Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
With the decision last week to delay a promised vote on the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, this unfolding spectacle proves a point I have been making for years: The political center of America is underrepresented in the United States Congress, especially in the House of Representatives.
Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress routinely acquiesce to dogmatic progressives and uncompromising conservatives, respectively, because those members have large numbers in their caucuses, remain strongly unified and are not afraid to take political hostages.
Progressive Democrats in the House mimicked the take-no-prisoners, hardball tactics of Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus to block the infrastructure legislation. Simply stated, the progressives are holding the bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage until there is an agreement and vote on the massive reconciliation bill with a price tag as high as $3.5 trillion. Further, progressives threatened to vote down the bipartisan infrastructure bill – legislation they ostensibly support on substance – until their demands on reconciliation were met and satisfied.
It’s all about “leverage” and progressives said this out loud. If the infrastructure bill passed into law, House moderates would no longer feel pressure to vote for the bloated reconciliation bill that has no chance of becoming law thanks to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. In this internecine battle among congressional Democrats, President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sided with progressives over moderates. Pelosi did this by delaying the vote last Thursday, a move that played to what progressives had been demanding. Betrayal is too kind a word to describe this humiliation visited upon House moderates.
Democratic House moderates are justifiably enraged and apoplectic. They were thrown under the bus. After all, moderates in good faith negotiated an agreement in August with the Speaker that facilitated a (legal) quid pro quo. Moderates would support the House budget resolution, necessary to initiate the reconciliation process, in exchange for a vote before September 27 on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Pretty simple – and now that deal has been trashed. Moderates trusted their leaders to honor this agreement and they were shamefully pushed aside by those same leaders to appease the progressives.
Unlike progressives, moderates cannot return to their districts and claim “leverage” as a reason for opposing an infrastructure bill. Reality for moderates, where re-election is not a sure thing, does not allow them to publicly oppose a popular jobs bill to protect their procedural options. Voters in swing districts would leverage moderate members out of their seats for such brazen behavior.
Now that the Democratic leadership reneged on the deal and threw all in with the progressives, my advice to House Democratic moderates is simply to walk away from reconciliation negotiations until the infrastructure bill becomes law. It’s time to deploy the same hardball tactics of the far left. Hold your breath and wait for your leaders to turn blue.
What’s so astonishing in this whole debate is the presumption that all congressional Democrats support this expansive, big spending agenda. Yes, progressives support it. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t hear moderate, swing district congressional Democratic candidates in their 2020 campaigns tell their constituents they wanted to spend trillions of dollars, outside of Covid-19 relief, in support of a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in our lives. Sure, Vermont progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders advocated for this agenda, but he lost the Democratic presidential primary.
Democrats have completely misread Biden’s 2020 election mandate. The 2020 election was a repudiation of President Donald Trump, and it was not an endorsement of a big spending agenda. Full stop.
In fact, Republicans, other than Trump, did very well in the 2020 election. Not one Republican member of the US House who sought re-election lost. In fact, they picked up seats and some Democratic incumbents were defeated. Swing voters put Biden over the top and simultaneously wanted a check on the left wing of the Democratic Party by voting for down ballot Republican candidates, who exceeded expectations by any measure.
If this $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal and its key components are as popular as Democrats tell us, then why not take this agenda to the voters in the 2022 midterm?
As Manchin stated so clearly last week during a press briefing on the reconciliation package, if progressives want a favorable vote on the reconciliation package, they’ll need their constituents to “elect more liberals.” Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson had large congressional majorities to enact their landmark platforms: The New Deal and Great Society, respectively. President Biden has the slimmest of majorities in both the House and Senate.
Believe it or not, Americans cast their votes for names on a ballot, not a party slate like in many parliamentary systems. The progressives and far right need a reminder that America’s founders rejected a parliamentary system of government even though at times Congress behaves as if we became one. Not all Democrats and Republicans are monolithic and doctrinaire in their approach to governing. Diverse opinions on policy exist within political parties and that is healthy for democracy.
No doubt voters would like childcare options expanded, quality early childhood education provided, funding to fight back climate change and affordable access to health care for those who need it, but not on the scale proposed. What’s more, these issues are not being dealt with in a vacuum.
After nearly $6 trillion in Covid spending, inflationary pressures, mayhem at the southern border, an ignominious surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban and turbulence in Chinese financial markets as a result of the Evergrande debt crisis, now is the time for prudence and caution.
Bludgeoned moderates understand this. Too bad there aren’t more of them in Congress to push back.