Pelosi, first woman House speaker, signals big changes
Out of the pain and suffering from Bush policies grew determination for a change. The deep desire to stop the death and destruction in Iraq, and the dire need for decent wages, health care, housing and opportunities for young people, brought out the vote.
The history made as Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives reflected years of long, hard organizing by labor and people’s movements to oust the ultra-right corporate-dominated Republicans from control.
As the children of the members of Congress surrounded Pelosi, she declared that the lawmakers are responsible for the well-being of all the children of the nation.
The message was a repudiation of the manipulations and deceit of the Bush crowd, who have only served the rich and the super-rich.
The ultra-right retains a strong presence in Congress and controls the White House and courts. But the swearing-in of Pelosi represents a significant shift. For labor, African American, Latino, women and youth voters and all democratic and peace-minded people, the new Congress is a big organizing opportunity.
The new Congress better reflects the people of our country. Congressional Black Caucus members chair five influential committees and at least 12 subcommittees, including John Conyers, now chair of Judiciary, and Charles Rangel, chair of Ways and Means. Plus, South Carolina’s James Clyburn is majority whip, number three in the House leadership structure.
Hispanic Caucus member Xavier Becerra is assistant to the speaker. Silvestre Reyes of Texas is the new chair of the House Select Intelligence Committee and said the committee’s agenda includes examining U.S. involvement in Iraq and the nation’s terrorist surveillance program.
Many Black, Latino and women leaders hold their seats as a result of decades of struggle for representation. Many are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Their presence provides the opportunity to get a hearing for more pro-worker legislation.
For working people, every battle was defensive under Republican rule. To “wait and see what the Democrats do,” as some suggest, is missing the boat. This is the moment of big, new opportunities to organize for an agenda that addresses the extreme and growing inequalities in our country and the world. It is a time to mobilize to win new gains, not to sit it out.
In a post-election letter, newly elected Sen. Bernie Sanders Independent of Vermont and a founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, confronts the political reality that at the same time that there are great opportunities to move forward, Bush has veto power.
Sanders urges an “inside/outside” strategy, involving progressives in Congress and the grassroots electorate. “Grassroots America has got to raise public consciousness and rally the American people for real changes in public policy,” says Sanders. “If millions of Americans stand up for change, demand action on good legislation and let politicians know that they are watching, we CAN move forward,” he says.
The first 100 hours
The first big fight is already under way. In the first 100 hours, House Democrats aim to pass an agenda of initial reforms to improve people’s lives, including enacting the 9/11 Commission recommendations, increasing the minimum wage, allowing embryonic stem cell research, negotiating lower prescription drug prices, cutting interest rates on student loans, ending subsidies for Big Oil and investing in renewable energy. Topping the agenda is an ethics and lobbying reform package — to battle the “culture of corruption” between Republicans and corporate lobbyists.
These issues have widespread support at the grass roots around the country and can be won. If they pass, the momentum generated will help build support for more substantial legislation.
At the top of the list is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would reaffirm workers’ human right to form unions. This bill would result in a dramatic increase in wages and working conditions and strengthen workers’ power in the electoral arena.
Also at the top of the list is resolving the health care crisis in our country, which has left 47 million people with no care and millions more with inadequate coverage. The U.S. National Health Insurance Act, HR 676, introduced by Rep. Conyers, and other measures to insure health care for everyone will be put forward to address this issue.
Keep the pressure on
It will take a fight to win. Bush and the Chamber of Commerce are exerting political and ideological pressure on the new Congress to not only protect the vast looting of the past 12 years, but also to try to do even more, despite having lost the majority in Congress.
Liz Cattaneo of American Rights at Work warns that while 80 percent of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage, “Ultra-conservative lobbyists, commentators and members of Congress not only oppose increasing the minimum wage — they are actively fighting to abolish it. And unfortunately, they still have tremendous influence in Washington.”
In the Senate, the Republicans will attempt to tie the increase in the minimum wage to corporate benefits. Cattaneo urged calls to tell Congress to support HR 2 to increase the minimum wage from $5.l5 to $7.25 an hour, which would immediately benefit 8 million workers.
