I think we all breathed a sigh of relief this week when Congress finally did what it was supposed to do and passed a basic budget. Although the budget left many behind, this time there were no shutdowns, no debt ceiling scares, no fears of economic catastrophe. They just got down to work and passed a budget that allows our government to run. I felt similarly relieved when the Senate changed its rules to put an end to the GOP obstruction that had kept seats on our courts across the country vacant out of misplaced political spite and pure obstructionism. Although Republicans are still doing everything they can to hold up the process, some long-blocked nominees are finally getting confirmed. Yes, things are getting better. But that's not saying much. Republicans have lowered the standards of Congress so much that the completion of a basic task like passing a budget or confirming a non-controversial judge is now cause for celebration. Americans shouldn't accept the low standards of this new normal. It's like the relief of having a tooth pulled. The ache that's been with you for so long is gone, the sharp pain of having it pulled is over. But there's something missing. As we look forward to the year ahead, let's remember the tasks we left behind in the rancorous, bitter 2013. Relief is not enough. Progressives must redouble our efforts not only to make up lost ground but to make positive progress in the coming year.
- Relief For Low-Income Americans. It was good news that Congress passed a budget. But that budget left some important programs behind. Last month, 47 million low-income Americans saw their SNAP (food stamp) benefits cut, leaving them with even less money to buy food for their families. Three days after Christmas, 1.3 million Americans will see their emergency unemployment insurance dry up, leaving many of the long-term unemployed with little to keep themselves afloat, and hurting the economy as a whole. Next year, Congress must work to boost our economy in a way that doesn't leave behind those who are out of work or underemployed.
- Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Gay-rights supporters rejoiced last month when the Senate passed a bill banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a measure that garnered unexpected support from a number of Republicans. But Speaker Boehner shows no desire to bring the bill to the House floor. Progressives need to make sure House Republicans pay a political price if they kill a nondiscrimination bill supported by 70 percent of Americans.
- Ending the Judicial Vacancy Crisis. A minority of Senate Republicans can no longer block all of the president's judicial nominees from getting confirmation votes, but there's plenty of lost ground to make up. One in ten seats on the federal courts is now or will soon be vacant, and there's a growing number of urgent "judicial emergencies." And now Republicans are stepping up their obstruction in other ways, even indicating that they will send 55 nominees back to the president at the end of the year, forcing the White House and the Senate to start the nominations process all over again. The 41-vote filibuster may be dead, but the fight to put good judges on the courts is just as important.
- Updating our Immigration Laws. There was a rare bit of bipartisan hope this year when the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of 8" hammered out an agreement for a much-needed update to our immigration laws, including a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill provoked a Tea Party uproar and got stuck in the House, but with enough pressure from the public, next year presents an opportunity to create a chance for thousands of immigrant families.
- Protecting Voting Rights. As soon as the Supreme Court struck down the key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act, states across the South started instituting restrictive new voting laws designed to keep people of color, low-income people, and the young from voting. This was an undeniable setback, but we now have an opportunity to update VRA's protections...if reasonable members of Congress will work together to get it done.
- Defending Choice in the States. Congress may have been at a standstill last year, but many state legislatures weren't. On top of a barrage of voting restrictions, Republican state legislatures continued the recent flood of anti-choice laws making it harder for women to access birth control and abortions. In just the first half of the year, states adopted 43 restrictions on abortion. But there were also positive trends as state legislators across the country worked toward positive, pro-woman policies. The War on Women is far from over, but we have the chance to achieve positive women's rights victories in the states.
- Fighting the Influx of Big Money in Politics. The 2010 Citizens United decision was bad enough, opening the door to unlimited corporate spending in elections. But this year saw the Supreme Court considering another major campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, that could allow the wealthiest donors to flood our political system with even more money. Luckily, 2013 also made clear that "We the People" have had enough. The movement to reclaim our democracy from special interests has never been stronger. To date, 16 states and more than 500 cities and towns have passed resolutions or ballot initiatives calling on Congress to pass an amendment overturning Citizens United and putting the power of our democracy back in the hands of everyday Americans. And 145 members of the House and Senate are now on record as co-sponsors of an amendment.
Barely functioning is not enough. We have a lot of work to do. Here's to higher standards in 2014!