Rick Larsen is a third-term Democratic representative from Lake Stevens in Washington state. A balding former publicist for the Washington State Dental Association, Larsen, 40, is a proud member of the New Democrat Coalition. His district, Washington's 2nd, runs north from the Seattle suburbs to the Canadian border. It is, on balance, fairly liberal -- George W. Bush lost the district in both 2000 and 2004 -- and Larsen's seat is secure. After a closer race in 2002, Larsen won this traditionally Democratic district last year almost 2 to 1.
Yet Larsen's voting record doesn't reflect these numbers: He voted in favor of the bankruptcy bill crafted by the credit-card industry, the Bush administration's estate-tax repeal, and the tort “reform” bill supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce limiting the right to sue.
Three-thousand miles away, in a working- and middle-class majority African American district, Gregory Meeks of Queens, New York, voted for two of these three conservative Bush bills, and, for good measure, supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Meeks' last election was unopposed, and it would be very hard to argue that any of these bills helped his constituents.
With a closely divided House, faithless Democrats like these are helping Bush serve corporations at the expense of working Americans. CAFTA, which will divert jobs, passed by two votes, 15 of them Democratic. The bankruptcy bill will put millions of Americans who declared personal bankruptcy -- about half because they faced staggering medical bills -- on harsh payback plans rather than allowing them the traditional clean start. The tort bill caps the ability of people grievously maimed by corporate negligence to collect damages sought by juries. The estate-tax repeal, in order to help a few thousand of America's richest families hoard more billions, will deny the U.S. Treasury tens of billions every year that might help ordinary families. (A similar problem obtains in the Senate, where California's Dianne Feinstein is a prime blue-state offender. But that's a topic for another day.)
After those 15 Democrats deserted the caucus on CAFTA, an angry Nancy Pelosi vowed to strip some offenders of committee assignments, which help them raise special-interest money. But as we go to press, this has not yet happened, and insiders say the House minority leader may wait until the next Congress, and merely maintain the threat in the meantime.
Nor do some Democrats think she should even try. “Democrats are too diverse a party for everyone just to follow one line,” says Dave McCurdy, a former Oklahoma New Democratic congressman who now lobbies for the electronics industry. “What would you have us do?” asks Representative Barney Frank, the outspoken Massachusetts liberal. “The last time we punished someone, it was when we kicked Phil Gramm off the budget committee in 1982.”
Gramm had been the lead Democratic sponsor of Ronald Reagan's budget cuts. Resigning from the Democratic caucus, he promptly switched parties -- and then got elected to the Senate as a Republican. In fact, the caucus did remove two other chairmen in 1990, Glenn Anderson from the House Public Works and Transportation Committee and Frank Annunzio from the House Administration Committee (both from safe Democratic seats) with no ill effects. But the Gramm episode is now part of party lore and still haunts the leadership.
By contrast, the machine run by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is much tougher about whipping wavering Republicans, offering rewards, and threatening punishments, including the nuclear threat of sponsoring primary opponents. Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from the northern New Jersey suburbs, barely survived a two-primary challenges in 1998 and 2000 by conservative Scott Garrett, who was encouraged by the Republican House leadership. After she won her primary by just 52 percent to 48 percent in 2000, the leadership denied her the chair of the Financial Services Committee. A worn-down Roukema announced her retirement, and Garrett handily took the seat in 2002. And when conservative Chris Smith of New Jersey's nearby 4th District defied the leadership and called for making vets' benefits an entitlement, DeLay promptly stripped Smith of his Veterans Affairs Committee chairmanship.
DeLay basically runs a parliamentary party. He can play this kind of hardball because he has a movement behind him both in Washington and in the Republican base. Most of the House Republican caucus is now made up of like-minded movement conservatives who loathe RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and are eager to have DeLay get tough with the dwindling handful of Republican moderates.
