hardline political news and analysis

Season of (at Least One) Miracle

It places at risk one’s reputation as a political observer to suggest that Congress actually is able to accomplish something meaningful despite its broad failure to act over the past 4 years. But since even a broken clock is right twice a day, it behooves us to acknowledge when an incompetently run institution breaks through its ideological polarization and political gridlock and manages to cough up something of value. So, here is the “feel good” congressional miracle for this Holiday season.

On Friday, President Obama signed into law the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act that allows parents of children with disabilities to establish a special tax deferred account to help those children pay the costs of housing, health care and other expenses throughout their lives. As with many of the other laws addressing the special needs community – including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), on which I worked as a newcomer to the House in 1975, or the Americans with Disabilities Act – ABLE was the product of bipartisan authorship. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support: 76-16 in the Senate, and 404-17 in the House. The chief Senate sponsors were Bob Casey (PA) and Richard Burr (NC), and in the House, the prime movers were Ander Crenshaw (FL) and Chris Van Hollen (MD).

The ABLE Act gives parents of children with special needs the ability to create a special tax deferred savings account that the children can use to pay for college or other allowable expenses including education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees and other expenses approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. As with all laws, interested parties must review the exact terms of the law and consult appropriate professionals to ensure strict compliance. In particular, parents will have to check with their tax advisors to see whether their child qualifies for an ABLE account, i.e., became disabled before age 26, receives Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or SSI, or qualifies for a disability certification as determined by the IRS, which will write the regulations to implement the new law.

Now, simply because the ABLE Act makes sense, enjoys bipartisan support, and passed overwhelming does not mean it was a simple task. In fact, the bill was first introduced all the way back in 2008 to protect children from losing other health and related benefits (like Medicaid) if they had savings in excess of $2,000 or monthly earnings above $680. The new law allows the child to have up to $100,000 in a tax free account without impacting eligibility for other essential programs. It is a measure of the difficulty in passing any bill that this one, which is fully paid for with legitimate offsets, took so long to reach the President’s desk.

However, for those who remain completely cynical about Congress’ capacity for any action, (with more than a little justification, I must admit), the lesson of the ABLE Act is worth considering. Too often, Congress is judged to have “failed” because it was incapable of enacting a law to address a grievous or complex inequity or emergency as quickly as proponents deem appropriate. As any student of the Congress knows, the institution was never expected to act swiftly; indeed, its very Constitutional design, with all of the bells and whistles added by two centuries of rules and precedents, virtually guarantees that even proposals enjoying broad consensus in the Nation will consume months or even years to wind their way through the obstructions created by minority factions in the Congress, particularly the Senate, which daily earns its reputation as the “saucer that cools the hot tea of the House.”

Many laws on which I worked during nearly 40 years as a House staff person took years to move from the moment of conceptualization to the moment of realization, and those laws addressed sympathetic topics like expanding adoption, assisting victims of domestic violence, protecting endangered species, and aiding victims of occupational diseases. It is understandable that interest groups that beseech the Congress to act become frustrated and cynical when legislators do not view the issue with similar urgency, but Congress, of course, is not designed to railroad through every item on any supplicant’s wish list.

Too often, those seeking action from Congress become disenchanted or distracted with the long process of investigation, hearings, mark-ups, floor action and (at one time) conference committees that can consume months or years. In an era when anyone with a computer or smartphone expects answers in a third of a second, the laborious process of a large, diverse legislative institution seems anachronistic and unresponsive. Little wonder that congressional observer George Galloway observed that Congress seemed to be an “oxcart in the age of the atom.” Of course, it is worth recalling that Galloway said that in 1946.

So at this Holiday Season, when peace and good will seem quantities in short supply, let’s take a moment to thank Congress for putting aside its pettiness and partisanship long enough to pass a piece of legislation that can genuinely improve the lives of many of the estimated 58 million Americans living with disabilities.  Its enactment doesn’t excuse the inexcusable, but it does suggest the possible is not impossible, and maybe that’s good enough for right now.

Two For The Road

As accusations and recriminations flew through Washington on Tuesday following the release of the CIA report, an extraordinary collection of political leaders gathered a few blocks from the White House for a sentimental send-off to two of their legislative giants: Congressman Henry Waxman and Congressman George Miller of California. Both leave office voluntarily, heads high, with decades of accomplishments that have reshaped and improved their country and the world.

The dinner was hosted by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who, as the first woman and California Speaker, presided over some of the pair’s greatest achievements, first among them national health care. Compared to the racial, gender, and ethnic diversity of the gathering, a meeting of House Republicans would look like the smoking room at the stodgy Diogenes Club of London. The guests, a collection of the California delegation, veterans of the Class of 1974, staff and family, included four Cabinet members – Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez — who joined in numerous testimonials to the two legislators and to their wives, Janet and Cynthia, who have endured 40 years of commuter marriages.

At first blush, Waxman and Miller might appear starkly different — one short and balding, a lifelong resident of sprawling Los Angeles; the other a towering ex-footballer and lifelong resident of tiny Martinez – but they have more in common that their trademark moustaches.

  • Both are legislative masters, expert in wildly diverse fields, hugely successful in tackling complex problems and translating them into effective laws.
  • Both chaired two powerful committees of the House, Waxman led the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as well as the Committee on Energy and Commerce, while Miller chaired both the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Education and Labor. (Miller also chaired the non-legislative Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.)
  • Both authored laws that dramatically impacted the well-being of tens of millions of Americans who will never know their names: Waxman wrote laws on tobacco, Medicaid, women’s health, and auto safety; Miller laws on nutrition for women, infants and students, worker safety at home and around the world, compensation for those with occupational diseases, child care, college affordability, and victims of domestic violence.
  • Both helped shape the modern environmental and resource protection movement, Miller as the leading advocate for a modern water policy, protections of millions of acres of wilderness and national parks, and safeguarding of endangered species; Waxman as the leading craftsman on clean air, pesticide control, and clean water.
  • Both were fearsome interrogators, unafraid to take on wealthy, politically powerful and arrogant adversaries in and out of Congress: auto companies, oil and gas producers, asbestos manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, agribusinesses, professional athletics and sweatshop operators. In some cases, those adversaries were constituents.
  • Both played significant roles in international affairs as well, Waxman in the Middle East, Miller in South and Central America as well as Southeast Asia.
  • Both attracted, and kept, talented, respected and fanatically loyal staff, many of whom served for decades and who, from the receptionists to the chief of staff, were valued parts of the team who rarely, if ever, referred to the boss as anything but “Henry” and “George.”

These achievements, and many others far too numerous to mention, stand not only as examples of their remarkable legislative careers, but of the ability of Congress to act decisively, expansively and collaboratively to address genuine social needs. Miller and Waxman are living repudiations of the misguided maligning of government by the cynics who disdain our national institutions in favor of the arbitrariness of the marketplace. Indeed, if the marketplace solved all problems, there would have been no need for legislators like Miller and Waxman. Yet can we even imagine where this country would be on issues like energy, smoking, health, the environment, labor rights or product safety without them?

