What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?

Extreme tactics draw attention to the real source of our government’s dysfunction.


Few 70-somethings get to relive their youth with as much fanfare as Congressman John Lewis did this week. Back before he was a Freedom Rider or one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, Lewis got his start as an activist in 1960 by participating in the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Nashville. And Wednesday, he was sitting in again, not as a 20-year-old student, but as a 76-year-old congressman. Led by Lewis, Democratic congresspeople occupied the well of the House chamber for about 24 hours, when the House adjourned until July 5. About 170 participated at one time or another, while Democratic senators cheered them on, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by with donuts.

In essence this was a continuation in the House of what Chris Murphy started last week in the Senate, when he held the Senate floor for 15 hours while demanding the Senate vote on two gun-control measures: One would have barred people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, and the other would close the gun-show loophole that allows people to buy guns without the background check they would need to pass if they bought from licensed gun dealers. [1]

Murphy was maneuvering within the complex Senate rules governing filibusters — the only time I can remember a filibuster being used to demand a vote rather than prevent one. But the House is stricter and control of the floor is tightly timed, so the only way to do something similar there was to break the rules. Good thing the Democratic delegation included an experienced rule-breaker. Lewis tweeted:

We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary Trouble. By sitting-in, we were really standing up.

So far, the sit-in has not accomplished its goal: Speaker Paul Ryan still has no plans to allow any gun-control votes. But Lewis is not giving up yet. “This is not over,” he says. “We must keep the faith. We must come back here on July 5 more determined than ever before.”

Getting attention. Ryan’s dismissal of the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” demonstrates some basic cluelessness: Sit-ins are always publicity stunts. They are a way for otherwise powerless people to call public attention to the bad behavior of powerful people.

Ryan says: “This is not about a solution to a problem. This is about trying to get attention.” But discussion is stalled and the public is on your side, getting their attention is key to solving the problem.

The famous civil-rights sit-ins, like Greensboro, could not by themselves change any laws or corporate policies. But before the demonstrations began, whites could obliviously use all-white public spaces without thinking about segregation at all, or imagine blacks happily using their own separate-but-equal all-black spaces somewhere else. The civil rights movement’s nonviolent tactics drew publicity to the reality of segregation, and once the nation was paying attention those practices could not stand.

Something similar could happen here: The public staggers from one gun massacre to the next, numbed by the belief that nothing can be done. Politicians call for prayer, and Congress holds moments of silence. Other countries somehow avoid getting 30,000 of their citizens killed by guns each year, and do it without being overrun by criminals or taken over by tyrants. But of course we couldn’t, because … because we just can’t.

The immediate point of Lewis’ sit-in and Murphy’s filibuster is to shake that fatalism and put responsibility where it belongs: There are things to do, but the people in a position to do them refuse to act.

Why this? While generally encouraged by the fact that Democratic congresspeople are finally showing some backbone, lots of liberals are complaining that the headline proposal  — stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns — would be a bad law because of civil-liberty concerns. You can wind up on a terrorist-suspect list for all kinds of reasons, not even realize it until you are told you can’t do something (like get on a plane), and have no good way to face your accusers or clear your name. Worse, the lists are constructed entirely within the executive branch, so the process would be open to abuse by some future tyrannical administration.

That is all true, but it also misses an important point: We’re nowhere near passing a law. I am reminded of something Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov said about uniting behind a somewhat unsavory challenger to Putin:

You have to work with the people who live here. We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections.

When we’re actually in a position to pass a gun control law, we can worry about whether that law is good policy. Now we’re just trying to vote on gun control. Right now, the no-guns-for-terrorism-suspects proposal polls at ridiculous numbers [2], but not even that proposal can reach the floor of the House. That’s what we have to work with, and the situation we need to expose to public attention.

Right now, we’re trying to turn the perception that nothing can be done into an expectation that Congress will debate and vote on changes to our gun laws. Given where we are, just that much would constitute progress.

The larger implications. If sit-ins are a way for the powerless to call the powerful to public account, the House sit-in contains a powerful meta-message: The class of powerless people now includes members of Congress. 

With bipartisanship dead and the Republican majority living by the Hastert Rule — nothing comes to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — the normal procedures of the House offer Democratic representatives nothing. But that in turn invokes the Bobby McGee principle: There’s no reason to keep living by their rules if they’ve already taken everything away from you.

“This is not a way to bring up legislation,” Ryan scolded. But for House Democrats there is no way to bring up legislation. [3] So why pay any attention to Ryan’s rules, when the only way to win is to circumvent the Republican majority by appealing directly to the public? [4]

When “publicity stunts” work. One progressive complaint about the sit-in is: Why wouldn’t Democrats go to the mat like this for other progressive causes, like single-payer healthcare or free college?

The answer is that appealing to the general public only works if you can be certain of their overwhelming support. That’s just not true for most progressive causes. [5]

Tea Party Republicans ran into the same problem when they threatened to breach the debt ceiling if President Obama wouldn’t agree to massive spending cuts. Since no one really wanted to breach the debt ceiling, the showdown was mainly a publicity stunt, meant to rally public support for lower government spending.

But once the public started paying attention, it was horrified by the risk-to-benefit proposition the Tea Partiers were putting forward. The incident backfired on Republicans because the support for their position was neither as wide nor as deep as they had imagined.

However, there is at least one additional progressive issue where publicity-stunt politics would work: voting rights. Congress refuses to fix the hole that the Supreme Court blasted in the Voting Rights Act. If the public were paying attention to this, it would clearly be on the Democrats’ side.

Who is the obstacle to change? Independent of the issue, the optics of extreme tactics by congressional Democrats draws public attention to a meta-issue: In spite of holding the White House for the last two terms, Democrats are the party of change. The obstacle to change isn’t President Obama, it’s the Republican Congress.

This point is in danger of being lost in the 2016 campaign, as a large segment of the dissatisfied public thinks of change in terms of changing the president. Donald Trump gets credit for being the candidate who would “shake things up”, while Hillary Clinton is said to represent “more of the same” and “Obama’s third term”.

But on issue after issue — climate change, healthcare, voting rights, guns, rebuilding infrastructure, immigration reform, and on and on — Obama has been the one pushing for change and being frustrated by a Congress that does nothing. The way to get change isn’t to replace Obama with somebody very different, it’s to get a president who will keep pushing the way Obama has, and elect a more cooperative Congress. [6]

Republicans have no agenda. If Republicans actually had a change agenda of any sort and Obama were the obstacle to this change, Congress would be passing laws right and left and forcing Obama to veto them.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with Republicans in control of both houses, there has been no attempt to replace ObamaCare with a Republican alternative, no reform of the tax system, no plan for repairing the “bankrupt” systems of Social Security and Medicare, no plan for balancing the budget, or for much of anything else.

President Obama has had to cast only eight vetoes since the current Congress was seated a year and a half ago. None of vetoed bills embodied some grand new conservative solution, and most were attempts to undo some change the Obama administration had implemented: One repealed ObamaCare without replacing it, and most of the rest negated rules issued by the EPA, the NLRB, or the Labor Department. In each case, it was Obama who was trying to change something (like lowering greenhouse gas emissions or preventing financial advisers from cheating their customers), and Republicans who were trying to block change.

The best evidence of Republicans being stuck in the mud is in Speaker Ryan’s series of white papers, the ones that are supposed to promote a Republican agenda for the future. Independent of what they say, their very existence indicts Ryan for a simple reason: Speakers of the House aren’t supposed to write white papers, they’re supposed to write laws.

If Ryan had bills he wanted to pass, his caucus has the power to pass them. And yet, it doesn’t.

The Spirit of 48. Harry Truman faced an even worse version of this situation in 1948. In essence, he was running for FDR’s 5th term. And yet, he did not run as the more-of-the-same candidate. Instead, he ran the give-’em-Hell campaign against the do-nothing Republican Congress. He didn’t just hold on to the presidency, but Democrats regained control of Congress as well.

That should be the blueprint for 2016: Don’t just run against Trump, run against the do-nothing Republican Congress. Make the public realize where the real obstacle to change is. Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.

It’s tempting to try to tie Republican congressional candidates to Trump, but it’s important to tie him to them as well: Where, specifically, does Trump disagree with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell? Aren’t they all climate change deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA? Aren’t they all trying to cut rich people’s taxes and give corporations more power to do as they please? Don’t they all want to repeal campaign finance laws and the Dodd-Frank restrictions on the big banks?

The more attention Democrats can draw to the logjam in Congress, the better. So give ’em Hell, Hillary. Give ’em Hell, John Lewis. The American people need to understand where the real obstacle is.


[1] He got his votes, but lost. A subsequent bipartisan compromise put together by Republican Susan Collins of Maine looks doomed as well.

[2] According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 85% support barring gun sales to people on the terrorist watch list, while 92% support universal background checks. Anecdotally, the watch-list proposal seems to generate more fervent support than background checks. Picturing someone buying a gun without being checked doesn’t raise as much ire as picturing a terrorist buying a gun.

[3] The clearest example of this is immigration reform. In 2013 a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Numerous sources estimated that the bill would pass the House if it came to a vote, but since it didn’t have majority support within the Republican caucus, no vote has been held. In fact, in three years no House alternative proposal has come up for a vote either.

[4] I have an off-the-wall suggestion to circumvent the Hastert Rule. Democratic congressmen should all declare themselves Republicans and attend the Republican caucus. If that’s where the important votes happen, why not go there?

I’m sure the Republicans would find a way to prevent this, but it would be another way to dramatize the anti-democratic nature of the House.

[5] The polling on single-payer varies wildly depending on how the question is phrased. In one recent AP poll, 63% had positive feelings about “Medicare-for-all”, while only 44% felt positively about a “single-payer health insurance system”, and a mere 38% supported “socialized medicine”.  They didn’t ask about a “government takeover of the healthcare system”, but I doubt it would be popular.

[6] Those who criticize how little got done during Obama’s first two years not only underestimate how much accomplishment there was, they also usually overestimate the amount of time Obama was free from Republican obstruction.

