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The Obamacare Disaster and the Poison of Party Loyalty

12:09 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Four years ago, countless Democratic leaders and allies pushed for passage of Barack Obama’s complex healthcare act while arguing that his entire presidency was at stake. The party hierarchy whipped the Congressional Progressive Caucus into line, while MoveOn and other loyal groups stayed in step along with many liberal pundits.

Lauding the president’s healthcare plan for its structure of “regulation, mandates, subsidies and competition,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in July 2009 that the administration’s fate hung in the balance: “Knock away any of the four main pillars of reform, and the whole thing will collapse — and probably take the Obama presidency down with it.” Such warnings were habitual until Obamacare became law eight months later.
Demonstrating for Single Payer
Meanwhile, some progressives were pointing out that — contrary to the right-wing fantasy of a “government takeover of healthcare” — Obama’s Affordable Care Act actually further enthroned for-profit insurance firms atop the system. As I wrote at the time, “The continued dominance of the insurance industry is the key subtext of the healthcare battle that has been raging in Washington. But that dominance is routinely left out of the news media’s laser-beam concentration on whether a monumental healthcare law will emerge to save Obama’s presidency.”

Today, in terms of healthcare policy, the merits and downsides of Obamacare deserve progressive debate. But at this point there’s no doubt it’s a disaster in political terms — igniting the Mad Hatter Tea Party’s phony populism, heightening prospects for major right-wing electoral gains next year and propagating the rancid notion that the government should stay out of healthcare.

That ominous takeaway notion was flagged days ago on the PBS NewsHour by commentator Mark Shields, who worried aloud that “this is beyond the Obama administration. If this goes down, if … the Affordable Care Act is deemed a failure, this is the end — I really mean it — of liberal government, in the sense of any sense that government as an instrument of social justice, an engine of economic progress… Time and again, social programs have made the difference in this country. The public confidence in that will be so depleted, so diminished, that I really think the change — the equation of American politics changes.”

At this pivotal, historic, teachable moment, progressives should not leave the messaging battle about the ACA to right wingers and Obama loyalists. While critiquing the law for its entanglement with the profit-voracious insurance industry, we should fight for quality healthcare for everyone — definitely including the people who live in states where right-wing officials are blocking expansion of Medicaid coverage. (In a recent Nation article, historian Rick Perlstein cited a grim example of a chronic mentality: “the policy wizards in the Obama White House build a Rube Goldberg healthcare law that relies on states to expand Medicaid and create healthcare exchanges, and then are utterly blindsided when red-state legislatures and governors decline.”) We should challenge all efforts to deny the human right of healthcare.

What we should not be doing is what MoveOn.org is now doing — proclaiming that the Obamacare law is just fine. In a November 14 email blast, subject-lined “Obamacare in serious trouble,” MoveOn acknowledged that the rollout “has been badly botched” but flatly declared: “Obviously, the law itself is still really good.”

Huh?

The problems with Obamacare involve far more than simply bad website coding. They’re bound up in the enormous complexity of the law’s design, wrapped around a huge corporate steeplechase for maximizing profits. As a Maine physician, Philip Caper, wrote this fall, the ACA “is far too complicated and therefore too expensive to manage, full of holes, will be applied unevenly and unfairly, be full of unintended consequences, and be easily exploited by those looking to make a quick buck.” The ACA is so complicated because it has been so relentlessly written for the benefit of — and largely written by — insurance companies.

Along the way, the “individual mandate” cornerstone of the ACA — required by government yet actually enriching the private insurance industry — is a tremendous political boost to demagogic GOP leaders. I’m not engaging in hindsight here. Like many others, I saw this coming before the ACA became law, writing in March 2010: “On a political level, the mandate provision is a massive gift to the Republican Party, all set to keep on giving to the right wing for many years. With a highly intrusive requirement that personal funds and government subsidies be paid to private corporations, the law would further empower right-wing populists who want to pose as foes of government ‘elites’ bent on enriching Wall Street.”

