Coauthored with Jonathan Stone
In case you hadn't noticed, the debt ceiling was raised several days ago, so quietly that it barely made a ripple in the press. No threats of shutting down the government or hostage-taking emanated from Senator Mitch McConnell -- or from his even more radical right-wing cronies in the House -- this recent go around. Instead we had a total capitulation by the Republicans, and as the midterm elections move ever closer we should expect to see McConnell and the brand-challenged GOP continue to pick and choose their battles more carefully. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, should follow the lead of the growing and maturing Progressive movement in this country and go all-out on offense to hold the GOP's feet to the fire and press them to explain their agenda and just how they plan to move America forward. Unfortunately, it is more likely that the Dems will tone it down a bit this year, too, likely waiting to deal with critical issues until after the election. Whatever happened to immigration reform? Or background checks on gun purchases? Americans For Responsible Solutions -- the organization run by Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly - just reported taking in more money in donations than any PAC in this latest period. The public is clearly in favor of action from Congress on this issue -- we just need someone in D.C. to grow a spine and move forward with a reasonable and responsible proposal before more lives are lost.
The modern progressive movement is starting to see the fruits of its labors pay off in other ways, too:
- There had been great concern that the president would target Social Security for cuts again in the upcoming budget for 2015, but just the other day it was reported that Mr. Obama will propose a budget that drops reductions he had previously embraced to those so-called "entitlement" programs, including Social Security. Officials also disclosed on Thursday that the president will ask Congress to approve another $56 billion in spending for new or expanded programs. It is very good news, indeed, the President is dust-binning his previous insistence on cutting cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other benefits in the next budget. The national debate has arguably been leaning more toward raising Social Security benefits than cutting them, as they currently do not keep up with inflation, and the majority of recipients spend a third of their benefits on health care, according to Social Security Works. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have also been raising the volume on this issue, with enormous public support. Bernie was one of 16 senators to send a letter to the White House asking the president to "spare" Social Security, which accompanied a similar letter from 117 House Democrats -- over half of the caucus -- asking the president to "...rule out using the chained Consumer Price Index (CPI) to calculate cost-of-living and inflation adjustments for federal programs..." in the 2015 budget. It is refreshing to see that the president is finally listening to his own party -- and the People -- on these critical issues.
Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is in the battle of his political career to win his re-election fight against a formidable Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has raked in $5 million from 30,000 supporters since she started her campaign. This race is of great national interest, and the candidates continue to run neck-and-neck in the polls. Taking down Senator "Gridlock" would be a major achievement for the Democratic Party and Progressives in general, and would no doubt shake the GOP to its very core. The people of Kentucky would finally have a new leader working for them - instead of special interests -- and the nation would also benefit from the removal of this obstructionist from the powerful position he holds in the US Senate.
At a recent three-day Democratic retreat in Maryland, Vice President Biden announced that efforts to "fast track" the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership ("TPP") would be put on hold until after the election. This news prompted jubilation from the growing camp of unions and organizations that have been working so hard for so long to build the movement to stop the TPP and make the public aware of this critical issue. Public Citizen in particular has been tireless and extremely effective in their efforts to get the word out on this bum deal. Stopping fast track of the TPP - which would have given the president authority to bypass Congress and its role to amend and debate the contents of the agreement -- is an absolute must. A gutsy Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) wrote a letter with Rep. George Miller (D-CA) to the president opposing the fast tack bill that had been co-authored by Dave Camp and former Montana Senator Max Baucus, and which to date had garnered little support in Congress. On the other hand, the De Lauro/Miller letter had 151 House Democrats sign on after an incredible grassroots campaign of individuals and organizations calling and meeting with members of Congress, urging them to sign the letter. Days before Biden's announcement, both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi also said they did not support fast track. This huge push from Progressives, along with a flurry of recent press pieces on the negative aspects of the TPP, helped the Democratic leadership in Congress stand up to the president and say "no" -- at least for now -- to this terrible deal that has been negotiated for three years behind closed doors by 600 lobbyists and special interests, with Congress, the public and the press kept totally in the dark about what is in the agreement. Even so, it's not too hard to figure out who the winners and losers would be. Do we really need to lose more jobs and create more trade deficits? Have we learned nothing in the twenty years since the passage of NAFTA?
