The Democratic Party’s resounding victory in the midterm elections is cause for celebration. The ideology-driven policies of the Bush administration (and its congressional sycophants) have entangled the nation in a net of global animosity and widened the domestic gap between rich and poor. If nothing else, the triumph of congressional Democrats will bring greater focus on the Bushites’ failures. However, the midterm shakeup probably won’t mean much of a change in the Bush regime’s foreign policy, except perhaps a change in tone.
Congressional realignment does offer an opportunity to tackle the domestic problems that have drifted away from the national consciousness. Just one example: widening racial disparities in the criminal justice system are endangering the viability of the African-American family. Yet, this social crisis gets scant political attention.
Mainstream media seems enamored with the narrative of newly elected “Blue Dog” and “New” Democrats pulling the party back to the center, And at this early stage, the victorious Democrats seem eager to stress their centrist intentions.
“Democrats are not about getting even,” said speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in a post-election summary. “Democrats are about helping America get ahead.” Both Pelosi, who will be the first female speaker in history, and expected Senate majority leader Harry Reid (Nev.) have pledged to “govern from the center.”
“The Democrats are not going to want to deal with issues that have greater specificity to the African-American community because they are going to be positioning themselves for 2008,” says Ron Walters, University of Maryland political scientist and author of several books on black politics. “So they are going to stress issues they believe will best serve the purposes of getting a Democratic president elected.”
But many of the Democrats scheduled to take over committee chairmanships are precisely those more progressive members who have been seething in the legislative backwaters. There are some signs that the 110th Congress may be more rambunctious than pundits predict. Many in this new leadership are part of the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), whose constituents are on the front line of the GOP’s retreat from social justice and racial equity.
The CBC members who are poised for chairmanships are: Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) of the House Judiciary Committee, Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) of the Ways and Means Committee, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) of the Homeland Security Committee and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) of the House Administration Committee.
Former CBC chairman Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is tapped to replace Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as Majority Whip, becoming only the second African-American congress member to assume that post. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reportedly had his eyes on the Whip job, but abandoned it – perhaps at the prospect of a bruising battle with the CBC. Tensions already exist between the congressional Democratic leadership and the CBC.
Some tension stemmed from last May when Pelosi asked Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) to resign a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee because he was the target of a federal bribery investigation (although he faced no charges). The CBC was angered because no similar demands were made of Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.), who has been slammed for suspicious earmarks connected to his post on the appropriations committee.
As In These Times went to press, the incoming speaker was seeking to pre-empt another, perhaps more damaging, struggle over her choice for chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Pelosi, who was once the committee’s ranking Democrat, was expected to appoint CBC member Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) instead of ranking Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). Pelosi is now being pressured to appoint Harman as a sign of Democratic maturity.
Hastings was a U.S. District Court judge in Florida when he was impeached by a Democratic House in 1988 for taking a bribe, and convicted by the Senate in 1989. He was cleared of the same offense in a criminal trial and won a congressional seat in 1992. An articulate and unrepentant progressive, Hastings is a potent target of conservatives and a popular villain of right wing bloggers.
Harman supported the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, and, according to the Associated Press, is being probed by the Feds for her ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). By conflating political propriety with centrist outcomes, the Democratic leadership may be adopting the right-wing’s frame.
Progressives must insist that electoral change means just that, a change away from that tired frame and toward a vision of social justice.
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.