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People Party vs. Money Party: Who's Who Among the Democrats

A list of the Democrats who are going to lead the fight for health care, fair trade and labor issues in the New Congress and the Democrats who will fight them.
 
 
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The fact that our nation's politics is divided not between Democrats and Republicans but between the People Party and the Money Party is obvious to anyone who looks at the political system honestly (which is to say, not most journalists or Washington political hacks).  Calls for "bipartisanship" and faux "centrism" that has nothing to do with the actual center of American public opinion are most often moves to prevent the political debate from analyzing the People vs. Money divide that actually fuels our politics. We already have plenty of "bipartisanship" -- Republicans and a faction of Democrats who regularly join hands to screw over the vast majority of Americans.

Many people ask me who? Who are the leading members of both sides of the actual divide? The answer is that there is no official list because no one is forced to formally declare their allegiance to the People Party or the Money Party. But it is fairly obvious which lawmakers in the new majority have specifically defined themselves on economic justice issues.

Though this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are the ones to watch in the coming Congress:

People Party Leaders

Freshman Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Jim Webb (D-VA): This is the core group of economic populists who defined the larger populist trend in the 2006 election. Brown has a long record in the House as an economic justice champion, as has Sanders (who I worked for years ago). Tester (pictured above from an event he did here in Helena last night) made his campaign about cleaning up K Street corruption, and Webb has declared that his top issue is going to be addressing the taboo issue of economic inequality.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL): Dorgan has been one of the strongest voices against profiteering by the energy and pharmaceutical companies, and has recently written a book called "Take This Job and Ship It," which is one of the strongest declarations against lobbyist-written trade deals from any sitting Senator in recent memory. Similarly, Feingold has voted against every major lobbyist-written trade deal that has come through the Senate, even airing campaign ads on the issue well before that kind of message became more popular. Kennedy, as the incoming chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is expected to continue his rabid support for the People Party on nearly every economic issue. And Durbin, now the number two Democrat in the Senate, has also had a solid record on trade, and is additionally talking about pushing public financing of elections -- the most effective way to cut off K Street's ability to manipulate Congress.

House Chairpeople George Miller (D-CA), David Obey (D-WI), John Conyers (D-MI), Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Henry Waxman (D-CA): Miller will now head the Education and Workforce Committee where he is expected to turn his longtime leadership on pension security, wage protection and union organizing rights into legislative action. Obey, who will head the Appropriations Committee (and who I worked for a few years back), will make sure that any budget submitted by the White House that slashes health care, education and labor law enforcement will be dead on arrival, and replaced with a real spending plan that protects people (Obey was the guy who famously authored amendments to slash tax cuts for millionaires in order to better fund these priorities). Conyers will head the Judiciary Committee, which oversees all sorts of regulatory affairs where his pro-consumer record will finally have a chance to shine. Slaughter will chair the powerful Rules Committee -- the panel that governs how the entire chamber operates. She has been an outspoken leader against media consolidation -- one of the toughest issues to champion because the broadcasting industry is so powerful. And finally Waxman will head the Government Reform Committee, where we will now have a chairman who is serious about rooting out the waste, fraud and corruption that has plagued the no-bid Iraq contracts given to President Bush's cronies.

Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Tim Ryan (D-OH), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) Nancy Boyda (D-KS), and Bruce Braley (D-IA): Ohio's trio of Kaptur, Ryan and Kucinich have been among the staunchest critics of lobbyist-written trade pacts and advocates for the middle-class agenda in the House. Freshmen Boyda and Braley both ran their campaigns almost exclusively on the trade issue. In Braley's case, the Wall Street Journal noted that he made opposition to the Bush administration's free-trade agenda a centerpiece of his campaign" urging "more focus on labor rights in national trade policy and talked of using economic sanctions to keep America competitive."

Money Party Leaders

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD): All three of these men, now in leadership positions, have made very little effort to conceal that they answer to Big Money interests. Schumer, for instance, recently trumpeted a new report calling for post-Enron corporate reforms to be gutted. Emanuel was the architect of NAFTA who used the prospect of his being in the majority on the Ways and Means Committee to suck corporate cash out of Wall Street. Hoyer bragged on his website about starting his own K Street Project, and, as I documented in Hostile Takeover, one of his top legislative staffers serves simultaneously as an official for his corporate fundraising operation -- 'nuff said.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA): Tauscher has been one of the most aggressive spokespeople for the Money Party, using her position to undercut major Democratic efforts to address core economic issues from a middle-class perspective. As an example, it was Tauscher who ran to newspapers desperately trying to let K Street know that she would be working to undermine Democrats' efforts to reform our trade policy. More recently, she told the New York Times that Democrats would be engaging in a "kabuki dance" with their own base voters -- implying that there would be moves for show, but that pay-to-play business as usual in Washington will continue in the new Congress.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (CfL-CT): Lieberman's reelection campaign (which I worked against) was funded by a massive infusion of K Street and Republican cash, and he will -- as usual -- be using his position to shill for the special interests who have so openly relied on him. If ever there was a lobbyist in Senator's clothing, Lieberman is it.

