Like the swallows returning noisily to Capistrano each spring, Congress has returned to D.C. following another midterm election, this time with the Republicans firmly in charge and already imposing their will on the legislative agenda, as will be the case for the next two years at least. Despite the walloping they took in the midterm elections, Democrats -- mainly in the Progressive wing of the party, as well as our President -- are also charting a new and bold direction for themselves. With purpose and vigor, they are drawing their own road map for the country to follow if it is to take back control of our democracy from the ultra-wealthy few.
I, for one, was pleasantly surprised to hear the President finally calling for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision. Such a declaration by our nation's leader was clearly the result of some magnificent advocacy work that has been done over the last five years by a host of organizations and coalitions, including MoveToAmend and Public Citizen with their "Democracy is for People" campaign. Since the Citizens United ruling came down in 2010 from the activist Conservative majority of the Supreme Court, the movement to amend has grown and matured, helping to educate the public and make them understand that this is the prevailing issue of our time. We cannot have our government divided between a Corporate party and a People's party, with the 1% being able to buy off our public servants to do their bidding at the expense of the rest of us.
Of course, if the President had gone to the mat on this issue before the 2014 election and supported Senate Dems in their quest for an amendment with S.J. Res.19, they might have been able to hold their majority. This should have been a campaign issue from the beginning last year, rather than Democrats just pointing fingers at the Kochs, Karl Rove and the outside money that poured to fuel the lies and distortions being hurled at Democratic candidates across the country. 2014 was the most expensive midterm election in American history, and the spending will likely rise even higher in 2016, especially with the commitment of the Kochs and their cabal to spend $889 million this cycle. Is a "Koch Party" now emerging, to become more powerful than even the Republican Party? Democrats must articulate the reasons for an amendment to repeal Citizens United, as well as its younger but equally poisonous sibling McCutcheon. Unfortunately, the Dems' messaging continues to remain feeble at best on this issue.
All but one of the Senate Democrats voted for the amendment resolution, producing a 54-42 victory. Curiously, the only Democrat not to cast a vote was New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Even so, the Dems were unable to reach the sixty votes necessary to prevent a Republican filibuster -- another sterling example of how the Senate's arcane rules make it so little can be accomplished in that chamber, despite so much work needing to be done. Since the chances of an amendment resolution moving forward in the 114th Congress are slim to none at best, for now the major efforts remain at the state level, with 16 states and the District of Columbia publicly supporting this effort. Meanwhile, the President continues to hold in his back pocket an Executive Order requiring disclosure of campaign contributions by federal contractors. This would certainly be a good move. The SEC should also flex some muscle and require all publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending.
All that right-wing money certainly helped the Republicans to win the Senate in the last election, as well as to increase their House majority, primarily with more Tea Party loons who continue to push forward with their peculiar brand of regressive, anti-government proposals, including one that would make Medicare subject to vouchers. They also are targeting eleven million disabled Americans - including three million children - who receive Social Security by proposing a cut to benefits of up to 20% next year, all in the name of "saving" this program. Pitting one group against another and creating a false crisis to divide and confuse is another hallmark of the right wing's political playbook. Social Security is of one our most successful government programs and has a healthy $2.8 trillion in assets, allowing it to pay out full benefits for the next eighteen years and roughly 80% after that, according to Social Security Works and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). One way to strengthen this program would be to make everyone pay their fair share and raise the top Social Security payroll tax above $118,500 of earned income. Bernie has suggested raising it to $250,000, while also expanding and increasing benefits.
Unfortunately, Social Security and Medicaid are just the tip of the iceberg for these rejuvenated Tea Partiers. They are also pushing for further cuts to food Food Stamps, limiting of consumer rights, yet another assault on Obamacare - for the 56th time - and watering down Dodd-Frank to further weaken oversight of our craven financial industry. If the GOP has its way, all of the Progressive achievements of the past 80 years would be wiped away and all of the programs that have made us a humane society and once the envy of the world would be decimated.
And what can one can one say about the House threatening to not fund the Department of Homeland Security because of the Tea Partiers irrational distain for the President's position and Executive Order on immigration? Speaker Boehner is teetering on the brink of losing control of this radical segment of his caucus, putting his leadership in jeopardy. The Senate passed a clean, stand-alone bill without immigration included and the House should follow suit, addressing the immigration issue separately but funding Homeland Security, for the nation's safety is at stake. Sounds like another manufactured crisis.
The GOP majorities in the House and Senate seem to have no agenda of their own for moving the country forward, and neither party is talking about the poor in this country, which numbered 45.3 million in 2013 - a national disgrace. Immigration reform has also stalled, and efforts to raise the minimum wage to a living wage have all but disappeared from the discourse in DC, even though Walmart stepped up last week to announce it is raising the minimum wage for 500,000 of its employees to $10 by next year - an incredible win for those who have worked so hard on this issue. Last Thursday, TJ Maxx and Marshalls announced the same commitment to their employees. Can the rest of those low-paying industries be far behind in doing the right thing? Of course, a $10 per hour wage is far from enough to live on, but that door has now been opened and will make life at least a little easier for those workers and bring more spending power to those communities that need it most.