Another sign of progress over the past several months has been on the issue of so-called "non-profits" that have been exempt from paying taxes as they operate under the guise of doing "social welfare work." In truth, they do little more than funnel unlimited and unidentified sums of money into elections to unfairly affect their outcomes. Clearly our government has been corrupted and bought off with legal bribery -- or slander, depending on whether these shadowy groups are working for you or against you -- under the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision. This disastrous ruling has left our democracy on the brink and has helped create a government that no longer serves the American people, but only the highest bidder. So it was with great interest that I read an email I received a week ago from the ever-vigilant Public Citizen that asked me to click on a link to a page on the website regulations.gov, which is asking for comments from the public on tax exempt organizations and their related political activities. The IRS is currently just seeking a guidance rule on those activities, but they must take stronger steps, shutting these organizations down and fining them for hiding their blatantly political and partisan activities under the guise of "social welfare." The only question is, can further steps be taken legally under our current system?
More good news came with the introduction of The Government By The People Act, which garnered 400,000 petitions from citizen sponsors, along with support from 133 members of congress and 45 Progressive, labor and good government groups representing 50 million supporters, according to Public Campaign. The bill would counter some of the effects of Citizens United by creating a system of public funding of campaigns, with small donations by the public being matched by public funds 6 to 1, much like what New York City has done successfully for years. Individual donations would be capped at $150, which with the additional public funds would amount to $1,050 - still a tidy sum for any candidate. This bill was crafted with the input of Progressive organizations over a period of a few months, with the PCCC and Democracy For America having a major hand in the process. Passage of this bill would also encourage new, young citizens to run for office for the first time - our politics desperately needs such an infusion of new ideas and energy. In New York City last month we saw Progressives sweep into office with the landslide election of Mayor Bill DeBlasio and a new City Council. The mayor spoke passionately of New York City devolving into "A Tale of Two Cities," and his words serve to remind us that we are also living through a "Tale of Two Americas" in need of serious remedies and leaders to implement them. There is little doubt that the Government By The People Act would help to restore our democracy and take it out of the hands of the privileged few. It is worth recalling that in 2012 Wall Street alone spent over $200 million to influence elections, according to an email I received from Public Citizen. We can expect much more money to flow in from various corners of the special interest spectrum to influence elections in 2014, unless we demand our representatives in Congress do something now to stop it. Another bill, the Udall-McGovern sponsored Fair Elections Now Act, would restore authority to Congress and the states to limit campaign gifts and spending, so there is activity -- at least in certain quarters of DC -- to address campaign finance reform. These bills must be passed so that Citizens United can be neutralized.
Still fresh in my memory is the recent New Hampshire Rebellion Walk, led by Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard and co-founder with Joe Trippi of the non-profit Change Congress. The march started with a small band of followers that picked up increasing numbers as they crossed the state on foot, trekking 185 miles through snow and sleet across New Hampshire in January to hammer home the need for campaign finance reform. They have one simple but pointed question for the presidential candidates that will come to that tiny first primary state in 2016: "How are YOU going to end the system of corruption in Washington?" This message should also be delivered to our members of Congress when they come home to their districts. Freeing our government from the corrupting influence of money must become the overarching issue in this election. It is clear that if we are ever to see the critical issues affecting our country finally dealt with in a constructive manner, we must clean up our government, go to public funding of campaigns and elect more Progressive voices to Congress. All the more reason for an amendment that will overturn Citizens United to be passed.
The extraordinary bravery of minimum wage-earning fast food workers taking to the streets across the country to demand a decent living wage is another sign that the times are indeed changing, although Congress clearly needs more prodding on this one. In less than two years these workers have built a significant movement that has been joined by many others who are paid the minimum wage. Some have been fired for striking, while others have put themselves in jeopardy trying to unionize their workplaces. In response to these courageous acts by the least powerful among us, Congress must get its act together and raise the minimum wage this year. It is the right thing to do.
