THE BLOG
05/06/2011 03:14 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2011

Can the Congressional Progressive Caucus Become Relevant?

Between April 29th and May 1st our world rocked with joy, reflection and deep emotion as two events unfolded before us: the wedding of young Prince William and Kate Middleton in England, and the termination of the scourge of our time, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. An ancient rite of continuity within the Royal class reminded us of the days when kings and queens determined the fates of nations; and the swift, decisive action of President Obama showed us that world-changing events today can be put in motion by freely elected leaders from the humblest of beginnings. Even his most severe detractors are applauding the President's bold decision to storm Osama's fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and take him out. Mr. President, you have indeed won your wings as the courageous leader of the free world. Kudos!

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the events of May 1. After a decade of tracking bin Laden, an elite team of Navy Seals, known as "Team 6," were lowered from two helicopters into his compound. 45 minutes later, the beast was dead, shot once in the face and then in the chest. The world has suddenly become a much better place thanks to the extraordinary bravery of these Seals. We may never know the name of the individual who actually killed bin Laden, but he and his brothers in arms will always have the secret satisfaction of having made good on the promise our nation made on 9/11/01 that justice would one day be served.

How incredible it must have been for our President and his security team to be watching the raid progress in real time from a video camera attached to the helmet of one of the Seals. The images of our President's stern and focused eyes, Secretary of State Clinton with her hand to her face registering deep concern, and Vice President Biden holding rosary beads are a haunting bookend to the image of Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney and President Bush's team struggling to deal with the events unfolding on 9/11. Then we saw the images of celebrations at Ground Zero and around the world as the news began to spread. Some solace and perhaps some closure for the families of those we lost on that clear September morning. Times Square looked like VJ Day. We as a nation needed to feel good about something, and we did.

And so we congratulate William and Kate on their marriage and for giving the world a much needed fairy-tale diversion, and we thank our President for his courageous decision to engage in this dangerous mission that could have been incredibly costly had it failed. He took the biggest risk of his political career and it paid off. Will this now embolden him further to take on so many of the issues that need strong leadership to turn our teetering ship of state around?

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has also been emboldened recently, releasing its People's Budget as a sharp contrast to the House GOP's draconian and irresponsible proposals. Can the CPC assist the President and our country by becoming a sane, clear voice on the issues that truly matter? And will our suddenly popular-again President hear them? They may not agree on all issues, but healthy, productive debate can only strengthen our democracy, and the CPC can bring attention to other solutions to those critical issues that must be addressed, perhaps even moving our President to revert to candidate Obama's populist ways. Maybe they can even get invited to the White House for a chat and a beer?

It seems like eons ago that Congress adjourned for its Easter recess and left so many of us in shock and despair with the release of Paul Ryan's slash and burn budget plan. His indecent proposal should garner him accusations of child and elder abuse, grand larceny against the middle class, and conspiracy with the wealthiest Americans to commit tax evasion, rather than the plaudits being offered to him by the right wing and the media. Gutting Medicare, a decades-old mission for Conservatives, would become a reality if the Ryan budget were to be enacted.

Providing little more than increased business for the already bloated private insurers, under the Ryan plan Medicare would issue vouchers to purchase insurance with sky-rocketing costs and the loss of guaranteed benefits. Healthcare costs for seniors would rise by several thousand dollars a year, making it unaffordable. The GOP-controlled House, under the influence of its increasingly toxic Tea Party core, would finally kill Medicare and threaten Social Security with privatization, giving more money to Wall Street to squander. According to a fundraising letter I received from CPC member Senator Bernie Sanders, Medicaid would be slashed by $1.4 trillion over 10 years by turning it into a block grant program, affecting 24 million children and 13 million elderly and disabled.

Rep. Ryan held many town hall gatherings over the Easter recess in which he had a firsthand opportunity to experience the wrath of his constituents, their anger at his Medicare proposals particularly rancorous in Wisconsin. He got more than an earful, but he also found some support. This most certainly will become a major issue in the 2012 election that could change the balance of power in the House and is another issue for the CPC to jump all over, along with our President and all Democrats of good conscience. Of course, making the Bush tax cuts permanent is another one of the GOP's bright ideas. Will they ever realize that their poisonous recipe of cutting taxes for the wealthy while cutting the safety nets for everyone else will only further weaken our economy and diminish our nation as we face the cold reality of a surging China and a world that is relying less and less on America as the source from which all good (economic) things flow.