Obamacare is a mess largely because it builds a revamped healthcare system around the retrenched and extended power of insurance companies — setting back prospects for real healthcare reform for a decade or more. Egged on by corporate media and corporate politicians, much of the public will blame higher premiums on government intervention and not on the greedy insurance companies which, along with Big Pharma, helped write the law in the Obama White House and on Capitol Hill.

It should now be painfully obvious that Obamacare’s little helpers, dutifully reciting White House talking points in 2009 and early 2010, were helping right-wing bogus populism to gather steam. Claiming that the Obama presidency would sink without signing into law its “landmark” healthcare bill, many a progressive worked to throw the president a rope; while ostensibly attached to a political life preserver, the rope was actually fastened to a huge deadweight anvil.

In the process, the political choreography included a chorus of statements by Congressional Progressive Caucus members before ultimate passage of the Affordable Care Act. Having previously removed the words “single payer” and “Medicare for all” from their oratorical vocabulary while retaining the laudatory language — and after later excising the words “public option” in a similar way — those legislators still pretended that passage of the ACA would be an unalloyed positive triumph. Like the president, they resolutely oversold Obamacare and made believe it would bring about an excellent healthcare system.

With such disingenuous sales pitches four years ago, President Obama and his Democratic acolytes did a lot to create the current political mess engulfing Obamacare — exaggerating its virtues while pulling out the stops to normalize denial about its real drawbacks. That was a bad approach in 2009. It remains a bad approach today.
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Obama’s Willing Executioners of the Fourth Amendment

12:06 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

It’s now painfully clear that the president has put out a contract on the Fourth Amendment. And at the Capitol, the hierarchies of both parties are stuffing it into the trunks of their limousines, so each provision can be neatly fitted with cement shoes and delivered to the bottom of the Potomac.

Some other Americans are on a rescue mission. One of them, Congressman Justin Amash, began a debate on the House floor Wednesday with a vow to “defend the Fourth Amendment.” That’s really what his amendment — requiring that surveillance be warranted — was all about.

No argument for the Amash amendment was more trenchant than the one offered by South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan, who simply read the Fourth Amendment aloud.

To quote those words was to take a clear side: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations have made it possible for some House members from both parties to blow away the fog that shrouds so much tap dancing on Capitol Hill. When the Amash amendment went to the floor, there was no place left to hide.

To their historic shame, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against Amash’s amendment (while 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for it). That’s how the measure lost, 217-205.

The record of the House vote tells us a lot. Top Republicans—including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—voted with Obama policies to keep smothering the Fourth Amendment. So did top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The stench at the pinnacle of GOP power hardly surprises most Democrats. But on civil liberties—as on so many other profound issues—a similar odor is emanating from the upper reaches of Democratic power on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi and Hoyer are far from the only Democrats who have become reflexive servants of indefensible Obama policies.

Consider some of the other Democratic luminaries in the House who voted against the Amash amendment: The Democratic National Committee’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s former chair Chris Van Hollen. The DCCC’s current chair, Steve Israel.

Some of the other Democrats who voted no on the Amash amendment include progressive-aura lawmakers like Ami Bera (Calif.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Joe Kennedy (Mass.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.)

Deserving special mention for their deplorable votes against Amash’s amendment are Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston and Jan Schakowsky from Chicago. Both are vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

I’ve been critical of the Progressive Caucus for enabling Obama’s rightward moves by doing scant pushback. But credit where due: on Wednesday, aside from Jackson Lee and Schakowsky, the other six officers of the Progressive Caucus and a large majority of its more than 70 members supported the Amash amendment. Eloquence in the floor debate came from John Conyers (the lead co-sponsor of the Amash amendment), Jared Polis, Zoe Lofgren and Jerrold Nadler.

Yet they were no match for the White House, with its media spin machine and behind-the-curtain arm twisting.