This Thursday there will be 700 community watch parties of Robert Reich's film Inequality For All in 48 states, organized by DFA and its members. Following the film that evening, Robert Reich will be joined on a national phone call by Elizabeth Warren to discuss building the movement against economic inequality. Last Wednesday, Bernie Sanders also reached out to DFA members to join him in the "...fight to address growing income and wealth inequality and rebuild the collapsing middle class." 56,665 Americans heard his call and signed his petition to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
And let us also not forget Russ Feingold's Progressives United, which just celebrated its third anniversary by announcing that during those first three years it generated 2.4 million petition signatures and phone calls to elected officials and raised $1.4 million for strong Progressive candidates. Russ has helped to jump-start the movement to take back our democracy, and deserves a healthy round of applause for his efforts.
These stories are just a few examples that help to illustrate the incredible growth in citizen activism occurring in this country on a daily basis. They also remind one of the populist movements of the late 19th century, when the wheat farmers in the west and cotton farmers in the south were financially squeezed every inch of the way by special, monied interests as they fought to bring their products to market across the country. It was, after all, the age of the Robber Barons and the so-called "Gilded Age," when corporatists used price controls and other financial trickery to force farmers into debt and lose their farms to banks and land speculators owned and employed by many of those same corporate interests - an endless cycle of economic violence against hard-working Americans perpetrated by that era's version of the 1%. In response, the farmers united to form the Farmers' Alliance and other cooperatives. Some even ran for and were elected to public office. From their humble backgrounds they built a movement of about 200,000 that lasted some 20 years. There was even a Populist Party offshoot of this movement, which was eventually co-opted and absorbed into the Democratic Party.
Of course, there is much more we can learn from this period and the creation of populism in America -- which simply means the People taking on the elites. That is what all of these examples illustrate -- when united in large numbers, victory is almost always on the side of the People. In our time, it is the vast majority of Americans fighting against a tiny group of very rich, greedy and self-absorbed individuals who have bought out our government to do their bidding and make them even richer, which has only served to produce a government that no longer functions.
To fight back against this subversion of our democracy, we are seeing a very sophisticated and expanding Progressive grassroots movement emerge that can generate hundreds of thousands of petitions on an issue; engage in phonebank campaigns to voters and members of Congress and the White House; meet with Congress members in their DC offices and their own districts; and conduct letter drops to Congressional offices on critical issues, something which PDA has mastered. This is all part of a successful outside-inside strategy that the Progressive movement is using to great effect.
PDA has also crafted a brilliant strategy in its Educate Congress Campaign, reaching out to members of Congress in both parties on a monthly basis and delivering letters on issues that matter to the country. This month, their largest effort will deliver 300 letters to specific Congress members by hand, informing them on specific issues like the TPP, the American Health Security Act, the Humphrey-Hawkins jobs bill, and the Voter Empowerment Act. These letters are then followed up by the PDA phone team of 500 volunteers making calls to those members of Congress to discuss the contents of the letters. Then a third wave of volunteers heads to the Hill for further dialogue on the issues with the Congress members and their staffs. These monthly efforts have helped to create relationships and an ongoing dialogue between these activists and members of Congress, and helps show that PDA will have their backs when needed if they act on these issues, and will also hold their feet to the fire if they don't. This very effective campaign is just one of the strategic programs crafted by PDA's inspired and visionary leader, Tim Carpenter.
So whether this movement is called "populist" or "Progressive" or plain old "liberal," what matters is that it is starting to see success in its efforts to ensure that the well-being of the People becomes our leaders' first and foremost priority again, and not that of the handful of self-indulgent corporatists who are seeking to run this country through their checkbooks. Will all of this great and exciting activism continue to grow in influence to match that currently held by the monied few? We have until 2016 to nurture it and find out. So jump in, folks. The water's fine.