As the nascent House Democratic majority of the 116th United States Congress prepares for its role as Last Bulwark Against Trumpian Annihilation, the question of who should be the next speaker of the House has been looming large. Nancy Pelosi, who has served in Congress for 31 years and held the post from 2006 until the 63-seat wipeout in 2010, has been the clear front-runner since the election.
Pelosi throws more weight than any other House Democrat. She is a fundraising powerhouse who has been in the building longer than the water fountain in the Rotunda. Her political skills are legendary; thanks to her leadership, not one single House Democrat voted in favor of the Trump tax cuts or the Affordable Care Act replacement bills. In a nation where large swaths of the electorate have been gulled into believing “tax cuts” are magic words and “Obamacare” is an epithet, wrangling all those “no” votes was the best trick anyone has seen since “Lazarus, come forth.”
Pelosi’s run for the speakership is supported by new progressive superstars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose leadership on the matter has staved off a left-bent insurrection from new members seeking to shake things up. The only real resistance to Pelosi’s nomination from congressional Democrats has come from conservative members of the party, 16 of whom signed a seemingly doomed letter of opposition.
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There was a great deal of excitement in the air after the Democrats seized control of the House. “The Democrats coming to Washington are younger, more diverse, more female, and more liberal than before,” wrote Joshua Green for Bloomberg News the day after the elections. “They’ll control the US House of Representatives and the subpoena power it grants them — and they’ll be mindful that voters sent them to Congress to act as a check on Trump.”
Several veteran House Democrats, however, have not yet gotten the message. Part of the problem is the fact that it takes time to accrue enough influence in the House to actually get things done, and that time is brutally elongated when members like Pelosi stay in office for decades. “The House Democratic leadership has horribly mishandled the situation vis-a-vis new leadership over the years,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley told The Boston Globe. “This has been festering for years and should have been addressed at least a couple of election cycles ago.”
The leadership issue has also affected the Congressional Black Caucus, which has two members — veteran Rep. Barbara Lee of California and newly elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York — vying for the position of Democratic Party Caucus chair. “The competition is a sign of the CBC’s growing power and the challenges it faces as it expands,” reports Politico. At the same time, however, it stands as another example of a long-serving House veteran facing a challenge from a new arrival anxious to make his mark.
It comes down in the end, as ever, to priorities. Case in point: Climate change is here, and new members like Ocasio-Cortez have proposed a “Green New Deal” to help address the situation before it’s too late (if it isn’t already). They want to expand the scope of a select committee on climate change to help get this done, but are being opposed by veteran lawmakers like Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who seems more interested in guarding his turf (the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) than in saving all life as we know it.
This slow-walking attitude is being parroted by many Democrats who are slated to run a number of powerful committees after January. Rep. Adam Schiff, soon to lead the House Intelligence Committee, has spent the last 18 months breathing fire about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and the Republican coverup of same. Now, however, he is leading a faction of Democrats seeking to delay a reopening of that committee’s investigation. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, soon to head the Judiciary Committee, is actively discouraging anyone from even discussing impeachment, a bruising flashback to the “off the table” stance then-Speaker Pelosi took in 2006 toward the prospect of George W. Bush’s impeachment.
This is not to say the current veteran Democratic leadership is bereft of good ideas. In a Sunday op-ed published by The Washington Post, Pelosi and Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes outlined their vision for the Democrats’ legislative agenda in the coming session. They argue the party’s main priorities should be getting dark money out of politics, “closing the revolving door between government and private industries,” strengthening ethics and conflict-of-interest laws and restoring the Voting Rights Act.
Excellent ideas, all… except the words “climate change” appear nowhere in the article. Immigration reform gets a half-sentence nod even as some 14,000 children remain separated from their parents and asylum-seekers are gassed at the border. Pointedly, the name “Donald Trump” is not mentioned once, despite the fact that the voters specifically elected a Democratic House majority in order to impede this rogue president with all the powers at its disposal.
To do otherwise now is beyond unacceptable. The last time Pelosi held the gavel and had an opportunity to bring a dangerously criminal administration to heel, she spit the bit and let murderers and torturers walk away scot-free. Some of them are now in this administration pursuing similarly deadly policies under yet another cumulous cloud of lies and lawbreaking.
Plainly put, that cannot be allowed to happen again. If the Democratic Party and its leadership continue to be inert and another “change” election comes to nothing, we will all suffer. “The party is being taken over by younger people,” warns Howard Dean, “and my generation can do this the easy way or the hard way. Old institutional leadership always resists change, but it’s important we have that change.”
Truer words were never spoken. Even if Pelosi becomes speaker, she could contribute to the forward momentum of the House by staying in the role for only as much time as it takes the new members to learn the ropes. I think six months is a proper span, and after that, pass the torch. The old strategies are proven repetitive failures, and playing nice with Trump and the GOP is only slightly smarter than jumping into a shark tank with a pork chop tied around your neck.
The current leadership of the Democratic Party still seems to think “reaching out” to Republicans and being “bipartisan” will miraculously part the waters and heal what ails us. Even after all these years, they fail to recognize the stark fact that the modern Republican Party itself is what ails us. A great many Republican voters have been well trained to believe Democratic ideas are not merely wrong but actually evil, and their elected representatives behave accordingly. That isn’t going to change during this Congress, or any time soon.
The new progressive House members are not decorative accents. They have come to get very important things done. If they are not given the opportunity, they just may take it. It’s time for Nancy and Steny and the rest to stand down in due course. We need change that, for once, isn’t in quotation marks.