President Obama has a firm grip on levers of power, and anyone who thinks that his administration has been chastened enough to tread more carefully on civil liberties is engaged in wishful thinking.

While the House has grown somewhat restive, the Senate has remained notably pliant for the surveillance state. An egregious—and, for some, surprising—example is Al Franken, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program when news of it broke in early June. “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people,” Franken said. From his Senate office, one press release after another has been packed with blather like overstuffed sausages.

Franken is now saying he’ll introduce a bill for “transparency” because the public will support the current surveillance programs if they grasp what’s really involved: “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs.” Count on transparency to be a buzzword cloak for more of the same.

Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, has been vastly more candid. At a forum the day before the Amash amendment vote, Wyden said that for surveillance, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, “the authority is essentially limitless.”

An ACLU staff attorney, Alexander Abdo, was driving at the same point when he wrote days ago: “Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the NSA’s constitutional theory is that it has no limit. If the constitution is blind to the collection of our data and limits only the NSA’s later uses of it, then the NSA truly can ‘collect it all’ now and ask questions later. Our emails, phone calls and internet activities would all be very simple for the NSA to collect under the NSA’s theory. But it could go much further. It could put video cameras on every street corner, it could install microphones in every home and it could even remotely copy the contents of every computer hard drive.”

All three branches of the U.S. government are now largely under the control of forces with stunning contempt for basic legal processes required by the Bill of Rights. Mere words and mild reforms from members of Congress may mollify the gullible, but only a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policies can rise to the level of the current historic imperative to restore civil liberties in the United States.

Clarity from Snowden — But Murky Response from Progressives in Congress

2:31 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

House Speaker John Boehner calls Edward Snowden a “traitor.” The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, labels his brave whistleblowing “an act of treason.” What about the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus?

As the largest caucus of Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Progressive Caucus could supply a principled counterweight to the bombast coming from the likes of Boehner and Feinstein. But for that to happen, leaders of the 75-member caucus would need to set a good example by putting up a real fight.

Right now, even when we hear some promising words, the extent of the political resolve behind them is hazy.

“This indiscriminate data collection undermines Americans’ basic freedoms,” Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison said about NSA spying on phone records. He added: “Our citizens’ right to privacy is fundamental and non-negotiable. . . . The program we’re hearing about today seems not to respect that boundary. It, and any other programs the NSA is running with other telecom companies, should end.”

The other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva, was blunt. “A secretive intelligence agency gathering millions of phone records and using them as it sees fit is the kind of excess many of us warned about after the Patriot Act became law,” he said. “Continuing this program indefinitely gives the impression of being under constant siege and needing to know everything at all times to keep us safe, which I find a very troubling view of American security policy.”

And Grijalva said pointedly: “We’re being assured that this is limited, supervised and no big deal. When we heard the same under President Bush, we weren’t comfortable taking his word for it and moving on. I feel the same today.”

The five vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are a mixed civil-liberties bag.

Judy Chu of California put out a vapid statement, calling for “release of unclassified reports by the administration on how FISA powers are used” and offering the bromide “need to strike a balance between clandestine efforts and transparency.”

Rhode Island’s David Cicilline called the NSA spying on phone records and the Internet “very disturbing.” But he went on to merely state that “the federal government has a responsibility to both ensure our national security and maintain every citizen’s essential right to privacy.”

Michael Honda, who faces a corporate challenger next year in his digital tech-heavy district in the San Jose area, had this to say: “I am deeply disturbed by the National Security Agency’s wholesale surveillance of phone and online activity of Americans without just cause. . . . I believe all Americans should be extremely wary of this type of large-scale data gathering of personal, private online data.”

Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee in the House, displayed her proficiency at national-security babble while sidestepping huge violations of civil liberties. She touted a need to reduce use of private contractors and “repair deficiencies in the security clearance system.”

Jan Schakowsky, a representative from Chicago who’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, put out a statement saying: “I have had longstanding concerns with the broad surveillance powers Congress has given intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency.”