Despite serving in contentious times, both Waxman and Miller found ways to work constructively with their Republican counterparts. Nearly every major piece of the legislation authored by these two committed liberals – whether in the majority or the minority – was developed and enacted with the close collaboration of some of the most conservative members of the House and Senate: Don Young, Tom Bliley, John Boehner, Henry Hyde, Don Nichols, Orrin Hatch, Frank Murkowski. That record, too, stands in sharp contrast to the current belief that reasonable collaboration between the parties and ideologies is undesirable if not impossible. Indeed, one of Miller’s last legislative achievements is a bipartisan strengthening of child care law that includes his signature emphasis on improving quality.

If ever there was inarguable evidence of the ill-wisdom of term limits, Waxman and Miller are it. Their decades of service provided the wisdom, the background, the maturity and the craftiness to take on entrenched powers and prevail. The turnover rate of the past decade would seem to demonstrate that the public seems to be doing a pretty good job at replacing legislators on their own without imposing artificial limits that deprive the country of talented public servants.

Miller and Waxman are the last two House Members who arrived as so-called “Watergate Babies,” a group of 75 Democrats elected in the aftermath of the Nixon resignation and pardon and in the waning months of America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. Their service began in an era of what seemed to be incredible office innovation — IBM Selectric typewriters, WATS lines and new-fangled fax machines — and endured throughout the transformation of American society by virtue of nearly every economic, innovative, ethnic, gender and demographic measure. They helped push it along. (There are two remaining Democrats from the Class, but each has an asterisk next to his name: Sen. Ed Markey, who was elected in a special in 1976 and served longer continuously in the House than anyone who has ever moved to the so-called “upper body,” and Rick Nolan, who returned to the House in 2012 after the longest sabbatical – 32 years – in congressional history. Both attended the dinner Tuesday night.)

By the end of the evening, the harsh reality was beginning to impose itself on the most denying of attendees: this was truly the end of two historic and productive congressional careers. When the lights go up on the vote board in the House chamber next January, for the first time since 1975, the names “Henry Waxman” and “George Miller” will not be there. The institution they helped embellish and honor will be dimmed by their departure.

Don’t Count Out the House Democrats

At this Holiday time of the year, it is appropriate – and politically timely — to recall the admonition of Jesus in Luke 9:48: “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” In a strange twist of fate, the presumed “least among” Washington power players – the minority House Democrats – may well find themselves, if not “the greatest,” then influential and powerful beyond the expectations of the casual observer.

It is an axiom of politics that the party consigned to the House minority is the proverbial Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: its members “get no respect” because the majority makes all of the crucial decisions about the House rules that govern operations and committees, the scheduling of hearings and mark-ups, the floor calendar and much more. Without the formal filibuster procedure enjoyed by the Senate (ended in 1811 by Speaker Henry Clay with the adoption of the Previous Question rule to discipline the unruly House), the House majority alone pretty much determines the timing and flow of anything beyond unanimous consent requests and suspension bills (that require the votes of two-thirds of those voting.)  If the majority is willing, the minority can attempt to amend floor legislation but, increasingly, the majority has not been willing.

Only when the margins between the parties are especially tight will the minority be able to craft amendments that have a chance of passage by luring marginal Members in the other party to support amendments. Otherwise, for the most part, minority House Members occupy themselves devising strategies that expose the extremes and foibles of the majority and enhance their own message for the next election.

Over the past four years, House Democrats have been largely bypassed by the Republican majority except when needed, on a regular basis, to pass Continuing Resolutions and debt ceiling increases that are considered “must pass” bills. Repeatedly, Speaker John Boehner and his GOP leadership team have come up short when appealing to their troops to provide the votes needed to keep the government functioning, forcing Boehner reluctantly to seek support from Democrats. In each case but one, Democrats provided the margins needed to pass those “must pass” bills, even when they were uninvolved in drafting them and may not have embraced their provisions, because they were unwilling to allow a government shutdown or default to occur. Knowing he would undoubtedly need those Democratic votes, Boehner was forced to keep these bills free of the ideological baggage (such as health care repeal) that his troops might otherwise have insisted be included.

One might think that the capture of the Senate by Republicans last month would make House Democrats even more irrelevant, but that is far from the case, as the current dispute over the business tax extenders has clearly demonstrated.

As is frequently the case at this time of the year, tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in time-limited tax breaks for business interests are set to expire, necessitating passage of last minute “extenders.” The breaks due to expire a month from now include a variety of provisions that reduce taxes on business investment, commuter costs, teachers’ supplies, small business expensing and state and local tax deductibility. Cost to the deficit (because tax cuts, unlike spending increases, do not need to be “paid for”): $400 billion. Merry Christmas!

Understandably, businesses hate this annual extender pirouette. It complicates their planning and investment strategies, which rarely are based on neat calendar year models. Not surprisingly, businesses would like their tax breaks to be permanent, freeing them from seeking further congressional approval.

“Permanent” is a very long time, and makes little sense given the impossibility of predicting business and economic cycles in a rapidly changing world and national economy. What might appear to be a sound tax break today might well be a wasteful lavishing of unwarranted goodies in five years, or ten, or twenty.

To add insult to injury, Republicans in Congress refused to grant similar permanence to the Earned Income Tax Cut (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) which benefit low-income working families with children, who truly are the “least among” us. The Republicans have explained that they singled out the working poor (and their children) for this punishment because President Obama exercised his executive powers on immigration policy. As a result, the poorest workers and families in the country are going to pay the penalty. (The Republicans also are not going to give them an increase in the minimum wage, but that’s another story.) I thought we were supposed to reward low-income parents who actually went out there and worked at low paying jobs; apparently no, they are to be punished, while business owners get the tax breaks.

Now here is where those House Democrats get to flex some muscle. For while Sen. Harry Reid has been angling to pass the business tax extenders absent the provisions to aid the working poor (he gets a permanent deduction for state and local taxes out of the deal), House Democrats are having none of it. If the extender bill benefits only business interests, Democratic Leader Pelosi has said, House Democrats will oppose it and then will deliver the 145 votes needed to sustain a presidential veto, which Obama has promised. As they might say in the casinos in Sen. Reid’s home state of Nevada, “BINGO!” – don’t mess with House Democrats. The extender bill is likely dead, and the tax issues will be reconsidered in the 114th Congress.

