For Nancy Pelosi, or against? I guess you can put me down as for, by default, because the Democrats don’t need a speaker who’s learning on the job at this critical juncture, although strictly for two more years only. But this tax increase supermajority rule she has proposed is appalling and has dimmed my enthusiasm considerably.
But first, the nose-counting. On Monday afternoon, we got to see a “Dear Colleague” letter signed by 16 Democrats who said they would not support Pelosi for speaker. The signatories included 11 sitting members and five members-elect.
This is a serious problem from Pelosi’s point of view. As I write these words Monday evening, the Democrats will have 232 of the 435 members in the next Congress. Well, 232-16=216, and 216<218, which is the majority of the total House needed to be its speaker.
The first thing everyone says when they praise Nancy Pelosi is: She’s a master tactician, a master vote-counter. And in the past, she certainly has been. But what happened here? If she’s such a master tactician, how’d she get in this pickle in the first place?
From the people I’ve spoken to, it sounds as if Pelosi and her people didn’t really believe that all those Democrats who campaigned this fall vowing they wouldn’t vote to make her speaker actually meant it. Now, it looks like they, or some of them, did (some freshmen-elect members who disavowed her have not signed the letter).
You see, there are two votes for speaker—one held by the party’s caucus, which is coming next Wednesday and is by secret ballot. Then there’s the more official vote when the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3. That will be a recorded, roll-call vote, so everyone will be on the record.
I’ve been told that there was some sentiment among Pelosi’s team that people could vote against her in caucus but then for her on the floor. But the floor vote is the recorded one. That’s when the people who said they’d vote against her need to be on the record. Evidently Pelosi and her team believed that a number of people could be cajoled away from their commitment. But it’s a commitment they made to their voters. So she’s asking them to break their word to their constituents on the first vote of their careers.
And that’s why she’s in this position. As good a speaker as she was in the Obama years, she really seems to have miscalculated here.
And she didn’t help herself last week by embracing a Republican tax policy. I, and millions of Americans, did not vote for this.
If you missed the story, news broke last week that Pelosi was going to push a number of rules changes. Most are unobjectionable. But one would stipulate that taxes on the bottom 80 percent of earners could be raised only by the vote of a supermajority of three-fifths of voting members.
Now, it should be said, this would be an improvement over the current Republican rule. The GOP rule requires a supermajority vote for any tax increase. So what Pelosi is doing here is saying that taxes can be raised on the wealthy by the vote of a simple majority.
So that’s fine. And one can plainly see why she did what she did—to insulate the Democrats from charges that they’re going to raise middle-class taxes.
But this is exactly the opposite of what the Democratic Party needs to be doing at this moment in history. They need to make a vigorous case for public investments of many kinds. To deal with the opioid crisis in the way it needs to be dealt with, for starters. And yeah, it might come to pass that some of those investments might entail a small tax.
But what Pelosi is doing here, as my friend Nick Hanauer pointed out in an excellent Beast column Monday, is in effect giving Republicans a veto over tax policy. It’s like this. Three-fifths of 435 is 261. That means that, given the number of seats the Democrats are likely to control, if it should somehow ever come to pass that the House was considering a broad tax increase, Pelosi would need about 27 Republicans to vote for it.
But we already know the number of Republicans who would vote for a tax increase. It’s zero. No Republican in Congress has voted for a tax increase to speak of since 1990, after Grover Norquist hit them with that infernal taxpayer pledge. So Pelosi is in effect letting the Republican minority dictate tax policy. That’s a pretty nice favor!
And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is the assumption built into this that taxes are terrible. That just isn’t what Democrats should be saying. Democrats aren’t Democrats because they believe in tax cuts, just smaller and more manageable ones than the Republicans do. Democrats are Democrats because they believe in public investment in public needs.
And despite the frothing right wing, lots of Americans believe that, too. They desperately need someone to stand up and say it. Democrats just made these kinds of arguments in Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and they came damn close to winning.
I guess that by default, and in the interest of not starting their new era with a fight that tears the party to pieces before it can do anything positive, Democrats should just go ahead and give Pelosi two more years. But they have to be her last term. And Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn have to go, too. The party desperately needs some new, younger leaders, and across the ideological spectrum, from left to mainstream liberal to moderate.
If it were up to me I might promote some combination of Karen Bass (African-American, Progressive Caucus, former speaker of the California state assembly), Ben Ray Lujan (Latino, just headed the group that orchestrated all these House wins), and Cherie Bustos (from the heartland, western Illinois, represents actual farmers). But there are others.
It’s their time. Pelosi is a historic figure; that’s assured. But so was Winston Churchill, and he lost an election in 1945, right after he won the war. If that could happen, anything can.