But nice-sounding statements don’t cause big changes in policies.

If the past is any guide, leaders and other members of the Progressive Caucus will periodically say things that appeal to progressive constituencies back home — without throwing down the gauntlet and battling an administration that has made clear its contempt for essential civil liberties.

The potential and the problem are perhaps best symbolized by the Progressive Caucus whip, Barbara Lee of California, arguably the strongest progressive in the House.

Lee provided a good statement to a local newspaper, saying: “The right to privacy in this country is non-negotiable. We have a system of checks and balances in place to protect our most basic civil liberties, and while I believe that national security is paramount, we must move forward in a way that does not sacrifice our American values and freedoms.”

Yet a full week after the NSA surveillance story broke, there wasn’t any news release on the subject to be found on Congresswoman Lee’s official website. She had not issued any other statement on the scandal.

If the most progressive members of Congress aren’t willing to go to the mat against fellow-Democrat Obama over an issue as profound as the Bill of Rights, the result will be a tragic failure of leadership — as well as an irreparable disaster for the United States of America.

And how about speaking up for Edward Snowden while some in both parties on Capitol Hill are calling him a traitor and pronouncing him guilty of treason? Public mention of the virtues of his courageous whistleblowing seems to be a congressional bridge way too far.

So, as in countless other moments of history, “when the people lead, the leaders will follow” — and only then. You can help lead if you sign the petition “Thank NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden” by clicking here.

Don’t Vent, Organize — And “Primary” a Democrat Near You

1:31 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Progressives often wonder why so many Republican lawmakers stick to their avowed principles while so many Democratic lawmakers abandon theirs. We can grasp some answers by assessing the current nationwide drive called “Primary My Congressman” — a case study of how right-wing forces gain ground in electoral terrain where progressives fear to tread.

A Democrat Donkey

Time for some fresh blood?

Sponsored by Club for Growth Action, the “Primary My Congressman” effort aims to replace “moderate Republicans” with “economic conservatives” — in other words, GOP hardliners even more devoted to boosting corporate power and dismantling the public sector. “In districts that are heavily Republican,” the group says, “there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress — not more ‘moderates’ who will compromise with Democrats. . .”

Such threats of serious primary challenges often cause the targeted incumbents to quickly veer rightward, or they may never get through the next Republican primary.

Progressive activists and organizations could launch similar primary challenges, but — to the delight of the Democratic Party establishment — they rarely do. Why not?

Here are some key reasons:

* Undue deference to elected Democrats.

Members of Congress and other elected officials deserve only the respect they earn. All too often, for example, plenty of Congressional Progressive Caucus members represent the interests of the establishment to progressives rather than the other way around.

* Treating election campaigns more like impulse items than work that requires long-term planning and grassroots follow-through.

The same progressives who’ve spent years planning, launching and sustaining a wide range of community projects are apt to jump into election campaigns with scant lead time. Progressives need to build electoral capacity for the long haul, implementing well-planned strategic campaigns with candidates who come out of social movements and have a plausible chance to win on behalf of those movements.

* Assuming that millions of dollars are necessary to win.

Yes, successful campaigns require effective fundraising — but money is often a less significant obstacle than a shortage of commitment and willingness to do painstaking grassroots organizing.

* Self-marginalization by ignoring elections.

Some on the left prefer to stay out of electoral contests while focusing on the next protest demonstration — thus leaving the electoral field to battles between corporate Democrats and Republicans. One sure result: a progressive won’t win.

* Self-marginalization with third-party efforts in partisan races.

In congressional races, Green Party and other progressive third-party candidates have a zero record of success in our lifetimes. In other races with party affiliations also on the ballot (such as governor and state legislature), victories have been almost nonexistent. In such races, the corporate-military complex is not in the slightest threatened by third-party candidates, who rarely get higher than a low single-digit percentage of the vote. In nonpartisan races, by contrast, there are examples of successful and uplifting campaigns by third-party candidates, as with Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, California.

