The Day After: Report From Washington

Cross-posted from our joint Raising Women’s Voices campaign

I expected to be focused today on how the developments in Washington (and Georgia) will impact our work to advance women’s health. After all, there is a lot to report on. I’m celebrating the possibility that unified Democratic control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time since 2010 could lead to significant progress on COVID relief, expansion of the Affordable Care Act, restoration of the Voting Rights Act, and more.

But, at the same time, my heart and mind are inexorably drawn to the US Capitol, just five miles from my house, where I worked for nearly a decade as a congressional staffer and where yesterday a violent insurrection was staged with support and encouragement from the president of the United States.

Georgia victories hand Democrats control of the U.S. Senate

First, the good news.

Historic voter turnout in Georgia’s two Senate runoff races on Tuesday led to equally historic outcomes, with Democratic challengers Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ousting Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively.

Warnock becomes Georgia’s first Black senator and just the 11th Black US senator to ever serve — a group that includes former President Obama and Vice President-elect Harris. Ossoff becomes Georgia’s first Jewish senator (and the 37th Jewish US senator to ever serve). Both races were marked by shocking, if not surprising, racist and anti-Semitic attacks on the candidates — one observer noted that “Loeffler ran ads darkening Warnock’s skin and Perdue ran ads enlarging Ossoff’s nose.”

The dynamics of the race were upended by calls from prominent Donald Trump allies to boycott the Senate elections — “Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election?” asked one — and a secretly recorded call of the president threatening the Georgia Secretary of State unless he retroactively threw the presidential election to Trump. Ultimately, Republican chaos combined with the long-term vision and years-long work of Black women activists in Georgia boosted the two Democrats over a hurdle (the runoff system) that was explicitly designed as a Jim Crow tool to defeat the power of Black voters.

The Warnock and Ossoff victories now split the balance of partisan power in the US Senate 50-50, giving Democrats majority control in two weeks on January 20, when newly inaugurated Vice President Harris will become the tie-breaking vote. (Senator-designate Alex Padilla, currently California’s Secretary of State, will be sworn in at the same time.) This has wide-ranging implications for our work, moving the center of power away from soon-to-be Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) and the Senate Republicans who are up for re-election in 2022 and toward the group of Senate swing votes who will be essential to passing any deal. The latter group includes Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mitt Romney (UT).

Perhaps most reassuringly, Democratic control ensures that no critical posts can simply be left open indefinitely. Recall that numerous Obama nominees were blocked from even getting hearings during the McConnell era. Pressure is already building on Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and scores of older federal judges to retire while Democrats can be guaranteed confirmation of their successors. And it’s likely that the announcement of Biden’s pick to serve as US attorney general, DC Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, was delayed until the president-elect was certain he would be able to fill Garland’s current post on the Court.

But if that's the good news, the rest of this week's events feel so much darker — with implications for our work and for the safety of Congress itself.

The author giving a tour of the Capitol crypt as a young staffer in 2005 and the same location under attack on Wednesday, as filmed by members of the mob and posted to social media.

Reflecting on the horror of yesterday’s attack on the Capitol

Like so many Americans, I was glued to my screen and my phone for much of yesterday, watching in horror as extremist mobs violated the symbols of our democracy in the name of overturning a free and fair election that they lost by millions of votes. Right-wing insurrectionists smashed through windows, broke down doors, scaled walls, broke into the Senate chamber, looted, ransacked congressional offices, attacked members of the media, hung nooses, and tangled with a Capitol Police force that at times seemed inexplicably and horrifyingly outmanned and at times disturbingly blasé or even cooperative.

Meanwhile, the president tweeted his encouragement to the mob, attacked his own vice president for following the Constitution even as that vice president was under threat of physical violence, and refused to authorize DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s request to call out the DC National Guard. (Without the authority of a state, Bowser relies on federal permission to mobilize the DC guard. Trump’s stonewalling forced her to seek help from her neighboring governors in Virginia and Maryland before Vice President Pence, not Trump, ultimately gave the order for the DC guard to assist.)

Trump was finally banned from Twitter and Facebook, albeit temporarily, for inciting violence. The move has long been sought by activists who noted that the president is often the foremost source of disinformation on the election, the pandemic, Russian interference, and more. Former White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri tweeted, “It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them.”

The attack on the Capitol and the foundations of American democracy by Trump’s lawless supporters did seem, at least for a moment, to rattle his enablers in Washington, and reporters noted that for the first time, cabinet officials were actively discussing invoking the 25th Amendment, which would allow a majority of them to remove Trump from office with Pence’s support.

For me, the attack on the Capitol was also deeply personal as I texted with friends and former colleagues about their safety, some of whom were sheltering in place in House office buildings while the mob rampaged nearby. I sobbed watching goons defile the Capitol crypt, the Senate chamber, and the Speaker’s office, and relived my own panicked evacuations of the Capitol complex from previous security incidents. And I watched in impotent rage as police forces allowed right-wing, predominantly white marauders to rampage through Congress after a long, hot summer when riot gear-clad forces in DC tear-gassed and shot at peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors. I thought about the protests to defend the ACA in 2017 that we participated in, when Capitol Police officers arrested peaceful protesters, dragging those in wheelchairs who couldn’t walk on their own, just for trying to save their health care.

In the words of Congressman Conor Lamb (D-PA) early this morning on the House floor, “Invaders came in for the first time since the War of 1812. They desecrated these halls and this chamber and practically every inch of ground where we work. And for the most part they walked in here free. A lot of them walked out free. And there wasn’t a person watching at home who didn't know why that was: because of the way that they looked.”

Later, after the marauders were allowed to exuberantly skip back to their hotels, I watched in wrenching grief as primarily Black and other workers of color cleaned up the broken glass.

It’s too early, and there’s still too much shock in DC, to accurately predict what will happen next. But for right now, a lawless and tyrannical president who launched an attack on the very core of our democracy still sits in the White House.

Sarah Christopherson, MA, is the Legislative Director for the social justice campaign, Americans for Tax Fairness, and the NWHN’s former Policy Advocacy Director. Her 10 years working for Congress and her deep knowledge of health policy and consumer protection make her the NWHN’s issue area expert on federal health reform implementation and defense, drug and device safety and efficacy, and sexual and reproductive health.

Read more from Sarah Christopherson.