Policy preview: the forthcoming filibuster fight
The US Senate’s ability to only corral 57 votes to convict Donald Trump on impeachment charges on 13 February highlights the incredibly high bar needed to pass major legislation, with 60 votes in the Senate required to end the filibuster. There have been repeated tweaks to Senate rules over the last two presidencies – with Democrats doing away with the filibuster for most judicial appointments when Barack Obama was president and Republicans expanding this to include Supreme Court nominees under Donald Trump. The legislative filibuster, however, has remained in place, despite attracting far more controversy than all others combined, with both parties fearing that the other will ram through legislation as soon as it retakes narrow control of Congress and the White House.
Now that Democrats have precisely that narrow control, the Biden administration has been muted on calls to end the filibuster. Moderate Senate Democrats such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and even California’s Dianne Feinstein have pledged to retain the filibuster, so although the Democrats could technically jettison the rule with just a majority vote, there is not yet a path to do so.
Progressive activists, many of whom have long campaigned for the filibuster’s abolition, have remained surprisingly quiet over the matter to date. But that belies the strategy they have adopted to seek to push the change through. Amongst left-leaning and Democratic activist circles in Washington D.C., efforts are underway to revive a bill first introduced to the previous Congress – dubbed House Resolution 1, or HR1 – and to use its passage as a cri de cœur to abolish the filibuster once and for all.
Democrats easily passed HR1 in 2020, but Republicans who still held the majority barred it from even being considered in the Senate. The bill is essentially a wish list of Democratic party goals: regularised mail balloting, expanded voter registration, campaign finance reform and reforming the uber-partisan and increasingly controversial congressional redistricting process. After the dust settles on Trump’s impeachment, and once Biden’s administration is in place, Democrats will reintroduce the bill. It may be packed with even more radical – but broadly popular – sweeteners, such as authorising a pathway to statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, in an effort to show that while such legislation polls extremely well, it cannot get through the Senate while the filibuster remains.
Later this year – either in the summer or, more likely, the autumn – Democrats will push the package, not in an effort to bring Republicans on board, but to convince the aforementioned Senate holdouts to abandon the filibuster. If they succeed, it will radically reshape US politics forever. If – as is more likely than not – they fail, the opening of a rift within the Democratic Party may finally create room for moderate Republicans to emerge as leaders of the opposition after four years of being stifled by Donald Trump.
Dollars and sense: leasehold and cladding challenges
The lockdowns and government policies announced in the wake of COVID-19 make clear that real estate and housing remain at the core of Britain’s economy. Estate agents’ offices have been one of the only non-healthcare or essential service industries to remain open throughout the latest lockdown, and the stamp duty holiday announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak has helped drive transaction volume to a 13-year high, despite the pandemic. Two key pillars of housing policy, however, have proven politically contentious and vexing to the government, though by tackling them together it may just find a pathway forward.
First is the issue of cladding, which has become something of a national scandal as thousands of buildings were found to contain hazardous or non-standard material in the investigations launched after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, which left 72 dead. Second is the issue of leasehold reform, something the Conservate Party has dabbled with since even before Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy reforms were launched in 1980. Proving it can be done, Scotland has effectively eliminated leaseholds over the last two decades.
The government has set in motion processes to address both issues over the last few weeks. On 11 February, the government announced £3.5 billion in funds to remove unsafe cladding from buildings over 18 metres high, and a loan programme for flat-owners in shorter buildings aimed at capping the cost of refurbishment work at no more than £50 per flat per month. On 7 January, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced a plan to allow leaseholders to extend their leaseholds by 990 years, up from 90 for flats, and 50 for houses, at zero ground rent.
The overwhelming majority of flat-owners, and particularly those in multi-family houses, i.e. those affected by the issues with cladding, are leaseholders, not freeholders. Aiming to smooth the process, the government’s leasehold reform also includes a policy of abolishing calculations of ‘marriage value’, which had aimed to reflect the greater combined value of a freehold held with a leasehold. The right to extend without ground rents aims to counter the recent trebling of many such charges at recently developed leasehold properties and incentivises leaseholders to extend by lowering their annual costs.
The millions living in properties affected by cladding issues have argued the government’s new repair fund is insufficient, and that it fails to reflect higher insurance costs they have had and will continue to bear as repair work is underway. There are already quiet rumblings of what more can be done.
One suggestion that appears to be gaining traction is for the government to buy out freeholds and transfer them to non-profit companies, allowing leaseholders to obtain a proportionate interest in them when they extend their lease. Taking on the cost of doing so for properties affected by cladding, or at least those uncovered by the current fund, may just provide the government with an opportunity to make major progress on leasehold reform and mitigate the cladding issue’s ability to further disrupt real estate markets, particularly for new builds.
Power play: Israel’s once-and-future kingmaker
Israelis go to the polls on 23 March, the country’s fourth election in two years. The vote is widely seen as yet another referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has narrowly held on through the last three votes by forming ever-shifting coalitions, most recently with the Blue and White Party of Benny Gantz, who had vowed before the last election never to countenance such a government and lost most of his own allies in agreeing to the coalition.
Netanyahu has received plaudits for his management of relations with Israel’s Arab neighbours and getting the Trump Administration to recognise the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He heads into the vote on the back of arguably the world’s most successful COVID-19 vaccination programme to date. However, he is also embroiled in a long-running corruption scandal and has faced allegations of putting his interests before the nation’s. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is expected to win the most seats, but current predictions show the conservative parties he has traditionally aligned with well short of a parliamentary majority. Gideon Saar, who unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in 2019, quit the party last year and his New Hope party goes into the elections as one of Netanyahu’s strongest challengers. Yet even if the Saar-Netanyahu split can be healed, seat predictions suggest they will be short of a majority.
Netanyahu’s fate may therefore very well be determined by another jilted former coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman. A Russian immigrant and former nightclub bouncer, the populist Lieberman has often been dubbed ‘Israel’s Trump’. He has vowed never to sit in a government backed by the Arab Joint List, but also bitterly opposes the military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and has arguably become Netanyahu’s fiercest public foe despite previously serving as his deputy prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister, among other posts.
Lieberman’s refusal after the March 2020 election to join a coalition led by Netanyahu or back the only other viable alternative – a Blue and White-led government backed by the Joint List – forced the brief and tempestuous marriage between Netanyahu and Gantz. Burned by the experience, Gantz’s party is at risk of falling out of the Israeli legislature altogether in the next vote and certain not to countenance renewed support for Netanyahu.
Although Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to only win seven or so of the Knesset’s 120 seats, expect Lieberman to dominate coalition discussions. His positions may just prove sufficiently intransigent as to force yet another election.