Al Franken’s election in Minnesota was close enough that Republicans managed to drag a series of vote-counting challenges through the courts. Early on, they might really have thought they could get the outcome reversed, but eventually delay became its own goal:  They kept Franken from taking his seat in the Senate until July 7, 2009.

By then, Ted Kennedy was in the final stages of the cancer that killed him on August 25. (Already by July 9, it was headline news when he came to the Senate to cast a vote. No 60-vote plan could rely on pulling him off his deathbed.) Another legal challenge prevented Kennedy’s temporary replacement, Paul Kirk, from taking office until September 24. And then in the special election on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory, taking his seat February 4.

So effectively, Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority for slightly more than four months. Since it ended by surprise, no one realized that everything had to be passed at once.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • Xan  On June 27, 2016 at 11:06 am

    The Senate Dems did NOT lose that vote. They won it with a 52 vote majority. But the Republicans in control have now unconstitutionally decreed that to win a vote in the Senate, you must have a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority. And nearly everyone I talk to now believes that this is the Constitution’s mandate.

    • weeklysift  On June 27, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      Good point. I complain when other people fall into that usage, but here I did it myself.

    • pauljbradford  On June 27, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      The constitution says “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceeding”. The Senate has rules that in many cases 60% of the vote is required to take action. So the constitution doesn’t require 60%, but the Senate’s rules do, as allowed by the constitution. Whether it’s a good rule is debatable. I can see pros and cons.

  • Tom Hutchinson  On June 27, 2016 at 11:21 am

    2/3rds of gun deaths in the USA are suicides. This is a mental health problem that should be addressed as such.

    • 1mime  On June 27, 2016 at 11:50 am

      It should all be addressed – regardless of cause although suicide is certainly one of the most sad.

    • weeklysift  On June 27, 2016 at 12:15 pm

      In the weekly summary I linked to this article, which explores the many different problems that “the gun problem” decomposes into, of which suicide is one.

    • firebug2006  On June 28, 2016 at 4:35 pm

      “This is a mental health problem that should be addressed as such.”

      Israel has proven that mental health treatment isn’t the only way to have a significant positive impact on the number of gun-related suicides.

      “In 2006, after years of suicides among young men in the Israel Defense Forces, authorities forbade the troops from bringing their rifles home on weekends. Suicides dropped by 40 percent, according to a 2010 study by psychiatrists with the IDF and the Sheba Medical Center.”
      http://www.stripes.com/news/experts-restricting-troops-access-to-firearms-is-necessary-to-reduce-rate-of-suicides-1.199216

  • Claudia  On June 27, 2016 at 11:30 am

    An excellent and thoughtful editorial. Thank you!

  • stevesidner  On June 27, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    “Anybody who wants to shake things up needs to shake up Congress.” The Democratic rank and file, the field organization of activists are totally fixated on flipping the Senate AND the House, plus getting Democratic candidates elected at the state and local level. Not that we assume that Hillary will win, but the push is to win it all. Flip the Senate for sure and the House if we can. Emily’s List is going gangbusters on getting women elected in key races. Your excellent guide last month about where to put time and treasures to get Progressive’s elected was spot on.

    It is a great year to be a Democrat. And it is a great year to appeal to people’s patriotism. Like Hank Paulson voting for Hillary. Vote, putting country over party, contribute, call, or canvas. This is not a year to sit on the sidelines. The Democrats will be ramping up this call to action, that the the GOP has abdicated, left us with Trump and nut cases in the House and Senate and it is time to take our country back. It is an easy proposition to sell door to door. And trust me, we will be out there if droves. Bernie’s supporters are making peace with Hillaryites and forming take-no-prisoners field organizations. It is a story you might want to dig into in a month.

    If not now, when? If not you, who?

    • weeklysift  On June 29, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      I will be watching closely and hoping it turns out the way you predict.

  • ARob  On June 30, 2016 at 1:58 am

    Shortly after reading this article, I picked up the book “Rat**ked : the true story behind the secret plan to steal America’s democracy” at my local library. So far I’ve read only the prologue. The premesis of the book is that after Obama’s historic win in 2008, GOP leaders saw the opportunity to become relevant again by targeting state legilatures in a census / redistricting year. Through historic germandering, the GOP has sewed up control of many states and their congressional delegations for at least 10 years. As has been well documented, an unintended consequence has been the GOP reps are as hamstrung because of primary challenges. As Mudor points out, it is good to see the Dems coming alive. However, given the current architecture of our election system, the GOP reps might as well have joined the sit-in for all they would be able to accomplish if they actually wanted to accomplish anything.

Trackbacks

  • By No Island is an Island | The Weekly Sift on June 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “What’s Up With Congressional Democrats?” […]

  • By Better in Russian | The Weekly Sift on July 25, 2016 at 11:44 am

    […] messaging will be how to attack the Republican Congress, rather than just Trump. As I spelled out a few weeks ago: Obama is and for eight years has been a powerful voice for change in America; what maintains the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: