A Democratic House: Why It Matters

A Democratic House: Why It Matters

It won’t be a revolution, but progressives see support for much of their agenda.


“The power of the majority is the power to set the agenda. It changes everything. And this election comes at a time when the center is just about worn out as a place to govern from. People want things done.”

Representative George Miller is excited as he talks on a cell phone while driving down a Northern California highway. He has fought the good fight through the worst of times. He chafed against the brain-dead leadership of Democratic Speaker Tom Foley a decade ago. He railed against Gingrich and the right. He defended Clinton against the lynch mob, despite disdain for his New Democrat triangulations. He’s run time after time into a brick wall in the form of GOP whip Tom DeLay, who uses the Rules Committee to keep bills from coming to a vote.

And now he can taste what victory would mean: A Democratic majority. DeLay dethroned. Miller himself as chairman of Education and the Workforce. You can hear the rush in his voice; it’s a chance to make a difference.

The possibility of the Democrats’ taking back the House is still only a very big “if” this election year. And even should they succeed, their margin won’t be more than a handful, at best. Conservatives–Republicans plus Blue Dog and New Democrats–will still have an operating majority. And, as Miller knows, New Democrats are peddling themselves to corporate America, raising big bucks for their PAC, promising to protect corporate interests if Democrats come back into power. Moreover, Republicans are likely to retain control of the Senate in any case.

Still, there are some reasons for optimism, especially if Al Gore is elected President. “The House isn’t like the Senate,” Miller says. “It’s winner-take-all here. The majority rules–literally.” In the Senate, minority members can propose amendments, force votes, introduce legislation. But in the House, the leadership of the majority decides what comes to the floor, what gets debated and what gets voted on. Currently, he says, “we have 49 percent of the members, but we don’t get 49 percent of the agenda. We get next to nothing.” As an example, he points to the minimum wage. “Now we can’t get a clean vote; every bill comes up loaded with Republican tax cuts for the wealthy,” he says. “If we have the majority, the Congress will vote on raising the minimum wage, period. And it will pass overwhelmingly.”

In the House, the Speaker packs the Rules Committee, and the Rules Committee determines what issues get to the floor and what the rules are for the debate. The committee can decide that no amendments will be allowed, or allow a choice between alternatives, or force an up or down vote on one alternative only. In the various other committees, the chair, backed by the majority, determines when the committee meets and what it focuses on.

Thus, even a small Democratic majority will transform the situation. “Take trade,” says Representative Barney Frank. “We will bring out a trade bill that requires protection of labor rights and the environment. The free-traders will have to vote for that or get nothing. Now we don’t even get to vote on a good trade bill. But with the majority, they’ll have to decide–the right kind of bill or nothing at all. As Representative John Dingell said, ‘Let me control the procedure and I’ll never lose.'”

For liberals, this power to set the agenda is magnified because, as one senior leadership staffer noted, “the leadership and most of the committee chairs are more liberal than the caucus.” In a Democratic House, Dick Gephardt becomes Speaker; David Bonior, majority leader; John Conyers, chairman of Judiciary; David Obey, chairman of Appropriations; Charles Rangel, chairman of Ways and Means; George Miller, chairman of Education and the Workforce; Pete Stark, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. Members of the black caucus will chair more than twenty committees or subcommittees. The list goes on.

So what might actually get done? It won’t be a revolution. Over the past two years, with Republicans holding a slim majority in Congress, Democrats have been able to enlist a handful of moderate Republicans and stop much of anything from happening. Republicans could try to do the same, by enlisting New Dems and Blue Dogs, but progressive Democrats say they would have a harder time. “Sure, they can limit how far we go,” Representative Jan Schakowsky noted. “But this country has moved. The entire caucus knows we have to produce. And the entire Democratic caucus embraces solutions that are more progressive than two or four years ago.”

Bonior is more cautious but still optimistic. “Look, let’s not get euphoric,” he says. “This isn’t going to be another Great Society or a New Deal. That’s not what the political climate allows. With a small margin, there are real limits to what we can do, but we can make progress–particularly on our core agenda, on education and healthcare.” That, legislators believe, would include adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, passing a real Patients’ Bill of Rights, bolstering Social Security, funding universal preschool and providing tax credits for college and more money for teachers and smaller classrooms.

