Regime Change at Home

From The Progressive Populist

Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have some on the left wondering why we can’t accomplish regime change in the United States.

But a big difference between restive North Africans and Americans is that Americans, by and large, have the right to vote and we can change the regime if we can muster the will and overcome the corporate noise machine. 

Many of us thought we were accomplishing regime change in 2010, with the election of Barack Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress, but even after the switch of Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) from Republican to Democrat and Al Franken (DFL-Minn.)’s election finally was certified seven months after he won at the polls, giving the Democratic caucus the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks, we found that a cabal of Republicans and corporatist Democrats in the Senate were still able to block progressive initiatives from becoming law. 

Even after a compromised health-care reform bill made it through Congress, it still faces a review from the politically divided Supreme Court, where opponents are believed to have lined up at least four votes to overturn the law, including one justice, Clarence Thomas, who is untroubled by conflicts of interest with his wife, Ginni, who has been a conservative fundraiser and is now a lobbyist who boasts of her “connections” to help clients with “government affairs efforts.”

However, a coalition of House Progressives and Teabaggers Feb. 8 at least delayed the plans of congressional leaders to renew several key provisions of the Bush-era PATRIOT Act without giving them serious review. George Zornick of ThinkProgress.org noted that key provisions expire at the end of February, including language that gives the FBI authority to use roving wiretaps; a “lone wolf” provision that allows the government to monitor targets who are not connected to an identifiable terrorist group; and, most troublingly, a provision allowing the FBI access, without judicial review, “any tangible items” such as library records that it deems relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation. 

Reforms to the PATRIOT Act have been debated every year but never enacted. The new Republican House leadership put the one-year extension on a fast track for passage without any reforms — or even hearings.

The ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) opposed the extension and urged his colleagues to vote no, calling the act “one of the worst laws” Congress had ever passed. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) challenged Tea Party conservatives to stand up for the First and Fourth Amendments when the bill came up for debate in the House and 26 Republicans voted with 122 Democrats against the measure, while 67 Dems and 210 Republicans supported it. That left supporters short of the two-thirds needed for immediate passage.

That means the bill will get a committee hearing and come back under regular rules, when a simple majority can pass it.

In the meantime, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has put forth a bill that would extend the provisions, but with some important safeguards. For example, “when library or bookseller records are sought via a Section 215 order for business records, a statement of specific and articulable facts showing relevance to an authorized investigation must be produced.” The Department of Justice has already agreed to enact most of these reforms voluntarily, but Leahy’s bill would also sunset use of National Security Letters, a dangerous practice that gave the FBI authority to demand personal customer records from Internet service providers, financial institutions and credit companies without court review.

Unfortunately, Senate “conservatives” are prepared to fast-track a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that extends these provisions for two years without any reforms, under a rule that allows them to bypass the committee process.

There ought to be at least 41 senators who would stick together to block the fast-tracking of PATRIOT renewal, but don’t count on it. Tell your senators that the PATRIOT Act, if it should be renewed at all, should be extended only long enough to allow a sober hearing of Leahy’s bill. 

Regime change begins at home. But the White House is only the start. We also need better senators and representatives. Too many Democrats talk about protecting working people’s interests before the election but bow to corporate benefactors after the election. And plenty of Republicans are in favor of keeping the government out of your business before the election, but after the election are perfectly willing to let the FBI seize your files without giving you recourse to a court or even your own attorney. 

We don’t need to occupy the National Mall to restore democracy. We just need to pay attention to what’s going on, encourage good people to run for office and then vote for them in our neighborhood precincts. The Supreme Court has said that corporations can flood the airwaves with ads during election campaigns — and we should organize around reversing that infamous Citizens United court ruling — but first we need to do a better job of getting the truth out over the din.

(And Diane Feinstein needs a Democratic primary challenger. California really can and should do better.)

See the entire editorial at The Progressive Populist. Reprinted by permission.

 

The Majority versus the "Majority Makers"

The Hill is reporting that the Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi is expected to unveil a health overhaul bill tomorrow, Thursday, that includes the public health insurance option favored by the party's centrists, the so-called Blue Dogs, and not the Medicare-plus-5 percent public option being pushed by the House's progressive caucus.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) will introduce a plan similar to what a group of Blue Dog Democrats negotiated in July to get a healthcare bill out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The proposal calls for the officials who run the public plan to negotiate rates individually with physicians and hospitals.

"It looks like that's what it will be," Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said Wednesday night after leaving a meeting where leaders laid out the bill to those Democrats in their second term in Congress. Pelosi calls them the "majority makers" because their election gave Democrats control of the House.

Pelosi has made it clear she personally supports the so-called "robust" public option that is tied to Medicare-based payment rates, as does a solid majority of the 256 House Democrats. But it has become apparent in recent days that such an option doesn't have the 218 votes she needs to pass it with no Republican support.

Liberals have noted that while it's clear their version doesn't have the votes, there hasn't been a full vote count on the centrist compromise. Winning with negotiated rates assumes that House liberals wouldn't dare block President Barack Obama's signature health initiative.

Or will they? That looks increasingly like the million dollar question. "I am not rolling over," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"I will insist on a Medicare-plus-5 [percent] amendment on the floor so that the full caucus can vote on it. We are hopeful that the Rules Committee will allow this amendment, which has tremendous public support, to be voted on for the record."

Meanwhile the other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), said: "When we see what the bill says, we'll decide if we can support it."

Woolsey added that while Progressives don't intend to sign off on just anything that's handed to them, "this isn't walk-away time." She called on President Barack Obama to speak up in support of the public plan.

“He’s not saying it loud enough,” she said.

My own take is that we are Democrats for a reason. Part of that reason is that a robust public option that ultimately leads to a single-payer system is in the best interests of the nation. While I am appreciative of the role that the "majority makers" have played in giving the party control of the House, now is not the time to dilute long-held core principles of the Democratic party. This is about who we are as a people.

In this light Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich gets it right. Late on Wednesday Representative Kucinich put out a press release complaining that Democrats were compromising too much and warned that more compromises in the final bill would water the plan down ever more.

Congressman Kucinich noted that the Progressive Caucus has already compromised on single payer by backing a public option, and now we are being asked to compromise the public option with negotiated rates." He goes to warn that "in conference, we will likely be asked to compromise negotiated rates with a trigger. In each and every step of the health care debate, the insurance companies have won. If they get hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxpayer subsidies, they get to raise their premiums, and increase their co pays and deductibles, while the public is forced to pay for private insurance, then the insurance companies win big."

“If this is the best we can do, then it is time to ask ourselves whether the two-party system is truly capable of representing the American people or whether they system has been so compromised by special interests that we can’t even protect the health of our own people,” Kucinich said. “This is a moment of truth for the Democratic Party. Will we stand for the people or the insurance companies?”

Indeed that is the question.

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No Public Option Is Not An Option

Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Raul Grijalva on behalf of the Progressive Caucus have sent the President a letter stating in rather unequivocal terms that any bill that does not provide a public option built on the Medicare provider system and with reimbursement based on Medicare rates is "unacceptable".

Here's the text of the letter in full:

Dear President Obama:

Thank you for continuing to work with Members of Congress to draft a health reform bill that will provide the real health care reform this country needs.

We look forward to meeting with you regarding retaining a robust public option in any final health reform bill and request that that meeting take place as soon as possible.

Public opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Americans want the choice of a robust public plan and we stand in solidarity with them. We continue to support the robust public option that was reported out of the Committees on Ways and Means and Education and Labor and will not vote for a weakened bill on the House Floor or returning from a Conference with the Senate.

Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, a public option built on the Medicare provider system and with reimbursement based on Medicare rates-not negotiated rates-is unacceptable. A plan with negotiated rates would ensure higher costs for the public plan, and would do nothing to achieve the goal of providing choice and competition to keep rates down. The public plan with set rates saves $75 billion, which could be lost if rates are negotiated with providers. Further, this public option must be available immediately and must not be contingent upon any trigger.

Mr. President, the need for reform is urgent. Every day, 14,000 Americans lose their health care coverage. We must have health care reform that will effectively bring down costs and significantly expand access. A health reform bill without a robust public option will not achieve the health reform this country so desperately needs. We cannot vote for anything less.

We look forward to meeting with you to discuss the importance of your support for a robust public plan, which we encourage you to reiterate in your address to the Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday.

Lynn Woolsey
Raul Grijalva

The critical point is that "a health reform bill without a robust public option will not achieve the health reform this country so desperately needs." Anything less is passing the buck to a future Administration.

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55 House members speak out for fair trade

Corrected to note that one Republican also signed this letter.

Today 55 House representatives took a stand against the Panama Free Trade Agreement in an open letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

After the jump I've posted the full text of the letter, along with the list of those who signed. Here is an excerpt:

We believe trade agreements must meet basic standards protecting labor rights, environmental standards, food safety regulations, financial regulations, and taxation transparency. We are disturbed by Panama's tax haven status and the use of this tax haven by U.S. financial institutions like AIG and Citibank. The U.S. is currently contemplating stricter financial regulations to protect our economy, but the Panama FTA will likely weaken any such effort. We believe the Panama FTA should be renegotiated in order to address these outstanding issues.

President Obama campaigned effectively on changing the trade model and his message resonated with the American people.  We believe the Panama FTA falls far short of that commitment and it is not in the best interests of the American worker, our economy, or our country.  We share your commitment to fighting for working families and believe you can be an effective advocate for our cause.

The House members who signed the letter mostly belong to the Populist Caucus, House Trade Working Group, and/or the Progressive Caucus. One Republican signed: Walter Jones (NC-03).

"Defending American competitiveness by fighting for fair trade principles" is one of the six key priorities for the Populist Caucus, which Bruce Braley (IA-01) formed earlier this year.

Also today, a U.S. Trade Representative announced that the Panama agreement "won't be submitted to Congress for approval until President Barack Obama offers a new 'framework' for trade." At Open Left, David Sirota interpreted that announcement as a victory (albeit possibly only temporary) for the Populist Caucus, its allies and the AFL-CIO, which had already come out against the Panama agreement.

We'll see whether the White House is willing to deviate significantly from the NAFTA model in this agreement. Whatever the final outcome, I am glad to see a large House contingent taking a stand for fair trade.

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Will Blue Dog power decline in the next Congress?

Many a bad bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives with the votes of Republicans and Democratic "Blue Dogs." These representatives call themselves "moderates" or "centrists," and you often find them voting with corporate interests, against the majority of the House Democratic caucus, when the chips are down.

This Washington Post article about the upcoming debate over an economic stimulus bill cites Representative Baron Hill of Indiana as "incoming co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of 51 fiscally conservative House Democrats."

Hill wants the economic stimulus money to go toward road and bridge construction, whereas others would like to see more of the money spent on "green jobs" and infrastructure projects that are more environmentally friendly than building new roads. Progressives would like to spend the transportation money on fixing our existing roads and bridges while expanding public transit and rail. (Friends of the Earth has launched a campaign to "keep the economic stimulus clean." Click here for more details about the economic and environmental consequences of letting new road construction dominate the stimulus bill.)

Getting back to the title of this diary, Matt Stoller read that Washington Post piece about debates over the stimulus and was intrigued to learn that Hill claims 51 members for the Blue Dog Coalition:

Last session, there were 49 Blue Dogs, and during the election season the caucus continually bragged about how they would add a substantial number of new members in 2009.  Still, their PAC didn't give to very many Democratic candidates, two Blue Dogs lost reelection, and a bunch of their candidate prospects lost.  If it's true that the Blue Dogs have only increased their number by 2, and I'm not sure it is, then they really are far weaker in the House than they were from 2006-2008.  There are 257 Democrats in the next Congress and 178 Republicans.  While the Blue Dogs are still a swing bloc, they only have 11 votes to give.  That's not very many, considering that this number assumes all Republicans always vote with the Blue Dogs.  If Republicans split off from their caucus on certain votes, even small numbers of Republicans, then Blue Dog priorities are far less likely to matter overall.

Once the new House convenes, it will be interesting to see how the Blue Dogs compare in number to the Progressive Caucus, which had 71 members in the last Congress. My hunch is that the Progressive Caucus will add a lot more new members than the Blue Dogs.

After the new year I'll try to find out how many members Bruce Braley (IA-01) was able to recruit to the Populist Caucus he is forming.

Whether or not Blue Dog power declines in the House, it may be on the rise in the Senate. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana is setting up a Blue Dog caucus in the upper chamber. Although Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's spokesman claims Reid is "upbeat" about Bayh's plans, it's likely that the Senate Blue Dogs will collude with Republicans to obstruct Barack Obama's agenda.

Matthew Yglesias advanced a very plausible hypothesis about Bayh's move:

With Republicans out of power, the GOP can't really block progressive change in exchange for large sums of special interest money. That creates an important market niche for Democrats willing to do the work. It was a good racket for the House Blue Dogs in 2007-2008 and there's no reason it couldn't work for Senate analogues over the next couple of years.

Let's hope the memory of the 1994 Republican landslide will induce conservative Democrats not to block most of Obama's agenda. The Democrats who ran Congress in 1993 and 1994 wanted to show Bill Clinton who was boss, but the effect was to make Democrats look incompetent, depressing Democratic base turnout in 1994 and turning swing voters toward the Republicans.

On the other hand, I would not underestimate the Blue Dogs' willingness to do what big money wants, whether or not it's good for the Democratic Party.

Share any relevant thoughts in the comments.

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