THE BLOG
07/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hey Kids, Let's Fire Steny Hoyer

Those old new Democrats are at it again. Working feverishly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Maryland Representative and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has managed to maneuver FISA telecom immunity through the house, along with another supplemental to fund the war. Disgusting! Why did he do it and what can we do about it?

It's possible, I suppose, to think that war funding is, at this point, a legitimately difficult issue. The Bipartisan Incumbency Protection Association (BIPA) that still runs Congress got us into this mess by shirking its constitutional responsibility to make (or not make) war, when it authorized the invasion of Iraq. As the consequences of the invasion went from (morally) wrong to materially disastrous, it became clear that many of our elected representatives valued job security over preventing mass murder; this behavior draws attention to systemic and a cultural defects in how our representatives are chosen: apparently what one has to do to get elected and reelected favors pathologically self-serving individuals, the sort of folks who would say, "I'd like to save your life, but not at the risk of my job," over those whose single-mindedness might be mitigated by decency.

The voters, having noticed the situation, have begun taking steps to address it. In November 2006, these steps became apparent even to the perplexed guardians of the BIPA, when the electorate applied what BIPAistas think is the ultimate sanction: actually firing enough Association subscribers to change the leadership of both Houses. What good is Incumbency Protection if it can't even protect incumbents? One would think that as the presidential nominating season played out, the BIPA would have been struck by the willingness of the electorate not only to entertain candidates who either had not participated in its heads- down-asses-up authorization the invasion of Iraq, but to turn resolutely deaf ears to those who had. Were not the ashes bitter in the mouths of those campaigning senators who voted to authorize a war out of fear of electoral reprisal, as they struggled over the past two years to explain that they had been mistaken, deceived, or misinformed, because the electoral reprisal had come indeed, but from the unanticipated side? Were not lessons learned as they watched the youngster, who had refused their Faustian bargain from the sheltered obscurity of the Illinois legislature, jog gracefully to the front of their pack?

So why, now, when in more and more districts, a vote to fund the war is a greater threat to incumbency than a vote to end it, do Majority Leader Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi still carry Mr. Bush's brackish water? Of course, the rigorously proper answer is who knows? Far be it from me to divine their innermost thoughts. Given the complex ways of reason, emotion and the human mind, it would be presumptuous even to assume that these individuals themselves can answer such a question. But this lack of insight into the minds of others does not preclude good faith speculation, based on some combination of reason and intuition.

Steny Hoyer, the prime mover behind the reinsertion of telcom immunity in the FISA bill (see Glenn Greenwald's excellently sustained tracking of the issue at salon.com/opinion/greenwald/ ) represents a district just a few miles east of the one I live in, and he's been knocking about the upper reaches of the Congressional Democrats for a long time. His district has enough conservative areas to insulate him from the progressive pressure he might get from other sections, and his leadership position in Congress certifies him as a heavy hitter. If he is thinking about his party's larger future, he may retain the old Democratic Leadership Council assumption that national elections are close, that voters are evenly divided between the two parties, so that to win, one takes Democrats for granted (where will they go?) and panders to the few fence setters who have not committed to a party affiliation. Of course to retain this outlook, he would have had to miss the manifest success of Howard Dean's (now also Barack Obama's) fifty state strategy in 2006, the massive turn out of new voters in the presidential primaries, and the recent Democratic gain of three "safe" Republican seats in special elections. Missing these signs that the electorate is not conforming to the DLC formula, he might also have failed to see much consequence closer to home, when the voters in a district just adjacent to Hoyer's saw fit to replace Al Wynn, a long-serving and unresponsive, conservative Democrat, with the progressive challenger Donna Edwards.

There is, of course, a simpler and grimmer possible reason for Hoyer's aiding and abetting of the waning Bush administration. Telcom and Defense companies are perennially among his larger contributors (opensecrets.org/politicians/summary); this invites the cynical among us to question who our representatives understand their real constituents to be: to what extent do both parties work for the same moneyed masters?

But without speculating about the degree to which outright graft and greed might account for legislation, one can see that part of the old view of politics is that money wins and money comes (through varied routes) from big donors. Thinking thusly, one can construe pandering for pay in the noble light of doing what must be done to keep the even worse party out of power. But this orthodoxy too is challenged by the evidence of the last and the current election cycle. The current role reversal, in which Republicans go hungry while Democrats roll in dough doubtless represents in part large donors betting on a presumptive winner. But more significantly it demonstrates the ability, using new technology, to accumulate big money out of lots and lots of small contributions. Quite possibly the most far-reaching movement toward a new politics is not the predilection of any candidate or strategy but the raw fact that internet fund raising effectively enables masses of small donors to cancel out and even overwhelm the big spenders whose interested demands have long dominated the legislative agenda. Whether the politicians like it or not, internet fund-raising is the nail in the coffin of our old dysfunctional business as usual.

So the question turns from why do Democratic leaders like Steny Hoyer continue to carry Bush's leaking buckets to: How do we stop them? The answer that comes to mind is primary challenges -- nothing shakes the BIPA like those pink slips -- and here, in addition to the revised financial arrangements brought in with the advent of internet fund-raising, there is another factor working to make the Old Politics old. With substantial Democratic majorities now all but assured, we no longer need to follow the old "at least he or she won't vote for Gingrich (Hastert, Boehner) for Speaker rule." We have the breathing room to discipline the Bushocrats without the risk of catastrophic results; this, rather than party affiliations, is after all the key to moving the center back to where it was before the "Reagan Revolution" and to changing the systemically dysfunctional nature of our legislature. The Democratic Party will control the next government, but it cannot be left to the party's congressional leadership to define what that means. Organized efforts are already underway (progress can be checked at Democrats.comhttp://www.democrats.com/bushdemocrats) to challenge the canard that Democrats must act like Republicans to win and hold seats in Republican districts. From Nixon to Reagan to Bush political discourse has been allowed to drift further and further right until now we actually debate whether the constitution is binding on the executive branch. Progressive change and fixing Congress both require a concerted effort to move the national conversation back in a progressive direction. With hard liners of the Republican right in disarray, it is time to shift attention to move the center so that the blue dogs do not scrape by as Democrats marginally better than Republicans.

After the House's pitiful capitulations last week, I spent a little time talking to local political people -- activists and office holders -- about Steny Hoyer, and the response is interesting. It can be summed up as "Steny is invulnerable. He has too much money and too much clout. It would be suicidal to oppose him and a waste of effort...But a run from his left would be interesting." There is a certain wistfulness to that "but." It sounds like a door slammed and then left just slightly ajar. Hoyer's clout comes in part from his being a national figure. But there is another side to that. Any challenge to him would be a national challenge. A sharp message to the party leadership where it counts, and interested money on both sides would pour in from out of the district. A truly new politics has to start locally and have national impact. Maryland has started to clean house locally by replacing Wynn with Edwards. A serious challenge to Hoyer, could one be launched, would be a national notice.

If Hoyer were to face a challenge from the left in 2010 (the next primary), organization and the search for a challenger would, I suppose, have to start now. The midst of a crucial presidential election might not be the right time to put the congressional party leadership under pressure. But then again, it just might be precisely the right time.