By changing just a few words in the Club for Growth’s “Primary My Congressman” manifesto, progressives have a road map for electoral progress: In districts that are heavily Democratic, there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real progressives to Congress — not more of those who go along with the Obama White House as it keeps compromising with Republicans.

Anyone serious about getting genuine progressives elected to Congress next year should be engaged in developing campaigns now. To avoid the impulse-item syndrome, that means identifying key races where progressives have a real chance to win, while remaining mindful that election campaigns should be subsets of social movements and not the other way around.

If there’s a defining issue that now separates the Obama party leadership from social decency, it is the president’s push to cut Social Security benefits. Less ballyhooed but also crucial is his push to cut Medicare benefits and the ever-present danger of cuts to already woefully-underfunded Medicaid. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are unwilling to seriously cut the enormous military budget.

Any incumbent Democrat who is not serving progressive interests should be weighed as a possible primary target. And the most fruitful primary challenges are beckoning in heavily Democratic districts where there are many progressive voters and incumbents aren’t measuring up.

By that standard, the Congress members who may be vulnerable to a primary challenge include the 44 who tout their membership in the Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the letter (initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano) promising not to vote to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

A good starting point to consider launching a primary challenge in your area would be to look at those 44 members of Congress who continue to refuse to make such a promise, leaving themselves wiggle room to vote for cuts in three crucial programs of the social compact. To see the list of those self-described “progressives,” click here. (Meanwhile, wherever you live, you can let your Congress member and senators know what you think of proposals for such cuts by clicking here.)

It’s fair to say those 44 members of Congress are among the many Democratic incumbents showing themselves to be more afraid of the Obama White House and the Democratic Party hierarchy than they are of voters in their own districts. Progressives in and around those districts need to do less venting and more organizing.

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Time to Bell the Obama Cat

12:15 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

The story goes that some mice became very upset about the cat in the house and convened an emergency meeting. They finally came up with the idea of tying a bell around the cat’s neck, so the dangerous feline could no longer catch victims unawares. The plan gained a lot of enthusiastic praise, until one mouse piped up with a question that preceded a long silence: “Who’s going to bell the cat?

In recent days, the big cat in the White House has provoked denunciations from groups that have rarely crossed him. They’re upset about his decision to push for cuts in Social Security benefits. “Progressive outrage has reached a boiling point,” the online juggernaut MoveOn declared a few days ago.

Obama’s move to cut Social Security is certainly outrageous, and it’s encouraging that a wide range of progressive groups are steamed at Obama as never before. But this kind of outrage should have reached a “boiling point” a long time ago. The administration’s undermining of civil liberties, scant action on climate change, huge escalation of war in Afghanistan, expansion of drone warfare, austerity policies serving Wall Street and shafting Main Street, vast deference to corporate power. . . The list is long and chilling.

For progressives, there’s not a lot to be gained by venting against Obama without working to implement a plausible strategy for ousting corporate war Democrats from state power.

So is the evasive record of many groups that are now denouncing Obama’s plan to cut Social Security. Mostly, their leaders griped in private and made nice with the Obama White House in public.

Yet imagine if those groups had polarized with President Obama in 2009 on even a couple of key issues. Such progressive independence would have shown the public that there is indeed a left in this country — that the left has principles and stands up for them — and that Obama, far from being on the left, is in the center. Such principled clarity would have undermined the right-wing attacks on Obama as a radical, socialist, etc. — and from the beginning could have gotten some victories out of Obama, instead of waiting more than four years to take him on.

Whether or not Obama’s vicious assault on Social Security is successful, it has already jolted an unprecedented number of longtime supporters. It should be the last straw, suffused with illumination.

That past is prologue. We need to ask: Do such groups now have it in them to stop pretending that each of the Obama administration’s various awful policies is some kind of anomaly?

