What follows is an encore for a column I wrote in 2018 for the new progressive Democrats elected to the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party won control of the House in 2018, and again barely in 2020. There was no response nor adoption of any of these power-enhancing suggestions from any of the novice legislators in those two election cycles.
I am now sending to the entering class of 2022 these helpful tools to strengthen both their efforts and those of the citizen groups in the halls of Congress.
The rapidity with which the Democratic Party’s political cocoon wraps itself around newly elected legislators, who arrive in Washington determined to change the culture and output of our premier branch of government, is beyond astonishing. Unlike the red-line-drawing so-called “Freedom-Caucus” among the House Republicans, who topple their leadership, or at least are power factors, the Democrats toe the line and surrender to their dictatorial leadership.
Until the quieted progressives form their own voting bloc, the national citizen groups will remain as powerless as the dominant corporate Democrats in Congress want them to be.
We shall soon know who, if any, of the progressives in the class of 2022 are serious about their pre-swearing-in determinations and strive to measure up to the yardsticks for empowerment.
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
In November, about 25 progressive Democrats were newly elected to the House of Representatives. How do the citizen groups know whether they are for real or for rhetoric? I suggest this civic yardstick to measure the determination and effectiveness of these members of the House both inside the sprawling, secretive, repressive Congress and back home in their Districts. True progressives must:
1. Vigorously confront all the devious ways that Congressional bosses have developed to obstruct the orderly, open, accessible avenues for duly elected progressive candidates to be heard and to participate in Congressional deliberations from the subcommittees to the committees to the floor of the House. Otherwise, the constricting Congressional cocoon will quickly envelop and smother their collective energies and force them to get along by going along.
2. Organize themselves into an effective Caucus (unlike the anemic Progressive Caucus). They will need to constantly be in touch with each other and work to democratize Congress and substantially increase the quality and quantity of its legislative/oversight output.
3. Connect with the national citizen organizations that have backers all around the country and knowledgeable staff who can help shape policy and mobilize citizen support. This is crucial to backstop the major initiatives these newbies say they want to advance. Incumbent progressives operate largely on their own and too rarely sponsor civic meetings on Capitol Hill to solicit ideas from civic groups. Incumbent progressives in both the House and the Senate do not like to be pressed beyond their comfort zone to issue public statements, to introduce tough new bills, or even to conduct or demand public hearings.
4. Develop an empowerment agenda that shifts power from the few to the many – from the plutocrats and corporatists to consumers, workers, patients, small taxpayers, voters, community groups, the wrongfully injured, shareholders, consumer cooperatives, and trade unions. Shift-of-power facilities and rights/remedies cost very little to enact because their implementation is in the direct hands of those empowered – to organize, to advocate, to litigate, to negotiate, and to become self-reliant for food, shelter and services (Citizen Utility Boards provide an example of what can come from empowering citizens).
5. Encourage citizens back home to have their own town meetings, some of which the new lawmakers would attend. Imagine the benefits of using town meetings to jump-start an empowerment agenda and to promote long overdue advances such as a living wage, universal health care, corporate crime enforcement, accountable government writ large, renewable energy, and real tax reform.
6. Regularly publicize the horrendously cruel and wasteful Republican votes. This seems obvious but, amazingly, it isn’t something Democratic leaders are inclined to do. Last June, I urged senior Democrats in the House to publicize a list of the most anti-people, pro-Wall Street, and pro-war legislation that the Republicans, often without any hearings, rammed through the House. The senior Democrats never did this, even though the cruel GOP votes (against children, women, health, safety, access to justice, etc.) would be opposed by more than 3 out of 4 voters.
7. Disclose attempts by pro-corporate, anti-democratic, or anti-human rights and other corrosive lobbies that try to use campaign money or political pressure to advance the interests of the few to the detriment of the many. Doing this publicly will deter lobbies from even trying to twist their arms.
8. Refuse PAC donations and keep building a base of small donations as Bernie Sanders did in 2016. This will relieve new members of receiving undue demands for reciprocity and unseemly attendance at corrupt PAC parties in Washington, DC.
9. Seek, whenever possible, to build left/right coalitions on specific major issues in Congress and back home that can become politically unstoppable.
10. Demand wider access to members of Congress by the citizenry. Too few citizen leaders are being allowed to testify at fewer Congressional hearings. Holding hearings is a key way to inform and galvanize public opinion. Citizen group participation in hearings has led to saving millions of lives and preventing countless injuries over the decades. Authentic Congressional hearings lead to media coverage and help to mobilize the citizenry.
Adopting these suggestions will liberate new members to challenge the taboos entrenched in Congress regarding the corporate crime wave, military budgets, foreign policy, massive corporate welfare giveaways and crony capitalism.
The sovereign power of the people has been excessively delegated to 535 members of Congress. The citizens need to inform and mobilize themselves and hold on to the reins of such sovereign power for a better society. Demanding that Congress uphold its constitutional obligations and not surrender its power to the war-prone, lawless Presidency will resonate with the people.
Measuring up to these civic yardsticks is important for the new members of the House of Representatives and for our democracy. See how they score in the coming months. Urge them to forward these markers of a democratic legislature to the rest of the members of Congress, most of whom are in a rut of comfortable incumbency.