10/04/2010 07:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Congress Adjourns to Face the Music at Home

Cutting and running 7 days early from their planned Oct. 8th departure, members of Congress fled the hot and toxic atmosphere on Capitol Hill and returned to face constituents in their home states for the midterm elections. Before the exodus, they did manage to pass a few notable bills in the House and Senate, despite ducking a major one. They took no action in both houses on the Bush-era tax cuts, avoiding a knockdown battle on a very contentious issue just before the midterm elections. The good news however is that the stopgap spending bill was approved in the Senate by a vote of 69-30. This will keep government running until early Dec. - saving another crisis for another day. A NASA bill was also passed.

A major success story in the House was the passage, at long last, of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, that will take care of the healthcare needs of those directly impacted by 9/11 as well as who became ill years later, and will also compensate those who suffered from the other aftereffects of that day. Senate Dem leaders promptly fast-tracked the bill and it will be placed directly on the legislative agenda - bypassing the usual lengthy committee process - to be addressed upon their return to DC after election day. President Obama has said he will sign the $7.4 billion bill. 100 mostly ill fire fighters and first responders, along with their family members, looked on from the gallery during the bill's historic passage in the House, for which we can thank Reps. Carolyn Maloney - who spearheaded the bill from its beginning - along with Reps. Jerry Nadler, Rep. Pete King and Rep. Eliot Engel and former Rep. Vito Fossella. All members of the New York Delegation, three Democrats and two Republicans, led the way and succeeded in doing the right thing for all New Yorkers and the nation. We should be proud of their 6 years of persistence to help those who went through so much during that devastating event in our history. The vote was 268-160 with 17 Republicans signing on. This bill must be passed into law.

Another important story is the FAIR ELECTIONS NOW ACT( H.R.1826) having passed in committee and now moving onto the floor of the House. Leading the way was Rep. John Larsen of Connecticut, along with 165 co-sponsors and at least 40 more supporters, including 3 Republicans. Speaker Pelosi should have pressed for a vote before recessing. A win here would have given Dems plenty of ammunition in their districts to do more than point fingers at Republicans for not supporting this bill. And Republicans would have had to explain to their constituents their lack of support for the bill and for choosing to continue to game the system for "special interest" (a.k.a. corporate) money.

The Senate will no doubt be a battlefield on this bill and significant People Power will be needed to galvanize a strong movement to press for its passage in both houses. The Fair Elections Now Act would be a potent antidote to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate money to affect campaigns and would help to level the playing field between progressive Democrats and their Republicrat party-mates, and between Dems and Republicans in the most critical area of campaigning for public office - money. More legislation will be needed, of course, but this would be a great step in the right direction.

The bill would at long last require public funding for campaigns by allowing for small donations from individuals up to $100, to be matched by public funding. A candidate would have to come up with 1,500 of these small donors, contributing no more than $50,000, total, in order to receive a four-to-one match. New, young blood would be encouraged to enter politics and run for office, and we could finally close the corporate annex in Washington and return our government to the people. This is the time for all progressive advocacy organizations to put their egos aside and unite in one mission to pass this bill.

In the House, members spend a 1/4 of their time fundraising, depriving constituents of their services while they chase the mighty donor dollar on the money merry-go-round. We would also be relieved of those pesky, never-ending requests for donations from Congress members flooding our in-boxes and mailboxes. In this cycle it is noteworthy that Dems and Republicans in both houses raised $1.2 billion dollars. Funding for campaigns must change drastically so that government once again functions for the People and not the moneyed minority.

Just before these commendable bills were passed and the Capitol became a ghost town, over four hundred fundraisers were held for members of the House. The special interests and lobbyists were on full display in Congress members' homes and in local restaurants during that last push for big donor money before heading home to their constituents. Members of Congress really do have two constituencies: the special interests with their wads of corporate money to throw around, and the members' constituents at home who vote for them and pay their salaries. Not bad work if you can get it - could this be considered double dipping? Special interest money sabotages any bill passing that would benefit the people or address middle class concerns over those of Corporate America. Members of Congress are in office to protect the interests of their constituents, yet those special interests continue to win out in this schizoid form of democracy, where the minority rules over the majority. Over $300 million is being pumped into attack ads by the Republicans, who smell vulnerability on the part of Dems. They have already been polishing the gavel for John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House - imagine that nightmare! Republicans and their base are fired up with their vision of a moribund and un-energized Dem party and a weakened Obama.

Meanwhile, our President - radioactive as he is, according to polls - is out there on the campaign trail trying to recapture the magic of 2008. He's looking for a repeat performance by (suddenly, it seems) desperately trying to energize Democratic voters, especially those then-first time and young voters who carried him to the White House. And how about Rahm Emmanuel, abandoning his post and President at such a critical time to pursue his own Quixotic venture to be the new Boss Daly of Chi-town? One can only hope the good people of the Windy City recognize how damaging Emanuel's peculiar brand of "leadership" as head of the DCCC and as a top staff member in two White Houses has been and throw this bum back into Lake Michigan.

Nancy Pelosi noted before leaving: "Our members left last evening in a spirit of optimism, very pleased about taking the message of fighting for the middle class; of moving America forward and not going back; of making it in America." She does not expect to lose the House.

Big-money donors, however, like billionaires George Soros and Peter B. Lewis, have been opting in to support left-leaning policy organizations rather than organizations focusing on the election, effectively sitting out this cycle. Both have pulled back on millions of dollars in donations formerly given to the electoral process. Getting out the vote has always been one of Soros' major interests, but he apparently has decided to shift his priorities and money this cycle.

This may well turn out to be an unprecedented midterm election - either an unmitigated disaster or - as Michael Moore noted on HuffPost, the "...Mother Of All Upsets," for the Dems? We are all very nervous. Here's hoping Speaker Pelosi is correct in her assessment.