This week House Democrats took up what may be the most important government-reform effort in decades — HR 1, a package of anti-corruption proposals — and buried it under an avalanche of hot takes about anti-Semitism.
To paraphrase “Hustle & Flow,” it’s hard out here for a majority.
All you liberals who delighted at the many times Republican Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were undermined by uncompromising fringe factions within the House GOP may now see the world through their eyes. At the time, many a pundit opined that Boehner and Ryan had to coddle tea partiers or their successors in disruption, the House Freedom Caucus, or else lose the gavel. But the problem is more fundamental than that: Those dissident factions had enough votes to scuttle legislation if they sided with Democrats, which they were more than willing to do, even on bills that only a conservative could love. So the speaker had little choice but to accommodate them on measures that Democrats opposed, which is almost everything the GOP-controlled House moved.
Similarly, current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has a sizable faction of younger, more liberal members agitating for quick action on such polarizing proposals as the Green New Deal and single-payer healthcare. A bill by sophomore Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) to extend Medicare to all Americans quickly garnered 106 Democratic cosponsors (and no Republicans). Try telling that group to sit back down and wait their turn.
What Pelosi can do is let the disciplining function of the legislative process temper the outsize ambitions of new members. Developing a workable, affordable transition to single payer, if such a thing exists, will take months of hearings and legislative drafting sessions. Ditto for charting a path to a carbon-neutral economy. If the proponents of such ideas are serious, as some of them clearly are, they’ll be willing to put in the time and effort.
A potentially bigger problem for Pelosi and her party, though, is the way a handful of individual members are seemingly defining the entire House Democratic caucus. This week it was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose inability to avoid anti-Semitic land mines in her critiques of U.S. policy toward Israel has given President Trump the opportunity to paint Democrats as the anti-Israel party.
This is mystifying. There have been outliers in Congress for years in both parties, including weirdos such as James Traficant (D-Ohio) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and extremists such as Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). And while they occasionally embarrassed their colleagues, they were never held up as representative.
Yet Omar somehow gets held up as the face of the Democratic Party?
The House Democratic leadership is partly to blame for this. Republicans’ criticism of Omar prompted Democrats to take action against her to prove that they were as tough on anti-Semitism as the next elected official, rather than counting on the public to recognize the statements of a single, obscure pol for what they were. That was mistake No. 1.
Mistake No. 2 was refusing to single out Omar for criticism, or even denounce just the anti-Semitism implicit in the tropes she invoked. Instead, being Democrats, the resolution they offered also denounced a laundry list of other ills, for fear of singling out the person who caused the problem in the first place.
The result was the sort of inoffensive, motherhood-and-apple-pie declaration that anyone and everyone could vote for, which didn’t exactly buff the party’s credibility as a foe of anti-Semitism. Happily for Pelosi, Republicans can’t stay on message any better as a minority than they could as a majority. Twenty-three Republicans actually voted against the resolution — ostensibly because it didn’t rebuke Omar directly — inviting whoever runs against them next year to ask why they defended racism, anti-Semitism and the host of other forms of discrimination the resolution opposed.
(For the curious: Rep. Steve King, the immigrant-bashing Iowa Republican who recently was censured for making comments that seemed to tolerate white supremacy, voted “present.”)
It’s early yet, so Democrats may figure out how to get their act together. And they managed to pass HR 1 on Friday after turning back several GOP amendments and a motion to send it back to committee. Maybe someone will notice.