From this spring onward, a wide range of progressive groups should be prepared to work together to effectively renounce Obama’s leadership.

We need to invigorate political options other than accepting the likes of President Obama — or embracing self-marginalization.

For progressives, there’s not a lot to be gained by venting against Obama without working to implement a plausible strategy for ousting corporate war Democrats from state power. Nor is there a useful path for third parties like the Green Party in races for Congress and other partisan contests; those campaigns rarely end up with more than a tiny percentage of the vote, and the impacts are very small.

This spring, there’s a lot of work beckoning for progressives who mean business about gaining electoral power for social movements; who have no intention of eliding the grim realities of the Obama presidency; who are more than fed up with false pretenses that Obama is some kind of ally of progressives; who recognize that Obama has served his last major useful purpose for progressives by blocking a Romney-Ryan regime from entering the White House; who are willing to be here now, in this historical moment, to organize against and polarize with the Obama administration in basic terms; and who, looking ahead, grasp the tragic folly of leaving the electoral field to battles between right-wing Republicans and Democrats willing to go along with the kind of destructive mess that President Obama has been serving up.

A vital next step is staring us in the face: get to work now to develop and launch grassroots progressive campaigns for next year’s primaries that can defeat members of Congress who talk the talk but fail to walk the walk of challenging Obama’s austerity agenda.

Who are those congressional incumbents who call themselves “progressive” but refuse to take a clear stand against slashing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits? I have a little list. Well, actually it’s not so little.

As of today, after many weeks of progressive lobbying and pleading and petitioning nationwide, 47 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have refused to sign the letter, initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano, pledging to “vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

After all this time, refusal to sign the Grayson-Takano letter is a big tipoff that those 47 House members are keeping their options open. (To see that list of 47, click here.) They want wiggle room for budget votes on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Most of them represent a left-leaning district, and some could be toppled by grassroots progressive campaigns.

By itself, lobbying accomplishes little. Right now, it’s time to threaten members of Congress with defeat unless they vote against all efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Click here if you want to send that message directly to your representative and senators.

The best way to sway members of Congress is to endanger their seats if they aren’t willing to do the right thing. In the real world, politics isn’t about playing cat and mouse. It’s about power.

Illustration by Richard Heighway

Which Members of Congress Are Standing Up for Economic Decency – And Which “Progressives” Aren’t

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Jared_Huffman

Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA)

Now we know.

Every member of Congress has chosen whether to sign a letter making a crucial commitment: “We will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.

The Democratic Party hierarchy doesn’t like the letter. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has said that cutting Social Security would “strengthen” it, and President Obama’s spokespeople keep emphasizing his eagerness to cut Social Security’s cost of living adjustments. The fact that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit is beside the austerity point.

Since mid-February, across the country, many thousands of people have sent personal notes, submitted petitions and made phone calls imploring members of Congress to sign the letter, initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano.

Twenty-eight members of the House of Representatives have signed the letter.

Here are their names: Brown, Cartwright, Castor, Clay, Conyers, D. Davis, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Honda, Kaptur, Lee, Lynch, C. Maloney, Markey, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your Congress member on that list, you live in a House district without a representative standing up for economic decency.

Especially noteworthy are 49 members of the House who belong to the Congressional Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the Grayson-Takano letter. In most cases, they represent districts with a largely progressive electorate. In effect, their message is: We like to call ourselves “progressive” but we refuse to clearly stand up to an Obama White House that’s pushing to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits. To see the names of those 49 members of Congress, click here.

A case in point: As a freshman Congressman, Jared Huffman represents California’s North Coast district, stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. On the 2012 campaign trail, I often heard Huffman assuring voters that he opposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. (As a candidate, I finished second to him among Democrats in the primary election last June.) When he got to Washington, Huffman joined the Progressive Caucus.