Another issue not being dealt with on the Hill is the rebuilding of our crumbling infrastructure nationwide, which will face a funding gap of $1.1 trillion by 2020 if nothing is done. Don't our so-called "leaders" see that such an effort would generate 13 million jobs, while also boosting the bottom line of those corporations that manufacture and sell the numerous products that would be needed for such a massive undertaking? This is a win-win program that should receive bipartisan support in D.C., as it has among the voting public. This topic in particular has been on the front burner for Bernie Sanders as he travels across the country to speak to the American people, finding support from both Republicans and Democrats for this national imperative. If the Republicans in Congress want to actually start leading, this would be a magnificent way to start. Alas, to date, they have offered nada, nothing, zilch -- all while continuing to gorge themselves at the public trough.
In recent days, the President has also been vocal in his support of net neutrality, as has Chairman Tom Wheeler of the FCC, which just adopted new rules to protect this critical modern day resource. Mr. Wheeler clearly heard the massive outpouring of support for such an action, as numerous organizations and the People have expressed their views loudly to the Commission. This decision clearly puts people first, and not mega telecommunication corporations like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, which seek to control all of our communications and make us pay more and more for the privilege of accessing a "fast lane" to transport what we think and say. An open internet is critical to the preservation of free speech and a free society.
Another feather in the President's cap is his veto of a bill supporting construction on the Alberta Tar Sands-loving Keystone XL pipeline. Of course, the President is well aware of the clock running on his tenure in the White House, as well as his legacy. Unencumbered by another campaign and -- we hope -- not still beholden to special interests, he must continue to act in the best interests of the people of this nation, and not the corporations and 1%. There is a great deal more he can do to trumpet Progressive policy from his bully pulpit and rally the public behind him. The recent upward bump in his poll numbers should offer him some encouragement and show that the People are responding when he acts on their behalf and for and betterment of our society.
Meanwhile, we see academics like Robert Reich blossoming into full-fledged activists, joining recently with MoveOn.org in the creation of a video highlighting the dangers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership ("TPP") trade agreement and why it must be stopped before it can be fast-tracked -- without Congressional input or oversight -- and signed, which may come in a matter of just a few months. The President is wrong in promoting this odious deal. Only 5 of 29 parts of this agreement actually deal with trade, so it is looking like just another in a long list of colossal giveaways to corporate America that do little to bolster jobs in our country and protect workers rights around the globe. This agreement would put a stranglehold on consumers' rights, and would even allow courts to be set up in partner nations that would work on behalf of corporations, allowing them to sue the governments of member nations if their bottom lines fall due to those nations' regulations. Prescription drug prices would also soar, and who knows how many more American jobs will be lost through this boondoggle that actually manages to out-NAFTA NAFTA. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, five million jobs have been lost in the past 10 years with these trade deals due to currency manipulation alone.
Bob Reich reached three million people with his TPP video in just a few days, and is now teaming up with MoveOn again to raise money and do messaging for the woeful Democratic Party. Dems have been totally inept in this department for years and desperately need Reich's help. One can look at the success of the messaging of the Republican Party and see how they are, to a member, able to spew their factually-challenged messaging repeatedly until it is accepted as gospel on issues as disparate as Benghazi, Obamacare and Solyndra, according to Reich. And what is the message from the Dem Party? There are so many issues and achievements they could be talking about, yet they continue to fumble away opportunity after opportunity to give voters a clear choice in the voting booth. Yes, Reich is the man for this job, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and, especially, Bernie Sanders, who is very clear in what he perceives must be done to bolster the lives of struggling, hard-working Americans and return control of our country to We, the People, and not the corporations. Bernie has an agenda laid out and is talking about it every chance he gets, and thanks to PDA's Run Bernie Run campaign, he is building support from states across the country.
Another Progressive -- or should I say "common sense" -- bill was reintroduced on February 3rd by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI): The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act (H.R. 676), which had 44 members of Congress signing up to co-sponsor the bill with Conyers on the very first day, with a few more signing on since. It was just announced that in this sign-up period, 11.4 million Americans joined the ranks of the insured under the Affordable Care Act, far exceeding even the White House's goals. Even though many millions still remain uninsured, this still should be considered a success by any measure, although it will continue to be rough sledding for the newly insured, with those high deductibles, co-pays, premiums and out-of-pocket costs they will still have to pay for medical care. This bare-bones coverage continues to be delivered through a fragmented system, with Medicaid becoming a major part of this delivery system, along with subsidies. No doubt we will begin to see self-rationing of healthcare as the unharnessed costs continue to rise, making seeing a doctor too expensive for many to afford. You can also bet that the insurers will cut back on services and further cut doctor's payments, forcing them to drop out of plans, while also exercising their right to drop doctors in the first six months from some plans. A doctor offering too many tests and services would likely target them for disposal.
Let's be clear -- the response by the American people to the ACA shows the need and interest is there for a truly national health plan, which can only be delivered by Expanded and Improved Medicare for All. This would be the new frontier that the President could press for in his final two years in office, honestly saying to the American people that we have opened the door to universal healthcare, and now let's go further and truly deliver a healthcare system that is affordable and covers every American starting at birth. The movement continues to build on this one, Mr. President, and you should step up and lead it. You certainly know that Medicaid - the expanding of which much of the ACA is hinged on - is a class-defined system, and delivering healthcare through single-payer would end that inequality. Labor supports H.R. 676, with 616 union organizations already on board, and this sensible approach would save $400 billion per year and improve the quality of healthcare for everyone, while also delivering free choice of doctors and ending copays, deductibles and premiums. Imagine, the same high quality healthcare for one and all. That is, after all, the American way, isn't it?
- with Jonathan Stone
HuffPost Politics brings you the top political stories three days a week. Learn more