HR 4 mandates that Medicare negotiate with drug companies for lower Part D drug prices and report back to Congress every six months beginning on June 1.
“This is the first test to see whether the new Congress will be senior-friendly,” said George J. Kourpias, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans. “This bill is the first step toward improving Medicare — there are still tough issues like the doughnut hole that need to be addressed.”
American Rights at Work and the Alliance for Retired Americans are part of a lively national coalition, Change America Now, mobilizing their members to lobby Congress for the 100 hours program.
Movement on Iraq
In Los Angeles, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace is urging calls to support the 100 hours and also to oppose any “surge” of troops to Iraq. In April, ICUJP will hold a major demonstration to demand a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and to bring the troops home.
Opposition to the war was instrumental in electing the new majority in Congress. Post-election only 28 percent approve of Bush’s war policy, and a historic plurality of the military in Iraq are also opposed.
Bush’s support for increased troop levels in Iraq is an apparent counterattack to the overwhelming public sentiment to set a timetable and bring the troops home. As well, it comes when Senate hearings to investigate the abuse of power by the White House in Iraq and on other issues are taking place.
Responding to the election results and strong public pressure, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a letter to the president opposing any increase in troop levels, saying it is time to leave Iraq.
Weeks earlier, a flood of protest, along with the military’s reluctance to go along with a troop increase, successfully resulted in Reid backing down from a statement that he would consider the surge of new troops.
Their action strengthens the Democratic caucus, which is composed of a range of ideological approaches from conservative to progressive, including some Democrats who do not want to challenge Bush.
A march on Washington and congressional lobby day is being organized for Jan. 27-29 by United for Peace and Justice. It is expected that every congressional district in the country will have at least one constituent participating in the lobby day to support various bills now being introduced to exit troops from Iraq, stop funding the war and end war profiteering.
The attempt to activate the full force of the peace vote is part of the effort to end control of the White House by the ultra-right Republicans in 2008 and win a larger majority in Congress, with the goal of enacting a new foreign policy based on diplomacy and nuclear disarmament.
From Social Security to immigration reform
A wide array of issues will be debated by the 110th Congress. Republican congressional leaders, Bush and their corporate backers are demagogically calling on the Democrats to take a bipartisan approach as they try to resurrect anti-people legislation, including privatization of Social Security and Medicare.
Strong enough grassroots mobilization can turn the tables to demand bipartisanship for the people’s needs.
In the Senate, immigration reform is on the top 10 list for consideration. The Chamber of Commerce invites labor to support immigration reform with exploitative guest worker programs that create a second-class workforce and separate families. Meanwhile, Bush’s Homeland Security ICE raids have apprehended thousands of immigrant workers across the country.
Many immigrant rights and Latino organizations are calling for a moratorium on raids and deportations, and seeking legislation for legalization with labor and civil rights and with a rapid path to permanent residency and citizenship.
Legislation seeking to correct the wrongs of the past Congress to whatever extent possible will be considered, including to restore funding for human needs and affordable housing, and repeal of tax cuts for the rich. Also on the agenda are rebuilding the Gulf Coast for Katrina victims, and preserving Social Security and public education. The Apollo Project to create jobs in alternative energy, election law reform and trade with Cuba are expected to be considered.
Unity of the labor, African American, Latino, women and youth vote and the broad people’s coalition delivered the victory in November. An even more powerful movement for social change, working in concert with the growing number of legislators who emerged from grassroots struggles, can win progress for people’s needs in the 110th Congress and complete the defeat of the ultra-right in 2008.
Joelle Fishman (joelle.fishman @ pobox.com) is the chair of the Communist Party’s political action commission.
Call your congressperson at the U.S. Capitol switchboard, (202) 225-3121. Tell them to pass the 100 hour agenda. For more information go to: www.cancampaign.org. Tell them to oppose sending any new troops to Iraq. For more information go to: