The Democrats We Have

by dday

For too long we've heard from Democratic leaders that we just need Democrats, any Democrats, to gain back the majority from Republicans, or we just need a Democrat, any Democrat, in the White House, or we just need a filibuster-proof majority of Democrats, any Democrats, and everything will fall into place. This has always been a ploy to get grassroots financial support, and we are seeing the essential bankruptcy of that ploy today.

When President Obama submitted a budget that predicted passage of a revenue-raising climate change bill, hopes rose that Congress could successfully rein in carbon emissions this year.

But a cap-and-trade climate bill is almost certain to be filibustered by Republicans -- and in a letter delivered to the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, eight Democratic senators joined 25 Republicans to defend the GOP's right to set a 60-vote margin for passing emissions limits.

"We oppose using the budget process to expedite passage of climate legislation," the senators, including eight centrist Democrats, wrote in their missive.

Using the procedure of budget reconciliation, which would allow a climate change measure to become law with 50 votes while preventing filibusters, "would circumvent normal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration's goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness," the 33 senators wrote.

Actually, the normal Senate practice is that items included in the budget should go through the process of budget reconciliation. Further, normal Senate practice for 200-odd years up until now is that filibusters weren't routinely used to obstruct all legislation. But that history has been forgotten, for the specific reason that a group of Democratic Senators don't want to pass climate change legislation. Here are the names:

The eight Democratic senators who signed on to the letter are Robert Byrd (WV), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Ben Nelson (NE), Evan Bayh (IN), Mark Pryor (AR), Bob Casey (PA), Carl Levin (MI), and Mary Landrieu (LA).

Of those eight, only Robert Byrd is possibly asserting Senate rules in drawing this line in the sand, although being from a coal state you cannot be sure. The others make up the core of the Senate Blue Dogs, and lawmakers from states with a vested interest in stopping America's addiction to oil. They don't want to stop the gravy train that has funded their rise to political power, and so the planet continues to burn and moneyed interests continue to hold the marionette strings over their heads. And even beyond these louts are additional members who want to stand in the way of progress.

President Obama’s budget doesn’t have enough support from lawmakers to pass, the Senate Budget Committee chairman said Tuesday.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he has spoken to enough colleagues about several different provisions in the budget request to make him think Congress won’t pass it.

Conrad urged White House budget director Peter Orszag not to “draw lines in the sand” with lawmakers, most notably on Obama’s plan for a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions.

“Anybody who thinks it will be easy to get the votes on the budget in the conditions that we face is smoking something,” Conrad said [...]

Conrad joined Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the top Republican on the Budget Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in criticizing the administration’s cap-and-trade proposal for not doing enough to counterbalance increases in energy costs that will be felt by consumers and companies, especially those in energy states such as North Dakota.

Conrad said that it would be a “distant hope” to expect the climate change plan to pass unless it includes help for industries that would be hit hard by limits on carbon emission production.

Yes, I weep for the polluting industries who have skated by without having to pay for the externalities they create for decades, who have generated phantom wealth by destroying the planet and never having to pay for it (Yes, I know that link is a Tom Friedman column, drill down to the quote by Joe Romm).

Conrad, in addition, doesn't want Obama getting any big ideas about spending any money as a down payment on health care reform, either. And he doesn't see the need to restrict Big Agriculture subsidies to wealthy farmers either, with the detachment of a Senator representing the farm state of North Dakota.

Conrad is but one of the budget-writing barons who have their jurisdiction over the legislating process and are quick to assert it. And this is standard practice and how the process works, so that's fine. But what Conrad and his pals are putting forward are the same short-sighted, uninspiring policies that have created mistrust and anger with the Democratic Party for a generation. Democrats were inspired by a Presidential candidate talking about big ideas and plans to solve pressing problems for the first time in a long while. But he is one man representing part of one branch of government. As Matt Yglesias rightly notes, he needs partners on the Hill:

The legislative accomplishments of 1933-34 and 1965-66 were partially the result of tactical acumen in the wake of an electoral victory on the part of the White House.

But in part, they reflected a genuinely willing congress. There was a key block of legislators in the mid-1960s who really wanted to dramatically advance social justice in the United States. They wanted black kids and white kids to attend the same schools, and they wanted the schools to be better. They wanted equal voting rights and equal rights to public accommodations and a guarantee of health security for the poor and the elderly. They though it was obscene for extreme poverty to flourish in the wealthiest country on earth. Lyndon Johnson’s leadership was important to making that happen as was, obviously, the role of social movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. But LBJ and MLK didn’t bewitch the congress into having those priorities. A critical mass of key members really wanted to solve these problems.

When I read stories about Democrats signing letters urging the leadership not to pass cap & trade through budget reconciliation, or whining that Clinton-era tax rates will wreck the economy, or preemptively caving on permit auction, then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s not the administration doing something wrong is that the key members of congress just fundamentally agree with George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell that it doesn’t matter if people die of treatable illness or if the planet ceases to support human life.

I've been reading G.Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot's The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s, and what jumped out at me is that, while John Kennedy and Barack Obama shared a lot of the same profile at the beginning of their Presidencies - both were cautious centrists who were wary of the left flank of their parties - in Kennedy's case what ultimately led to the eventual policy successes (most of them carried out under Lyndon Johnson) was the strength and ingenuity of the leaders in Congress, who were skilled enough and bold enough to push these changes through. I don't see that kind of urgency in today's Congress. They are perfectly content on the poll-driven margins to fulfill the John Kerry 2004 agenda - stem cell research, SCHIP, half-measures on energy, etc. I don't mean to denigrate these accomplishments. But actually, I do. We have too many problems that have gone unsolved for too long, and it seems like the political muscles among liberals in Congress have completely atrophied. And these hornets have been allowed in the nest, these corporate whores who exist as moles inside the caucus to make sure all this hope and change doesn't hold a hope of changing anything.

Under normal circumstances, these would be debates we could have and struggles we could play out for a year or so. But the string has run out. The time has all but passed. And yet the same elites predominate. If there's an excess of fear out there right now, at least part of it stems from the feeling that these elected men and women are either unable or, more likely, unwilling, to ever do what's necessary, not for prosperity, but for survival.