“I don’t think there are more than a half-dozen Democrats who won’t support that agenda,” says Bonior. And, he says, moderate Republicans will vote for these reforms.

In addition, there’s a slew of legislation that wins majority support now but gets bottled up. Says Conyers, “We’ve got a majority for hate-crimes legislation, for [laws against] racial profiling, for a police integrity act and for privacy legislation right now. We just can’t get a vote on them.”

The Gore candidacy is also boosting liberal hopes. While many outside Congress scorn what they regard as the faux populism of the Gore campaign, progressive Democrats feel buoyed by Gore’s rhetoric and strategy. “Look, he’s running on our issues–healthcare, education, taking on the big companies,” says Peter DeFazio, chairman of the Progressive Caucus. “You don’t hear him touting Blue Dog and New Democrat stuff–free trade, capital gains tax cuts, privatizing Social Security, vouchers, whatever. Instead, he’s taking on pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, HMOs, big oil. You can’t then turn around and govern in a different way.”

When challenged that Clinton ran one way and governed another in 1992, DeFazio says Gore’s rhetorical shift reflects a shift in public opinion and therefore has real consequences. “The New Democrats can no longer claim that they have the key to victory,” he says. “Gore had to abandon their agenda and strategy to kick-start his campaign. Now it’s progressive ideas, populist language and a willingness to fight for people that count. That means a lot.” Miller agrees. “Look, Gore moved because that’s what the voters demanded…. We are a reactive body. The country has moved beyond the debate going on in the Congress. The Gore campaign had to recognize that.”

Barney Frank also thinks the New Dems have lost significant ground. “Their ideas have been repudiated–privatization of Social Security, vouchers in Medicare, anti-affirmative action.” Gore turned from all of them; Lieberman dutifully shed his New Dem garb when he joined the ticket. And Blue Dogs–the largely Southern fiscal conservatives–are easier to deal with in an age of surpluses. “They care about education and healthcare too,” says Schakowsky.

Jim Moran, leader of the New Dems in Congress, argues that their ideas–like targeted tax cuts and school choice–are still central to the debate. But he agrees with Schakowsky that the caucus is unified. He says that if the Democrats win the majority, there won’t be a leadership struggle other than the already fierce face-off between Steny Hoyer, representing the conservatives and the old guard of the party, and Nancy Pelosi, representing liberals and women, for what would be Democratic whip. And there’s virtual unity on the core agenda (to which Moran adds modest gun control and long-term healthcare).

The party’s leaders are particularly anxious to avoid the mistakes that brought them down in 1994. “Look, after forty years in office, there was a certain arrogance there,” says Bonior. “I think we learned from that.” Says Schakowsky, “It used to be that the committee chairs were barons unto themselves. Now there is more coordination.” Over the past year, Gephardt has convened an informal leadership group of thirty-five, including representatives from all sectors of the party, that meets at the end of most days. In the old days, Bonior says, “caucus meetings were rare, and viewed as trouble. Now the caucus meets regularly, and we’ve learned to work with one another.”

But this consensus approach also poses a real constraint on liberal ambitions. “Clinton has brought us all along to understand the benefits of debt reduction and being restrained with these surpluses,” Bonior says. Moran says, “We’re agreed on paying down the debt.” But within the limits of the Gore debt-elimination pledge, there’s no money for anything except a very modest prescription drug benefit, a little education funding and whatever gets wasted on the military. Questioned about that, Bonior murmurs, “Well, we’ll have to deal with that over time.”

Clinton first used debt reduction as a tactic to avoid Republican tax cuts–“Save Social Security First.” Now, debt elimination has been elevated to a national goal, and Gore is pledging to veto any use of the Medicare or Social Security surplus other than for debt reduction through the so-called lockbox. And in a Democratic Congress, Blue Dogs will join with GOP conservatives to oppose big new spending initiatives. That could rule out any serious social program–on healthcare, children, education, housing, the environment–that requires real investment, even at a time of “surpluses as far as the eye can see.”

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.

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