Pledging to Prohibit Policy Riders in Budget Negotiations

Two weeks ago, the Democratic women of the United States Senate demonstrated to the nation the type of hard-nosed leadership necessary to raise the Democratic Party far above the Republican Party in the public eye.

Unfortunately, while they were modeling for President Obama what real leadership looks like, one of their brethren, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, was doing his best to maintain “politics as usual.”  The good news is that Democrats can still build on the progress achieved by the female Senate leadership and offer Senator Tester a way to align himself with the direction in which we want our nation headed.

On April 8, 2011, as threat of a government shutdown loomed following Congressional failure to resolve the budget impasse, Senators Patty Murray, Dianne Feinstein, Maria Cantwell, Barbara Mikulski, Debbie Stabenow, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Kay Hagan and Barbara Boxer held a press conference to speak out against Republican ideology and tactics.  One after another, the Democratic women of the Senate excoriated the Republican Party for holding the American people and their government hostage to ideological demands made after the government’s budget numbers had been agreed to by both parties. 

With a flurry of roundhouse punches, one Democratic Senator after another took a turn voicing her outrage at the Republicans, not just for their lack of commitment to finding a bipartisan solution to our unparalleled budget deficit, but for using the budget impasse as a tool for destroying important health and social safety net programs specifically intended to benefit women in need. 

Senator Murray stated the case plainly: “After weeks of being told that the continuation of funding for this government was about budget cuts, deficits and spending…now we find out at the eleventh hour, hours before the government shuts down, that that’s not what it’s about.”

Senator Feinstein confirmed: “The numbers have been agreed to, but it’s an opportunity for the right wing in the House to really sock it to women.”

Senator Maria Cantwell took an even stronger tone of condemnation: “This is not a budget impasse on fiscal issues.  This is about those who won’t budge unless their extreme social agenda gets jammed through Congress.”

Likewise, Senator Mikulski angrily warned that the Republicans were pursuing a “radical agenda against women,” while Senator Stabenow of Michigan called the Republicans’ tactics “playing pure politics with the budget.”

Senator Gillibrand was equally angry, but more precise: “[The Republicans] have put their ideological agenda before American families.  And this is not about abortion.  Republicans need to wake up!  Since the Hyde Amendment, for the last 30 years, federal money does not pay for abortions in this country!  What they are cutting in this bill are safety nets for poor, at-risk women.”

Senator Klobuchar made clear the human and social costs of the Republican’s ideological assault on Title X funding: “Title X funding provides nearly 300,000 women and millions more nationwide with vital preventative health services.  It helps women with breast [and] cervical cancer screening.  The funding helps educate women on proper health and preventative service actions.”

Senators Boxer and Senator Murray promised the American people that the Democratic women of the Senate were prepared to take a stand.  Boxer stated, “We are determined to draw the line in the sand.”  Senator Murray agreed, expressing concern about the millions of Americans who stood to be impacted by the Republicans’ ideological blackmail, but insisted, nonetheless, that “we are not going to throw women under the bus to give them an agreement that’s going to keep this government open.”

Ultimately, it was Senator Hagan who made the most important statement in the press conference, strenuously arguing:  “It’s high time that we seriously leave away these divisive policy riders.  They cannot disrupt the progress on charting a long term course to get our fiscal house in order.”

Senator Hagan’s argument deserves our continued attention two weeks later, even after Congressional Republicans buckled before the show of political muscle from the Senators quoted above thus enabling the budget impasse to be resolved.  Women were saved from having the Title X family planning program eliminated without the program’s importance being publicly debated in Congress, but other groups were not so lucky with regard to their interest in other vital programs.

Certainly, we should celebrate what may be the first time poor, at-risk women have had the benefit of such strong representation in the Senate.  At the same time, however, we should also remember that there are still many with no voice in our political system.  These voiceless ones are the victims who unprincipled politicians eagerly “throw under the bus” during budget talks by allowing important policy decisions affecting such groups to be made without any public deliberation in Congress.

One such voiceless group consists of the endangered species native to our land.  If the Democratic women in the Senate defeated the use of procedurally unethical tactics to achieve a “radical agenda against women” outside the public debate, they did not succeed in preventing Democratic Senator John Tester’s “divisive policy rider” from stripping endangered species protection from gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains. 

In response to this failure, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lamented: “It is a shameful day for this nation when both parties unite behind the slaughter of an endangered species—without public hearing or debate.”  The NRDC also noted that “Congress has never before removed an animal from the endangered species list.  By replacing scientific judgment with political calculation, the House and Senate have struck at the very heart of wildlife protection in America.”

Thus, under threat of a government shutdown, unprincipled politicians pursued an “extreme social agenda” not just against women, but also against the environment, the Endangered Species Act, the endangered grey wolf, and all Americans who hope for a future in which the integrity of our ecosystems is still preserved.

Make no mistake — the Democratic women in the Senate deserve to be widely praised for seizing the opportunity to expose the dishonest tactics employed by the Republicans in their fervent desire to misuse closed door budget negotiations to advance ideological policies outside the proper political process venues. 

However, a further opportunity exists if these same Senators will take Senator Hagan’s argument to its next logical step.  These Senators should use their recent victory as inspiration for drafting a pledge that will further distinguish the Democratic Party from the Republican Party by promising not to hold future federal budgets hostage to policy riders that ought to be publicly debated in Congress. 

One would hope that Montana’s Senator Tester would want to join his fellow Democrats in signing a pledge distinguishing himself from his Republican adversaries who were so intent on improperly using the budget negotiation process to “sock it to women.”

The thoughtful and sophisticated drafting of a pledge is necessary because the “line in the sand” referred to by Senator Boxer is not always clear.  Without a carefully drafted pledge, unprincipled politicians from any party might easily argue that a policy decision that ought to be publicly debated in Congress is simply a funding issue legitimately negotiated behind closed doors during the budget process.  

In some cases, of course, such an argument may be harder to make than in others.  For example, it is difficult to understand how the grey wolf’s endangered species status represented a significant funding issue legitimately addressed in budget negotiations.

No matter how difficult or easy it is to define the conditions under which attachment of policy riders should be prohibited in budget negotiations, the Democratic women of the Senate have shown themselves to be the best elected officials we have in Washington D.C., and I have confidence that they are equal to the task.  

By developing and adopting a principled party-wide pledge that improves the integrity of the political process, Democrats can demonstrate that their foremost ideology is actual democracy, which is neither liberal nor conservative, but simply an allegiance to fair and honest procedure that promotes decision making based on rational discourse. 

Such devotion to procedure is a form of centrism high above President Obama’s sad habit of compromising principles he has claimed as his own even before his political opponents offer any pushback.  Such a pledge offers a form of centrism that Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike can admire.  It is an example of what we really need from our politicians: a promise to uphold the dignity of the democratic people they represent. 

The initial leadership shown by the Democratic women in the Senate now leads to a further opportunity for more leadership, which is usually how leadership works.  I hope these fine senators will continue leading the way.

Hank Edson is an author, activist and attorney based in San Francisco. He is the author of The Declaration of the Democratic Worldview (Democracy Press, 2008).

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