Across the country progressive groups are mobilizing to support legislative initiatives, but to what effect?
On the climate change front, the Sierra Club heralds the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) that passed the House and is now in the Senate as “a great step forward for a clean energy future in the U.S.” The group notes that the legislation needs to be strengthened by the Senate. How the more conservative Senate, America’s House of Lords, will do anything other than muck up the bill remains unclear.
Americans for Financial Reform, a national coalition of more than 200 state and local organizations, has come together to reform and regulate the banking system. “Our principles will only prevail if the voices of the public are heard over those of bankers, traders, mortgage brokers and their armies of lobbyists,” says Heather Booth, the group’s executive director.
Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a mega-coalition of progressive groups, is promoting a 10-point set of healthcare reforms, one of which is “a public health insurance plan that guarantees affordable coverage without a private insurer middleman.”
These campaigns, though different in focus, are similar in that they urge constituents to pressure their elected representatives. But is there any bite behind the bark? Unless progressives can back up their demands with credible and specific threats, why should Democrats fear their displeasure?
Take healthcare reform. If Congressional legislation doesn’t contain a public option, is it worth supporting at all? Where is the line in the sand? What price should Democratic elected officials pay for fealty to the healthcare industry?
The senior manager of health policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, James Gelfand, believes he has Sen. Max Baucus (D‑Mont.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, in his pocket. He told Kaiser Health News, “Instead of focusing on the 90 percent of issues that everyone can agree on, we’re getting stuck on the 10 percent ideological, uncompromisable, unworkable provisions … like creating a government-run insurance plan.” Gelfand said that the Chamber will “try to work especially with Sen. Baucus to fix this thing.”
“I’m sorry that things have gotten to the point where we’re having to beat up on members of Congress who are proposing wacky schemes instead of pragmatic legislation,” says Gelfand.
That sounds mean. The nice folks in the progressive nonprofit world would never threaten to “beat up on” Democratic members of Congress. But maybe that’s the problem.
A bright spot in the otherwise dismal Democratic landscape is the emergence of what is being called the Progressive Block strategy, championed by the blogger Chris Bowers of the website Open Left. The Progressive Block would involve a critical number of progressive lawmakers – at least 13 senators and 45 representatives – joining Republicans to vote down Democratic legislation that does not include desired progressive provisions. Thanks to the likelihood of such a block emerging, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that any healthcare reform that lacks a public option will not pass the House.
The possibility of Democratic nays defeating Democratic legislative initiatives would be a terrible political embarrassment to both the Obama administration and leaders in Congress. That is exactly the kind of believable threat progressive activists need to back up their demands of Beltway Democrats.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.