Now, refusing to sign the Grayson-Takano letter, Congressman Huffman publicly touts his disdain for “outside groups.” Days ago, deriding the pressure from organizations urging him to sign the letter, Huffman boasted on his public Facebook page: “I won’t be bullied from the left or the right into signing Norquistian vote pledges to outside groups.”

The pejorative word “Norquistian” is proving to be very handy for some Democratic politicians — eager to equate progressive pledges not to cut vital social programs with right-wing pledges not to increase any taxes — as if standing up for economically vulnerable people is somehow comparable to the ideological rigidity of Grover Norquist. This amounts to old-wine corporate centrism poured into a new rhetorical bottle. Subtext: basic progressive principles aren’t important enough to warrant a wiggle-proof promise.

As battles over key issues of economic fairness intensify on Capitol Hill, we’re very likely to see a lot of Democrats — led by President Obama — preening themselves as virtuously non-dogmatic while they rebuff the minimal humanistic demands of progressive constituencies. The Grayson-Takano letter, for example, has been endorsed by dozens of progressive groups such as National Nurses United, Credo Action, MoveOn.org Civic Action, Bold Progressives, Democracy for America, RootsAction.org, Social Security Works, Progressive Democrats of America, the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, Rebuild the Dream, Progressives United, Color of Change, Campaign for America’s Future, Center for Community Change, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

In the real politics of the emerging struggle over Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, there’s a very big difference between expressing opposition to benefit cuts and promising not to vote for them. It’s only when members of Congress make a firm public commitment that Obama White House strategists may feel a need to recalibrate their deal-making calculus with Republicans.

Even firm commitments have eroded all too often on Capitol Hill, but at least the Grayson-Takano letter is a solid starting point. And as we look to the next election season, we should be searching for alternatives to the members of Congress who call themselves “progressive” but refuse to risk the wrath of an austerity-crazed Obama White House.

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Three-Quarters of Progressive Caucus Taking a Dive on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

12:19 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)

For the social compact of the United States, most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has gone missing.

While still on the caucus roster, three-quarters of the 70-member caucus seem lost in political smog. Those 54 members of the Progressive Caucus haven’t signed the current letter that makes a vital commitment: “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

More than 10 days ago, Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano initiated the forthright letter, circulating it among House colleagues. Addressed to President Obama, the letter has enabled members of Congress to take a historic stand: joining together in a public pledge not to vote for any cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

The Grayson-Takano letter is a breath of fresh progressive air, blowing away the customary fog that hangs over such matters on Capitol Hill.

The Progressive Caucus co-chairs, Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, signed the letter. So did Barbara Lee, the caucus whip. But no signer can be found among the five vice chairs of the Progressive Caucus: Judy Chu, David Cicilline, Michael Honda, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Jan Schakowsky. The letter’s current list of signers includes just 16 members of the Progressive Caucus (along with five other House signers who aren’t part of the caucus).

What about the other 54 members of the Progressive Caucus? Their absence from the letter is a clear message to the Obama White House, which has repeatedly declared its desire to cut the Social Security cost of living adjustment as well as Medicare. In effect, those 54 non-signers are signaling: Mr. President, we call ourselves “progressive” but we are unwilling to stick our necks out by challenging you in defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; we want some wiggle room that you can exploit.

In contrast, the House members on the short list of the letter’s signers deserve our praise for taking a clear stand: Brown, Cartwright, Conyers, DeFazio, Ellison, Faleomavaega, Grayson, G. Green, Grijalva, Gutierrez, A. Hastings, Kaptur, Lee, McGovern, Nadler, Napolitano, Nolan, Serrano, Takano, Velazquez and Waters.

If you don’t see the name of your representative in the above paragraph, you might want to have a few words. (For a list of the 54 Progressive Caucus members who haven’t signed the letter, click here.)

It’s one thing — a fairly easy thing — to tell someone else what you hope they’ll do, as 107 House Democrats did recently in a different letter to President Obama: “We write to affirm our vigorous opposition to cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits. . . . We urge you to reject any proposals to cut benefits.”

