Building Progressive Staying Power

We are fast approaching another Election Day, the first anniversary of the inspiring and historic election of President Barack Obama. Now more than ever, carpe diem should be the watchwords for progressives inside and outside of Congress. Having worked inside Congress for more than thirty years before retiring last summer, I understand that changing our country for the better and rebuilding American stature in the world truly requires transformational progressive ideas and ambitious, multi-faceted legislative action plans. It is insufficient and unwise to invest too deeply in a single politician or rely too much solely upon any group of elected officials no matter how charismatic or talented they may be.

When I first came to work for Members of Congress in 1977, the liberal Democratic Study Group (DSG), green-oriented Environment and Energy Study Conference (EESC), and a handful of additional legislative service organizations with dedicated staff provided institutional memory and an array of very helpful internal services for Members and staff looking to craft and advance progressive legislation. Not surprisingly, when Newt Gingrich and right-wing Republicans seized control of Congress in the 1994 elections, they immediately abolished the DSG, EESC, and all other legislative service organizations and changed the rules to preempt their reincarnation. Since regaining the majority in the 2006 elections, Democratic congressional leaders inexplicably have left in place those misguided Gingrich-era rules. Consequently, there persists a key missing link in the organizational infrastructure essential to consolidating progressive power and fueling and sustaining the 21st century progressive movement for a generation or longer.

There is still time to capitalize more fully upon this rare window of opportunity when lasting, historic change is attainable because of last year's elections. But make no mistake about it. This window has begun to close. It will be demonstrably narrower when the mid-term election cycle kicks into full swing next summer and the potential to achieve real progress toward peace and security, economic and social justice, a retooled democracy, and a cleaner, sustainable environment is unlikely to be as promising again for another generation or longer. We simply cannot rely too much upon the best of intentions, considerable skills, and good graces of the President and the Democratic congressional leadership because, by virtue of their official posts, they are constantly subject to broader, diluting pressures and always settle for what is attainable at any given political moment if they want to achieve any results.

The resurgent progressive movement needs to think more long-term, come together quickly, and systematically build a Progressive Legislative Exchange to share and hone a steady, perpetual stream of the best, actionable ideas that progressives and liberals, near and far, have to offer for public and private sector problem-solving. This is a very egalitarian, 21st century idea whose time has come and is all the more attainable because of the Internet and other far-flung communication capabilities. Progressive leaders and activists have it within our grasp to organize and create a permanent incubator and clearinghouse for conceptualizing and refining progressive legislation to serve the public interest and address myriad problems confronting our nation and our world that will connect and empower imaginative thinkers inside and outside of Congress as never before.

The left needs to capitalize on our existing comparative strengths - a stronger hand in the free-wheeling intellectual marketplace of ideas and our fundamental belief that hard-headed, soft-hearted government at every level can sometimes play a positive role in constructive problem-solving in furtherance of a stronger democracy and more perfect union. That is what a Progressive Legislative Exchange can help deliver.

In contrast, most Republicans and their overseers on the Right cannot get beyond the pinched, narrower marketplace of commercial ideas and self-interested, short-term profit-making.. Having demonized government to always be the central problem in our lives for many years, they proceeded to make government live down to the expectations that they had created for it from the Reagan Administration onward. They suborned our economic well-being to K Street, special interest lobbyists and the barons of Wall Street and undermined our national security by privatizing too many functions of our professional armed forces.

Now in contrast, imagine an organized intersection on-line and otherwise through which progressives can exchange, funnel, and refine ideas and proposals for possible legislation that interested Members of Congress and their dedicated hard-working, over-stretched staff can easily survey and pick and choose for possible further development, introduction, and advancement in the House and Senate. Conversely, this Progressive Legislative Exchange could also make it possible for Members of Congress and their staff to efficiently post or otherwise make available any pieces of legislation they have conceived and want to further refine before the bill(s) and/or amendment(s) are formally introduced, subjected to hearings, and voted upon.

To illustrate and offer a down payment, envision conceptual bills at the ready to:

  • Break up the big banks that supposedly are too big to fail and enact a small securities transaction tax to raise tens of billions of dollars to underwrite job creation here at home;

  • Provide a tax credit and other financial incentives to enable all taxpayers to invest more reliably in socially and environmentally responsible companies that employ Americans;
  • Reject Bush's misnamed, jingoistic "global war on terror", re-frame America's national security strategy and the struggle with al-Qaeda, and retool the underlying 9/11 authorization of force accordingly;
  • Amend the Foreign Intelligence Identities Protection Act in order to hold Dick Cheney accountable in the Plame affair and help restore the morale of our intelligence community - our first line of defense against future acts of terrorism;
  • Establish enforceable worker rights (e.g. freedom of association, prohibition against job discrimination) and environmental safeguards as cornerstones for all future U.S. trade agreements;
  • Prohibit importation of products made by the worst forms of child labor, thus setting up a landmark case to compel the World Trade Organization and the International Labor Organization to work together; and
  • Overhaul our nation's foreign aid program to secure better results with lower costs for U.S. taxpayers;
  • We know President Obama is an inspirational leader who possesses a first-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament. He was elected to be a powerful change agent. There are strengthened Democratic majorities, led by strong, well-positioned liberals like Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Whip Durbin to help him enact much-needed progressive legislation, thus helping to rebuild public confidence that good government can often be a positive influence in all of our lives. Let's fire up a Progressive Legislative Exchange to help them and their successors across generations deliver on their promises.