Keep Congress in session this August

A special session will allow Democrats to highlight their differences with the GOP on jobless benefits, financial reform, and energy policy. That's a better campaign plan than sending members back to their districts — and it's right on the merits

Robert Shrum

You can’t go home again. Well, actually you can — but why should you if you’re a member of Congress? Why should Congress take its annual August vacation while 15 million Americans are unemployed and millions more are underemployed, underpaid, or under the radar of official statistics because they are so discouraged they’ve stopped looking for work? With oil gushing into the Gulf, why should senators and representatives be rushing out of Washington to travel, raise money, and campaign?

Democrats in the House will respond that they’ve done their job; the Senate is the roadblock. Democrats in the Senate will plead that they’re not the problem; a willful GOP minority is blocking progress not just out of spite, but calculation. Republicans figure that a slow recovery and the lingering oil slick will drive a protest vote for them in November.

For Democrats, the best way out of the political swamp this summer may be to hunker down in the legislative swamp.

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The Democratic arguments are right, but largely irrelevant and generally ignored by a fearful and frustrated electorate. Ironically, the way to break through is not to flee the Beltway, but to keep Congress there in a drama that plays out on center stage — in front of the cameras — with the president calling a special session of Congress to deal with too-long delayed issues of urgent national necessity.

Last year’s recess, when Tea Partiers stormed town hall meetings, proved that August is not a month off. This year, Democrats (and the country) will gain far more from establishing and voting on clear policy choices than from fleeing to a series of “local” campaigns that, for the most endangered Democrats, are likely to be a prelude to defeat in the fall. (Just ask the endangered Democrats who sought refuge in 1994 by “localizing” their races, or the Republicans who tried it in 2006.)

This is no usual time, making conventional politics perhaps the most impolitic course of all. The president and Congress have already recorded historic progress, but it’s not yet registering in enough people’s lives. Democrats must broadcast a simple message: We’ve done a lot, but there’s a lot more to do. Nothing could more starkly underscore this theme than putting aside the ritual August recess in favor of more legislative work. And nothing could more convincingly unmask the true purpose of Republicans than a series of choices in which they must show their special interest colors, while Democrats show that they’re fighting for the people, not the powerful.

I was criticized for coining that phrase in the 2000 Gore campaign; my only regret is that we didn’t push it harder. Now, more than at anytime since the New Deal, this is the great dividing line in American politics. But people have to see it to believe it. Speeches can only convey it imperfectly to an increasingly splintered audience. A special August session of Congress would dominate the news and drive the tides of public perception.

The president should announce the special session, lay out the agenda — and as Harry Truman did when he recalled Congress in the summer of 1948, challenge the Republicans to do “what they are saying they are for.”

On employment, even better-than-expected jobs numbers won’t be sufficient to persuade people that the worst is over. The millions of Americans whose unemployment benefits are running out can’t subsist on a trend. The Republicans in the Senate refuse to extend jobless benefits on the grounds that the cost can’t add to the deficit, that unlike GOP tax cuts for the rich, Bush’s prescription drug benefit, and two wars, it must be paid for. That’s stupid economics in the case of automatic stabilizers that are designed to generate demand and new jobs.

But the president and Democrats could split the difference here. Why not, for example, revive the $19 billion tax on banks in the Wall Street reform bill? Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown blackmailed Democrats to remove it — in exchange for his vote. But shouldn’t the banks that received hundreds of billions in taxpayer bailout funds pay something to help the unemployed whose livelihoods they shattered by their financial recklessness?

Almost certainly, the Republicans would filibuster anything like this — which would vividly demonstrate whose side they’re on. In fact, a special August session would give them opportunities to reveal themselves again and again.

The Republicans say that since the oil spill, the president and Democrats have done too little on energy; in truth the Senate GOP has blocked the energy bill. Give the party of “no” the chance to do the bidding of big oil and their big contributors — and to vote against the environment and energy independence — in the globally warmed glare of the August sun.

The xenophobes claim that anti-Hispanic profiling like the recent Arizona law is a reaction to the Obama administration’s failure to act on immigration. Never mind that Sen. Lindsey Graham and the few so-called moderate Republicans walked away from reform, along with Sen. John McCain, who appears willing to do anything to salvage his degraded career. Give the GOP the chance to rebuke racism and help pass a fair solution — or alternatively, to spew anti-Hispanic rhetoric and doom the party’s presidential prospects for a generation.

In 1948, Harry Truman won an improbable victory pledging to “attack … the citadel of special privilege and greed.” But Truman used more than “mere words,” as he said, turning to a special session of Congress so voters could “decide on the record.” Now Barack Obama, who was elected to change Washington, could shatter one of the fixed customs of the old politics by telling Congress that you don’t get a holiday until you’ve finished your job.

The new fad in political coverage is to talk about “inflection points.” How about a definition point — a whole month of sharply defined choices in which, day after day, the American people can watch and decide for themselves who’s working for them and who’s working for Wall Street, big banks, oil companies, and other powerful special interests?

As they face the midterms, Democrats and the president plainly need something more than rallies, e-mails, fundraising appeals, and television ads. Perhaps the best way out of the political swamp that threatens them would be staying in the Washington swamp this August. It also has the additional virtue, often rare in election year politics, of being right on the merits.

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