Over the next two years, this scenario may well repeat itself with some regularity. Senators are notorious for finding reasons to vote for bills that are real stinkers because the nature of the Senate, with its holds and filibusters and back-patting camaraderie, allows them the ability to trade a vote for a gimme. Not so in the House, where Republicans pass policy (as contrasted with those “must pass” bills) with barely a thought of the needs of the Democratic minority. It will not be surprising, therefore, for a number of bills with noxious provisions, whether they be appropriations bills or policy measures, to pass the House with GOP votes alone, squeak through the Senate’s 60 vote keyhole with a few Democratic collaborationists aboard, and find themselves on the Oval Office’s Resolute desk notwithstanding President Obama’s veto threat. Many of them might well be bills that seek to constrain the use of executive powers the President has begun to employ in areas like immigration and clean air, both of which could easily provoke a few Senate Democrats to help Sen. McConnell send the bill downtown.

But then comes the veto strategy, and here is where those lonely House Democrats suddenly have power most observers have concluded they had lost entirely. For even if the President cannot count on Senate Democrats, he has reliable partners in Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats who, even with their diminished numbers, have far more votes than they need to sustain Obama vetoes. Indeed, Pelosi and her House colleagues let the President know this week that they objected to the tax extender bill absent inclusion of the EITC and CTC provisions, and that they stood ready to back up his veto. That promise led to a veto threat and the collapse of the permanent extension bill (good riddance to that, by the way), and hurried negotiations on a short term extension bill to allow businesses to breathe easier in 2015 while Congress and the President decide how to handle both the extenders and broader tax questions.

Whether it is true, as the Bible says (Matthew 5:5) that “the meek shall inherit the Earth,” it seems unimpeachable that the weak House Democrats will nevertheless be consequential players in the last years of the Obama Administration. The “least” may not be the “greatest,” but they still have power, and they will use it.  And with that observation, my quoting of the New Testament will end, and I wish you “Happy Holidays.”

Cheap Shot

One of the favorite canards leveled at the Obama Administration is that it committed an early strategic, policy and political faux-pas by electing to pursue a national health bill rather than dedicating its legislative energies to a second economic stimulus measure. Typically, such critiques come from those oblivious to the realities of Capitol Hill in early 2009. In the last few days, however, the allegation has been leveled by none other than Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) who is (and was at the time) in a position to know better.

Schumer parroted the factually inaccurate critiques, typically hurled out by opponents of both the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA – the Obama stimulus) and by some liberals as well. He also trivialized the impact of the ACA by asserting it has only helped a small number of people – presumably the 30+ million Americans who lacked basic health insurance, not to mention the millions more who gained coverage for pre-existing conditions, the children able to stay on their parents’ policies till age 26, the women who will received free cancer screenings, the elimination of caps on annual health insurance coverage, and many more benefits.

It is a favorite observation in Washington that while you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts. That truism applies to United States Senators, as well as to hysterical cable commentators – even to Sen. Schumer.

So let’s recall a few of the facts. Work on the ARRA had begun even before the Obama Administration took office. Congress had already enacted a much smaller stimulus measure and the massive Troubled Assets Relief Act (TARP) under the Bush Administration despite the ambivalence of congressional Republicans towards the crashing economy and its human toll. Once in power, the Obama Administration worked swiftly with congressional leaders to fashion the ARRA which contained hundreds of billions of dollars in middle income relief (including tax cuts designed to attract Republican votes, a strategy which proved unsuccessful at securing GOP votes) and unprecedented investments in alternative energy and other economic innovations.

Despite the Republican slant to the bill’s design and a plummeting economy, House Republicans refused to negotiate on the ARRA and three Senate Republicans supported it only after loading it up with billions of dollars for their own personal priorities. Combined with other measures designed to stabilize and stimulate the economy and aid small businesses and the middle class, Congress had passed – if narrowly – over $1.5 trillion in new public policies within a few months. President Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders turned their attention to the unsustainable health care inflation that was driving hundreds of billions of dollars in both governmental and private sector spending that fueled huge deficit growth.

Now, it is at this point that critics (including Sen. Schumer) assert that the Obama Administration and congressional leaders should have parked their commitment to health care and devoted further time, energy and spending to a third stimulus bill. Such hindsight overlooks a few crucial items: the certain inability to pass more stimulus spending in a Congress that had already enacted the stimulus laws over vigorous Republican opposition; the near-unanimous opposition of Republicans to taking any action – including extension of unemployment benefits – in response to the cratering economy; the massive impact of health costs on spending and the debt; and the rare alignment of a Democratic White House and Democratic supermajorities in Congress that held the hope – not a certainty – of passing the holy grail of progressive politics over the preceding century: health care reform.

If the prospects for additional stimulus were non-existent, the possibility of achieving health care reform were only slightly more promising. Waiting months to slug out an additional stimulus bill, which would likely have failed, might well have jeopardized the ability to pass health care. Leaders would have had to heavily pressure marginal Democrats to cast additional votes for deficit spending which would temper their willingness to vote for a future health care law.   Moreover, further delay ran the risk of a congressional death or resignation that could deprive Democrats of the razor-thin margin by which they surely would have to pass health care reform. As misfortune would have it, the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy confirmed the tenuous hold the Senate majority had on passing a health care law, forcing the novel utilization of the reconciliation process to achieve final passage.

Schumer, who has been a staunch supporter of the ACA, does not argue that the law was a bad piece of legislation, only that Democrats were ignoring the hard-hit middle class by emphasizing health care instead of pushing for more economic assistance. If President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders had promoted additional economic policies, he asserts, “the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them … People were hurting and saying, ‘What about me? I’m losing my job. It’s not health care that bothers me. What about me?’”

I’m not sure which “average middle-class voter” Schumer is referencing, but there certainly was no shortage of people who desperately wanted health care reform. Millions of people could not afford care, were being dropped arbitrarily by their insurance carriers, and were facing huge premium increases when they could find coverage; millions more could not secure coverage because of pre-existing conditions ranging from cancer to developmental disabilities to being female. All Americans were enduring escalating federal deficits driven by health care inflation that were cited as reasons for slashing domestic discretionary spending that impacts education, services for the disabled and the elderly, health care research, and environmental protection and alternative energy development. Each of those issues is being positively impacted by the ACA despite the foot-dragging of Republican governors and 55 attempts by House Republicans to repeal the law.

As to the additional recession related legislation that Democrats ignored, it would be interesting to know what initiatives Sen. Schumer thinks could have been enacted: public jobs creation (not a chance), breaking up the huge financial institutions that drove much of the fiscal mischief that weakened the economy (I’m not sure Schumer’s New York constituents would have bought into that approach), tough restrictions on corporate executives and tax changes like carried interest reform to reduce income inequity (ditto for interest among the Wall Street crowd). We tried most of those approaches during the TARP and ARRA efforts and were unable to win enough support to pass any of them. Would Schumer have had Democrats try again, fail, and diminish confidence in the President and the party just when we needed broad support to tackle health care?

