With the Republican monopoly on power in Washington broken, the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives can now advance a bold agenda for the country. To do so, progressives inside and outside the House will need to force hearings and floor votes on signature reforms, from Medicare for All to a Green New Deal.
Even though the Republican majority in the Senate will quash any significant legislation out of the House, forcing debate on these “message bills” is essential. Open hearings will strengthen the case for reform and help educate legislators, the media, and the public. These actions will also energize parallel initiatives at the state and local levels. Grassroots mobilization can target legislators in both parties who stand in the way. The debate will also supercharge the ideas primary among Democratic presidential contenders, which has already been started by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The push for significant reforms will need to overcome Democratic timidity. The siren calls for bipartisan cooperation have already begun—led by Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the Darth Vader of obstruction. Worse, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has adopted her party’s characteristic defensive crouch by floating rule changes that would make it all but impossible to raise taxes on much of the population (undermining the debate on Medicare for All) and would require a “pay-as-you-go” stipulation for any new program (in contrast to Republicans, who blithely raised deficits by larding tax cuts on the wealthy). Bipartisan cooperation to pass modest reforms—on security for the Dreamers or criminal-justice sentencing, for example—is laudable, while investigating the pervasive corruption of the Trump administration is essential. But neither should prevent a debate on the vital reforms needed to revive our democracy and make the economy work for working people.
Progressives are now poised to drive this process. A significant number of Democratic candidates this fall—including several who won in red districts—embraced progressive ideas. The Congressional Progressive Caucus gained at least two dozen new members; now, with nearly 100 members total, it will comprise about two-fifths of the House Democratic Caucus. CPC members will chair over a dozen full committees and nearly three dozen subcommittees. New progressive stars Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley upset powerful Democratic incumbents in their primaries, putting other party members on notice. Independent progressive groups—new and old—demonstrated a growing electoral capacity in fund-raising, organizing, and communications.
This increased clout and sophistication were on display in the jockeying over the House speakership. The CPC co-chairs of the next Congress, Representatives Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal, coordinated with outside groups like MoveOn and Indivisible. All withheld their support from presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi until she pledged that CPC members would gain proportional representation on key committees (Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Intelligence). That inside/outside coordination is what will be needed to compel hearings and votes on signature reforms. Here is a brief review of the ones likely to be at the center of the debate.
The corruption of American politics and the right’s systematic efforts to suppress the vote are a disgrace. Pelosi sensibly declared that the first legislation undertaken by the new Congress would strengthen democracy at home and would include automatic voter registration, reinvigoration of the Voting Rights Act, curbs on gerrymandering, congressional repeal of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, public matching funds for small donations, mandated disclosure of financial sources, and an end to loopholes in ethics laws. This will help expose the right’s assault on democracy and voting rights, as well as President Trump’s big lie about “draining the swamp.”
Medicare for All
America’s health-care system continues to cost more, with worse results, than that of other industrialized nations. Medicare for All enjoys the support of some 70 percent of voters, including even a majority of Republicans. In the outgoing Congress, Bernie Sanders introduced the legislation in the Senate, and potential presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand signed on. Nearly two-thirds of the House Democratic Caucus endorsed the parallel bill sponsored by Representative Keith Ellison.
Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Medicare for All Caucus, plans to introduce a revised bill and push for hearings and a vote in the upcoming session. Republicans, backed by big money from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, are implacably opposed, with Trump scorning Democrats for wanting to “raid Medicare to pay for socialism.” Many Democrats—including at least one expected chair of a relevant committee—argue for postponing consideration indefinitely, while moving on more modest measures to address prescription-drug prices and bolster the Affordable Care Act. Even Lloyd Doggett, the CPC member who could lead the Ways and Means subcommittee on health next year, suggests that a vote would be “premature.”
National Nurses United and a broad range of civil-society groups are planning a public campaign calling on Democratic legislators to endorse the Medicare for All bill and move it to a floor vote. NNU has announced “barnstorms” of intense grassroots activity for February 9 to 13.
Expanding Social Security
The median retirement savings for working-age Americans is zero. More and more seniors end up depending almost entirely on Social Security and are often forced to take low-wage jobs to help pay for food or medicine. Not surprisingly, voters of both parties overwhelmingly oppose cuts in Social Security, while large majorities support expanding benefits.
