Sunday, August 16, 2009

Numbers Talk

In discussing a panel at NetRoots Nation 2009, Scarecrow made this observation at FireDogLake:

As I've argued with Ian, the stimulus and budget bills weren't ad hoc measures; they contained extensive, well thought out laundry lists of dozens of things that needed money that had been neglected and which pointed in a different direction. Those became the basis for those bills.

And there wasn't any question about what needed to happen in revitalizing the regulatory system in every industry. Nor were there any doubts that we needed to overturn virtually every DoJ "terror" ruling of the last seven years, end the practices and bring the law breakers to justice.

So we had the shock, it created an opportunity, we knew what needed to be done, we won the elections and progressives were ready. But in every one of these cases, the effort was cut off at the knees by a White House that was either too cautious, too unwilling to fight, or really didn't believe in what needed to be done.

NN09 Panel: How To Waste A Crisis

The reason he's mistaken, and why many progressives are mistaken when they assume we should have the power to make progressive legislation happen, is that bit I've emphasized. Progressives didn't win this election. The status quo won the elections. That's what's becoming abundantly clear, but it's plain a lot of people aren't catching on.

Don’t mistake the fact that many of the folks progressives supported won elections for progressives winning the elections. The two are not the same.

In the last few elections, the objectives espoused by many liberal organizations, including this one, was to elect enough Democrats to Congress that they would control both houses. In many races, we made the best choice available. In some cases, we were mistaken to support people. This Congress is almost certainly more progressive than the last one, or the one before that. It is not, at this time, progressive. I'll buy that line when there are at least 120 members (see NOTE) of the House Progressive Caucus, or when there are 41 progressive Senators who are willing to filibuster regressive legislation. As I've explained before, just totaling up the politicians who call themselves Democrats is pointless.

Right now, there are 81 representatives in the House Progressive Caucus. These are the people who are unashamed to wear the label "progressive". There are probably more people in the House who deserve that title, but not many. This is far too small a number to enact legislation that goes against the status quo. In order to do that, the Progressive Caucus, along with any other members of Congress who might go along with a particular piece of legislation for their own reasons, has to be able to form a majority for or against a bill. To be reasonably sure of being able to do this, that caucus should be at least as large as the 108-member Republican Study Committee, the conservatives who speak for most Republicans. It should probably be double the size it is now, given how resistant the other movement-oriented Democratic caucuses, the Blue Dogs and New Democratic Coalition, are to change. According to this article, they number 52 and 68 members, respectively. That's where the number 120 came from - it means the number of progressives will be at least that of the other two major Democratic caucuses combined. That's a lot of progressive representatives who aren't there. It will take at least two more election cycles to elect them, probably more.

In the Senate, things look even more grim. Of the 60 Senators in the Democratic Caucus, only two openly identify as part of the Progressive Caucus, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Tom Udall (D-NM). I suspect they joined the House Progressive Caucus, rather than form their own caucus in the Senate, so they don't feel so alone. There were maybe twenty Senators who deserved the label "progressive" in the last Congress. This last election cycle, the only new Senator whom I can honestly give the label of progressive is Al Franken (D-MN). Among the other new Senators, Mark Udall (D-CO), Jeanne Sheehan (D-NH), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) will probably turn out to be progressive. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) almost certainly will not. Let's be wildly optimistic and say there are now 25 progressive Senators.

That's a long way from forty-one. At the net rate of four new ones per cycle, we'll be there in 2020.

Until the objective becomes electing enough progressives to Congress to seriously influence the legislation that passes through it, I think you can continue to expect things to go as they have with the banking crisis, the stimulus, and the health care bill. Electing people who just want to be Democrats because it's easier to be elected as one clearly isn't working. When we decide whether to support a candidate for office in the future, among the first questions we should ask is "If elected, will you join the Progressive Caucus?". If the answer is "no", our response should be "Oh, look at the time..."

In the Congress, numbers talk and bullshit walks. Until the progressives have the numbers they need to influence legislation, nothing will happen beyond what's happening now. We aren't there yet, not by a long shot. That's the lesson that we need to take home today.

NOTE: In a comment at FireDogLake, I'd written "218" here, which is a majority in the House. In reality, it can be somewhat less. I'd estimate that 120 is probably about the minimum number, but progressive influence is a lot more likely if the number is 160. Finding 58 more representatives who will go along with the Progressive Caucus viewpoint on a particular issue should be a manageable problem, as long as it's the most numerous voting block. I'm not sure you could find 98 such people, particularly given the attitudes of the other major movement caucuses in Congress.

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