A Progressive State of the Union

Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey

Against the backdrop of a contentious Supreme Court battle, and just hours before the State of the Union address, Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) – co-chairs of the 62-member Congressional Progressive Caucus – presented an alternative vision for the country. 

We believe Americans deserve a government at least as fair and as honest as they are.

They made their remarks to an audience of progressive policy experts, media-makers and members of the public at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Their address preceded two discussion panels designed to propose a new direction for the country and offer a clear set of progressive values. Streaming audio of the remarks and panels is available on the Web site of the Institute for Policy Studies, one of the event’s co-sponsors.

The Nation also co-sponsored the event in conjunction with their special issue, Paths to Renewal,” which features policy proposals and analysis from 20 Progressive Caucus members, demonstrating that progressives do have a coherent agenda – and that they have bold, workable solutions to the country’s most vexing problems.” 

Woolsey and Lee’s remarks follow.

Rep. Woolsey:

We are here today to offer what we believe to be the real” State of the Union. We are here to challenge the President, to insist that he offer an agenda of fairness and inclusion … to demand that he address the problems a majority of Americans want their government to solve.

This is something we in the Progressive Caucus have been doing all year long, in fact. 

We have taken on the White House and the Republican majority on issue after issue – Iraq, taxes, the budget, the PATRIOT Act, Katrina, corruption and more. 

Where others have been cautious, we have been bold and outspoken. Where others have been afraid to say the emperor has no clothes,” we have been honest enough to shout that if the hopes of Americans – rather than their fears – are the clothes of a Presidency, this President is truly naked!

I’ll give you just one example. Four and a half years ago, the PATRIOT Act was rammed through Congress with barely any deliberation and only 67 dissenting votes. Today, in part because of the objections we’ve raised and the pressure we’ve applied, there’s an open, balanced debate about whether it makes sense to undermine freedom in the name of freedom.

Because we’ve been unapologetic and faithful to our conscience, our agenda is squarely in the American mainstream. If the President wants to regain public support, he could do no better than to emulate the four pillars of our Progressive Promise.

A majority of Americans now believe the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting … and that the President deliberately misled us into this war. Mr. President, by announcing tonight that you’ll bring the troops home, you could join us on the right side of history and the right side of public opinion.

The President and his party have failed every test of competent, compassionate, honest government. They have sent more than 2,200 Americans to their deaths on a mission that has done nothing to make the United States and its people safer. They dithered and delayed while a major American city drowned. They believe in fiscal restraint only for the powerless and for the vulnerable, while the privileged and the powerful help themselves to lavish tax breaks. They have made a mockery of the principle of checks and balances, by insisting that the President can unilaterally choose to ignore the laws he finds inconvenient – the ones that say you need probable cause to tap the phones of American citizens. 

Republicans have put our government up for sale to the highest bidder, turning government of, by and for the people into government of by and for Jack Abramoff.

We, the men and women of the Progressive Caucus, have an altogether different vision, one that reflects the values of the American people. And we’ll be listening tonight, to see if the President is truly ready to make the changes Americans are clamoring for. 

Enough of the special interest agenda that caters to the wealthy and the comfortable. Enough of the secretive attempts to build an imperial presidency that’s accountable to no one. 

Work with us, Mr. President:

Join us in the pursuit of economic justice– universal health coverage, fair trade, a higher minimum wage and guaranteed Social Security benefits. 

Join us, Mr. President, in preserving the civil rights and civil liberties that define America.

Join us in promoting global peace and security. Not by preemptively invading other nations, but by working with allies and multilateral organizations to intercept terrorists, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and combat HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases.

And join us in a renewed commitment to protecting our environment.

Most urgently, we need bold steps that reduce our dependence on imported oil, promoting conservation and renewables and allowing us to achieve energy independence. No weapon system or military campaign could do more for our national security.

We believe Americans deserve a government at least as fair and as honest as they are. Over the last several years, they have received anything but. 