Any Lawmaker Who Signed This Letter: Any lawmaker who signed this famous letter begging then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) to immediately pass the credit card industry-written bankruptcy bill is most likely a committed member of the Money Party. There may, of course, be some exceptions as some lawmakers on the list may have realized the error of their ways. But anyone who still believes in this letter and the bankruptcy bill it advocated for is very deeply committed to the Money Party because the bill was arguably the most brazen tool of middle class economic persecution that ever came through the Republican Congress. Yes, some bills were perhaps more far reaching, but most of those were at least packaged as an effort to help regular people, even if they weren't. By contrast, the bankruptcy bill made absolutely no real effort to pretend it was anything other than a weapon to hurt regular citizens. And therefore, anyone Democrat who signed a letter to a Republican Speaker of the House asking that he pass this bill was making a statement not just on this bill, but on their entire philosophy and loyalty on every economic issue.

Key Swing Votes

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) -- Leans People Party: Throughout his career, Kerry has defined himself on issues other than kitchen table economic issues, such as international terrorism. But last year he made a very bold move in sponsoring legislation to give workers the same rights as corporations in international trade deals. That said, this year he voted for the Oman Free Trade Agreement, over the strong objections of labor, human rights and environmental groups. Kerry's overall record -- especially recently -- suggests he strongly leans toward the People Party, and my guess is he will go toward this direction if he runs for President.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) -- Unclear Which Way He Leans: The New York Times recently reported that as Dodd "prepares to take over the leadership of the Senate Banking Committee while also considering a run for the presidency, lobbyists and lawmakers are all asking the same question." As the legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America put it: "Does he become a populist champion on issues that broadly affect the middle class or does he shrink from controversial issues that offend huge donors?" The Times goes on to note that "Dodd has shown through a 25-year record in the Senate that he is adept at going both ways." For instance, as I wrote about in Hostile Takeover, Dodd in the 1990s used his position to override President Clinton's veto of a bill making it harder for shareholders to root out corrupt management. Then again, just this week, Dodd countered the Money Party and Schumer in particular when he told reporters that he did not think Democrats should be so quick to embrace efforts to gut post-Enron corporate accountability laws. Keep a close eye on Dodd.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) -- Leans Money Party: Bayh has never met a lobbyist-written trade deal he didn't like -- except when he started thinking about running for President. As one of the leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council -- one of the most well-known corporate front groups -- he has regularly regurgitated K Street talking points on everything from trade to bankruptcy laws. Then again, his recent admission that he was wrong to support the Iraq War signals that on a whole host of issues, he may change his tune. While this may be only because he is running in a Democratic presidential primary, it could be a real reversal. Nonetheless, though he is a swing vote, he leans toward the Money Party.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) -- Unclear Which Way He Leans: Baucus is famous for supporting the Bush tax cuts, the Bush Medicare bill and nearly every major lobbyist-written trade deal that has come through the Senate. He also recently made comments saying there is nothing anyone can do to stop the outsourcing of American jobs. Finally, as the incoming chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he has recently made troubling statements that he may not support Democratic legislation to let Medicare negotiate lower prices with drug companies, halt energy price gouging, and eliminate the President's ability to "fast track" trade deals so that Congress has no input in them whatsoever. All of these Money Party ties aside, I am an optimist about Baucus because he has refused to budge on Social Security privatization and because his state has changed. The two leading politicians in Montana are among the two biggest leaders of the People Party: Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and Sen.-elect Tester. Additionally, Baucus is running for reelection, potentially against Republican Rep. Dennis Rehberg who CongressDaily noted "might tack to the left of Baucus on trade." So I'm leaving Baucus in the "unclear which way he leans" category.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) -- Leans People Party: Rangel has been a fairly reliable vote for the People Party during his time in Congress. That likely stems from him representing one of the poorest districts in New York City. However, since the election, he has said that as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he is opposed to repealing Bush tax cuts for millionaires, he is open to considering cuts to Social Security benefits, and is interested in potentially continuing our current trade policy. Ultimately, Rangel will probably stay true to his People Party roots -- but he is someone to monitor, especially considering the power of the committee he will head.