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New Massachusetts Senator – A Time to Lobby

January 20, 2010

Has the newly begun movement for federal policies based on hope rather than fear just run out of gas?  Some say the Massachusetts special election upset signals “the end of the beginning” and the beginning of a turn back to the right.

Republican State Senator Scott Brown beat Democrat State Attorney General Martha Coakley, 52 to 49%, in yesterday’s Massachusetts special election.  When Senator Ted Kennedy died, a special election was called to decide who would complete the last three years of his term.  The people of Massachusetts have spoken; it will be Scott Brown.

“The Daily Show’s” John Stewart (it’s a fake news show and he’s a fake news anchor) reported “The Kennedy legacy goes down to a naked guy who owns a truck.”  Years ago, Brown had done a nude spread in Cosmopolitan’s “America’s Sexist Man” feature, to help pay for law school. He had campaigned in an old pickup truck with a lot of miles on it.  He’s a regular handsome guy, and he appeals to many ordinary people.

Here in Washington, you might think this special election in Massachusetts marks the beginning of the end of the world.  Dire warnings abound that Senator Brown’s stunning victory signals the death knell for any effort by the administration or Congress to chart a new political course different from what we’ve seen in the last few decades. That argument goes something like this: Senate Democrats lose their filibuster-proof 60 votes; they now have an unreliable 59. Some of the president’s stated priorities, such as health care reform, addressing global warming through sustainable energy, and diplomatic engagement might be stopped.  I’ll add that Brown is a Lt.Col. in the National Guard and supports more war in Afghanistan; military spending and casualties may go up.

The outcome of this special election might lead you to think that I’m pessimistic about the future. I’m not, for two reasons.  First, things weren’t so good before this election, and, second, lobbying by ordinary people on focused issues is what makes a difference.

Here at FCNL we don’t base our lobbying on what either the Democrats or the Republicans believe. In FCNL’s 66 years in Washington, we’ve found common ground with members of both parties.

Believe me, things weren’t so good before the Massachusetts special election.  The Democratic majority promised transparency and “regular order” in Congress.  However, they gave us back room deal making and irregular order.  The Republicans claimed they wanted bipartisan cooperation for good governance, but they gave us obstructionism designed to prevent governing.

From where I sit, across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building, the so-called filibuster proof 60 votes didn’t count for much in the first session of the 111th Congress.  The Senate didn’t push through a big pile of progressive legislation and some of the legislation that they did pass was approved when the Democrats could only count on the support of 59 senators. Mostly what seemed to happen is that the majority was compromising down to get even their own party members to support legislation. Obama was following through on his campaign promise to make war the answer in Afghanistan.  The extreme right has been mobilizing to set the framing on issues and to take the front page headlines – health care town hall meetings and the tea baggers.

So, we at FCNL didn’t think the going was easy before this special election, and we know it won’t be easy after.

We at FCNL lobby whomever the voters send us.  We don’t try to influence those who already agree with us.  What would be the point?  We try to persuade those who don’t agree with us to exercise the courage to entertain new ideas and to reconsider their own positions. (Yes, we try to learn from them too.)  That’s how we won the nuclear test moratorium years ago, and how we stopped spending for new nuclear weapons.

As I take a long view of the historic moment we’re in today, I see opportunities for constructive action in many areas of FCNL’s work that I have not seen in my past 20 years here. I have never seen such potential to advance toward our policy goals. For example:

•           David Culp, FCNL’s nuclear disarmament expert, tells me that we could persuade the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the next year and get the U.S. back on track to reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons;

•           Bridget Moix, FCNL’s peaceful prevention expert, is beginning to persuade Congress to invest in real conflict prevention after 8 years of work. She tells me we could start turning the idea of Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict into real policy in this Congress;

•           Devin Helfrich, FCNL’s environmental policy expert, tells me that we have a president who generally “gets it.”  His administration is now using federal agencies to enforce and expand environmental protections instead of ignore them. In addition, he sees workable, effective, and fair proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions gaining traction in Congress.

•           Ruth Flower, FCNL’s legislative director, tells me that the Nation’s Checkbook campaign she helped launch to cut the Pentagon budget could help bring about real reductions in military spending. She also believes FCNL could help lay the groundwork in the next year for comprehensive, humane reform of the U.S. immigration system.

•           Our intern for Native American Programs, Inez Steigerwald, points to the conference of Tribal Nations convened last fall by President Obama, only the second ever held. This administration is committed to the nation-to-nation relationship between the U.S. government and Native tribes, and Congress is finally beginning to address the priorities of tribes and allies like FCNL, passing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as part of its health insurance reform legislation.

•           Jim Fine, FCNL’s Foreign Policy lobbyist, says the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is a done deal. Using his 40 plus years of experience in the region, Jim says he sees growing congressional understanding of the need for a regional approach to ending the wars in the greater Middle East and that will be the basis for our work to build a Congressional push to oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

With hard lobbying work, we can make progress and even achieve some of these legislative goals.