On the Democratic side, progressives in recent decades have managed to oust a conservative incumbent only once, in 2000, when then–state Senator Hilda Solis successfully knocked off Matthew (Marty) Martinez in an east Los Angeles House district. Solis succeeded not because the House caucus acted but mainly because of the powerful Hispanic-labor alliance in L.A., which was fed up with Martinez and could deliver organized support to Solis. When she got to Congress, where Martinez had been a popular member of the Hispanic Caucus, Solis found herself initially shunned by some of her colleagues.
Nonetheless, a few more locally divisive primary challenges, paradoxically, might improve national party discipline -- by giving pause to Democrats who keep voting Republican. A series of interviews suggests that this will have to happen mainly district by district, if at all, and not via the efforts of a divided and anxious House Democratic caucus, which could take tougher action but probably won't.
Who are these renegade Democrats and why do they vote with the Bush administration? We have identified about 40 House Democrats who often vote with the White House and organized business on key pocketbook legislation. On the bankruptcy bill, fully 73 Democrats voted with Bush. It's understandable why those in socially conservative districts, mainly in the South and other rural areas, vote their districts on issues like guns, God, gays, and abortion. Their districts would probably go Republican if they didn't vote this way. Harder to defend, however, are northern and western Democrats, in safe Democratic seats, who choose to help Bush on pocketbook issues harmful to most of their constituents. Their reasons turn out to one part money, one part fear (largely false) of losing their seats, and one part principled (very occasionally) centrism -- all enabled by a paucity of party unity and discipline.
The accompanying chart narrow the group down to northern and western Democrats who voted with business and the White House on at least two of three key pocketbook issues. Several also voted for other Bush priorities such as CAFTA, the industry-written prescription-drug bill, oil drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge, and the Bush tax cuts. Of these Democrats, only Melissa Bean, who narrowly ousted incumbent Phil Crane last year in a Republican-leaning suburban Chicago district, and Jim Matheson, of heavily Republican Utah, had good excuses, having won their seats in 2004 by scant margins. In this article, we focus on the Faithless 15 Democrats with the most pro-Republican records (the 17 northern and western Democrats minus Bean and Matheson) What makes them tick? How do they get away with it?
The Business Dems. Some Democratic representatives who often help Bush are centrists -- principled, opportunist, or a little of both. “The DLC provides ideological cover,” says one liberal congressman, “for what are basically special-interest votes.” The Democratic Leadership Council seemingly offers a principled rationale for moderate Democrats to support “economic growth.” But in practice, many of the votes in question are merely narrow-interest bills sought by business that do nothing for growth or employment. (The DLC supported the bankruptcy and tort bills, but not even the DLC, given its fiscal conservatism, endorsed estate-tax repeal.)
For example, the well-named Adam Smith represents the traditionally Democratic industrial area that includes part of Washington state's Tacoma, Renton, and the Sea-Tac International Airport. Running as a DLC poster boy, he took the seat back -- winning by about 3 points -- from Republican Randy Tate, who had captured it in the 1994 Gingrich landslide. Smith, who now enjoys a thoroughly safe seat, was one of just four Democrats who broke with his party and opposed changes to make the USA PATRIOT Act slightly less authoritarian. Recently, says one local activist, Smith's record has become more liberal because he has been getting increasingly vocal criticism at home from party activists from the labor/Howard Dean/progressive wing of the party. In this Congress, Smith pleasantly surprised some of his critics by voting against making the estate-tax repeal permanent and against the bankruptcy bill, but he did support tort reform.
Jane Harman of Los Angeles is another Democrat who captured a swing seat and turned it into a safe one. Now the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, Harman has a lot of defense contractors in her district. She's a social liberal, but on economic issues, the National Journal rates her just 66-percent liberal. She sometimes casts industry special-interest votes, such as the bankruptcy and estate tax bills, and not because she has to but because she believes in them. She did vote against both repealing the estate tax and approving CAFTA, though she broke ranks with most Democrats to support Bush's version of trade-promotion authority.
