As Congress left town for its Memorial Day recess, the euphoria cast by the 2006 election victories was gone. Disappointed by the Democrats’ inability to force a withdrawal timeline into the war-funding bill, angered by a trade deal hatched in secret, dismayed at backsliding on cleaning up Capitol Hill, progressives were faced with the unpleasant reality of the new Congress, warts and all.
The slim Democratic majority in both Houses is not a progressive majority. Just as distressing as the cave-in on war funding was the continued power of the bipartisan money party. Beyond ending the war, Democrats were elected because of popular rejection of corporate trade policies and the stench of corruption in Washington. Tom DeLay is gone, but the corporate lobbies just reloaded with Democrats. When the House leadership announced a trade accord that the Chamber of Commerce celebrated as a model for giving Bush renewed fast-track authority, hopes for a new economic course were punctured. Then, House Democrats wouldn’t support even a two-year hiatus that would slow the revolving door between Congress and the lobby world. (“That’s our retirement plan,” complained anonymous legislators.)
Progressives mobilized to help House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pass the 100-hour agenda in the opening weeks of this Congress. The first increase in the minimum wage in a decade has finally been signed into law, but Senate barons have delayed or interred the remainder of her agenda. The drug lobby mobilized sufficient opposition from senators in both parties to deep-six efforts to empower Medicare to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices. Rollback of oil-company subsidies is stalled in disagreements between the two houses. And House Democrats have seemingly lost their nerve on rolling back Bush’s social agenda: Two bills to eliminate abstinence-only funding are now on hold, with fewer sponsors this year than last (for an eye-opening investigative report on the corruption of abstinence funding, see Michael Reynolds’s article in this issue). Even halving interest rates on student loans–a no-brainer given both the need and the scandals among lending companies–has been hung up because the Senate grandees wouldn’t pass the House version.
These disappointments lead some to consider giving up on this Congress. That would be a mistake. The new majorities aren’t the sterling champions some had hoped for, but they aren’t the knaves we booted out, either. The backsliding and reversals remind us that the 2006 election victories are only the first step down a long road. We need progressive, not just Democratic, majorities to enact real change and reform: ending the war, driving toward clean energy, fixing healthcare, pushing for a living wage, creating an entirely new trade strategy that puts people above corporations. Republican legislators have backed Bush on the war and have frustrated even minor reforms. They boast about scoring partisan points while ignoring the public interest. They must be held accountable for that. Conservative Democrats who still don’t understand the scope of the debacle in Iraq or of the growing revolt against Wall Street’s tax-and-trade policies have to be challenged in their own districts.
Democratic majorities have provided us with relatively progressive leaders in both houses of Congress and several aggressive committee chairs who are beginning to unearth the hidden horrors of this rogue Administration. But we still don’t have the progressive strength in Congress or the leadership in the White House that can change this country’s course. The serial disappointments of recent weeks are but a reminder that we’ve got work to do.