Now most assuredly, Schumer was thinking about his constituents with this latest blast, but not the millions of New York constituents who needed both economic assistance and health insurance reform. His “constituents” were his Democratic Senate colleagues, angered at losing the majority in the November elections and pointing accusing fingers at President Obama. Schumer’s attack on the President (and by extension, House and Senate leaders who joined in prioritizing the timing of the health care push) may enhance his stature as one willing to watch out for them and their re-election efforts.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the mishandling of the health care strategy, from the bill’s necessarily modest provisions through a quiescent White House messaging strategy to the near-fatal rollout fiasco. On both the messaging and the roll-out, congressional Democrats have been critical of the White House, and justifiably so; warnings were issued and promises made, and yet the Administration walked into mis-step after mis-step. But choosing the wrong timing for advancing the health care debate, after 100 years of failure, was not one of the mistakes; it was the right thing to do, at the essential time, and further time frittered away on doomed economic legislation would have squandered an opportunity to do something historic, which Democrats did, and for which they should be proud, not apologetic.

Senators narrowly elected in the 2008 Democratic sweep (likely due to the large outpouring of Democratic votes for Barack Obama) just paid the penalty that House Democrats paid earlier in 2010 and 2012, as well as 2014. Dozens of Democratic House Members who owed their improbable elections to the 2008 turnout lost their seats following the rise of the Tea Party and the emergence of hyperbolic assaults on the ACA. Most were active supporters of the ACA, the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and many other Democratic initiatives that helped make the 111th Congress one of the most productive in recent history. And many were marginal Members who knew at the time that their votes could inflame their constituents and jeopardize their jobs. And yet in many conversations with these defeated House Democrats, not one expressed regret to me about having cast the tough votes or having lost their jobs as a result of doing their job and serving their country.

Which makes Schumer’s condemnation of the President all that more startling, particularly given his strong past support for the ACA. Certainly the senator’s statement was intended to appeal to Senate Democrats who might be looking for a new leader in the next few years. It just wasn’t necessary, in order to prove he has their backs, to put a dagger into the backs of President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders.

Pelosi Proxy Wars

Let me stipulate at the outset I am probably not the most objective person to comment on the actions of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, having spent eight years as her chief of staff during For this reason, I generally leave the Pelosi analysis to others and respect, as should all staff people, the confidentiality and confidence entrusted by a political employer.

However, from time to time, assertions concerning the former Speaker are made that are so egregious or misinformed that simply raging at the television or iPhone is inadequate. This week was one of those times.

Twice this week, the issue of the “proxy” arose with respect to Mrs. Pelosi, and in both cases, much of the commentary banter has been so inaccurate that I am rising to the bait and offering a counter opinion. I am prepared for the accusations of being an apologist.

One of these “proxy wars” involved the contest between Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) for the position of Ranking Member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. That position, as well as the chairmanship of the panel during the days of the Democratic majority, has been held by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), whose 40 years of congressional service end with the new year. Both Pallone and Eshoo have been reliable, progressive members of the Committee and the Caucus; both have served in the House since 1993; both have substantial expertise in the complex areas of legislation that fall under Commerce’s jurisdiction.

In the long-passed era in which seniority ruled, Pallone would have been the unquestioned choice. He is, despite their equivalence in House service, senior to Eshoo on the Committee. Pallone’s background, expertise and ability to manage the sprawling committee would not have been in question. The only qualification, it has been said, was a pulse. But those days of unchallenged seniority ended forty years ago, when the incoming members of the 94th Congress rejected three sitting chairmen for reasons of both ideology and competence. Since then, there have been numerous instances when the senior most member of a committee has not been selected for the chairmanship or ranking member role. As it has been noted: your constituents choose you to be a Member, but the Caucus chooses you to be a chair or ranking member.

The Pallone-Eshoo contest purportedly became a proxy war because of the public support given Eshoo by her California colleague and close friend, Nancy Pelosi. Allegedly, as numerous news reports asserted this week, there was discontent and grumbling within the Democratic Caucus about Pelosi’s decision to seek another term as Democratic Leader (a position she won by acclamation), and voting against her favorite in the secret balloting for the Commerce slot was a proxy means for expressing that discontent. This interpretation was given greater currency by reports that Democratic Whip, Steny Hoyer (D-MD), whom the press endlessly portrays as dancing a perpetual pas de deux with Pelosi over the leadership of House Democrats, was promoting Pallone’s candidacy. Voting for Pallone, therefore, became a proxy for supporting Hoyer and indirectly rebuking Pelosi.

That’s an intriguing analysis, and makes for good commentary, but it is highly unlikely. Members vote for leaders because they have a vested interest in the outcome of the selection, not to send private messages. Those reasons may include friendship, respect, return of past favors, or how the outcome affects one’s own prospects. It would be surprising if the outcome signaled anything significant about Pelosi’s enduring strength within the Caucus, as some have asserted. After all, Pelosi ‘s candidate for Majority Leader was rejected overwhelmingly by the Caucus in 2006, and she went on to enjoy one of the most successful speakerships in history and another decade as leader of the Party.

Sure, there may have been a vote here or there in which Pelosi or Hoyer’s involvement played a part, and in a close contest, every vote matters. But understanding the actual motivations behind votes requires much more analysis and work than most reporters or so-called “analysts” are prepared to do. Even a New Jersey colleague of Pallone rejected the idea that the decision represented a proxy rejection of Pelosi.

The closeness of the vote, however, raised the issue of the second “proxy” battle that emerged this week involving Pelosi: her decision to reject a request from Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to cast an absentee Caucus ballot in the Pallone-Eshoo race. Numerous commentators criticized Pelosi’s refusal to waive House and Caucus rules to allow such a proxy vote to be cast, including Jon Stewart whose anti-Pelosi rant on Tuesday night served to remind us that however entertaining and incisive he is (and I am a faithful and admiring viewer), he is not a substantive analyst of congressional procedure, which is what he was criticizing.

Proxy voting was the fashion in the House for decades, and became widely used after the expansion of subcommittees in the 1970s, which meant that many Members would routinely confront overlapping subcommittee and committee mark-ups on their schedules. Since absences cast doubt over the fate of amendments and bills, and no one wants to be counted as “absent” lest an opponent hint it was due to dereliction of duty, the rules allowed Members to give written proxies to committee members (usually the chairman and ranking member) to cast in their absence. It was not unusual for one of these senior members to have a fistful of proxies that were used to pass or defeat amendments or bills in the absence of most members of the panel.

Proxies were banned in 1995, complicating the mark-up procedure but enhancing the legitimacy of the legislative process. Duckworth sought to circumvent the rules, and for an understandable reason – she is over eight months pregnant and her doctors advised her against traveling to Washington. Duckworth is also a veteran, a double amputee, and a woman, all noted by Stewart and others, but none of which are relevant to the proxy request. Stewart went even further to accuse Pelosi of hypocrisy for effusively advocating the rights of women in the workplace only to rule against Duckworth’s pregnancy-related request, supposedly because the Illinois legislator was a Pallone partisan.

