Opinion: Season of the lame ducks
Washington Democrats have good reasons to be bummed out. They lost the national debate, at least in the minds of many. Some House Dems lost their re-election bids. Many lost friends to the electoral battles.
Democrats have had to watch Republicans strut their new power. The GOP won’t have a majority until January, but they still managed this week to stop an extension of unemployment benefits.
In the House, moving from the majority to the minority is a dizzying change in orientation. The more powerful you were in the majority, the harder it is to go from leader to opposition. And the members of the Massachusetts delegation have been especially powerful.
Rep. Barney Frank of Newton, for example, is about to hand over the House Financial Services Committee to the Republicans. He’ll have to go from being the author of major changes in the nation’s financial industry back to being a sidelines critic and parliamentary speed bump.
Rep. Richard Neal has been waging a campaign since last spring to get his fellow Democrats to win the Ways & Means Committee chairmanship long held by embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel. Now he’s running for ranking minority member on the committee. It’s still a powerful position, but it isn’t the same as chairman.
Then there’s Rep. Ed Markey, who has used his power as chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee to shovel alternative energy subsidies to his district and insert himself into big stories like the BP oil spill. Among the Republicans jockeying to succeed him is Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who publicly apologized to BP for Obama administration efforts to make the company pay for the damage it did along the Gulf Coast.
Markey has special reasons to be frustrated. He labored for years to get enough support for his “cap and trade” bill to make it through the House, only to see it stalled in the Senate. The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Climate Change, which Markey chaired, will probably be dissolved by the next House speaker.
The Democrats put their game faces on and promise to persevere. Markey says he expects to continue working with Barton on Internet privacy issues. In a National Review story published Friday, Rep. Fred Upton, another GOP candidate to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, named Markey as one of the Democrats he could work with on legislation.
Neal is still pushing his plan for the Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year. He wants to continue the lower rates for families earning less than $500,000 a year — Obama and Pelosi set the bar at $250,000 — and rebrand the new taxes on upper-income earners the “war tax,” reserved to pay off the debt accumulated to pay for the war in Iraq.
Whether attempts at bipartisanship hold any prospects of success is anyone’s guess.
Boehner and other GOP leaders had been invited to the White House Thursday to meet with President Obama for the first time since the election, mostly just to break the ice, but Boehner asked the visit be postponed until Nov. 30. He may not be sure whether to strike a pose of cooperation or confrontation. Or maybe, with fire-breathing tea partiers threatening a primary challenge for Republicans caught fraternizing with the enemy, the speaker-in-waiting wasn’t sure he wanted to be seen shaking hands with the president.
On the Democratic side, the danger is premature capitulation. The refrain from the conservative media — which includes much of the mainstream press — is that voters “sent a message” on Election Day, and that Obama and Democrats must hear that message and moderate their positions in response.
That kind of thinking leaves Rep. Jim McGovern scratching his head. He beat his opponent, tea party Republican Marty Lamb, by 17 points. The idea that he should change his positions so he can represent the people who voted against him rather than those who voted for him is just absurd.
McGovern said his Democratic colleagues don’t regret voting for health care reform — which, post-election polls show, is still favored by more than half the voters. They mostly blame their election losses on the economy.
They are wrong, and they will be doubly wrong if they think they can just wait until the economy turns their party’s fortunes around. Democrats lost their House majority because they let their legislative accomplishments — an impressive list by historical standards — be distorted and demagogued by their critics.
House Democrats must do more than obstruct the Republican agenda. They must offer clear, simple alternatives to GOP proposals, especially on Republican priorities like the deficit, and force Boehner and the gang to negotiate with them.
It’s time for Democrats to stop feeling sorry for themselves. There’s work to be done.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at email@example.com.