The President has a chance tonight to begin regaining public trust, to put his stumbling presidency on firmer ground. We’re willing to give him a chance. But if he is committed to more of the same, we will hold him to account. We will continue in our role as watchdogs that don’t hesitate to bark. And we will continue to offer an alternative vision, one that is consistent with our most cherished American values.

Rep. Lee:

Our nation faces a crisis, and we stand at a crossroads. Will we continue to be a nation of laws, or a nation where the executive claims the privilege of lawlessness? Will we be nation run for the benefit of big corporations and wealthy donors, or a nation of opportunity, where people who work hard are rewarded and everyone has a shot at the American dream?

Tonight, the President will take to the stage to try to put a good face on a year of failures. One thing you won’t hear him talk about, however, is the price of his reckless, unnecessary war in Iraq. You won’t see him include the cost for the war in the budget that he submits to Congress next week either. You see, the President doesn’t have the courage to level with the American people about just how long his stay-the-course” policy will keep us in Iraq, and just how much it will cost. 

One Nobel Prize-winning economist has projected that the war may cost as much as $2 trillion. If the President believes in his policy, he should spell out how long it will take and what it will cost, and ask the American people to sacrifice for it. I believe our continued occupation of Iraq undermines our security and our standing, which is why I have joined Congresswoman Woolsey in calling to bring our troops home, and why I have introduced legislation to prevent the establishment of permanent military bases in Iraq.

Hurricane Katrina was a shock and a wake up call for our nation. Not only was it clear evidence of the incompetence of an administration that prioritizes patronage and politics over real policymaking, hurricane Katrina exposed the moral bankruptcy of the so-called ownership society.”

Since President Bush took office, the number of poor people in America has grown by 17 percent, growing at a rate of more than 1 million each year. In 2002-2003, the number of children alone living in extreme poverty grew by half a million.

This is the real state of the so-called ownership society.” And it is unacceptable. 

The Bush administration’s zeal for cutting taxes for the wealthy while cutting the programs that reach the most vulnerable helped lay the groundwork for this disaster.

Ideas have consequences, and the aftermath of Katrina has demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Bush administration’s idea of the role of government. It was not simply the failure to respond to the hurricane in a coherent or competent manner, it was the tragic failure to acknowledge the massive structural crisis that poverty and inequality pose for our nation and the stubborn refusal to conceive of any constructive role for our government in addressing it.

That is why I have introduced a package of three bills designed to make eradicating poverty a national priority. The first calls on the President for leadership, asking him to submit to Congress his plan for eradicating poverty. The second calls on Congress for accountability, and would require the Congressional Budget Office to report on the poverty impact of legislation pending before Congress. The third calls for establishing priorities, and would roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest five percent of Americans to help pay for poverty alleviation.

According to the conventional wisdom, the Republicans may have a massive problem with corruption, and the President may have a problem with the abuse of power, with an unnecessary, immoral war in Iraq and his failed response to hurricane Katrina, but there really isn’t any alternative vision coming from the Democrats.

Well, we are here today to tell you that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest and fastest growing caucus here on Capitol Hill. Among our 62 members are 10 members who will become committee chairs, and 35 members who will become subcommittee chairs when the Democrats retake the House of Representatives.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has clear ideas on how we can move America forward, and restore a government that is worthy of the public trust. Rather than list them all, I direct your attention to the most recent issue of The Nation, where 21 members of our Caucus spell out practical solutions for issues ranging from healthcare and protecting our environment to immigration, good government and getting out of Iraq.

These pragmatic proposals represent more than a list of policy fixes. They represent a set of core principles that stand in stark contrast to the cynicism and corruption of the Bush administration and Republican controlled Congress.

In the face of a culture of corruption, we represent a deep belief in serving the public trust. In the face of abuse of power, we represent the democratic insistence on accountability, checks and balances and the rule of law. In the face of a reckless unilateralism that has squandered our nation’s standing and left us alone and vulnerable in the world, we represent robust international leadership. And in the face of an indifference that abandoned the poor people of New Orleans and America long before hurricane Katrina tore back the curtain, we represent the belief that every American deserves the opportunity to take part in the American Dream.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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