Leaders have to say “no” to members all the time, and the worst mistake a leader can make is to allow an exception to the rule, because doing so ensures that others will also seek waivers, requiring the leader to choose between appropriate and inappropriate excuses – an inherently subjective choice. Yes, Duckworth had a genuine medical excuse, but so do many Members who routinely miss votes. Are waivers to be allowed only for medical excuses? Any medical excuse? Do they require a note from the doctor? What about other demands that require a legislator’s absence from Washington: a funeral, the illness of a spouse or child, a graduation, a wedding, an unspecified “personal problem.” All of these requests, and more, are routinely cited by Members seeking approval to miss floor sessions, and Pelosi has consistently refused to grant her permission. To respond otherwise would open the floodgates and impose on herself the impossible responsibility of separating the justifiable from the frivolous.

So, why single out the Duckworth request? To suggest that her denial of the proxy to Duckworth is at odds with her advocacy of women’s rights in the workplace is without merit. Rights such as paid family leave, equal wages and non-discrimination are unrelated to the Duckworth case. Duckworth’s job security and pay are in no way affected by Pelosi’s decision. There is nothing unique about a medical excuse preventing a Member from attending a meeting or a floor session. When all cases are treated equitably, it is impossible to assert unfairness. If Pelosi had granted Duckworth a waiver but denied one to another Member who required hospitalization or home rest, a charge of inequitable treatment would have been warranted, by the other Member.

So instead Pelosi made the controversial call and, as is so often the case, the press decided to excoriate her without examining the merit of her decision. Give her credit for standing on her principles and being willing to take the heat. Incidentally, that is what leadership is really about.

The Silver Lining

It is admittedly difficult to put much of a positive spin for Democrats on last week’s midterm election. In both the House and Senate outcomes, one sees a continued winnowing of the large Democratic majorities achieved in the mid-2000s as a result of voter disaffection with pro-war/scandal-ridden/Social Security privatizing George W. Bush congressional Republicans. As with the inflated Democratic majorities of the post-Watergate era, those big Democratic margins of the mis-2000’s – inflated further by the outpouring of young and minority voters enthused by the 2008 Obama candidacy – have frayed considerably in marginal districts that briefly fell under the spell of Democrats, or where Democratic incumbents retired and the districts elected conservatives of the Republican, rather than Democratic, stripe.

The size of the GOP margins in the House and Senate are worrisome enough that even the hoped-for (though far from certain) election of a Democratic president, with expanded voter turnout, in 2016 simply may not be sufficient to dislodge the new Republican majorities. While it will be the Republicans’ turn to defend a disproportionate number of incumbents in 2016, as Democrats were forced to do last Tuesday, the odds against Democrats rose last week because so many Senate seats were won by Republicans, inflating the number needed to regain the majority.

There are certainly opportunities. Five GOP winners in 2010, a very good year for Republicans, fall into the category of “marginal” by having secured less than 53% of the vote including Ron Johnson (WI, 52%), Mark Kirk (IL, 48%), Pat Toomey (PA, 51%), Marco Rubio (FL, 49%), and Lisa Murkowski (AK, 39%). The last two ran in three-way races and may be less vulnerable if they avoid such a multi-candidate race again.   Additionally, both John McCain (AZ) and Charles Grassley (IA), 80 and 83 respectively in 2016, could opt to retire, potentially creating competitive non-incumbent races, but both are going to enjoy being major committee chairmen in the next two years and may well choose to go one more round.

Democrats have some vulnerabilities of their own in 2016, including soon-to-be Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV), who will be 77 in 2016 and only received 50.2% of the vote in his last race, and Colorado’s Michael Bennett, originally an appointed senator who won only 47% in 2010.

The House faces even a steeper cliff given the gains of last Tuesday which created the largest House GOP majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House. The task is made more difficult for Democrats by the combination of numerous gerrymandered seats that artificially favor Republicans, and by the concentration of large Democratic voting blocks in urban districts. Disseminating some of those voters into adjacent districts during the next reapportionment would enhance the competitiveness of many seats currently held by Republicans without jeopardizing the probable victory of a Democrats in the current safe seat (although the certainty of that Democrat’s being a minority may diminish).  But Republicans are hardly inclined to agree to such a balancing of districts, and most of the Democratic incumbents are happy with winning victories by 70% and more, if not being uncontested, even though doing so means that neighboring districts that used to be competitive and frequently represented by Democrats remain safely Republican.

So, you may be wondering, where is that “silver lining” mentioned in the title?

The answer lies in the governorships. Yes, it is true, Republicans won reelection in many of the blue-to-purple states of the Mid-West (a major exception being Pennsylvania), so how, you might ask, is that “good” news?

Many of the Republican governors elected in traditionally Democratic states will be termed out in 2018, leaving the state with a non-incumbent gubernatorial contest. In a number of those states – Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan – current GOP governors replaced Democrats, and one might reasonable anticipated a swing back to the majority party is highly possible in the next round of elections. In Georgia, Nathan Deal will be out of office after two terms, and though he replaced a Republican four years ago, Sonny Perdue was the first Republican governor of the Peach State since Reconstruction. In addition, New Jersey’s Chris Christie will be leaving the governor’s mansion in Trenton in 2017, and there is a fair chance a Democrat will be highly competitive (Christie having beaten two extremely weak Democratic nominees in this reliably blue state).

Democrats will be challenged to win the governorships in Texas, Florida, and Virginia in 2017 (the latter after a narrow win in 2013 and successive Democratic governors), but at least the latter two are possibilities, as is the case for a Democratic victory in Colorado where Gov. John Hickenlooper barely eked out re-election this year. Even in Illinois and Maryland, where Democrats lost governorships they might well have won this year, there are possibilities of a strong Democratic candidacy in 2016.

This potential for Democrats winning governorships in 2017 and 2018 is highly significant because doing so will put them in charge during the crucial reapportionment process following the 2020 census. And in each of these states, the drawing of lines for the House of Representatives (as well as state legislatures) can figure prominently in whether Democrats have a fair opportunity to win the House majority during the decade of the 2020’s.

Reversing, or correcting, the Republicans’ gerrymandering of 2012 – made possible by the big GOP victories in 2010 that gave them control in states during the reapportionment process – may not be sufficient if Democratic incumbents insist upon districts that are so stocked with Democratic voters that adjacent district lose any competitive standing.

Years ago, the Svengali of reapportionment, Congressman Phillip Burton, delivered Democrats a district they could win if they were diligent in paying attention to their constituents, not one they were guaranteed to win regardless of their actions, votes or efforts. Members who desired 65% or 70% Democratic districts were given 56% districts, and if savvy, won re-election easily while other districts were also designed to provide Democratic opportunities. That discipline did not always survive Burton for long. Following Burton’s death in 1983, I was in a room where a Democratic incumbent stalked out because their proposed district was less than 80% Democratic. If that avaricious attitude prevails, should Democrats be fortunate enough to dominate the reapportionment process in 2021-2022, the road back to the majority could be blocked until 2032.

