The congressional leaders who negotiated $1.1 trillion federal spending bill – dubbed the “CRomnibus” – must not have known they were in for a fight.
But when Public Citizen and other public interest allies got hold of the 1,600-page bill and saw that it contained a bevy of atrocious policy riders that had nothing to do with funding the government, the fight was coming.
The take-it-or-leave-it budget – including the poison pill provisions that Public Citizen opposed – did ultimately pass. The fight for its passage is instructive for how public interest advocates can wield power in the coming years, even as majorities in Congress seem determined to deliver a return on Corporate America’s Citizens United-enabled election investments.
The worst that could have happened would have been if the giveaways to corporations and the super rich had been accepted without a fight.
Thankfully, that’s not what happened.
We called on grassroots activists like you to act – to email and call your members of Congress – and you acted.
Tens of thousands of outraged citizens made it known that they would not accept a budget bill that allows millionaires and billionaires to have more influence in our elections and that puts taxpayers on the hook for Wall Street’s recklessness.
And then – hearing the outrage of tens of thousands of constituents across the country – principled members of Congress (of both major parties) fought the bipartisan backroom deal.
Among the first to criticize the bill was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who described the CRomnibus as “jammed full of shit.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) took to the Senate floor to speak out about the rider that would repeal the section of Dodd-Frank that requires banks to keep their risky derivatives trading separate from traditional banking services that are covered by the taxpayer-funded Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
In her speech, Sen. Warren highlighted the role of the “revolving door” between the government and Wall Street, noting, “The financial industry spent more than $1 million a day lobbying Congress on financial reform, and a lot of that money went to former elected officials and government employees. And now we see the fruits of those investments.” Repeatedly, Warren cited Public Citizen’s reports on this issue.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the leading House Democrat on financial policy issues, urged members of her caucus to block the damaging provision or vote against the funding package.
On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted the federal spending bill from the House floor. “This is blackmail,” she said of the offensive demand that lawmakers must deliver favors for Wall Street and ideologues of the partisan 1% in order to pass a budget.
And, like that, the budget deal that Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had crafted with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed about to unravel.
Anti-immigration Republicans already had pledged to vote “No” because the bill funded President Obama’s executive order on immigration reform. Without Democratic “Yes” votes, the bill would not make it out of the House.
It passed narrowly with only 13 more “Yes” votes than “No” votes – and only after the White House chief of staff intervened to persuade House Democrats that the bill was the best they could get. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, wielding Wall Street influence with appalling force, also lobbied Democratic holdouts for the bill’s passage.
The Senate showdown was no less contentious.
“There’s a lot of talk coming from Citigroup about how the Dodd-Frank Act isn’t perfect,” said Sen. Warren in an impassioned speech Friday night, emphasizing a Citi lobbyist’s role in drafting the Wall Street giveaway rider. “So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi: I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces.” Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter joined Warren in calling for eliminating the rider.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), meanwhile, attempted procedural maneuvers to hold up the vote because of his opposition to immigration reform funding. Sen. Cruz’s move ultimately backfired, allowing Sen. Reid to push through Obama administration nominees whose approval Republicans had long delayed.
The bill ultimately passed late Saturday with a vote of 56 to 40.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne sums up what happened this way:
Democrats who think their party’s resurgence depends on breaking with classic special-interest logrolling sent a message that they are not to be trifled with — and the fractiousness among Republicans in the House and Senate suggests that Democratic votes may count for something next year.
It’s refreshing to see lawmakers share the public’s frustration with corporations and billionaire oligarchs distorting our elections and our economy.
Public Citizen – and its more than 350,000 supporters – is energized and eager to mobilize against similar sneak attacks coming in 2015. We have every reason to expect that this is only the beginning.
If the battle against the 2014 CRomnibus teaches us anything, it’s that even when we don’t win, we can be proud of the battle scars we inflict on our opponents – battle scars that might make them think twice about counting out passionate advocates for the public interest.
Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.