This article was originally published in The American Prospect.
Congress has spent the last four weeks in a long autumn recess. This decision has been a congressional norm for quite some time, a relic from the ages when it was indeed strategic for candidates to campaign in person and attract local media in the weeks leading up to elections. Democrats followed this old convention this year, no doubt amid pleading from their most threatened incumbents.
But we’re not living in that age anymore. Tip O’Neill’s famous adage that “all politics is local” can no longer be taken at face value. Not when local media is a shell of its former self, thanks to private equity and the explosion of digital news and social media. Especially not when national issues like the economy, abortion, and protecting democracy and voting rights have ascended to the top of voters’ priority lists.
If Democrats in Congress had chosen instead to extend the legislative session, or even just to reconvene briefly before Election Day, they could have forced big, headline-making votes on salient issues. Imagine the news cycle before this election being focused on Democrats voting for marriage equality and abortion rights, cracking down on price-gouging, implementing anti-profiteering taxes and raising the minimum wage as methods to protect against inflation, as well as protecting and expanding Social Security and Medicare. These votes either would have resulted in exciting, positive policy developments that Democrats could have campaigned on, or would have forced Republicans to vote against extremely popular bills, lending Democrats galvanizing platforms on which to launch opposition campaigns.
Unfortunately, Dems didn’t do that. However, the opportunity still exists for Democrats to do something compelling with the rest of this legislative session. With little to lose and everything to gain, we think they should.
Funding the Government
To start, Democrats shouldn’t acquiesce to yet another continuing resolution that extends the fraught legacy of the Trump administration’s budget priorities. They certainly shouldn’t do so just to avoid a public fight with Republicans. People like it when politicians actually do something. People like it even more when that “something” is fighting back against corporate malfeasance, as polling from Data for Progress shows.
Instead of rolling over on an omnibus package that funds little besides the most wasteful, punitive, poisonous, and ineffectual parts of the federal government, Democrats should commit their party to a FY23 budget that actually reflects their stated values. Such budget allocations could include an increase in the anti-price-gouging capacity at the Federal Trade Commission(FTC) and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (ATR), to actually address the root causes of inflation. Dems could demonstrate their commitment to workers through fully empowering agencies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) with the resources they need to succeed but have for so long been denied. They could proactively protect the environment and communities on the front lines of climate change by funneling funding to support restaffing at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and to fuel the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division(ENRD) to crack down on environmental crimes nationwide.
It’s very easy to message all of these proposals in a way that will excite voters: Just tell them Democrats are cracking down on price-gouging, empowering unions, making workplaces safe, and giving regulators real teeth to fight Big Oil’s pollution. You don’t need to get into all of the jargon and legalisms. You just need to communicate to voters that Democrats want to make America a better place to live, and Republicans don’t.
Democrats could even use a united party front to expand Social Security benefits, supporting struggling seniors who face the challenges of inflation and the ongoing pandemic. The federal budget matters immensely, and merits a fight. Conveniently, the budget also offers Democrats a last-ditch attempt to do something while their (albeit, slim) majorities are guaranteed.
Prioritizing Confirmation Battles
Republicans have created a confirmation crisis through their systemic rejection of the civil servants nominated to staff the executive branch. Democrats should reform the Senate processes that allowed this crisis to develop in the first place. In the meantime, though, dedicated Senate floor time is necessary to finally push some of these integral nominees through.
Crucially, the Senate must work to confirm not only judges, but the nominees to be U.S.attorneys, high-ranking executive officials, and leaders at the independent agencies, who have been left in limbo for months, if not years. While these nominees and positions might not have public name recognition, the things their agencies do have tangible, not to mention strategically compelling, benefits that resonate with the public.
If Democrats just finish staffing the federal government, they’ll be able to finally deliver on numerous policy priorities—even in the event of a Republican congressional sweep. Deliveringthe votes to (finally) restore net neutrality, protect marginalized workers from discrimination on the job, or invest in renewable energy at the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority is a smart political strategy on which Democrats can eventually campaign.
Of course, seating judicial nominees is also critical. GOP judges keep doing unpopular things, like attacking the fundamentals of American democracy, taking away people’s rights, and insulating partisan actors from investigation into their potential crimes. Even more recently, conservative judges have also fundamentally attacked the very existence of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Seating competent judges on the federal bench to protect the public against these decisions is also politically savvy and, more importantly, the just thing to do.
The President’s Role
Democrats should have been in Washington these past weeks. But regardless, President Biden should have been taking consistent, high-profile assaults against near-universally hated forces in the U.S. He could have spent October attacking corporate price-gouging, taking executive action against Big Pharma and Big Oil, and, as we’ve repeated many times this year, generally cracking down on corporations while being extremely loud about it.
Corporations are raking in record profits from unethical and illegal practices and facing little to no punishment. Voters know this—83 percent of voters from all parties believe regular Americans pay the price when the crimes of wealthy people and corporations go unpunished—and want to see the government holding wealthy corporate criminals accountable.
On October 26th, Biden stood alongside CFPB Director Rohit Chopra and FTC Director Lina Khan to announce federal initiatives cracking down on “junk fees” from banks, airlines, cable companies, and concert ticket sites. This was excellent.
But every time Biden holds an event like this one without being specific in his attacks, therefore provoking corporations to fight back and provide voters with a healthy dose of conflict, he’s missing an opportunity to engage voters. Did the president take stabs at, say, Ticketmaster for its junk fees? Wouldn’t it have gone viral if he had a good one-liner about them? This event, in all its intentions, wasn’t even part of the major news cycle that day.
Unpopular villains may have the good sense to stay anonymous, but unpopular corporations are also often run by people with huge egos who can be goaded into attention-grabbing conflict. (Hello, Elon Musk!) That requires Biden to violate norms and actively goad those specific bad corporate actors.
Democrats could have spent the fall picking fights over the issues their voters care about. From anti-abortion rhetoric to unbridled corporate profiteering to election denialism to racist dog-whistling, Republicans and their corporate allies make themselves easy villains every day. Voters want to see Democrats name this villainy and stop it in its tracks.
Such action breeds conflict, yes, which is hugely beneficial. It foments excitement in the party base that could stir the motivation needed to keep blue incumbents in their seats and to oust the protofascists elsewhere. The GOP has figured out the political expediency of publicly staged conflicts. They’ve used it to flame racist rhetoric while trying to win hollow political points over an imagined crime wave and xenophobic reaction against immigration.
Democrats have let this hateful rhetoric stand unchallenged for far too long. They should confront this messaging head-on by finally forging a consistent, clear, and confrontational message, which may finally motivate the anti-hate majority to the polls.
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