Are Democrats starting to play some offense? Three reports seem to lead to this conclusion, although at this point it is too early to tell what sort of effect this will have on the political landscape, for both the near future and for the 2012 election season. For now, it is refreshing to see Democrats pushing back on a few key issues, whatever their chances of legislative (or political) success happen to be. And the Democrats have picked three pretty good issues with which to launch this particular offensive -- the mortgage crisis, gay marriage, and taxing millionaires.
Let's take these one at a time. The Obama White House is apparently pushing hard for a quick settlement over the mortgage mess. From The Huffington Post today:
The Obama administration is seeking to force the nation's five largest mortgage firms to reduce monthly payments for as many as three million distressed homeowners in as little as six months as part of an agreement to settle accusations of improper foreclosures and violations of consumer protection laws, six people familiar with the matter said.
Described as a "shock and awe" approach, the deal would accomplish the four goals set out by state and federal policy makers and regulators as part of their multi-agency investigations into abusive mortgage practices by the nation's largest financial firms: punish banks for violations of state law and federal regulations; provide much-needed assistance to distressed borrowers; stabilize a deteriorating housing market; and dissuade firms from abusing homeowners in the future.
The modified mortgages could cost the five financial behemoths -- Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial -- as much as $30 billion, according to sources. Combined, the five firms handle three out of every five home loans, according to newsletter and data provider Inside Mortgage Finance.
It also could lead to reduced mortgage payments or lowered loan balances for nearly two-thirds of the 4.7 million delinquent homeowners who have yet to fall into foreclosure, according to data provider Lender Processing Services.
The rest of the article extensively examines what this all would mean, who is on board with the plan, and who is not. While I readily admit I'm no financial or economic wizard, what it seems to boil down to is getting a perhaps-not-optimum solution in place quickly, versus getting a perhaps-more-punitive-to-the-banks deal a lot further down the road. Obama seems to be throwing his lot in with the "sooner, rather than later" concept. When you consider that the housing market is still a drag on the American economy -- and will likely remain so until this matter is concluded -- this seems to be a reasonable stance for him to take. But even a fast deal may take quite a while to put together, and it will be decided by the 50 state attorneys general (and not Congress), so it may take place below a lot of people's radar, so to speak.
The second issue Democrats have recently pushed is repealing the federal Defense Of Marriage Act, or "DOMA." Fresh off repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of excluding openly gay men and women in the military, Democrats sense that the public opinion tide is turning on the entire gay rights issue. President Obama's Justice Department made the news a while back by stating that they weren't going to defend a key provision of DOMA in court any more. The House of Representatives is going to step in and provide the legal team to defend DOMA, as a result of this decision. DOMA, if not addressed legislatively, is likely headed to the Supreme Court.
Today it was announced that a bill (the "Respect for Marriage Act") will be introduced in both the House and the Senate to repeal DOMA. This is a bold move by Democrats, for a number of reasons. The first is that, while polls showed overwhelming public support for allowing gays to serve in the military openly, public support for gay marriage is not nearly as strong. It is approaching a tipping point, but currently roughly an equal number of people support gay marriage as the number who are against it.
The bill's chances for passage in both houses of Congress appear pretty low, as well. In the Senate, all Democrats would need to vote for it, as well as seven Republicans -- which isn't likely to happen. Harry Reid, knowing this, may not even bring it up for a vote, unless he saw a political advantage to losing the vote and putting everyone on the record. Over in the House, chances that Speaker John Boehner would allow a vote on the bill seem to be nonexistent. If it actually came to a vote in the House, a surprising number of Republicans might actually vote for it (those with an eye to the future, or with a large youthful constituency, perhaps). Since Boehner has been allowing amendments to other legislation, though, it might be tacked on as a rider to some other key bill -- forcing such a vote anyway. But at this point, it has to be said that the odds seem to be against this ever actually becoming law, given the current makeup of Congress.
This shouldn't stop Democrats from trying, however. The gay rights issue is going to become more and more of a millstone around the neck of the Republican Party in coming years. More than just about any other "hot button" social issue, gay rights is clearly a generational issue. Older Americans don't like the concept of gay marriage. Younger Americans don't mind it a bit. Even younger Republicans, in surprising numbers, approve of the concept. As time goes by, the public (if this trend holds, as it is likely to) is going to become more and more supportive of the idea -- and those fighting against it are going to be seen as more and more out of touch. This is certainly ironic, since the whole social/political fight was exploited for so long (and, it has to be said, so successfully) by the Republican Party. The phrase "hoist on their own petard" springs to mind. Watching Republicans now trying to avoid the issue (and avoid even holding a vote on it) is certainly a turnabout from Republicans pushing anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives back in the 1990s, to encourage their base voters to turn out at the polls.
The third issue Democrats are getting out in front of is levying a surtax on millionaires. This issue is going to be a big one in the 2012 race, which President Obama set up. Last December, Obama struck a deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans -- for two years. Which means Congress is going to have to address it again before the end of 2012. This was a politically bold move, because the conventional Washington wisdom is that nobody ever gets elected on a platform of raising taxes. But as a recent poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal showed, when presented a list of two dozen ways to tackle the deficit, the number one answer was "institute a surtax on millionaires." This idea was supported by an astounding 81 percent of the public.
Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by that number. As Representative Jan Schakowsky put it, in the press conference to announce her tax-the-rich bill:
In the United States today, the richest one percent owns 34 percent of our nation's wealth -- that's more than the entire bottom 90 percent, who own just 29 percent of the country's wealth. And the top one-hundredth of one percent now makes an average of $27 million per household per year. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of Americans? $31,244.
This bill, though, was only introduced in the House. Which means its chances of passage are likely pretty infinitesimal. It's doubtful that it'll even pass the House -- or even get voted on, for that matter. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth the attempt. It certainly sets up the fight that is going to happen next year (in the midst of the presidential campaign), so that Democrats make the case for their side. It's pretty hard to ignore an issue that eight out of 10 Americans approve of, and if Democrats can get Republicans playing defense on the issue early, it can only help in next year's political landscape.
Republicans certainly have the numbers in Congress to block Democratic bills, if they stick together. Even on the mortgage issue, there are a lot of Republican state attorneys general who may not go along with any deal the Obama administration puts together. But again, that doesn't mean the Democrats shouldn't get behind efforts like these, which can help define their party's agenda for the next two years. Because of their minority status in the House, Democrats are reduced to the age-old tactic of bringing up issues calculated to embarrass the Republicans (who fight to not even hold votes on the issues). This is pretty standard stuff, no matter which party is the "out" party at the time.
What is a bit surprising, though, is that Democrats are making the attempt. Democrats, to be blunt, aren't usually all that good at playing this game. Republicans are much better at it. This should encourage Democratic voters, because the issues that Democrats decide to push now may become key campaign issues in the next election cycle. Democrats need to contrast their party's priorities with what the Republicans (especially Tea Party Republicans) have shown their top priorities to be (which, on the state level, borders on the ridiculous).
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