The Wrong Agenda: Using the Middle Class for Political Gain

As the August recess approached, congressional attention was seized by a slew of unexpected agenda items. The human rights crisis revolving around unaccompanied minors crossing the border, Veterans Affairs reform and international strife abroad in Israel, Ukraine and Iraq dominated headlines and rose to the top of Congress’s agenda. With so much attention focused on said crises, longer-standing issues – like what to do about the middle class – have fallen out of the spotlight. Early in July, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unveiled the House Democrats’ Middle Class Jumpstart Agenda. This three-pronged plan claims to revitalize the middle class with good jobs, support for women, and affordable education for working families. The three components  – “‘Make it in America’ Better Jobs at Home,” “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” and “Affordable Education to Keep America #1” – each highlight key legislative items that House Democrats want to pass. The bills serving as the foundation for the agenda have a more than reasonable chance at bolstering the middle class and are not particularly controversial or partisan. However, what Leader Pelosi and House Democrats have called an agenda to energize the middle class is equally a tool of propaganda leveraged against House Republicans in the months leading up to the 2014 midterm elections.

The Middle Class Jumpstart Agenda illustrates more than the goals and ideological perspectives of House Democrats on the subject of revitalizing the middle class. The agenda is a clear example of increasing polarization and unwillingness or inability to compromise over critical issues on the part of Democrats. The actual substance of the agenda is prefaced by a few paragraphs that discuss all of the ways in which House Republicans have failed to support the middle class instead of discussing the state or needs of the middle class. The actual agenda mentions House Republicans the same number of times as it mentions House Democrats and their specific plans to jumpstart the middle class. That means that half of the space on this agenda is not taken up by proposing concrete initiatives, but by vilifying House Republicans. Regardless of whether House Republicans deserve this vilification, there is no justification for the blatant polarization of an issue that must be addressed. The Democrats risk sacrificing policy for the middle class to congressional gridlock by politicizing a critical issue that is the responsibility of the legislature to address.

Unprecedented polarization in the Capitol has made it nearly impossible to attract bipartisan support on legislation. It has become the case that legislators need their party to have a majority in Congress in order to advance major proposals. In acknowledgment of the gridlocked state of Congress, House Democrats revealed the Middle Class Jumpstart Agenda as a pledge to revitalize middle class’s economic security, but a pledge that hinges on Democrats capturing a House majority in the coming midterms. Leader Pelosi has emphasized that the agenda will not be realized if Republicans retain a majority in the House. This observation about the Democratic agenda is in no way an attempt to skewer House Democrats for their efforts to jumpstart the middle class, or to skewer them for their increasing partisanship. Both parties have equally contributed to the stagnation of bipartisan cooperation, and anticipation of a stalemate over legislation like this may have been the motivation of the House Democrats in taking this partisan approach. Nevertheless, it is convenient that, in order to promote the goals of helping the middle class, House Democrats need to promote how essential the expansion of their own power is in an election year.  House Democrats are just as focused on gaining more power for themselves as they are on issues that are important to their constituents. Both Democrats and Republicans have moved away from the prospect of compromise over critical issues – like how we treat the middle class – and towards the constant power struggle that currently characterizes the Capitol. The language in the Middle Class Jumpstart Agenda epitomizes this paradigm shift.

The Democrats risk sacrificing policy for the middle class to congressional gridlock by politicizing a critical issue that is the responsibility of the legislature to address.

In the past, Congress was able to pass large and significant pieces of bipartisan legislation thanks to the presence of various moderate representatives on both sides of the aisle. The presence of moderate congressmen and congresswomen have enabled compromises that resulted in the Clean Air Act in the 1970s, tax reform in the 1980s and welfare reform in the 1990s. In the previous Congresses that passed such landmark legislation, about 30 to 40 percent of the chamber considered themselves political moderates. But today that number has shrunk enormously. Due in part to congressional redistricting as well as retiring centrist lawmakers, moderates were pushed out of Congress at the start of the 113th Congress. The centrist group of Democratic senators and representatives known as Blue Dogs, have almost all been voted out of their seats, and a slew of more moderate Republicans have retired or moved away from the center to retain their seats. The homogenization of both parties has been felt by the nation. Today, Congress struggles to pass even small, time-sensitive legislation to solve large problems. In the month of July, before the August recess, Congress was not tasked with overhauling the nation’s health care system or comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, they were responsible for funding VA hospital reforms and aid to the unaccompanied minor crisis on the border, but they struggled to pass even these necessary pieces of legislation.

The state and well being of the middle class should similarly be a top priority. The Democrats can do better by not making an important issue like the revitalization of the middle class into a talking point and a means to reelection. They should work to pass the pieces of legislation that the agenda entails regardless of whether they can garner a majority in the House in the upcoming elections. All of our legislators, regardless of ideological identification, must prioritize solutions instead of reinforcing and widening the gap between the aisle. On issues that matter to the majority of their constituents, the focus should be on the agenda items themselves, and not on a tug-of-war for political power.