Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Congressionbal Progressive Caucus

It may be that you are somewhat familiar with the Congressional Progressive Caucus or it is also possible that you have never been aware that a Progressive Caucus exists.   The Caucus was established in 1991 and today has 75 Members from the House of the Representatives, all Democrats and one Senator.   That’s right.  One lonely Senator out of 100 is a member of the Caucus – and you can guess who that one Progressive Senator might be.   Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 

A good question might be why only one Senator is a member of the Progressive caucus because we know there are liberals in the Senate.  Or at least there used to be liberals in the Senate but they have mostly disappeared.  We’re not hearing their voice because they have chosen to remain silent.  We’re left to surmise that Sanders is the only Senator willing to be identified as a progressive.  And he’s not even a Democrat.  Sanders caucuses with the Democrats but he is a registered Independent and the highest elected Socialist in the country.  So in reality, there are No Democratic Senators willing to join and be associated with the Congressional progressive Caucus. Think about that. It’s a sad comment on American politics and an ever sadder comment on the Democratic party.  Today’s Democratic Party is devoid of the kind of vigorous debate that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had in mind when they organized what was then called the Democrat-Republican party to represent the country’s working class in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party which was dependent on Big Business. It’s shocking how little has changed in the last 225 years except that today both political parties are beholden to Big Business.

The Progressive Caucus website promotes what it calls the “Progressive Promise” that identifies its principles as fighting for economic justice, protection of our civil rights and civil liberties, promoting global peace and security as well as advancing environmental protection and energy independence.”   Based on those values, it might be presumed that members of the Progressive Caucus vote the way you would expect progressives to vote but who knows.  None of us really have the time to check on it.

As a taxpaying progressive yourself, you deserve to know because these people work for us.  We pay their salary.  We provide them with generous pension and retirement health care benefits and it is our vote that puts them in office.  They are accountable to their constituents but it may be that our progressive expectations are not being met – and you may not even know it.  In fact, if we’re talking about the Senate, today a moribund, dysfunctional institution, we can assume that our progressive political interests are non-existent.       

It’s no secret that Democrats don’t have the same discipline, the same inner grit or the same commitment to issues that Republican’s have.  Democrats are not as ideologically driven and there’s a certain temperament that any elected official must have in order to function with integrity in the rough and tumble street game of American politics – and too many Democrats aren’t willing to fight for principle.  A friend used to tell me when I was an elected municipal official, if you’re going to get into the pit with alligators, you’d better know how to wrestle alligators.  That proved to be really good advice

A good question for the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black caucus is what legislative initiatives or public policy have either accomplished to benefit their progressive and minority constituents?  That topic deserves a more thorough analysis.    

There are some terrific progressives who are members of the caucus – such as Raul Grijalva from AZ, its co-chair, d Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee who oppose every war, Ed Markey who I worked with when I was at Friends of the Earth and is still a great anti-nuclear and alternative energy voice, Luis Gutierrez on immigration and John Lewis, a veteran of the Freedom Rides in the 60’s and a fine progressive.  They’re all great progressives and there are lesser known progressives but equally principled like Maurice Hinchey of Woodstock who I knew when he was in the New York State Legislature and Jackie Speier who was an aide to and with great anti-nuke Congressman Leo Ryan when he was killed at Jonestown.

But there are Progressive Democrats whose loyalty to the party and to the White House and let’s not forget their campaign contributors is more important than loyalty to the constituents who elected them - but if no one watches them or bothers to monitor their voting record, then we have a Progressive Caucus that is less than progressive.  We have a Democratic party that is less committed to the party’s historic principles.

Today the Congressional Progressive Caucus has a credibility problem.  During the health care debate a couple of years ago, the Caucus sent the President a letter stating that they would never, under no circumstances,  ever, vote for health care reform without a public option.  We know how that ended up.  The President put on the pressure. He claimed that the credibility of his presidency was at stake - and it was.  House progressives were told they HAD to vote for the health care act – and they did – and he knew they would – and so no public option. 

We all understand political realities and that there are times when compromise is necessary.  Sometimes those are tough choices but the need for a public option was a colossal failure for the Democrats that will haunt them into history.  Adopting a public option should have been one of those core issues beyond compromise.  Creating a public option was too important for Democrats and progressives to back off – but they did. 

Today, the Caucus has no real clout in Congress or with the media.  They rarely act as a solid block of votes and rarely have one coherent message. Yet at the same time, to be fair to the Caucus, they can do some good work. They put together a People’s Budget Plan that outlines how to reduce the deficit without massive cuts to important People Programs and without any pain and suffering.  The problem is virtually no one including the Obama administration or the lame stream media have given it any serious attention.  Little more than a paper tiger, there was little follow up by the Caucus itself to publicly vet the plan.  If the Super Duper Committee were truly searching for real answers, their job would be done.  The reality is that the Progressive Caucus is no match for the Tea Party caucus but that’s the status of progressive politics inside the bubble – and that needs to change.    

No comments: