The Democrats are already running scared
Nancy Pelosi is a sharp legislative tactician. But her strategic vision is somewhere between cramped and nonexistent.
Now, there are minor rumblings of an uprising against Pelosi, mostly from centrist New Democrats, as she mounts a bid to become House speaker again in the 116th Congress, which will convene in January. But with no strong candidates truly challenging Pelosi, the smart money suggests that the California Democrat will once again lead the House. This also means that most committee leadership will remain in the hands of party veterans. And over in the Senate, the feckless Chuck Schumer has already been re-elected minority leader by acclamation.
This is all a shame, and a truly wasted opportunity.
Democratic Party elites have finally retaken some power in President Trump's Washington. They could push for any number of big, bold initiatives — Medicare-for-all, aggressive climate policy, investigations into the administration's galling corruption. This is Democrats' chance to hold the president accountable and show that they stand for something, even if most of their bills would never see the light of day in a Republican Senate.
So what are they doing? As always, Democratic leaders are thinking small and failing to address the truly massive problems that our country and world face.
Let's start with climate change. After the election, numerous green activists — including incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) — put public pressure on Pelosi to not just resurrect the old Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (which was deleted by Republicans in 2011) as she has promised, but dramatically expand its powers.
As David Roberts writes, this new committee would be tasked not just with holding hearings on climate issues but coming up with a comprehensive plan by early 2020 to fully decarbonize the United States economy over the next couple decades. Furthermore, it would do so in a social-democratic fashion, as part of a "Green New Deal" that would radically reduce the economic inequality in American society.
This is the kind of big and bold thinking America needs. And to her minor credit, Pelosi has at least rhetorically welcomed these efforts, even if she hasn't accepted the specific recommendations. However, much of the rest of the relevant Democratic leadership has already shot this initiative down. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who will helm the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, scoffed at the high targets. "The idea that in five years or 10 years we’re not going to consume any more fossil fuels is technologically impossible," he told Politico. Upcoming Energy and Commerce Committee chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) attacked the idea of a new committee entirely.
It's perhaps understandable that these men would not want young up-and-comers treading on their committee powers. And the existing committees probably could come up with sufficiently aggressive climate policy if they wanted. But do DeFazio or Pallone have any remotely realistic plans to cut down emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change? They do not.
On the contrary, Pallone said: "We can have a very aggressive agenda that we can get a caucus consensus on and that we can even get some Republicans on." As Libby Watson points out, you have to be paint-blisteringly stupid to think that Republicans would endorse any worthwhile climate idea of any kind. (Probably he isn't quite that dumb, and is instead hoping to keep the lefties down while doing the Corporate Democrat Two-Step of supporting pathetic half-measures while eagerly collecting big corporate contributions on the side.)
As if this climate cowardice weren't bad enough, there are also Pelosi's gargantuan unforced budget errors. She supports two very bad House rules, for very stupid reasons. The first is PAYGO, which would require any new spending to be "paid for" by new revenue or spending cuts. The second is an even worse rule that would require a 60 percent majority to pass any policy that would raise income tax rates on the bottom 80 percent.
On the policy merits, both of these are appallingly bad. For one thing, new revenue is only strictly necessary insofar as the economy is running at maximum capacity. As we have seen over the past year, that is very likely not the case, and probably won't be for a long time — especially if another recession strikes soon, which seems increasingly likely. Fundamentally, a very large country that borrows in its own fiat money, which is also the global reserve currency, has huge room to borrow, and there is no reason to set these sort of rules in advance.
Meanwhile, the 80 percent rule is flat-out nonsensical. As Alan Essig explains, it would place a near-insurmountable obstacle to any progressive agenda — for instance, requiring Republican votes to simply repeal the Trump tax cuts for the rich, because the middle class got a couple tiny scraps as part of the deal.
If anything, the politics of these two are even worse. PAYGO would make any policy that increased borrowing even a little much more unpopular, and would rule out strategic temporary borrowing, like my plan to pass Medicare-for-all with a deliberately insufficient tax hike and use the ensuing time to root out endemic waste and fraud in the health-care system. They would both reinforce the right-wing idea that taxation is a burden on the middle class, instead of a way to pay for broadly necessary things and keep down inequality.
This kind of tax phobia is straight out of the early 1990s. It's the defensive crouch of the old neoliberal Democrats who internalized Reagan's notions about government as the only way to win. But it's objectively terrible policy-wise, it's not where the party rank-and-file are, and it's not where the population as a whole is.
Pelosi and most of the rest of the top Democrats are, quite simply, badly out of touch.