The House Majority and the Governors

Much of the focus about control of Congress is centered on the close battle for the Senate and the challenges facing House Democrats in 2014. But the key to future House control may well rest with the outcome of key gubernatorial races next Tuesday, races that could impact, in multiple ways, the prospects for a Democratic House majority in years to come.

Three major structural problems confront Democrats who yearn to return soon to the House majority, restore Nancy Pelosi to a productive speakership, and provide President Hillary Clinton with a Congress that favorably responds to the policy initiatives on which she may well be elected in 2016.

  • Gerrymandering: A fact of political life that may be susceptible to minimization, but has defied various reform efforts for over two hundred years, since the creation of the nefarious “dragon district” in 1812.
  • Population concentration: Democrats tend to pack themselves into cities, providing massive majorities for districts crammed with likeminded voters, but starving the suburbs and rural areas of enough Democrats to be competitive. As a result, Democrats tend to win overwhelming margins in elections with votes they don’t need; whether you win with 55% or 70% of the vote, you still get a House voting card. These disproportionate districts are terrific for incumbents but do not reflect the distribution of House seats state-wide. Overall, Democrats outpolled Republicans in 2012 House races by 1.5 million votes, but remained a minority in the lower chamber. It is not unusual for Democrats in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan to win a clear majority of votes cast for President only to fall far short in the individual districts.
  • Voting Rights Act Uncertainties: Since the Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA last year, it may be increasingly difficult to ensure that fair districts are created and minority voters fairly participate. In addition, as a result of the VRA, in part, many minority Democratic voters since the 1990s have been packed into districts that ensure the election of black and Latino legislators by wide margins, but which leave the remaining districts in the state with too few Democrats to be competitive. Disseminating the minority voters more equitably would result in many more competitive House districts, but may well reduce the chance that minority candidates would represent them since it is still the rare majority white district that elects a minority candidate.

Another major factor, however, will be the person, and party, occupying each governorship when the next reapportionment occurs following the 2020 election. In many states, controlling the governor’s mansion will have a significant impact on the district lines drawn by Legislature that will determine the design of the House for the subsequent decade. With a sympathetic Legislature, a governor can influence reapportionment to benefit his or her party; with divided government in the state, a governor can veto a plan that is disadvantageous to his or her party.

Many states electing governors next Tuesday bear careful watching, even though a number of these governors may be termed out in 2018 and no longer in office to affect the reapportionment process in 2021-2022. A loss by an incumbent Republican governor, as may well occur in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin would result in a Democratic governor who, learning from the mistakes of his predecessor, might well realize the benefits of incumbency and win re-election in 2018, ensuring that a Democratic governor oversees reapportionment.

Other states may re-elect a Republican governor this year, such as Ohio, Florida, and Georgia, who would then be precluded from running again in 2018, depriving Republicans of the benefits of incumbency. Close races in these states this year signify a credible state Democratic party and, as in Georgia, a Democratic candidate who may well re-emerge four years hence with wide recognition and a sound campaign infrastructure. Such a retread might stand a better chance of victory when running for an open seat rather than against a Republican incumbent. Ohio is a bit of an anomaly, for while John Kasich looks to be cruising to a major victory, he has drawn a weak opponent, although Democrats in the state remain a potent force.

By contrast, several key Democratic governors will win by substantial margins this year such as Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, and while they likely will probably not be in office in 2021, their states are Democratic powerhouses that likely will remain in Democratic hands after they have moved along. There are other Democratic governors who could lose, in Illinois and Colorado particularly, elevating Republicans to a key role in reapportionment should they perform well and win re-election in 2018; however these governorships will almost certainly be highly contested in 2018 since the current incumbent (and threatened) governors have unique vulnerabilities that may well not translate to the next Democratic contender.

Two key governorships are not on the ballot this year because they held off-year elections last year: New Jersey and Virginia. In the case of the former, it is highly plausible that a Democrat will succeed Chris Christie, who won against a highly flawed Democratic incumbent in this deep blue state. And while Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe cannot run for a second term, Republicans have been having a difficult time in state-wide races in the Old Dominion, a trend which may well continue

The bottom line is that in a host of states with large Democratic electorates that voted for Barack Obama twice and will likely vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 should she run, Democrats could find themselves well-positioned for 2018 and the reapportionment that will follow. In many of these states, a fair drawing of the lines will result in more competitive seats than is the case at present, yielding races that may elect those who are less beholden to the hard core base of either party which controls so much power in one-party districts where tiny turnouts by the hardest core base determines nominations and elections.

That is not to say the reapportionment process will be without political undertones; despite judges, commissions and other contrivances created to avoid the influence of party in this time-honored process. As it has often been noted, you can’t take politics out of politics. But perhaps the process could be made more balanced and districts might better reflect the true distribution of voters. Governors will play a key role in those decisions, which is why it pays to keep a sharp eye on the race for the governors’ mansions next Tuesday.

The Name of the Game Isn’t Just Money

One would have to be a fool – or apparently, a member of the Supreme Court majority in the Citizens United decision – not to be appalled by the surfeit of lucre that is poisoning America’s politics. A potentially-related issue – the tendency for high political office to revert to those with familiar names – also suggests a retooling of our democracy is worth considering.

On the question of money, there is little debate. In many of the key Senate races being contested next month, over half of the reported “independent” money has been donated by … well, we don’t know, because thanks to the Supreme Court, the names of the contributors are anonymous. So as the money pours into states like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana and others, totaling tens of millions of dollars, we have no idea who is bankrolling the race to control the Senate.

What we do know is that outside spending has grown from $52 million in the 2000 cycle to over $1 billion in the 2012 cycle, and likely much more this year. Two years ago, 100 of the richest people in America anonymously gave $339 million to Super PACs. This year, reports indicate, several independent groups are shedding the pretense of “educating” the public in multiple states, and are focusing instead on supporting or opposing a single candidate – all within the Constitution as interpreted by 5 of the Court’s 9 Justices.

It is also interesting to note that in a number of those key races, while the names of the contributors are unknown, the names of the candidates are very familiar, and not simply because they currently occupy seats in the U.S. Senate. In Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and Georgia, Senate seats are held or are being sought by politicians with names made famous by their predecessors.

  • In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich, son of former at-large Congressman Nick Begich, is in a tight race to retain his seat;
  • In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Governor and Senator David Pryor, is similarly fighting for his political life.
  • In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, son of longtime Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, is seeking a second term.
  • In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu, daughter of former New Orleans Mayor (and HUD Secretary) Moon Landrieu, is seeking a third term. Her brother, Mitch, is the mayor of New Orleans, but her service precedes his election.
  • And in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for dad’s old Senate seat.

Nor are these the only famous offspring on the November ballots, which include such familiar names as California Gov. Jerry Brown (son of Pat), New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario), and Georgia gubernatorial wannabe Jason Carter, grandson of former Governor and President Jimmy. Other famous scions serve in the Senate as well. These members of venerable political dynasties include Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, West Virginia’s Sen. John D. Rockefeller, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (daughter of former Governor and Senator Frank), and New Mexico’s Sen. Tom Udall (son of former Interior Secretary and Arizona Congressman Stewart Udall, and cousin of Mark).

The House of Representatives is overflowing with famous surnames, including two of my former employers whose parents were elected officials, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (father and brother) and George Miller (father and grandfather). Some came to seats that had been immediately occupied by family members, such as Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), both of whom succeeded their spouses. As recently as the 1970s, half of all women in the House had succeeded their deceased spouses, as did a number of appointed women senators including Muriel Humphrey (widow of Hubert) and Elaine Edwards (wife of Louisiana Gov., and current House candidate, Edwin Edwards). Other senators were appointed to capitalize on their family name in efforts to gain or hold a Senate seat including Jean Carnahan (whose husband, Governor Mel, of Missouri, died during the campaign which he won, though deceased).

Democrats seem to have a particular penchant for running familiar names for House seats. Today, those occupying seats previously held by a parent or spouse include Niki Tsongas (MA), Andre Carson (IN), Lacy Clay (MO), John Dingell (MI), Joe Kennedy (MA), John Sarbanes (MD), Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA), and Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ). There are Republicans, too, like Bill Shuster (PA) who inherited not only the seat of his father, Bud, but his gavel as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, too.

Others, like Sam Farr (CA) and Janice Hahn (CA), had famous parents in state legislatures or local government. And Rush Holt (NJ) had a father who served as a senator, although from West Virginia, and decades before his son won a House seat with little benefit from the family name. It also bears noting that, in all likelihood, one surname will continue to hold a House seat following the departure of a famous legislator as Deborah Dingell is running to succeed husband John, the House dean who is retiring after 60 years, having succeeded his father in 1955.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the progeny, siblings, or spouses of officeholders seeking public office themselves. Indeed, our history is filled with Adams’, Kennedys, Bushes, Roosevelts, Tydings, Longs, Harrisons, Lodges, Tafts and many more whose surnames often provided important advantages in their quests for public office. Coming from a family of officeholders often brings with it a respect for the office born of exposure to the rigors and responsibilities that elected office demands. Often, the achievements of the second generation politicians have eclipsed those of their solon ancestors.

It is worth noting, however, that the combination of relying on famous names and the availability of large amounts of money from undisclosed sources represents something other than an ideal illustration of a democracy in action. As noted, bearing a prominent name in no way suggests a lack of qualification for office or predicts underperformance in office. Often, quite the opposite. One would merely hope that voters are selecting candidates independent of familiar names that are promoted by heavy spending from anonymous sources.

There seems no end to the political name game, and even former First Lady Barbara Bush has indicated a desire to see some new names on the bumper stickers and buttons. If either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush (or both) seeks the presidency in 2016, they will perpetuate an astonishing record that has seen a Bush or a Clinton seeking or winning a place on every national ticket since 1980 excepting only 2012. “I refuse to accept that this great country isn’t raising other wonderful people,” Mrs. Bush noted, suggesting the nation should be able to produce “more than two or three families to run for high office.” The probability is that Mrs. Bush, and we, will likely have to wait some time for that string to be broken.

Are Democrats Sending the Right Message on the Economy?

Let’s stipulate right at the outset: there are too many unemployed Americans (particularly long-term unemployed), wages are stagnant (the typical family is earning what it took home in 1997), and that income inequality has grotesquely grown to Louis XVIth proportions. Economically, it seems fair to say, these days will not be confused with “the best of times,” at least from the standpoint of equity.

It is therefore not surprising that many Democratic politicians and message gurus continue to bemoan the state of the recovery. Their economic prescription emphasizes initiatives to address unemployment, job creation, and improved wages. Having recently spent a few days in economically depressed northern Ohio, I have no doubt the message has some appeal to the electorate.

But I am not convinced it is the right message for Democrats. Unlike the Clinton campaign of 1992 where the rhetoric could be directed against a sitting Republican president, there is currently a Democrat in the White House. Reiterating that the recovery is faltering and that millions remain economically vulnerable reinforces a message of ineffectiveness that inevitably redounds onto the President, who for better or worse, symbolizes the Democratic Party for most voters.

Democrats rightly blame Republicans in Congress for failing to pass a slew of recovery bills like an increase in the minimum wage, extended unemployment benefits and an infrastructure package. But most voters do not ascribe Congress’ failures to the Republican majority in the House; close to half don’t even know the Republicans control the House. So trashing the recovery inevitably reflects back onto the one person voters can hold accountable, and that is President Obama, and that hurts him and Democrats alike.

Now what is particularly odd is that, while less than ideal, there actually is considerable evidence the economy has been improving.  We have added over 10 million private sector jobs during 55 straight months of job growth, 248,000 in September, and over 700,000 jobs in manufacturing, the longest private sector job creation streak in U.S. history. Payrolls are expanding at the fastest pace in 15 years and unemployment dropped below 6% in September, the lowest rate in 6 years. The debt has shrunk by more than half, the investor optimism index is at its highest point in seven years, and the Dow Jones average has nearly tripled since President Obama took office, with barely a hint of inflation. As Obama summarized this week in a speech at Northwestern, “Across the board, the trend lines have moved in the right direction.”

And yet economic anxiety remains high and approval of Obama’s economic record remains mired in the low 40%s, which is very dangerous news for Democratic candidates. As one of my students recently wrote in a research paper, “What’s up with that?”

Of course, the frozen real income of middle class families and the stubborn long-term unemployment belie all the good news, as does the outlandish inequity in wealth concentration. And the persistence of so much bad data invariably dampens the willingness of candidates to tout positive news for fear of seeming oblivious to the negative evidence.

But if no one will take credit for the good news, then one can hardly blame voters for not focusing on much but the bad. A relentless emphasis on a poor economy works to taint the record of the person in the White House, but if that person is your own party leader, and an election is five weeks away, that may not be your best strategy. Moreover, emphasizing the negative inflames voters cynicism about the ability of government to accomplish much of anything, and impugning government is the Republican refrain.

Now to his credit, the President recited favorable economic indicators at Northwestern on Thursday, and he will hopefully continue do so for much of the remaining campaign season. As Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wisely advised yesterday, “He should brag” about the economy, calling on him to “sing his own praises and boast of what he’s done.” So should House Democrats and Democratic candidates, warning that to add anti-government Republicans to congressional ranks will jeopardize the economic recovery by encouraging the obstructionism and unresponsiveness that has characterized the GOP since Obama’s inauguration.