The voodoo of "trickle down" economics is still being practiced in the GOP camp as they continue to push their nonsense that cutting taxes will rev up the economy. Contrast the Ryan budget with the CPC's Peoples' Budget and you will see just how far apart the Tea Party Republicans and the Democrats are. The People's Budget is quite good, except for their continued pushing the Public Option, which would not have a major impact on costs due to limited participation, not to mention it being delivered through state exchanges which to date are still undefined.

For the life of me I don't understand how the CPC can continue to advocate for the P.O. when 41 of its 76 Caucus members co-sponsored member John Conyers' H.R. 676, an EXPANDED AND IMPROVED MEDICARE FOR ALL. All CPC members should co-sponsor this bill if they are truly Progressives. How can Louise Slaughter, Frank Pallone, Carolyn Maloney and Pete Stark -- among others -- be considered Progressives when they do so little to prove it? Why has Caucus member Charlie Rangel not endorsed H.R. 676, while Anthony Weiner has, even though he is not a Caucus member? Meanwhile, my Congressman, Eliot Engel, who is not considered a Progressive, has a more progressive voting record than some of the most prominent Caucus members and is a co-sponsor of the bill. EXPANDED AND IMPROVED MEDICARE FOR ALL should be a fundamental goal of all who consider themselves Progressives -- enough equivocations, folks.

Sadly, but to be expected, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted for the Ryan budget, while the People's Budget bit the dust and didn't register in the partisan smog. Had the CPC released their budget proposals weeks earlier, it could have received much more traction nationally, building public support. The Caucus must work on their priorities and strategy. It would be good to see them speak with a unified voice more frequently on issues. They should join forces with those 583 union organizations in 49 states, including 138 Labor Councils and Area Labor Federations, as well as 39 State AFL- CIO's, all of which support H.R. 676, and push this issue publicly. Most of the nation supports an Expanded Medicare for All, and the voice of labor on this issue continues to grow as on-the-job healthcare benefits erode and its costs rise and shift to workers.

The CPC must work with Progressive activists and organizations to develop a coherent message. After all, healthcare is a big-ticket item that impacts severely our national financial health. Plenty of disgruntled Progressives would come on board and support the CPC if they became a strong political presence. The Affordable Care Act will have rough sledding as it largely unfolds between now and 2014, as a great deal of its success is hinged to subsidies and moving millions into Medicaid, which is not going to happen if the Tea Party Republicans continue to control the House. The financial woes of the states will also worsen with an influx of Medicaid recipients adding to their burdens. There is still time to reconsider the Affordable Care Act and go with the solution that should have been on the President's mythical table from the start of the health care debate -- EXPANDED AND IMPROVED MEDICARE FOR ALL. Let' s begin to review the real facts on what the best healthcare system is to give to the American people.

The role of the CPC should also become one of supporting, mentoring and aiding new, young Progressive candidates for Congress, growing their ranks. The Caucus must be more than just another DC political club, and instead become a group of movers and shakers for the American people. Start speaking out on the issues that matter, push their agenda and stop settling for being reactionaries to every crisis or Republican provocation. Reach out to Progressive organizations across the country and work with them to lead, helping to build a strong Progressive movement nationwide; your voice is needed. With a Conyers, Kucinich, Sanders, Schakowsky, Lee and others in the Caucus leading the way, my money would rest firmly on you.

Some of the imperative other issues the CPC should jump all over are JOBS, the debt limit, oil prices, overhauling our tax system, the out-of-control money in our politics from undisclosed sources, the proposed free trade agreements between the US, South Korea, Columbia and Panama that will ship yet more American jobs abroad, not to mention rewriting NAFTA, the "original sin" that caused jobs to leave our shores in the first place. And champion the FAIR ELECTIONS NOW ACT, which would bring sanity to our elections with public funding. This would be a good itinerary for you to start with, CPC.

As a side note, on May 1st, the Sunday news program Meet the Press, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York got it exactly right when he said the debate should be about the needs of the country driving solutions, rather than approaching them from deficit-reduction first. JOBS, education, energy, securing our safety nets and other critical issues should be at the heart of the current national debate. President Obama should use his bully pulpit to move the discourse away from the Republican obsession with tax cuts and the deficit. The CPC can join in that discussion, and offer up solutions, as should other Democrats. Dealing with the real issues facing our country first, then trimming the budget where necessary -- that is the sane way forward.