Ruben Hinojosa, who represents the 15th District in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, is in the food-processing business and is personally somewhat conservative. His brother, who runs the business day to day, is a prominent Republican. Hinojosa had an overwhelmingly Democratic seat until DeLay's redistricting in 2004, but even then he still won by a healthy 17 points. Bush carried the district but Hinojosa is very well entrenched. Nonetheless, he voted for the bankruptcy bill, tort reform, permanent estate-tax repeal, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Hinojosa is also known to barter pro-Bush votes for pork for his district. He voted for an earlier Bush trade bill only after fellow Texan DeLay promised earmarked funding for a job-training program, according to The Almanac of American Politics.
Henry Cuellar of Laredo, another of the Faithless 15, was formerly a Republican appointee to state office, and votes similarly. Silvestre Reyes of El Paso likewise voted for bankruptcy and caps on tort damages. Solomon Ortiz of Corpus Christi doesn't make our Faithless 15 list, but he did vote for the bankruptcy bill and CAFTA. Could these members have safely voted differently? Is it just that Hispanic voters are more conservative? There is some evidence that they are on social issues, but there is hardly a groundswell of support for tougher bankruptcy provisions or caps on damage awards in the Rio Grande Valley, where per-capita incomes are well below the national average. By contrast, Raul Grijalva of Arizona's 7th District, which runs south from Phoenix to the Mexican border, votes as a progressive.
According to Ernesto Cortés, the legendary organizer who helped found Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, Latino voters need to hold their representatives in Congress accountable. “We need stronger progressive infrastructure on the ground,” he says.
The Fearful. Some Democrats cast pro-administration votes because they consider themselves vulnerable. But that rationale is easily exaggerated. Several Democratic House seats would be swing districts if the incumbent retired or died, but they are also districts where the current member has used name recognition and service to the district to make the seat secure. Most northern and western Democrats in such 60-40 districts vote as progressives. But some run scared.
Brian Baird represents Washington's 3rd District, which runs south from the liberal state capital, Olympia, down to the counties that are part of suburban Portland, Oregon. Unlike Larsen, Baird, formerly a college professor of psychology, is personally quite liberal, according to a colleague. But local observers say that Baird was seared by his experience of only narrowly capturing the seat on his second try in 1998. So he considers himself perennially vulnerable and emphasizes his independence. In fact, in his recent re-election bids, Baird won by healthy, identical margins of 62 percent to 38 percent in 2002 and 2004. Nonetheless, he voted for bankruptcy and tort reform. “It's just not a swing seat,” says a frustrated party activist. The longtime incumbent was Don Bonker, a stalwart liberal. “It's harder for the base to hold Baird accountable than Adam Smith,” says this activist, “partly because the Portland papers don't really cover him.”
Another New Dem, David Wu of Portland, succeeded a popular liberal, Elizabeth Furse, who retired. In the 1998 general election following a divisive primary, Republicans targeted the seat, and Wu won more narrowly than expected, 50 percent to 47 percent. Since then Wu has won by comfortably wide margins, prevailing by 20 points in 2004. But he continues to position himself as a centrist and to cast special-interest business votes.
The Mavericks. Some Democrats in fairly safe seats equate pro-Bush votes with independence from the party, which they trumpet as a political or personal virtue. In Minnesota's geographically enormous 7th District, which covers nearly the entire western part of the state, Collin Peterson regularly wins by margins of nearly 2 to 1 -- but often votes more like a Republican. He pilots his own plane, flies around the district without staff, and styles himself a rugged individualist. He once dated Katherine Harris. He voted with Republicans on Bill Clinton's showdown budget bill of 1993, perhaps the most important party-loyalty vote of the Clinton era. He was one of just 16 Democrats to back Bush's Medicare bill. He supports the Republican “fair tax,” a national sales tax, and voted for the bankruptcy bill, estate-tax repeal, tort reform, and the tax cuts.
A frustrated Pelosi threatened to deny Peterson the position of ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee in 2004. But Peterson promised more party loyalty, according to one insider, and got the job. “Peterson has been repeatedly chastised by the [state] party,” says a leading Minnesota progressive activist. “At one point there was talk of withholding the party endorsement. But he likes to distance himself from the party, and the seat is his for life.”
