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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
FIRST US ASTRONAUT TO ORBIT EARTH
John Glenn Dead at 95
10 hours ago
BREAKING
SHUTDOWN LOOMING
House Approves Spending Bill
12 hours ago
BREAKING

The House has completed it's business for 2016 by passing a spending bill which will keep the government funded through April 28. The final vote tally was 326-96. The bill's standing in the Senate is a bit tenuous at the moment, as a trio of Democratic Senators have pledged to block the bill unless coal miners get a permanent extension on retirement and health benefits. The government runs out of money on Friday night.

HEADS TO OBAMA
Senate Approves Defense Bill
13 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act today, sending the $618 billion measure to President Obama. The president vetoed the defense authorization bill a year ago, but both houses could override his disapproval this time around.

Source:
ANTI-MINIMUM WAGE INCREASE
Trump Chooses Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr CEO as Labor Sec
15 hours ago
BREAKING
BUCKING THE BOSS?
Trump Cabinet Full of TPP Supporters
15 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"President-elect Donald Trump railed against the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his way to winning the White House and has vowed immediately to withdraw the U.S. from the 12-nation accord. Several of his cabinet picks and other early nominees to top posts, however, have endorsed or spoken favorably about the trade pact, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, announced Wednesday as Mr. Trump’s pick for ambassador to China, and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Mr. Trump’s pick to head the Department of Defense."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login