It’s Also the Congress, Stupid

David Sirota has a very interesting article in the February edition of In These Times. It is also available for viewing online.

While I don’t agree with everything he says in it I think it is a good point to bring up and a fascinating article. In it he talks about why “Empowering Capitol Hill progressives is just as important as presidental campaign platforms.”

It is a good start to the broader discussion of what the end results of each canidate would be. A discussion that should not only include congress and platforms but also electoral coattails and working style among other things. But those will have to later. In this essay I will just be focusing on the arguments Sirota makes.  

Let’s get going.

In this epic race for the Democratic nomination, the most minute policy differences are extrapolated into bombastic TV ads, direct mail pieces and debate one-liners. Amid the noise, few remember that what candidates say or propose can bear little resemblance to what ends up happening once they are in the Oval Office.

…For voters trying to distinguish between Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Obama, the question should be who is more apt to empower a Democratic Congress whose seniority and power rests in the hands of committed progressives.

Hard to argue with that. Can you think how little one debate matters in this context? And yet it was a main storyline of the campaign for the last week.

Seniority and ideology

His first section deals with seniority and ideology in the congress. Let’s take a look at it.

A look across the committee structure on Capitol Hill highlights a unique opportunity for exponential change under a Democratic president.

Liberal Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) chair the two most powerful panels in Congress: the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal spending, and the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes.

Another liberal, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), heads the Education and Workforce Committee that will be charged with reforming No Child Left Behind and strengthening labor laws. And progressive stalwart Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) heads the Judiciary Committee that could reform or scrap the Patriot Act.

…Committee chairs like Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.). These three, respectively, run the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee overseeing climate change legislation; the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee involved in most domestic policies; and the Judiciary Committee impacting both civil liberties and nominations to the federal bench.

…The less these progressives are inhibited by the executive branch and the threat of presidential vetoes, the more progressive change will come from Washington. In other words, the more Ted Kennedy is allowed to be Ted Kennedy, the better.

Although we have all been disappointed in the Democratic congress it is hard to stress how important it is having these committee chairs. If we didn’t “I don’t recall” who we would have as Attorney General. We would have the Environment and Public Works Committee spewing out climate change denying crap. We would not be having any hearings. We would still be under the rule of far-right crazies. But this will be even more important when (and if) we have a Democratic president in office. But the importance will also depend on the style of that president. In the next two sections Sirota looks at the two remaining Democratic candidates and their styles.

Clinton: ‘hands-on’

A domineering executive branch under Clinton, however, poses a potential problem, best summed up by one word: triangulation.

The first Clinton administration would position itself against Democrats in Congress when it believed doing so was politically opportune. In a Republican Congress, such triangulation meant the Clinton White House worked with the right to pass initiatives like NAFTA and welfare reform, to name just two.

…Couple Clintonism’s ideological affinity for triangulation with Hillary Clinton’s public defense of corporate lobbyists, and the perils come into full relief. It would be no stretch to imagine a Democratic Congress passing some form of single-payer universal healthcare measure, only to have it crushed by a triangulating Clinton veto (or veto threat).

Fairly harsh. But a good point still. Let’s see what he has to say about Obama.

Obama: Alinsky and lawmaking

The Nation’s Chris Hayes recently wrote that Obama’s overarching “diagnosis of what’s wrong with politics is the way it is conducted rather than for whom.” Put another way, it’s not the “what” but the “how.” Fix how politics is waged-build a “working majority,” as Obama says-and solutions to big problems will come.

This is a theme of famed activist Saul Alinsky, whose community organizations Obama worked with as a young man in Chicago.

As Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, the best organizers possess “a belief that if people have the power to act in the long run, they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions.” A President Obama would probably apply such a principle to Congress.

This goes directly to a point that I have been trying to make but have failed to articulate as well as David. Barack Obama like Paul Wellstone started out as a community organizer. He believes that the principles of organizing can be applied to governing. He knows you have to in the end sit down at the table and get something done even if you hate the guts of the guy across the table. He would rather have a bunch of like minded people sitting around that table though which is why he talks so much about building a “New American Majority.” David also points out that Obama is not perfect and gives him some heat for it.


Certainly, Obama has, on occasion, rhetorically triangulated against fellow Democrats. He once appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to publicly lambaste proposals to withdraw troops from Iraq. However, his concrete legislative actions (votes, bill sponsorships, etc.) have been solidly progressive, suggesting his general aversion to conflict-charged vetoes would be most pronounced when dealing with progressive legislation.

But then concludes with this.

Though the media’s obsessive focus on presidential politics may lead us to believe the White House is all-powerful, Congress has been central to most of history’s great reforms.

That means this race is not just about which candidate appears more progressive-but also about which candidate will allow progressives in Congress to be strongest.

Though I agree with his central point that congress matters as well I think he misses another big point which is who will elect more progressive congresspeople. Barack Obama has carried twice as many swing districts in the primaries then Hillary Clinton (pre-Wisconsin and Hawaii) and there is some reason to believe he helped sweep progressive hero Donna Edwards into congress. And the incredible activist energy behind his campaign can only mean good things for the future of the Democratic Party. And if we sweep March 4th it’s over.

So please. Join with us and let’s March 4th Together.



Just by clicking that little image you can donate, have someone match you and let the donation is coming from us in the netroots. The Obama campaign is making a huge grassroots effort but it won’t be cheap. So pony up 😉 Also if you are that type, please call random people in March 4th States. And thanks to kath25 you can wear a cool apparel while you are taking action. Check it all out and buy stuff!

But the point of this isn’t just to promote Obama. It is to promote a progressive congress that Obama will need to make real change happen.

One of those candidates who will make that progressive congress is Gilda Reed. There is a 24-Hour Online Fundraiser going on for her right now. Check out the latest one and donate.

Some of my other favorite candidates are Barry Walsh, Heather Ryan, Ed Fallon, Ashwin Madia and Larry Lessig, just to name a few. So if you are for Obama, consider getting involved in a congressional race and help give him the congress he needs. If your for Clinton do the same. Can’t get exited about the presidential candidates? Get exited about a congressional canidate!

If you care about achieving a better world then please, please get involved with a congressional canidate. Could be a House canidate or a Senate canidate. Doesn’t matter. But get involved and let’s go change the world.

“I think we can do better. That is what Robert Kennedy always said. I think we can do better too. Won’t you join me in the effort?” – Paul Wellstone

1 comment

    • Populista on February 21, 2008 at 5:12 am
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