A kindred maverick is Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents Maryland's new and heavily Democratic 2nd District, which is centered in suburban Baltimore County. After the 2000 census provided a redistricting opportunity, Maryland's Democratic General Assembly, according to The Almanac of American Politics, literally designed the district for Ruppersberger, who had served both as a prosecutor and as Baltimore County executive (the job once held by Spiro Agnew). First elected in 2002, Ruppersberger won the seat last time with 67 percent of the vote. “I have the most conservative of the Democratic seats held by members of Congress from Maryland,” he insists. “We were able to get the seat back because of my moderate record.” Maybe; but John Kerry carried the district comfortably, 54 percent to 45 percent. Yet Ruppersberger has one of the most pro-Republican records in the House on pocketbook issues. A personal friend of Charles Cawley, president of the financial giant MBNA, Ruppersberger championed the bankruptcy bill and garnered $17,250 from the financial industry. He also voted to cap lawsuits, and for estate-tax repeal. On his bankruptcy vote, Ruppersberger explains, “It was a hard bill, and I put in several amendments that would exempt people with medical bills” from going bankrupt. His amendments lost, but he voted for the bill anyway.
The reapers. The overwhelming reason Democrats cast these pro–special-interest, pro-Bush votes, of course, is that such votes are richly rewarding. Ruppersberger, for instance, is a reaper as well as a maverick. “Too many of the Democrats in the House focus too much attention on fund raising,” says a progressive congressman from a swing district, “and not enough to attending to the base of the party and the needs of the people who they are representing.” To some extent, all of the members with safe seats who cast special-interest votes are reapers, but there are differences of motivation and degree. “Some of our guys agonize over these votes,” says another progressive congressman. “Others are just plain sleazy.”
A prime reaper is Jim Moran of Washington, D.C.'s northern Virginia suburbs. This is an increasingly safe Democratic seat, with an electorate that voted for John Kerry nearly 2 to 1. Moran, however, is one of the most reliable Democratic business special-interest votes, having supported the bankruptcy and tort bills as well as CAFTA. In 1998, in debt to the tune of $700,000 and juggling two dozen credit cards, he got a bailout loan from MBNA on terms not available to ordinary borrowers. Not long afterward, he fervently supported a tougher bankruptcy law for Americans not fortunate enough to have his connections. “The time-honored principle of moral responsibility and personal obligation to pay one's debts has been eroded by the convenience and ease with which one can discharge his or her obligations,” he piously declared to a House subcommittee. Moran could well go down in a primary, less because of his pro-business votes or conflicts of interest than due to the anger of Jewish groups. In March 2003, Moran intemperately blamed the Iraq War on “the strong support of the Jewish community.” In 2004, he beat back primary challenger Andrew Rosenberg by a little more than 7,000 votes.
Among the most improbable faithless Democrats is Gregory Meeks of southeast Queens, New York. His is among the most reliably Democratic districts in the country. Yet Meeks voted with the White House on CAFTA, the bankruptcy bill, and tort reform. Several suburban New York Democrats who barely won close elections in truly swing districts have far more liberal voting records.
What explains Meeks? He is a protégé of his predecessor, the Reverend Floyd Flake, who built a huge, church-based economic empire and often worked with Republicans in order to get federal grants for his “faith-based” enterprises. [See Russ Baker, “The Ecumenist,” The American Prospect, January 11–17, 2000.] Meeks is a member of Flake's congregation, which continues to do a lucrative business with the Bush administration. Meeks also took more money from the financial-services industry than from any other special-interest group. And Meeks got $8,000 in campaign contributions from Pfizer Inc., which lobbied heavily for CAFTA because of its provisions on intellectual-property rules that stand to benefit pharmaceutical companies at the expense of generic-drug manufacturers. Business also buys influence with some black Democrats via the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a 501(c)(3) arm of the black caucus that gets business donations from the tobacco, pharmaceutical, insurance, and other powerful industries.
