It Really Is a Democratic Congress

By David Swanson

Should it go without saying that the current Congress is Democratic? The Democrats have the majority, control the agenda, and chair and hold a majority on every committee. But does that make the Congress Democratic?

Liberal commentators averse to criticizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi have begun flailing around for a reasonable explanation for the behavior of her Congress. Matt Stoller has latched onto the idea that, even though there are more Democrats in the House than Republicans, the Republicans secretly have a majority. This is an appealing proposition, since all of us on the left view the Republicans as worse than the Democrats. We’d like to be able to blame them for everything, not just most things. And, as an added bonus, this theory transports us into the enjoyable realm so often inhabited by those on the right, the realm of thoughtless belief in utter nonsense.

Stoller’s argument is basically that the conservative, or “blue dog” Democrats insist on voting with the Republicans. True enough. But that’s not the whole story. Stoller also acknowledges in passing a couple of other problems:

“Democratic leaders aren’t able to [stand up to Bush] out of a mixture of fear, incompetence, and insufficient liberal voting strength.”

There’s the blame for the blue dogs, but it’s preceded by two other items: fear and incompetence on the part of the Democratic leaders. Stoller leaves it at that and does not add any additional sentences to these two themes. Stoller’s not doing a detailed analysis here. He doesn’t actually know whether the problem is fear or incompetence or a combination of the two or some third factor. All he is doing here is acknowledging that the Democratic leaders are human agents, capable of completely caving into the blue dogs or not.

Does Pelosi have a tough job trying to enforce party discipline on the blue dogs? Of course she does. But it’s made harder every day she refrains from even trying. How did it come about that this Congress, elected to end the occupation of Iraq, dumped another $100 billion into it? This happened because Pelosi showed she was very good at enforcing party discipline. She badgered the rest of her party into doing what the blue dogs (except Congressman Michaud) wanted. She and her colleagues in the Democratic leadership, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, bribed, and harassed progressive Democrats to vote for more war. As a result, the blue dogs were almost completely hidden from the public, and the public’s anger is now directed at the progressives who betrayed them and above all at Pelosi.

What alternative did Pelosi have? She could have badgered the blue dogs into voting to end the occupation of Iraq. Or at the very least she could have tried. To assume that such a project would be impossible is to refuse to break out of playing all defense all the time. Going on the offense can change your perspective. It may be that the progressives only have a mild inclination toward peace whereas the blue dogs really really want war badly, but at the very least going on the offensive would expose the blue dogs’ unpopular position and party disloyalty to public view. Currently they look like the essence of loyalty. (And with 69 progressive Democrats and one Republican having announced that they will only fund a withdrawal, the progressives’ position may now be as decisively intractable as anybody’s.) If Pelosi and the rest of the Democrats push a progressive position, and the blue dogs block it, she’ll isolate them, and they’ll take the heat. Pelosi has thus far preferred to cover for them, which makes them her party, which makes the Congress both Democratic and guaranteed to behave like Republicans.

Now, if Pelosi had managed to push through a bill to end the occupation by winning over enough blue dogs, the effort might have died in the Senate or on the President’s desk. Or if she had failed to win over blue dogs, the effort would have died in the House. Either way, Pelosi would have had the opportunity to announce the end of the occupation of Iraq. In fact, all that is needed to end the occupation of Iraq, and the only way Congress can end it, given the readiness of Bush’s veto pen, is for Pelosi to announce that there will be no more bills to fund the occupation. The only downside to jumping straight to that announcement is that it would not isolate the blue dogs and pressure them to represent the public demand for peace.

On other issues, Pelosi has exactly as little to lose. She can obey the blue dogs and the Republicans and send Bush destructive and unconstitutional bills that he will sign, such as the recent Fourth Amendment Elimination Act granting the presidency dictatorial Big Brother powers. Or Pelosi can pass bills that would do some good for someone but that Bush will veto. If these bills are killed by blue dogs prior to reaching Bush’s desk, that will identify for the public which Congress Members need to be sent packing. We already know how bad Bush and Cheney are. They are the least popular people ever to hold their offices. Most of the blue dogs are names nobody’s ever heard of.

But passing bills or failing to pass bills, either way, is just for show as long as Bush is there prepared to veto or signing statement or simply not comply with the law. What is the point, for example, of trying to ban permanent bases in Iraq again and again, as if they were ever legal, while Bush just goes right on building them? The point is show, spectacle, theater. The point is to accept the idea that reality doesn’t matter, television is more important. The point is that Congress does not exist to govern the country but to serve as a sideshow to the eternal presidential election campaign.

If Congress were a real part of our government serious about the task of governing, Pelosi would do two things on September 4th. The first would be to announce that there will be no more bills to fund the occupation of Iraq. Bush has already been given far more money than he needs to bring every troop, contractor, and mercenary home. He can simply be told to do so. And can you imagine the size of the party the citizens of the nation would throw for Nancy Pelosi? Can you imagine the strength of the Party she would begin to build?

But Pelosi wants to pass bills, any bills, at any cost. Is it fear? Incompetence? Campaign contributions from weapons makers and war profiteers? Who knows. Who cares. The point is that she intends to put on a show for another year and a half of pretending to try to pass good bills and actually passing bad bills, and the one thing that cannot be mentioned in polite company is that she could do what she pretends to want to do (get us out of Iraq) by announcing that there will be no bills.

Another liberal pundit who (out of fear or incompetence or insufficient liberal voting strength within his head) will never question Pelosi is David Sirota. His new plan is for Pelosi to push a bill that combines bringing 14% of U.S. troops home from Iraq with something the Republicans and their base of voters really want. That way, supposedly, either the Republicans (and blue dogs?) will go along with a bill that can be advertised as “anti-war,” or the Democrats will get to run television commercials before the next election attacking the Republicans for not doing something that Democratic voters actually don’t want done. This is a new height in self-defeating defensiveness. Ultimately, the worst defense is a lack of offense, and that’s what we’ve got.

The second thing Pelosi should do on September 4th is announce that impeachment is on the table. Voters know that bills will be vetoed and that impeachment cannot be. There are no guarantees that Pelosi could badger the blue dogs into impeachment, but one thing is certain: attempting to do so would make Pelosi a national hero among Democrats and Independents. And this approach would, again, show the public who is with them and who is not. Pelosi’s current approach of promoting the policies of the Republican National Committee (impeachment and cutting off the war funding both off the table) will never persuade anyone that the Congress is Republican, only that the Democrats and Republicans are the same.

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