Democrats: A smaller but stronger army of liberals

Amid losses, some ways for House Democrats to gain

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For the past four years Barney Frank has been chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. In that role he helped usher one of the most expansive financial regulation reforms in history to the president's desk, and in doing so, paved the way for the Consumer Financial Protection Agency that Elizabeth Warren now heads.

For the next two years, the Financial Services Committee will be run not by Frank, but by Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who has taken tens of thousands of dollars from big banks and who, not surprisingly, voted to oppose the Dodd-Frank reform bill. He has already promised to water down that legislation and has supported doing so by way of government shutdown. "We are going to have to be brave this time," he said on the Fox Business Network.

For the past two years Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has been chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He used that power to pass a health-care reform bill (with a robust public option) as well as the only serious piece of climate legislation ever contemplated - and voted on - by the entire House chamber.

But for the next two years, he will be the ranking Democratic member of his committee, likely to be replaced as chairman by Joe Barton (R-Tex.). That's the same Joe Barton who gained notoriety earlier this year for apologizing to BP after the United States thoughtlessly spilled ocean all over the company's oil. Barton, it turns out, has taken more money from the oil industry than any other sitting member of Congress, including $22,800 from BP itself.

It was Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.) of the House Ways and Means Committee who helped pass legislation closing tax loopholes for multinational corporations. It will now be Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) - who has taken hundreds of thousands from those same multinationals - who will work to reopen them.

What happened on Election Day won't just result in the corporate-sponsored speakership of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). It will also create a new class of right-wing committee chairmen in the House - Republican members who will wield and use substantial power.

Still, even in that unsettling context, there are some progressives who see this new political landscape and feel a measure of relief. We may no longer control the House, but we still control the Senate and the White House, and with them, the filibuster and veto. A Republican resurgence in the House, the argument might go, will probably result in little more than symbolic action on the part of the GOP leadership.

That view, I'm afraid, is wrong. Deeply wrong. It ignores the influence of the House, the power of its chairmen and the broader willingness of the GOP to buck the mainstream in exchange for Tea Party approval - and the destruction of the Obama presidency. The House may not be able to act entirely on its own, but it can still act in ways that will put President Obama in a difficult negotiating position.

The budget process, for example, starts in the House. The budget fight, as a result, usually ends there, too. When spending bills don't pass, the government shuts down.

We haven't experienced a government shutdown since 1995, and Democrats emerged from that battle victorious. But the Republicans of that era, though reactionary, were of a different breed than the ones of today. That shutdown was a means to an end, an attempt by Newt Gingrich to extract concessions from President Clinton. In this new Congress, the dynamic is different. The shutdown isn't a means to an end. It's the end itself.

And so when the White House goes to battle over funding the government for the next fiscal year, fighting to fund health-care reform's implementation, foreign aid, defense and education, House Republicans will have little incentive and, indeed, little inclination to compromise.

That's the landscape the Democratic caucus is up against. One in which Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the presumptive chairman of the Armed Services Committee, can block the funding for Guantanamo's closure. One in which Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the presumptive chair of the House Appropriations Committee, can defund unemployment insurance while giving tax cuts to the wealthy.

There will be some issues on which the White House will refuse to compromise. But with an administration that too often presents the compromise option as the opening gambit of any negotiation, it should trouble progressives that it's hard-core conservatives, not Blue Dog Democrats, with whom White House deals are about to be cut.

The consequences could be catastrophic for millions of Americans. At the end of the next two years, Democrats may rightfully be more disillusioned than now, having watched the progressive agenda for which they fought - and lost - steadily erode.

Preventing that future will require a newly emboldened and more united Democratic caucus. In a political climate with very few silver linings, this may be one of them: The Congressional Progressive Caucus lost just three members in the midterm elections, while the Blue Dogs lost 30. The caucus is smaller, but it is also more unified.

In the minority, Democrats might be unable to pass legislation, but they can still reinforce movement protests outside the Beltway, sharply define choices for the American people and expose conservatives who will use their newfound power to further corporate interests. United, and perhaps most important, the Democratic caucus can push President Obama to join them in these critical fights, even as he may be angling for compromise.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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