The fact is that virtually everything that has happened policy-wise to facilitate economic recovery is the result of Obama’s executive initiatives or because Democrats in Congress stood together and passed legislation with minimal assistance from Republicans. Left to their own devices, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for no legislative response – other than further economic sacrifice by the poor and middle class — to the worst economic implosion since the Big One: no TARP stabilization (paid back with interest, thank you), no prevention of the collapse of the auto industry (one million jobs saved, you’re welcome), no stimulus, no health care reform (which has helped achieve drastic reductions in inflation-generating health care costs), no termination of Bush’s obscene upper income tax cut, no unemployment benefit extensions: no nuthin’. Zippo.

The point here is that Democrats, including Obama, need to buck up and tell the American people that while work remains, a lot has been achieved to recover the economy, and that with a Republican Congress, what has been achieved will be jeopardized. Neutering the ability of government to function is no prescription for continued economic improvement. You can’t get that message across if most of what voters heard is gloom and doom. And you can’t successfully disseminate that message through occasional speeches that most voters have no idea occurred. There must be a persistent, aggressive, definitive message that despite the obstructionism and indifference of the Republicans, progress is being made. And if your goal is to address income inequity and the disproportionate influence of mega-money in politics, voters better shake off their lethargy and get to the polls.

How “Productive” Will the Electorate Be?

It has admittedly been a while since my last blog on goings-on in Congress, and I would like to say I have been waiting for something positive (or substantive) to happen, but the inactive course of the 113th Congress was, and remains, unlikely to change. Nevertheless, the decision to recess until after the election provides a good opportunity for some timely observations.

Is this the most “unproductive Congress” in history?

As I have written in earlier blogs, the evaluation of the success or failure of this Congress depends to a large extent on one’s sense of priorities. While Democratic critics emphasize the low productivity of the 113th Congress thus far (only 163 laws enacted, which may result in overall enactments below the modern record of 283 in the 112th), the statutory shortfall is distressing only if your preference is for pro-active legislating. And that, to be polite, has not been the objective of House Republicans. Recall Speaker John Boehner’s admonition to judge Republicans not on how many bills they enact, but on how many they repeal. OK, they haven’t delivered on the latter either, but you can hardly fault them for failing to do what they explicitly promised they would do: very little. To the extent that such inaction (or indifference) results in heightened contempt for Congress and the federal government, so much the better, since a core philosophical and strategic objective of Republicans (and especially the far Right that exercises effective control over the leadership) is to demean and diminish the stature of Washington, Congress and their own offices. So, “unproductive”? A quantifiable “yes.” A “failure?” Depends on your point of view.

Yes, but … income inequality. Climate change. Economic stimulus and jobs. Immigration reform. Minimum wage. Voting rights reauthorization. Campaign finance reform. Affordability of higher education. Well, those are all good points, and Democrats continually lash out at Republicans for inaction on these priorities (while passing, and monotonously re-passing, 29 bills that have less prospects than a Beatles reunion). As former NH Sen. John Sununu (himself not exactly an Old Yankee, Kenneth Keating Republican) has noted, “This, in the political trade, is what is politely called “messaging.’” But, as noted above, Republicans have no particular interest in enacting legislation on challenging subjects, and certainly not if crafting enactable statutes involves compromising with Democrats and he-whose-name-cannot-be-mentioned (and I don’t mean Voldemort). Government involvement in such sacrosanct areas as climate, the economy, and tax policy is problematic, not something to be encouraged. (They make an exception for voting for military engagement, even if they believe the Commander in Chief has all the strategic acumen of the designer of the Maginot Line.) Who cares about restricted voting rights or unlimited big money manipulation of campaigns if the result benefits your political self-interest? Even in areas like immigration, where House conservatives agree there are shortcomings in the status quo, engaging in the legislative process implies compromise, which is not among their hallowed traditions. This week, Speaker Boehner’s staff locked his Longworth office’s doors rather than meet with voting rights activists delivering a petition with over a half million signatures. Barring the door didn’t make the issue (or the dissatisfied voters) go away; it just refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns. How’s that for a symbolic summary of the 113th Congress?

Well, at least the government didn’t shut down, again. True, although a shutdown might have made the point about the indifference of the House leadership to urgent issues, if the point needs to be made more clearly. It is instructive to note, however, that as with past Continuing Resolutions (and debt ceilings, and tax extensions) that the House has passed since Republicans assumed the majority in 2011, must-pass bills do pass, but only because of Democratic votes. Speaker Boehner has been consistently incapable of convincing his own Conference members to produce a sufficient number of votes for essential bills, which means he must make some compromises with Democrats who are willing to vote for CRs and other nose-holding bills they detest because they know that a shutdown would be even worse. A substantial number of Tea Partiers therefore have the luxury of telling constituents they vote against spending bills and are happy to shut down the government if they do not get 100% of what they want, knowing that Democrats will provide the needed 40 or 50 votes to keep the lights on. And Speaker Boehner knows he has no choice but to rely on House Democrats, and so keeps CRs clean of nasty little policy riders the hard Right would like to attach (and then still likely vote against the bill). And if worse comes to worse and there is a shut-down, well, doesn’t that also serve the purpose of stigmatizing Congress, so where is the pressure for responsibility?

It is easy to point the finger at Congress, and at the Tea Party in particular, for the inaction of Congress on such a plethora of issues which many Americans believe merit urgent legislative action. And indeed, polling confirms a high disapproval rate of Congress in general, and of the Republicans who run the House –72% disapproval in the last poll I have seen. But politicians ultimately don’t care about polls; they care about votes, and now that Congress has departed for campaign season (on the earliest departure date since before President Obama was even born), the focus of attention should be turning to voters, not the electeds.

I hate to wag the lecturing finger in front of an indignant electorate, but nothing makes a politician breathe easier than an opponent who is too outraged to vote. All of the inaction, indifference and teeth-grinding frustration pent up by congressional critics, of any persuasion, will have no impact whatsoever if, as is broadly being predicted, six in ten eligible voters sit out the mid-term election. A politician elected is a politician who believes his or her views have been ratified by whatever subset of the constituency has bothered to cast a ballot. It is bad enough that so many people who do vote choose candidates whose track record and campaign rhetoric guarantee continued gridlock; but when those who favor a more constructive and collaborative approach inadvertently buy into the negative frame about Congress and indignantly sit out the election, well, the odds of change are pretty slim. Yes, it means voting for someone you don’t always agree with, maybe even on a big issue. But we don’t have much of a chance for electing a Congress that can fashion compromises on tough issues if we only vote for uncompromising candidates whose rhetoric is pleasing but whose legislative skills are non-existent.


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