Representative John Larson, the likely chair of a House Ways and Means subcommittee, is committed to moving forward with a bill that would apply the payroll tax to incomes over $400,000 (it now applies only to the first $128,400 in income) and use that money to expand benefits and bolster the Social Security trust fund for the coming century. With 174 Democrats signed on—including virtually all of the CPC—Pelosi is unlikely to stand in the way. Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a leading activist group promoting expansion of the retirement system, reports that a broad coalition is ready to mobilize grassroots activity to push the legislation.
$15 Minimum Wage
The federal minimum wage is worth less in comparable dollars than it was 50 years ago, spurring fast-food workers to begin the Fight for $15 in 2012. Now, 29 states have passed a minimum wage higher than the federal rate. By 2022, 17 percent of Americans will live in cities or states with a $15 minimum wage. Yet Republicans continue to block any vote on lifting the federal rate, with Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, calling any federal minimum wage—even the current absurdly low $7.25—a “terrible idea.”
Bernie Sanders pledges to introduce a bill in the Senate that would lift the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024 and index it to median wage growth. That would give a raise to more than 40 million workers, or about 25 percent of the workforce. Bobby Scott, the likely chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, is the lead sponsor of a parallel bill in the House, with 171 members signed on.
A Green New Deal
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have just 12 years to limit global carbon emissions to avoid facing horrific consequences. The US government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment warns of dire economic and human costs. The increasing severity of storms, floods, and fires has convinced more and more Americans of the reality of global warming, but neither the public nor the press seems to grasp the urgency of the challenge. Republicans, led by Trump, remain in denial or have been utterly compromised by the deep pockets of the fossil-fuel industry. Democrats, while virtually unified in supporting the revival of President Obama’s climate plan and returning the United States to the Paris Agreement, are far from united on anything even close to the scope and pace we need.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marked her Washington debut by joining a group demonstrating outside Pelosi’s office, where she called for a select committee on a Green New Deal, which would craft legislation to move the country to 100 percent renewable energy in a decade. Pelosi has backed a plan to revive a select committee without the commitment to a comprehensive plan, although the party’s committee chairs in waiting argue that existing committees can do the job.
In fact, significant work must be done to forge what could be the most transformative economic proposal in decades. Central is the need to build alliances with unions and entrepreneurs. Construction unions should be asked what they would need in order to train enough workers to retrofit commercial buildings with renewable-energy technology in a decade’s time. We also need investments in mass transit, new energy and water systems, a new energy grid, and more. None of this will happen without mass mobilization, targeted pressure on Democrats, and work to build the blue-green coalitions that have too often been neglected.
Wages have essentially been stagnant since the 1970s, while inequality has grown to obscene extremes. Even with near-full employment, wages still aren’t keeping up with the rising costs of essentials, from health care to college tuition. Redressing this structural crisis requires, among other reforms, re-empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively. For many years, Republicans have served as foot soldiers in the corporate assault on labor unions and worker organizing. Democrats, while nominally favoring unions, have repeatedly failed to offer an effective defense.
Progressives should demand high-visibility hearings detailing the breadth and scope of the corporate assault on unions, the trampling of workers’ rights, and the neutering of the National Labor Relations Board and the Labor Department. The core of a reform agenda can be drawn from Mark Pocan and Bernie Sanders’s joint Workplace Democracy Act and the oft-maligned “Better Deal” agenda that Pelosi and Senator Charles Schumer introduced in 2017. That agenda pledged to “strengthen penalties” on “predatory corporations” that violate workers’ rights, with measures that included outlawing state right-to-work laws, giving workers the right to sue for damages when their rights are violated, banning the permanent replacement of striking workers, strengthening the NLRB, and using federal procurement to favor corporations that protect workers’ rights.
Terminating Endless Wars
America’s follies abroad also require action. Representative Ro Khanna has leadership support for a resolution to halt US support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. Representative Barbara Lee is pushing to amend Congress’s 9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force to begin bringing the long conflict in Afghanistan to an end and to place new restrictions on US interventions abroad. But even getting these measures out of the House will require the revival of an anti-war movement that has been quiescent for too long.
This list of reforms is far from complete. Bernie Sanders has published a 10-point, 100-day agenda for House Democrats that adds tuition-free college, progressive tax reform, and more. What is clear is that progressive Democrats are ready to drive the debate, not simply react to Trump’s daily circus of lunacy. This will do far more than small-bore bipartisan reforms—or even long- overdue investigations—to define what the Democratic Party stands for, and who stands in the way. A new era of movement politics may be dawning.