Unlike, say, rural Minnesota or southern Washington state, New York City is a place with a very strong and politically engaged labor movement, as well as active poor people's organizations such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and a feisty Working Families Party (WFP) that sometimes contests Democratic primaries. The WFP uses its endorsement as leverage and has developed a formidable vote-pulling operation, so much so that even Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton covet its support.
So how does Meeks get away with it? He may not. His district has pitifully low turnout -- “You could topple Meeks in a primary with about 10,000 votes,” says a WFP activist -- and New York's progressives are reportedly seeking candidates to challenge him.
Several conclusions are evident from this tour of wayward Democrats. The most obvious is that Republicans enjoy a degree of party unity in Congress that Democrats do not. For all the blather from many political scientists about both parties moving to the extremes in recent years, the fact is that Republicans, because of their highly organized base and hardball leadership, have an ideological and disciplined national party to a far greater degree than Democrats.
The Democratic leadership is understandably eager to retain right-leaning districts held by Democratic incumbents, like Matheson of Utah and Peterson of Minnesota, a well as by surviving southern white Democrats like Alabama's Bud Cramer and Tennessee's Lincoln Davis. The leadership tends, appropriately, to cut these people a lot of slack. But it also indulges those with far fewer excuses.
As minority leader, Pelosi plainly lacks the perks of the majority party. But she is not completely without leverage. Members close to Pelosi say that she could take away some chairmanships and withhold others. “But it's easier politically to do this at the beginning of a session,” says one. “If you are supportive, you get invited to the strategy meetings, you get to be treated as a player. Guys who voted for CAFTA and bankruptcy, if they're not on good committees now, they're never going to be.”
Furthermore, while campaign contributions are an important part of the story, they are far from the whole story. On pocketbook issues like the bankruptcy bill, conservative business groups are also very effective at lobbying. Groups like Public Citizen, ACORN, and the Public Interest Research Groups may mount heroic efforts on such bills, but they lack the lobbying muscle or the affiliated political action committees of big business.
At the grass roots and in Washington, labor remains a key player. Yet the unions do not always effectively use the power they still have. In reviewing the pattern of campaign contributions, we found that members who consistently voted against the Democratic-caucus position on pocketbook issues nonetheless got plenty of labor financial support. Democratic House members will face the music if they desert labor on live-or-die issues like the minimum wage or Davis-Bacon wage requirements. But only a few unions have made a priority of other pocketbook issues of interest to the working poor, like the bankruptcy bill, making it easier for Democratic freelancers to defy the caucus. The unions are so eager hold Democratic seats (even those not in jeopardy) and to curry favor that they rarely punish wayward Democrats financially. An emblematic case is Rahm Emanuel, now the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Unions vowed to punish him when he first ran for Congress because of his pro–North American Free Trade Agreement work when he was an aide at the Clinton White House. But when Emanuel seemed a shoo-in for Illinois' 5th District in 2002, the unions ended up giving him a lot of money. Now, ironically, Emanuel, in his role as recruiter of Democratic congressional candidates, looks hard for business Democrats who can self-finance -- the very people who vote for Republican pocketbook bills once they get to Congress.
Two promising new efforts at the grass roots have been hatched by the Campaign for America's Future, the Washington-based progressive-strategy organization. One is a new PAC, Progressive Majority, which aims to recruit and train progressive electoral candidates. The other is the Project for an Accountable Congress, which spotlights members of Congress of both parties with special-interest connections, running ads in their local papers. The project recently ran one in The Jackson (Tennessee) Sun, which covers the west Tennessee district of Democrat John Tanner, who resisted an effort to make it harder for Wal-Mart to violate child-labor laws. “Wal-Mart Knows a Bargain,” began the ad, which pointed out that Tanner took $17,500 in campaign contributions from the retail giant and also holds Wal-Mart stock.
In short, America today has one disciplined movement party and one party with many progressive representatives but a lot of freelancers, too. The Democratic caucus could be tougher on its turncoats. But the larger reality will change only when progressives get better organized at the base.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. Asheesh Kapur Siddique is a Prospect editorial intern.