A Congressional term that saw more than enough disappointment finished on three high notes and a fourth encouraging one. Repeal of the noxious “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was approved by both the House and the Senate, finally clearing the way for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Landmark food-safety legislation also passed both houses. At press time the Senate reached the two-thirds majority required to pass New Start, a significant arms control treaty with the Russians. And the DREAM Act, an immigration reform written to make it easier for undocumented young people to go to college, got through the House and came within a few votes of overcoming a filibuster, gaining sufficient support so that advocates could credibly argue for including a version of it in any comprehensive immigration reform measure.
There is no need to be Pollyannaish about the 111th Congress. Democrats, especially in the Senate, proved the limits of one-party control of the legislative and executive branches. Stimulus spending was insufficient, as was infrastructure investment. Healthcare and financial reform legislation, although monumental in scope, were both limited by compromises of principle and logic. And the lame-duck session saw President Obama and Congressional Democratic leaders force both chambers to accept a tax cut “compromise” that extended Bush-era tax breaks for billionaires, developed a sweeping estate tax exemption for millionaires and put Social Security at risk.
So how did historic gay rights reform make it through, especially given the fierce opposition of social conservatives? How did the most significant extension of food inspections in seventy-five years gain traction, even though it imposes burdens on food corporations that seem to have the run of Congress? And how did meaningful immigration reform come within a whisker of approval in a year that saw Arizona impose draconian anti-immigrant legislation and other states scramble to do the same?
The constants were committed members of Congress who refused to let go of issues—Colorado Congressman Jared Polis and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman on gays in the military, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin on food safety, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin on the DREAM Act—and long-term educating, organizing and coalition-building by activists, not just in Washington but far beyond the Beltway.
LGBT groups began working to overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell” soon after it was enacted in 1993. They built momentum with creative campaigning that marshaled not just statistics but the voices of veterans and active-duty soldiers. They worked with groups such as OutServe (the underground network of gay and lesbian actively serving military members) to challenge prejudices and false assumptions that harmed not just gays and lesbians but the military at large.
Food-safety campaigners, in groups ranging from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to Food & Water Watch, put a human face on the debate about food-borne illness, just as they have made the connection between consumer protection and simple justice for the most vulnerable Americans.
Young people who identified as DREAMers courageously stepped forward, risking deportation, to tell their stories during the DREAM Act debate. Established Latinos backed them up with announcements that votes for or against the measure would be remembered by the country’s fastest-growing major voting bloc.
Most encouraging of all was the willingness of campaigners to see beyond their own causes and recognize the need to stand in solidarity with others. So it was that gay-rights activists talked up the DREAM Act, while DREAMers cheered the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That ability to connect on the basis of ideals—compassion, fairness, justice—is going to be needed more than ever in the 112th Congress, where social conservatives and multinational corporations will be more able to block reforms as Republicans take charge of House committees and narrow the margins in the Senate. Winning on Capitol Hill will be harder in 2011 and 2012. But we know from the final victories of 2010 that organizing and educating is not just what we do. It works.