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) -- Leans People Party: Frank has been a courageous leader in proposing legislation to expose and rein in excessive CEO pay. But like Rangel, he has made troubling statements since the election. Specifically, the New York Times reported that as the chair of the Financial Services Committee, Frank has proposed to business lobbyists a so-called "grand bargain" whereby "if business groups support the Democrats’ efforts to increase the minimum wage, extend student loans and expand affordable housing programs, then the Democrats would support efforts to reduce trade barriers and burdensome regulation." Because the terms of this "grand bargain" are vague, it is hard to say what it will end up looking like -- but the mere fact that he is willing to regurgitate Money Party talking points about further economic deregulation and "free" trade deals calls into question whether he will continue representing the People Party as he has for many years.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) -- Leans People Party: Dingell has been a solid consumer advocate on the Energy and Commerce Committee on many major economic issues. But it is unclear how he will use his new chairmanship of that committee in the minority. Suggesting allegiance to the People Party, Dingell has told USA Today that he will work to cut America's dependence on foreign oil. Suggesting Dingell's allegiance to the Money Party, the Associated Press reported that he may o ppose efforts to allow seniors to purchase lower-priced, FDA-approved medicines from Canada -- a proposal vehemently opposed by the pharmaceutical industry that wants to use protectionism to keep medicine prices artificially high in the United States.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) -- Unclear Which Way She Leans: Clinton has not really tried to define her public image on economic issues -- and it is unclear where her real loyalties are. Her views on lobbyist-written trade deals is completely unclear, especially considering her ties to a Clinton White House that championed the very "free" trade policies that sold out American workers. Similarly, whereas her efforts in the 1990s to enact universal health care were motivated by a desire to represent the People Party, a report in the New York Times a few months ago showed that Clinton is now the number two recipient of health care industry cash and is returning the favor by publicly apologizing for her original health care reform efforts. Meanwhile, she this year headlined the DLC's national conference -- a very public rebuke of the People Party.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) -- Leans People Party: As I detailed in a long piece for The Nation, Obama's instincts throughout his career have been to strongly side with the People Party against the Money Party. That is true, even if he also is more of a cautious Establishmentarian than a power-challenger -- and especially considering his recent moves to potentially push full public financing of congressional elections. However, he recently headlined the kickoff event for the so-called Hamilton Project -- the Wall Street backed front group whose goal is to undercut Democratic efforts to seriously reform America's trade policy. He additionally voted for the industry-written class action bill that limits citizens ability to seek legal redress against corporate abusers, he voted for the oil industry-written Energy Bill, he voted against legislation to crack down on exorbitant credit card interests rates, and he voted for the Oman Free Trade Agreement. In a presidential race, I believe Obama will more fully embrace the People Party both because it makes political sense and because I believe that's where his heart is. The question will be whether those two factors will outweigh the pressure he will face to join the Money Party and use his huge celebrity-driven microphone to push the Money Party's agenda -- pressures that may be responsible for his relative silence on major economic justice issues in his first two years in the Senate.

Let me reiterate -- this in no way is a comprehensive list. There are many others who are part of either the People Party or the Money Party, and I encourage readers to list others that you think belong in both camps in the comments section below (it is entirely possible I merely forgot some that should be on this list in either camp). Additionally, I'm sure people may disagree with me and have their own list -- that's fine too, and I'm open to the criticism/discussion/debate. As I said, because the People Party-Money Party fault line is so rarely discussed in Washington, it is much harder to know precisely how this divide breaks out. And remember, this isn't just about the way these people have voted -- it is also about whether they use their platform/political capital to raise these economic justice issues that Washington doesn't like talking about.

That said, this list should give people a pretty good idea of who some of the major players will be in the new Congress on the fundamental economic issues like corruption, trade and health care that defined the 2006 election. It will be up to us to support those representing the People Party with everything we've got. At the same time, we as a movement must have the courage to go up against those in the Money Party who are working against us -- even if they have a D behind their name. This People Party-Money Party chasm is the one that means the difference not between which lawmakers get which parking spots on Capitol Hill -- but between whether the American people get real change or not.

 
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