Can Congress “walk and chew gum at the same time?”
by Ralph Nader February 14, 2009
This phrase used by President Lyndon Johnson for one of his political opponents comes to mind at a time early in the first 100 days of the Obama Administration when supposedly many long-overdue changes and rollbacks are possible.
It is not just that Congress is completely absorbed with the tax-cut-stimulus package. It is stasis that seems to be enveloping, even within its numerous well-funded and staffed committees in the House and Senate, from even the signaling of serious movement toward rolling back Bush-pushed legislation and starting widely supported forays that take hope to change.
The continuation of this state of stasis is made more likely because the Republican minority is feeling its oats. It put the White House on the defensive during the struggle to enact economic recovery legislation even though previous Republican policies and coddling of Wall Street for eight years build a steep cliff for financial collapse. Add the de-regulatory moves of 1999 and 2000 by the Clinton-Rubin crowd and the financial meltdown accelerates.
There is something else operating. One gets the feel on Capitol Hill among some fairly sharp people of a lack of horizon, a paucity of progressive determination, a sense of being overwhelmed by the corporate forces still bearing down on Congress—easily the most powerful branch of government under our Constitution.
But Congress does not act as if it is the most powerful branch. It routinely abdicates its constitutional responsibilities—the declaration of war authority and the plenary authority to investigate and require access to information in the executive branch.
Even after the Democrats took control of the Congress in January 2007, George W. Bush again and again got his way including a rubber stamp for the huge Iraq and Afghanistan war budgets outside of the normal appropriations processes.
Efforts by Senator Russ Feingold and Cong. John Conyers to move a modest censure resolution of Bush and Cheney for their many constitutional and statutory violations were aggressively rejected by their leaders—Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid. In January 2007, Pelosi and Reid two took impeachment off the table allowing the most chronically impeachable presidency in our history to continue undisturbed.
Some staffers in Congress privately assert that the Democrats are not acting like a majority party. It is worse than that. They are not acting—period.
From their majority status in 2007 to 2009 and a Democratic President in the White House, the Congressional Democrats are not moving swiftly to repeal the ban on Uncle Sam negotiating drug prices from volume discounts under the drug benefit law. They are not moving to amend the Patriot Act, regain control of warrantless surveillance, strengthen the corporate criminal laws and enforcement budgets. Congress is not even pushing to require taxing Hedge Fund manager’s income as ordinary income not as capital gains.
I cite these policies because they are policies much favored by many Democratic lawmakers. But in practice lawmakers duck and duck and duck from translating their beliefs into contentious action vis-à-vis the lobbyists and their captive legislators.
Senator Chris Dodd and the vast majority of the American people want to do something about credit card company abuses and gouges. But he is surrounded not just by the Republicans on the Senate Banking Committees but high-ranking Democrats beholden to the financial goliaths who, are demanding and receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts.
There is word from the politicians that consideration of health care insurance—apart from a quickly enacted expansion of some coverage for more poor children—will be put off for a year. The trade unions’ top priority to enact labor law reforms, supported by Obama during his presidential campaign, are being held back by the Democrats.
There is even doubt whether the District of Columbia will get a voting Representative in the House when push comes to shove in the Senate.
The one-subject-at-a-time attitude is coming from the White House. “Obama doesn’t want it now” is a common phrase used by legislators to excuse themselves from exercising the separate but equal Congressional powers. This pretext applies to taking away some of the hugely expensive and unnecessary weapons systems like the F-22 aircraft decried by many military and retired military analysts. The vast, bloated military budget is sacrosanct on Capitol Hill as it is in the White House.
At a time of widely perceived needs for Congressional action, with large corporations busy applying for corporate welfare and on the defensive, the Democrats are not generating any momentum for standing for and with the people. Even in the midst of food contamination, illnesses and fatalities, they cannot turn around forty years of delay on giving the Food and Drug Administration adequate authority and inspectors to protect our food supply.
It is going to take a very focused civic jolt from you all to your Senators and Representatives. A couple of million jolters from our large country can get the train moving on the tracks. It doesn’t take much time to holler, yell or bellow with the facts.