No Labels Blog

Eyes Forward: Misleading your voters is a risky game

By Charles Babington
July 8, 2019 | Blog

It’s fine for elected officials and private citizens on the left, right and center to argue passionately for their beliefs. But it’s not OK to mislead constituents into thinking political victories are within reach – if we only fight harder! – when they clearly are not.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened recently when hardcore liberals railed against Congress’ passage of a bipartisan emergency border spending bill. Perhaps these fiercely progressive lawmakers think their strategy will fire up their base (and political fundraising), but it’s hard to see how this is smart politics in the long run.

Here are the basics: As the humanitarian crisis on the southern border worsened in early June, the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House crafted rival bills to provide an extra $4.6 billion to key federal agencies working there. The House bill would have put tighter restrictions on border operations by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the military, and set stricter standards for medical care, nutrition and hygiene. While liberals generally preferred this bill, many Senate Democrats, and some in the House, said either was acceptable.

As Congress’ July 4 weeklong recess neared, the Senate began moving its measure. The Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed it June 19 by a 30-1 vote.

House Democratic leaders insisted on changes. But with immigrant advocates warning that detainees – many of them children – needed relief immediately, Senate leaders said they couldn’t wait. The Senate rejected the House version, 55-37, and then voted 84-8 for its own plan.

Citing the strong bipartisan support, Senate GOP leaders and President Trump said they had done their job, and made it clear they wouldn’t backtrack or accept the House version.

Some staunch liberals in the House, however, refused to yield. They claimed that if they fought loudly and persistently enough, the Senate and White House would back down and accept their terms.

But a group of pragmatic Democrats – led by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus – said it was time to face reality and get relief to the border. There was no way the House could force its will on the Senate and president, they rightly noted, and time was running out to help desperate immigrants and the overwhelmed federal agencies at the border.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House bill was clearly preferable but even the Senate package was “a good bill.” The House finally approved the Senate bill, 305-102, and Trump signed it into law.

Many liberal activists complained bitterly, claiming the House had “caved in” to moderates. Some comments, such as calling the Problem Solvers Caucus the “child abuse caucus,” were outrageous. Here are important points to remember:

  •     Time was running out to help agencies frantically dealing with influxes of immigrants. Without House action, the emergency funding would have been delayed beyond the July 4 congressional recess and possibly longer.
  •     Ideally, House and Senate negotiators would have hammered out a compromise, but such “conference committees” have all but vanished in recent years. Once the Senate passed a bill that even House leaders agreed was “good,” its members had little political or moral incentive to yield to the House liberals’ wishes.

Liberal activists who claim that a tougher House stand could have bent the GOP-controlled Senate and White House to their will are either blind to political realities or deliberately misleading a gullible audience. After senators from both parties embraced the Senate version by large margins, House liberals had no leverage.

Bottom line: Math is stubborn. If one party controls the Senate and White House, then the other party can plead, preach and shout, but it can’t change the numbers that will determine the final showdown. It’s a disservice to tell the public otherwise. And it’s wrong to berate pragmatists for accepting reality and finishing important, urgent business in time to help people in need.

[Charles Babington is a longtime politics reporter based in Washington.]

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