A Democratic House: Why It Matters
Yet Congressional liberals believe they can use their committees to go beyond the limits of the Gore agenda and engage the public in pushing for broader reforms. "It's time to turn the minimum wage into a living wage," says Bonior, "to develop the issue, make the case for it. I think we can move there." Maxine Waters, who will chair the relevant subcommittee if the Democrats win a majority, thinks it will be possible to gain support for an ambitious affordable-housing agenda. "We've got firemen, police officers, teachers who can't afford rents," she says. "We'll make progress on a big housing agenda."
Representative Maurice Hinchey, who would be number two on the Joint Economic Committee under Pete Stark, says liberals can make the case for the investments this country desperately needs--in transportation, sewers and water systems, for example. "Our airports are so overcrowded that it is starting to threaten safety. We'll make the case for moving to high-speed rail in our major population corridors." DeFazio, who would chair the Subcommittee on Energy and Mining, wants to reopen the Mining Act of 1872, which gives away natural resources at a pittance and subsidizes enormous environmental destruction. He says there's overwhelming public support for ending the subsidies. Sherrod Brown, who would chair the Subcommittee on Health and Environment, wants to rebuild the case for universal, affordable healthcare. He thinks what Henry Waxman did for prescription drug prices--exposing the price gouging of the pharmaceutical companies--can be done on healthcare generally.
Barney Frank would chair the Banking Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, which oversees the Federal Reserve, the World Bank and the IMF. "First thing we'll do is convene an international meeting of parliamentarians to pressure the IMF and the World Bank...to back off the conditionality, the austerity they enforce on countries through structural adjustment," he says. "We want more attention to poverty, to the environment, to empowering workers. We'll push for more generous debt relief with fewer conditions." Frank also thinks it's time to question why regional bank presidents vote automatically on the Federal Reserve committee that sets interest rates, since they seem to be a constant lobby for higher rates and slower growth. If he becomes head of Judiciary, Conyers vows, he will take on the drug war, the mass incarceration policy and the racially iniquitous harsh minimum sentencing that has put 2 million Americans in jail. He thinks GOP support is possible for some of this agenda.
On foreign policy, a Democratic Congress would have limited effect. The general thrust of US global policy is unlikely to be challenged, and the defense budget--already at cold war levels--is likely to go up. The largest difference would be that a Democratic Congress would help focus attention on emerging concerns: global warming, AIDS and global public health, debt relief. Pelosi would give human rights greater prominence in her appropriations subcommittee. Conyers vows a challenge to the drug war. And, as Frank notes, the "Seattle coalition" will find important allies.
In both foreign and domestic policy areas labor, women's, environmental, civil rights and antipoverty campaigns will find it far easier to mobilize around their issues. "We'll know the schedule," says Schakowsky. "That will make it possible to get people mobilized before the debate. We can plan hearings across the country to help build support that culminates in a vote."
In sum, a Democratic majority will get a few decent things done. And there is no question that Democratic committee chairs can help change the direction of the debate coming out of Washington. Even Ralph Nader, who says that the Democrats are so conservative that the only difference between the parties is the velocity at which their knees hit the ground when the corporations call, admits that "I would prefer a Democratic House--that would give us time not to play defense so much."
But these legislators harbor few illusions about how hard it will be even to get their consensus agenda passed into law. Money politics still dominates the city. The pharmaceutical companies, for example, have spent tens of millions to stop the Medicare prescription drug benefit and are gearing up their own astroturf campaign to influence legislators.
At the end of the day, how much Congress does depends on where the public is. Significant changes will occur only if an aroused citizenry can overcome entrenched interests and force Congress to move. "Labor must mobilize its members; environmentalists must be mobilized; the minority community as well," says independent Representative Bernie Sanders. "Nothing serious will get done unless millions are in motion, and that has yet to happen.