It’s much more difficult — and far more crucial — for members of Congress to publicly commit themselves not to vote for any cuts in those programs, which are matters of life and death for vast numbers of Americans.

Even a signed pledge to do or not do something, in terms of a floor vote, is no guarantee that a member of Congress will actually follow through. But in a situation like this, the pledge is significant — and even more significant is a refusal to make such a pledge.

As of now, 54 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have taken a historic dive. We should take note — and not forget who they are.

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The Progressive Caucus: Enabling Obama’s Rightward Moves?

11:41 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Progressive Caucus

With 76 members, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest within the Democratic Party

The failure of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to stand up to President Obama on many vital matters of principle is one of the most important – and least mentioned – political dynamics of this era.

As the largest caucus of Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Progressive Caucus has heavyweight size but flyweight punch.

During the last four years, its decisive footwork has been so submissive to the White House that you can almost hear the laughter from the West Wing when the Progressive Caucus vows to stand firm.

A sad pattern of folding in the final round has continued. When historic votes come to the House floor, party functionaries are able to whip the Progressive Caucus into compliance. The endgame ends with the vast majority of the caucus members doing what Obama wants.

That’s what happened on the first day of this year, when the “bipartisan” fiscal deal came down. Widely denounced by progressive analysts, the bill passed on the House floor by a margin of 44 votes – with the Progressive Caucus providing the margin. Out of 75 caucus members, only seven voted against it.

Over the years, we’ve seen that President Obama is willing – even satisfied – to be rolled by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. But that’s just part of the problem. We should also come to terms with the reality that the Progressive Caucus is routinely rolled by the president.

A two-step prototype hit the ground running in September 2009 when Progressive Caucus co-chairs sent a public letter to Obama on behalf of the caucus – pledging to vote against any healthcare bill “without a robust public option.” Six months later, on the House floor, every member of the Progressive Caucus wilted under pressure and voted for a healthcare bill with no public option at all.

Since then, similar dynamics have persisted, with many Progressive Caucus members making fine statements of vigorous resolve – only to succumb on the House floor under intense pressure from the Obama administration.

We need Progressive Caucus members who are progressives first and loyal Democrats second, not the other way around. When the party hierarchy cracks the whip, they should strive to halt the rightward drift of congressional legislation, not add to it.

In the new session of Congress, the Progressive Caucus – with 72 members – retains major potential. It often puts out solid position papers like the recent Budget for All. And its leadership includes some of the sharpest progressive blades in the House. Congressmen Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva just won re-election as caucus co-chairs, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee just became the caucus whip.

Still, none of the more than half-dozen Progressive Caucus leaders were among the seven caucus members who voted against the New Year’s Day fiscal deal – and more serious capitulation may soon be on the near horizon.

Early this month, right after the fiscal deal, the Progressive Caucus put its best foot forward by issuing a “Progressive Principles for the Next Deal” statement that vowed to “protect” Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. But those programs will be in jeopardy before spring in tandem with votes on “sequestration” and raising the debt ceiling.

The results are likely to be very grim unless members of the Progressive Caucus are truly prepared – this time – to stand their progressive ground. Without an attitude adjustment, they’re on track to help the president betray Social Security and other essential parts of the social compact.

On a vast array of profound issues – ranging from climate change and civil liberties to drone strikes, perpetual war and a huge military budget – some individual progressives in Congress introduce outstanding bills and make excellent statements. But when the chips are down and minority leader Nancy Pelosi offloads presidential weight onto House Democrats, the Progressive Caucus rarely shows backbone with cohesive action.

What we have witnessed so far is surrender in stages – a chronic confluence of conformity and undue party loyalty, with brave talk from caucus members habitually followed by contrary votes on the floor of the House of Representatives. From the grassroots, progressives must mobilize to pressure every member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to let them know we will hold them accountable.

Photo by Talk Radio News Service under Creative Commons license