with more people being arrested for it than for all violent crime combined in 2018, while in others, people are legally enriching themselves from its sale. As a matter of fairness, similarly situated people should be treated the same under the law. While drug laws have never been enforced equally, this particular kind of unfairness highlights the absurdity of our nation’s cannabis policies, and hopefully will force us to adopt a more consistent legal framework moving forward.