High Party Unity Isn't Enough

At the outset of the current Congress, after the House Democratic caucus showed a record level of unity during the previous Congress, I wrote of the importance of House Democrats continuing their impressively and unprecedentedly high level of cohesiveness. The folks at The Washington Post have been crunching the numbers, and apparently not only have the Democrats met their level of unity from the 109th Congress -- they've surpassed it. Paul Kane has the details.

House Democrats are voting with such unity that, if continued throughout the 110th Congress, their cohesion would be unparalleled in recent congressional history.

Through the first five months of the year, the average House Democrat has voted with a majority of his/her caucus colleagues on 94 percent of the 425 roll calls. Enjoying their honeymoon period, 110 Democrats -- nearly half of the 232 Democrats -- have sided with a majority of the caucus on at least 98 percent of the votes cast this year.

[...]

The previous high-water mark for partisanship came with House Republicans in the 107th Congress[...]

Still, the average House Republican in 2001 and 2002 voted with the GOP majority on just 90.4 percent of roll calls. (In the 107th Congress, then-Rep. Tom Sawyer of Ohio was the most partisan Democrat, voting with his caucus's majority 96.6 percent of the time; 65 Republicans had more partisan voting records than Sawyer.)

The fact that Democrats in the House remain united is a positive one. Caucuses that stand together have significantly more power than ones that do not.

But for as effective as the Democratic caucus' whip organization has been at keeping its members together on votes, the flip side is that much of this unity has been a result of the decision by the Democratic leadership in the House to put off a number of the most difficult and at times divisive issues for a later point. Kane writes,

Admittedly, Democrats say that the unity so far is driven by an agenda that stresses unity first, not divisive issues. So far they have avoided such emotional touchstones as abortion and gun rights.

"Our agenda is centrist oriented, trying to get consensus first," said Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi. "We're trying to bring bills that people can be unified on."

I do not mean to understate the accomplishment of House Democrats at banding together, even if it is against a wildly unpopular President and a remarkably unpopular Republican Party. Yet it is not enough to just be united on the issues where Democrats have been and should be united. Certainly it was an accomplishment to pass legislation (since vetoed by the President) that would have set a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces out of Iraq, particularly given that that measure had negligible support (and in fact strong opposition) from the Republicans. But the Democrats need to do more, to push the envelope. As I wrote back in early January,

It will not be enough for the Democrats to just pass the most widely popular items on their platform. Rather, Congressional Democrats will need to show success on at least some other more controversial measures important to their base, and indeed to a majority of Americans, like beginning to bring closure to Iraq or passing immigration reform. Though such moves would be politically risky and no doubt stretch the will of individual members to remain loyal to the party, thus potentially lowering the overall level of party unity, the rewards for success would far outweigh the risk.

I still believe that getting something like immigration reform enacted into law (or a timeline, for that matter, though Iraq is more difficult given the President's determination to veto almost anything short of a blank check) is necessary for the current Democratic Congress to be viewed as a success by the public. Yes, raising the minimum wage is extremely important, and even forcing the President to veto things like the Employee Free Choice Act, federal funding for stem cell research and a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq show that the Democrats are not cowering before the President, that they are working to follow through on their pledges from the 2006 campaign. Nonetheless, the Democrats will also need to make some hard decisions that put their members in difficult spots because the things worth doing aren't always going to be easy. And even if this means that the Democrats aren't quite as unified as they are now, so be it.

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A Few Thoughts on the Politics of Immigration Reform

On Wednesday of last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with a number of leading proponents of immigration reform from this side of the aisle to talk about the politics and the status of the efforts to fundamentally rewrite the federal policies governing who can live in this country and who can become citizens. Those on the call included Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), who carries the title of Assistant to the Speaker; Simon Rosenberg, who heads NDN; and Clarissa Martinez De Castro, who heads The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR).

Here are a few thoughts on the call and the politics of immigration reform...

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Feingold Iraq Amendment Goes Down to Defeat

Just in, the Feingold Iraq amendment went down to defeat by a 67 to 29 margin. Greg Sargent over at TPM Election Central notes, "Vulnerable GOP Senators Gordon Smith and Susan Collins -- both facing challenges next year -- voted against the measure to end the war." All four Democratic presidential contenders in the chamber voted in favor of cloture. More details when the official roll call is posted on Senate.gov.

Update [2007-5-16 12:6:45 by Jonathan Singer]: Per the roll call vote, 29 members of the Senate Democratic caucus voted aye, 20 voted no and every Republican voted no. Democrats voting no: Baucus, Bayh, Bingaman, Carper, Casey, Conrad, Dorgan, Landrieu, Levin, Lieberman (ID), Lincoln, McCaskill, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, Pryor, Reed, Rockefeller, Salazar, Tester, and Webb.

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House Dems Bring Back Ethics and Lobbying Reform Legislation

Late last week when the Associated Press reported that the long awaited lobbying refom legislation was "losing steam in House", many rightfully became upset. After all, although there is a case to be made that Iraq, not ethics, was the largest key to Democratic success in 2006, exit polling from last year's midterm elections showed that more voters (41 percent) listed corruption and ethics as "extremely important" than any other issue, with those listing it as "extremely important" backing Democratic congressional candidates by a whopping 59 percent to 39 percent margin. Given these numbers, perhaps it's good news, then, that Democrats in the House are once again moving with lobbying reform legislation. Alex Bolton and Jonathan Kaplan have the very in-depth story for The Hill.

