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Progressives and Congress: Steps Forward

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Yesterday, Rep. Jane Harman (CA, 36) posted a diary entry at www.agonist.org about the administration's aggressive blundering on Iran. In it, she demands "more accuracy and less hype". In her post, Harman, a smart, centrist Democrat sounds like many of her more lefty colleagues on this issue. Could this be because she's facing a challenge from the left in her California District?

Whatever the reason, let's have more of this! Especially now that Iran has signalled its willingness to negotiate. As fellow blogger Steve Cobble just posted, the Progressive Caucus took up the issue of Iran yesterday convening its first in a series of ad-hoc hearings on the administration's pre-emptive war strategy.

This ad-hoc hearing is a big deal in an institutional sense. The ability of progressives to stake out more visible positions on Capitol Hill is an activity that has been vital and lacking for more than a decade. The Progressive Caucus has employed one shared staff person for less than a year. With that small bit of help, the caucus has held events, is about to launch a web presence, convened an annual retreat and begun to meet regularly.

The conservative knee-capping of idealism during the last decade(s) has created a hardy sort of new progressive leader. Though the above functions seem relatively simple, they are precisely the kind of manpower-shortage tasks that never happen without dedicated staff. Today's elected leaders in the House of Representatives are intentional idealists (in my work with the Progressive Caucus, I observe that they are more cautious and thoughtful than their most activist political base, this is especially true on Iraq) Many of this 63 Member caucus also attended two Iraq exit strategy ad-hoc hearings during the past 6 months. They understand the nuts and bolts needs of organizing strategically and with stellar witnesses (the Iraq hearings included professional military perspectives, for example)

The ability to exercise oversight inside Congress through informal venues is one vital step toward restoring our legislature's democratic role. Remember, one of the biggest blows to progressive organizing happened in 1995, when "reforms" written into the Contract with America gave Congress a mid-level lobotomy--wiping out much of the non-official infrastructure that any Members of Congress could use to recognize important issues. Some examples: the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, the Office of Technology Assessment, the Democratic Study Group ( a rapid response staff that delivered strategic foreign policy information--and which had dozens of Republican members) This hurt progressives and independent thinkers in both parties. For the life of me, I'll never understand why we did not dispatch a crisis team of progressive organizers to the Hill in January, 1995--when the new Congress-led by the pyromaniac of government himself--Newt Gingrich-- came to power. What we needed then was a gap analysis of public interest oversight and a way to salvage progressive ideals (like participatory democracy for the minority) from the impending storm.

One of the benefits of the newly funded "progressive infrastructure" that is developing is the opportunity for the factions of the left (in Congress, this would be the Blue Dog conservatives/liberal Republicans, New Democrats, Unaffiliated, Progressives) to talk to each other and understand their differences BEFORE assuming the circular firing squad on "Meet the Press" or having it out in public like the ongoing spats between the Nation and the New Republic. We are developing our own bench of Metternichs, deal makers, venues, networks that massage the rough edges and help us act collectively.

While their progressive Republican colleagues were purged, Democrats languished in the "majority mentality" (believing that they'd take the majority back next election cycle.) Meanwhile, Congress morphed into a marble-pillared casino, democracy destroying enterprises like the K Street Project
flourished, oversight and accountability -not to mention collegiality--became quaint relics, the leveraged buy-out of the public sector accelerated. The Democratic Party lost its way, the Republican party lost its soul. Which is why Democrats should make sure that the label "progressive" is still open to the other side of the aisle. Giving their colleagues places to show up without going on the record or taking the lead is very important right now. Even inside the casino, the light is starting to show at the other end.