I’m looking forward to engaging Senator Brown of Massachusetts on our FCNL legislative Priorities.  Why wouldn’t he want to commit to ratification of the CTBT?  Even Republican and conservative former Secretaries of State George Schulz and Henry Kissing call for CTBT ratification.  Why wouldn’t he support the very compromised health care reform bill, he voted for something “worse” – from the viewpoint of right wingers – as a Massachusetts State Senator.  Why couldn’t he hear our arguments for ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan, when he sees the expensive and counterproductive results of Obama’s “More troops; ‘Better’ warfighting” approach?  Talk about deficit spending with no results, the U.S. war in Afghanistan (and now Yemen) is a prime example.

Some of the most compelling Old and New Testament scriptures tell the story of a “saving remnant.”  These are small groups of people who open themselves to new light – new ways of seeing the world.  They take action on their insights, and the world is saved.

In 2110, looking back a hundred years from then to this year, 2010, Friends and others-than-Friends may take heart at the stories of a “saving remnant” who practiced hope in “the last century,” who believed that government is not the enemy but a part of the solution, and who worked for something as simple — and as difficult — as transparency and regular order in Congress. What we do now in 2010 will determine whether this will happen in 2110.

Yes, here on Capitol Hill, I also see the impediments of rapacious greed, of corporate militarism, of fossil fuel lobbies, of partisan rule breaking and obstruction, and of “chatterers” who are all analysis and no action.  What grabs my attention, however, is the uncommon, historic opportunities for us at FCNL to win some of our objectives now.

Powerful and moneyed special interests stand between us and those victories.  They like the status quo, and they will say anything and do anything to prevent these and other systemic changes which we seek.  Only a nationwide network of community-based public interest lobbyists can mobilize the people-power to counter the defenders of the status quo.

I want you to recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

President Obama and the movement that elected him is a big reason why these opportunities have come alive for us. The president’s public rhetoric and the public’s response opened the space for change.  That space will contract and close in the months ahead, if the status quo forces succeed at stalling initiatives and preventing government from working.

People of different political persuasions are angry.  That anger will be channeled in the coming months.  Who will channel that anger and to what purpose?  We at FCNL can and should try to channel that anger, try to transform it into constructive lobbying, and to create a popular demand for FCNL’s legislative priorities.

If we rely on one man’s rhetoric, President Obama’s, to accomplish the changes that we seek, then our opportunities will die on the vine.  A strong nonviolent movement will have to demand – persistently — that he and Congress make good on the rhetoric.

We have to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “coalitions of conscience to close the gaps in broken community.”

The United States was built as a House of Democracy, and when it’s not governed of, by, and for ordinary people, it is a House of Despair.  We need Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Socialists, Greens, Populists, Progressives, “none of the above,” young and old, to gather in a new movement for the renewal of our House of Democracy.

That is not enough, though.  Those coalitions won’t amount to a hill of beans unless they employ change strategies that focus on lobbying and moving Congress on issues, not on partisan interests.

No doubt about it, our House of Democracy is broken.  Only persistent lobbying by a gathered people on issues they care about will rebuild that House. The community that is FCNL has the passion and the tools to help people climb the ladder of engagement and make that persistent lobbying a reality.

So, what impact does that Massachusetts special election have on FCNL?  We will welcome Senator Brown to Washington with a request that he commit to ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  We’ll build a working relationship from there.  Let’s make him the 60th vote for the CTBT.

5 Comments
  1. January 21, 2010 3:40 pm

    Thank you for having the courage to embrace hope rather than despair in these times. I see and hear so much cynicism, almost as a sign of intelligence and wit, but a plan based on integrity creates the hope for change that is possible. I feel like I just got a shot for stiffening the spine.

  2. Cushman Anthony permalink
    January 21, 2010 10:02 pm

    I agree with you as far as you have gone, Joe. This is not a time to be despairing by any means. But it is definitely a time to note what has and has not happened. The Democratic majority in Congress has not governed effectively, so far. And progressives back home have not demanded that change happen. And Obama has not been tough enough with people in Congress who vacillate, to get them to come around. There has been far too much talk and too little action.
    I also have come to believe that the whole governing system has broken down, and that more than anything, the efforts of each Congressperson to find adequate campaign dollars for re-election is at the heart of the problem. Lobbyists for large corporate interests are having too much influence largely because of the campaign contributions they control, and after the Supreme Court decision today, that is likely to get even worse. What is needed more than anything is campaign finance reform, along the lines of what we in Maine have accomplished.
    I hope the FCNL will start putting some energy into this issue, promoting passage of the Fair Elections Now Act which is pending in both houses of Congress. I believe it will make a greater positive impact on Congress than most anything else.

  3. Judy Burris permalink
    January 22, 2010 2:53 pm

    Thanks to you and Ruth Flower for the insightful and helpful comments I have just read. Thanks to FCNL, I am finding it much easier to lobby — even as a grandmother lobying while the grandchildren are taking naps!

  4. Sarah permalink
    January 22, 2010 3:25 pm

    Whew! I needed that. Thanks for helping me focus on the long view.

  5. Peter Ungar permalink
    January 25, 2010 6:42 pm

    One way to reduce the distortions of our legislative process by special interests which possess much money or can influence swing votes would be to introduce initiative and referendum on the federal level. Abolishing the electoral college and introducing instant runoff voting in federal elections would alsogive great benefits and would be compatible with the principles of most American voters.

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