House Democratic leaders have decided to use their Honest Leadership and Open Government legislation from the 109th Congress as the basis for the lobbying reform bill that the House Judiciary Committee is expected to mark up this week.

By doing so, the leaders are on a trajectory to meet key demands made by left-leaning advocacy groups favoring strong reform. But that course has sparked strong opposition from rank-and-file members of their caucus.

[...]

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats were using last year's bill because they campaigned on it during the election.

"That's what we said we were going to do," he said.

The genius of using last year's bill is that it will be difficult for Democratic lawmakers, even those with strong reservations, to vote against it. Democrats clearly made the bill a part of the agenda during the 2006 election. And nearly every Democrat in the 109th Congress voted for it as an alternative to a GOP-drafted ethics package. Reps. John Murtha (Pa.), Mike Capuano (Mass.), and Rick Boucher (Va.) are the only sitting Democrats who voted against it.

Juding by this rather lengthy article, it appears that there are a number of outstanding complaints about this legislation. Some believe that it is too lax, noting, for instance, that the bill does not contain a Senate-passed prohibition on lobbyist funded parties at the presidential conventions or that it does not include new limits on grassroots lobbying efforts, many of which amount to little more than astroturfing. Others seem to believe that the bill is too strict. Still others think that lobbying reform is off the mark entirely, that instead changes must be made to election and campaign finance laws.

All these criticisms aside and noting the major caveat that the details of this legislation are not entirely open to the public at this point and are still subject to change, I tend to like the notion of passing a bill that is close to the one (or in fact is the one) that Democrats campaigned on in 2006. By passing such a bill, it would be difficult to portray Democrats as failing to follow through on their specific promise on lobbying reform -- a complaint that many have five months into the new Congress.

Again, I would reserve judgement until I have the opportunity to see the substance of this proposal. But in general, this type of direction on ethics reform appeals to me -- particularly at a time when GOP firebrand Patrick McHenry joins the seemingly evergrowing list of Republican members of Congress under legal or ethical scrutiny.

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New Study Underscores GOP's Problems on Rx Drugs

Earlier this month Senate Republicans managed to claim a victory by killing legislation that would allow for the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, the European Union and elsewhere, a move that could have potentially helped curtail sharp increases in the price of pharmaceuticals in this country. As I noted at the time, polling (.pdf) indicates that more than three quarters of Americans support the idea squashed by Republicans. A new report out of the House may explain why. The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman has the details.

After some initial success containing drug prices, private insurers in the new Medicare prescription drug program may be losing their leverage over drug manufacturers as they try to hold down medicine costs for seniors and the federal government, House investigators have found.

Prices for 10 of the most prescribed brand-name medications have shot up an average of 6.8 percent since December under Medicare private insurance plans, while wholesale prices for the same drugs have risen just 3 percent, House Oversight and Government Reform investigators say. The cost of a month's supply of cholesterol-controlling Lipitor had climbed 9.6 percent, to $84.27 in mid-April, from $76.91 in mid-December. Over the same time, list prices climbed 5 percent.

Premiums for Medicare drug plans have jumped 13 percent over the past year, when the drug plans went into effect, the investigators say.

And the rebates that insurance companies are wringing out of drug manufacturers are expected to total 4.6 percent of total drug costs, down from 5.2 percent last year. A year ago, Medicare actuaries had expected insurers in 2007 to secure manufacturers' rebates of 6 percent, then pass those savings on to seniors and the government.

[...]

Brand-name drug prices were expected to climb 7 percent over all of 2007. They nearly hit that mark in mid-April.

With prices for many of the most popular prescription drugs climbing through the roof, it's no wonder that Americans are looking for relief through legislation. But Republicans in the Senate, along with a few of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, decided that it was more important to pander to their supporters in the phamaceutical industry than it was to try to ease prices by opening up the barriers to importing those same prescription drugs from other countries where they cost significantly less. Quite a day for free trade, no?

Democrats have been catching heat in the press -- perhaps rightly so -- for having been unable to get a number of their key priorities enacted into law. But in many of these instances, prescription importation being one of them, it has been obstructionism from Congressional Republicans and/or the White House that has been at the root of the problem, not infighting or laziness among Congressional Democrats.

And Republicans may have to pay a price for their tactics. True, Republican attempts to tag Democrats as obstructionists largely fell on deaf ears during the last Congress. Certainly, this effort was not sufficient to stop the Democrats from gaining control of both chambers of Congress last November. But the Republicans' position during this Congress and the Democrats' position during the previous one were clearly different. During the 109th Congress Democrats successfully fought to block Republican excesses on issues like the partial privatization of Social Security, issues where they had the strong backing of the American public. However in the current Congress Republicans have so far been successful at inhibiting the passage of legislation on which their position has the support of a distinct minority of Americans. Prescription drug importation is but one example of this. Iraq is notably another.

So while Republicans are indeed having successes during the current Congress, stopping the Democrats from enacting much of their agenda, such moves carry great risks for the GOP, particularly Democrats already hold a generic lead of close to 20 points (.pdf) in the 2008 presidential race and Republican presidential candidates fair remarkably poorly against their Democratic competitors.

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