House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is probably the best politician in Congress. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) deserves high praise for holding her party together on some very difficult issues, it was Hoyer who helped seal the final legislative deals that spelled the margins of victory. He is well-attuned to the political wants and needs of his moderate and conservative Members, and they in turn trust and respect his leadership skills.
[IMGCAP(1)]It is therefore important to pay close attention to what Hoyer says and does. On Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, he delivered a little-noted but telling speech to the Action Fund of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. The speech may not live in infamy, but it struck a strangely discordant and nostalgic note that must have left the party loyalists present scratching their heads.
Instead of rallying the troops behind the president’s agenda and the efforts of his allies in Congress, as one might expect, Hoyer spent the entire speech lambasting the Republican “party of no— for destroying any hope for bipartisanship. Naturally, any speech to a partisan crowd should contain the requisite amount of opposition party bashing — your standard “red meat for the troops— fare. But overall, one would expect a talk at this point in a new administration to be upbeat and motivational, citing substantive accomplishments, what remains to be done and the dangers ahead if the party does not remain united and energized.
To obsess on blaming Republicans for marching lock step in opposition to administration initiatives instead of joining in a bipartisan coalition to advance the national interest, as Hoyer claims the minority party has done in the past, leaves the impression that Democrats have not advanced the ball on their own. This is hardly reassuring news to the Democratic base that already harbors suspicions that their party’s leaders in Washington have abandoned the mandate won in 2008. The last thing the base wants to hear at this point is an appeal for greater bipartisanship.
So what could possibly be behind the Majority Leader’s tack to the past? It could be the speech was slapped together at the last minute — an escape valve to vent frustrations of the day in Congress. But this speech was clearly planned and written well in advance, replete with historical quotes and actions by major figures in both parties. No, this speech had a definite purpose. Let’s call it “the fallback insurance plan— to protect Democrats against the charge of legislative failure.
Hoyer recognizes that the president’s party traditionally loses more than 20 House seats in midterm elections. Add to that the likelihood that unemployment will remain high by November, that the economic recovery will be very slow (if it doesn’t slip into a double-dip recession) and that two wars will still be raging, and it’s clear the majority party has plenty to worry about.
It would be premature today to boast about bills that have only passed the House but not the Senate, or that have been enacted but have not yet produced promised results. Why try to fool the people into believing things are better than the people know they are? There will be plenty of time later in the year to point to actual accomplishments and to make the case for keeping Democrats in power to complete the work of economic recovery. In the meantime, the minority party provides a convenient scapegoat for explaining why things haven’t gotten better faster. As the saying goes, if you repeat a falsehood often enough, people will eventually believe it’s true.
Hoyer is well-aware that independents are drifting away from the Democrats, if not flocking to the Republican camp, and that they will be the key to the 2010 Congressional elections and the 2012 presidential election. If you can persuade them at least to keep their powder dry and not defect to the GOP, there may be a better chance of luring them back when things do look brighter.
You do that by discrediting the opposition party as a bunch of dangerous, radical obstructionists out to destroy the Obama agenda and presidency. But you wrap that message in velvety appeals to a golden age of bipartisanship — an age that never existed except in the minds of dreamers and dunces.
Of course the parties have come together on essential legislation in times of economic crises and wars. But those occasional bursts of bipartisan cooperation do not last long. Remember the predictions of some pundits after 9/11 that we were entering a new era of bipartisanship in the country? It wasn’t long, however, before both parties reverted to type and were wrangling over such things as workers’ rights in the proposed Department of Homeland Security.
Nevertheless, Hoyer recognizes that appeals to bipartisanship resonate with the electorate. Never mind that his party in the House continues to use every procedural device available to stiff the minority — much worse than majority Republicans had been at their worst. For example, this year, for the first time ever, Democrats imposed special rules limiting amendments on all appropriations bills. Last Congress, Democrats barred all amendments to 36 percent of the major bills considered under special rules, compared with 32 percent under Republicans at their worst. And last week, Democratic leaders announced they would circumvent a conference committee on health care — leaving the minority party (and the public) completely in the dark. The only things that Republicans are holding up in the House are the railroad tracks laid on their backs.
Because Hoyer knows the public does not pay attention to such procedural abuses, he can rise above politics with rhetorical appeals for bipartisan national unity. It is a cool, clever and calculating ploy that just might fool some of the people some of the time.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.