How Far Will Democrats Go in the Fight on Income Inequality?

“I don’t believe the price of admission to passing bills around here should be screwing poor people,” says one progressive congressman.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 11: A protester holds a sign during a demonstration against unemployment benefit cuts on July 11, 2012 in Oakland, California. Dozens of protesters with the group Union of Unemployed Workers staged a demonstration to protest cuts in unemployment benefits.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

Con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats have been singing Pres­id­ent Obama’s praises for his re­newed fo­cus on in­come in­equal­ity, an is­sue that re­minds many of them why they ran for of­fice in the first place — and it doesn’t look too bad as a party mes­sage dur­ing an elec­tion year, either.

But over the last few months, Demo­crats have re­peatedly demon­strated why Obama may have to go it alone. Con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats have gone to the mat for lower-in­come Amer­ic­ans sev­er­al times in re­cent months and lost, leav­ing some pro­gress­ives ques­tion­ing how far lead­er­ship is will­ing to go to fight for the poor.

Many Demo­crats, and pro­gress­ives in par­tic­u­lar, are get­ting tired of los­ing. And some are be­gin­ning to ques­tion wheth­er lead­er­ship — and the White House — are will­ing to do what it takes to win.

Take the re­cent budget fight. With un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits set to ex­pire Dec. 28, leav­ing more than a mil­lion Amer­ic­ans without their checks, Demo­crats pushed the House ma­jor­ity to in­clude a three-month ex­ten­sion in the budget agree­ment set to pass that month. Re­pub­lic­ans re­fused and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id ac­ceded, telling his party that they would deal with the is­sue ret­ro­act­ively in the New Year. Demo­crats com­plained — but ul­ti­mately de­livered their votes for the budget deal any­way. Un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits still have not been reau­thor­ized.

The same thing happened last week, when House Demo­crats de­livered 89 of their mem­bers to pass a farm bill that cuts $8.5 bil­lion from the fed­er­al food-stamp pro­gram — double what the party agreed to last year. Sen­ate Demo­crats are also ex­pec­ted to back the bill when it comes up for a vote this week.

Many pro­gress­ives op­posed both bills, and while they ac­know­ledge that the le­gis­la­tion was ne­ces­sary, they are grow­ing in­creas­ingly con­cerned about their lead­er­ship’s abil­ity to pro­tect the in­di­vidu­als that they say they care most about.

“I don’t be­lieve the price of ad­mis­sion to passing bills around here should be screw­ing poor people,” Rep. Jim McGov­ern, D-Mass., said this week. “And that’s what’s go­ing on here. Wheth­er it’s budget bills, wheth­er it’s the price of passing a farm bill. And, God knows what [Re­pub­lic­ans are] go­ing to ask for, for ex­tend­ing the debt ceil­ing.”

“I’m frus­trated ob­vi­ously with Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship,” he said. “I’m a little frus­trated with some Demo­crats. I think we should have fought back harder on this. I think the White House should have fought back harder. I love that the pres­id­ent is talk­ing about in­come in­equal­ity, but you know what? It’d be nice if you’d get in­volved in this fight,” McGov­ern ad­ded.

Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship could have signaled to Re­pub­lic­ans that they would with­hold their votes for a budget deal un­less it in­cluded an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits, or that they would kill farm-bill le­gis­la­tion un­less the cuts to food stamps were lessened. But that’s not the way they play this game, House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said.

“One of the ad­vant­ages that the Re­pub­lic­ans have is that the Demo­crats are re­spons­ible. We are not go­ing to anoint their ef­forts to shut down gov­ern­ment and pre­vent le­gis­la­tion from passing that we need to pass, even if it doesn’t have everything that we want in it,” she said, not­ing that Demo­crats de­livered their caucus on a Re­pub­lic­an bill to re­open the gov­ern­ment in Oc­to­ber, while more than 60 per­cent of the ma­jor­ity party op­posed the ef­fort.

Re­pub­lic­ans are aware of this “re­spons­ible” streak in the Demo­crat­ic Party, Pelosi said, and they have taken ad­vant­age. “But the pa­tience is not end­less,” she warned.

On the farm bill in par­tic­u­lar, mem­bers ar­gue that the le­gis­la­tion offered a num­ber of wins for Demo­crats, aside from the food-stamp cuts. The bill earned the back­ing of a num­ber of en­vir­on­ment­al groups and oth­er pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Cal­if., who sup­por­ted the farm bill, said. “I would ar­gue this is one of the most pro­gress­ive farm bills that’s ever been ad­op­ted,” Farr said.

And Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who lead the farm-bill con­fer­ence com­mit­tee for her party, noted an­oth­er vic­tory: The fi­nal le­gis­la­tion did not in­clude drug test­ing for food-stamp re­cip­i­ents, or the $40 bil­lion in cuts Re­pub­lic­ans had pushed for last year.

But those wins aren’t suf­fi­cient for every­one.

“We’re all sit­ting here go­ing, ‘It could be worse! Could be worse! There could be more people like that,’ you know?” McGov­ern said. “I just think it should nev­er be ac­cept­able to al­low any­body in this coun­try to go hungry. But we’re not talk­ing about people here. Every­body’s talk­ing about num­bers and deals and ar­bit­rary cuts.”

House Pro­gress­ive Caucus Co­chair­man Keith El­lis­on said he doesn’t blame lead­er­ship for sup­port­ing either bill, not­ing that di­vided gov­ern­ment has put them in a tough po­s­i­tion. “I don’t be­grudge lead­er­ship on the way this was handled. I think they did as good as they could. I just couldn’t sign up for it,” El­lis­on said of the farm bill.

“Look, Demo­cracy’s hard. You’ve gotta keep talk­ing. Some­times we will be able to vote stuff, some­times we won’t. But we’re just go­ing to keep on push­ing,” he ad­ded.

But push­ing isn’t cut­ting it for some, who worry that the poor have been the tar­get of cuts in every ma­jor agree­ment Con­gress has reached over the last few months. Con­gress failed to ex­tend a boost in food-stamp fund­ing last fall that will res­ult in $11 bil­lion in cuts to the pro­gram through fisc­al 2014, on top of the ad­di­tion­al $8 bil­lion of cuts in the new farm bill.

“I see this in the con­text of the en­tire situ­ation, which is right now, you didn’t ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, you haven’t raised the min­im­um wage, you’re deal­ing with the same crop of people who are es­sen­tially low-in­come, and now you’re cut­ting [Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram] be­ne­fits. So there are folks who are es­sen­tially in that cat­egory of in­come who are get­ting hit three times,” one Demo­crat­ic mem­ber, who op­posed the farm bill and asked to speak on back­ground, said.

Rep. Rosa De­Lauro, D-Conn., summed up the ef­fects of the last few months of le­gis­la­tion on the poor: “They’re without a job, they can’t eat, and they’re freez­ing. So, OK, is that the kind of na­tion we want? Not me.”

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