Democrats shouldn’t squander the opportunity to pass transformative legislation

CSCCE, UC Berkeley

About 2000 years ago, a Jewish man with Roman citizenship shouted out the words, “Do thyself no harm.”  I would commend those words of Saul of Tarsus to the members of the Democratic Caucus. At a time when the Leviathan lie is sadly taking root in the minds of nearly one-third of the American public, we can least afford a season of counterproductive and self-defeating splintering. While it is true that our caucus is an omnium-gatherum, we hold the most significant matters in common. We believe in the concept of a liberal democracy, equal opportunity, scientific consensus on health and environmental inquiry, and in a pluralistic society. We embrace the existence of and the need for labor unions. We believe that all of God’s children, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and political affiliation, deserve to be treated with decency and respect.

Now, we have the extraordinarily rare opportunity to become the most transformative Democratic Caucus in congressional history — and I trust that we won’t blow it for the people. The recent and long-overdue $1 trillion senate-approved infrastructure bill will finally address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. It will rebuild thousands of bridges, modernize our public transit, expand broadband to tens of millions of Americans, remove lead pipes in every school, and create millions of good-paying union jobs. Republicans and Democrats alike are thrilled to see that our country can still do big things. President Joseph Biden has proven that his desire for bipartisan legislative success, which is a critical component of liberal democracy, is still possible. 

The president has also demonstrated a willingness to utilize the legislative avenues available to address other persistent challenges facing our nation. Through budget reconciliation, a process used by Republicans just four short years ago to pass a $2 trillion tax bill, we have an opportunity to transform the human infrastructure of the nation. We can join the rest of the developed world in offering paid leave to working class families; strengthen our workforce and provide greater opportunity through universal pre-K and free community college; support low- and middle-class families by making permanent the expanded Child Tax Credit; and provide the investments needed to address our nation’s dire shortage of affordable housing. And we can do it all without raising taxes on families making less than $400,000 by simply asking giant corporations and the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.

So why in the world are we allowing a narrative to surface that the House Democratic Caucus is divided along generational lines or between progressives and moderates. Horsefeathers! We are a big tent caucus representing an extremely diverse coalition of districts and Americans. But we must remember that our diversity is our strength — and our values are what hold us together. Just as we collectively negotiated and passed the most ambitious relief package in American history, which has accelerated our economic recovery and dramatically reduced child poverty, we must jointly address the crises that remain: climate change, economic inequality, a broken immigration system, and greater access to affordable health care. This is our opportunity to propel the United States into the future as FDR did with the New Deal. But we must be unified to do so.

Please know that I am not suggesting that we should function as legislative R2-D2s. That would be antithetical to our Democratic DNA. What I am suggesting is the consideration that we are not always right, no matter how strongly we feel about an issue. Compromising is not a declaration of being wrong, but that the matter under consideration is larger than our ego.

In the late winter of 2010, I did something that made me cringe. I voted for the Affordable Care Act. You see, I had for years strongly supported a public option in a national health care plan. However, the public option section of the ACA was dropped in order to secure Republican votes. Votes that never arrived. Yet, with internal discomfort and the realization that Democrats had few votes to spare, I held my tongue and voted for the ACA — the most significant legislation since the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the reason more than 23 million Americans have quality health care today. I want my grandchildren to know that I stood up for health care as a basic human right. Additionally, I wanted to send a message to Americans that, as a practical matter, democracy demands compromise. We should argue relentlessly for what we desire but after deep scrutiny of the matter at hand, along with contemplation and consultation, we should vote for the best deal possible. And that is the way I will go into the consideration of the history altering infrastructure package.

Finally, after serving two terms as mayor of Kansas City, I was proudly elected to Congress and felt pretty good about myself. However, after rereading the creation story, found in various forms of the holy books of the monotheistic religions, I paused to consider that in the beginning, God made two great lights. And I was not one of them. During the difficult days to come, I invite my colleagues to ruminate on this.       

Cleaver represents Missouri’s 5th District and is former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Tags budget reconciliation Child care Climate change human infrastructure Infrastructure

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