blank check: n. 1. A signed check with no amount to be paid filled in 2. Total freedom of action; carte blanche.
In this simple, two-pronged American Heritage Dictionary definition, we find the two major problems afflicting Iraq War politics today in Congress.
The House, you may know, is prepared to vote today on a new short-term Iraq War supplemental bill that includes so-called "benchmark" requirements. After roughly 60 days, the President would be required to submit reports to Congress measuring Iraqi progress in meeting basic benchmarks, and the Congress would then have to vote on whether to approve more war spending based on those reports. This solid proposal, which follows the solid proposal that Bush recently vetoed, is the most basic form of constitutional oversight, yet Republicans and a faction of Democrats are considering voting to strip these requirements out of the bill and thus making it into the literal definition of a blank check.
We shouldn't be surprised that Republicans want to give the White House a blank check. Despite a highly publicized meeting yesterday where moderate GOP lawmakers supposedly told President Bush they didn't support the war, the Republican Party is firmly for indefinitely continuing the Iraq War and at odds with the vast majority of the American people who want an end to the war.
It is the Blank Check Democrats, however, that raise the tough questions. Here we are six months after an election that delivered the Congress to the Democrats based on the American public's desire to end the war. Here we are at a moment when polls show the public firmly supports the Democratic leadership's effort to enforce accountability on the White House when it comes to the war. And yet here we are, once again at the mercy of a small faction of Blank Check Democrats threatening to essentially overturn the 2006 election's mandate and give the big middle finger to the majority of the American people on the most important national security issue in a generation.
We will see today just how far these Blank Check Democrats are willing to go in undermining their own party and the will of the American public. But we will also see just how far Democratic leaders are willing to go in making their anti-war rhetoric legislative reality. Because remember - these fights do not happen in a vacuum, as much as the Washington pundit class would like us to believe they do. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senior Democrats have many levers of power at their disposal, including committee assignments and re-election fundraising and support for primary challengers. Whether Pelosi uses these levers - and whether rank-and-file Democrats demand she uses these levers - will tell us a lot not only about the Democratic Party's commitment to ending the war, but about it's commitment to all the other promises America was given in exchange for its votes in 2006.
At precisely these moments of truth, it is also important for the progressive movement to look at itself in the mirror. There has been much self-congratulatory chatter in recent weeks about the resurgent progressive "infrastructure" in Washington, but the fact that we face such a tenuous situation today in the House is troubling commentary.
Tactically, much of our energy has been focused on pressuring Republicans and President Bush. That's no doubt important. But, as I wrote many weeks ago in a memo to the Progressive Caucus and as others have been saying as well, it's problematic when such pressure comes at the expense of similar pressure on Blank Check Democrats. As I said at the time, "the outside progressive movement should [be] far more quick to use paid media to whip [pro-war] Democrats into line preemptively" and I thought "we learned our lesson for the next time." However, because of unbridled enthusiasm for attacking Republicans and because of hesitation in Washington circles to avoid going after "fellow Democrats," such intense pressure on these Blank Check Democrats never really materialized in any intense way.
Oh sure, we come up with terrific justifications for not going after Blank Check Democrats, from such Democrats' district makeup ("oh, but he's from Nebraska, so we have to give him a free pass") to the need for Democratic unity ("the best thing we can do is make sure the Democratic Party stays together") to the sad promises of nirvana just over the next election's horizon ("let's just keep together until after the 2008 presidential election!").
Such rationales genuinely misunderstand or deviously seek to obscure the fact that while Congress may have a majority of Democrats, it is still very much controlled by ideological pro-war conservatives. And the net result of succumbing to such Partisan War Syndrome and not administering serious pressure on these ideological conservatives of both parties is clear: We have delivered the figurative definition of a blank check - that is, "total freedom of action" - to the Blank Check Democrats. This freedom not only hurts our cause but hurts the Democratic Party by allowing it to be publicly undermined from within. And now America may be left with the tab, not just on Iraq, but on every issue.
Will we not only refuse to put real pressure on Blank Check Democrats on the war, but on issues like trade and health care? Will we not, for instance, ask people like Hillary Clinton why they employ union busters as top campaign aides? Will we, in short, become a blank check progressive movement? I sure hope not and don't really think so. I think all of these events are a chance to learn and to continue building our movement. But in order to learn, it's critical to ask such questions at a moment like this.
I still hold out hope that today's House proceedings won't go as they seem like they will and that either a "short leash" bill including benchmarks passes, or alternately, if those benchmarks are stripped out, that Democrats will vote down the blank check and start over. But if this doesn't happen, we will have learned a lot both about the Democratic Party, and the shortcomings of the progressive movement overeagerly donning partisan blinders.
UPDATE: At the last minute, House leaders will permit a floor vote on binding legislation from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to end the war. This vote will come before the vote on the overall supplemental. It is, unfortunately, expected to lose, but it will be another one to watch today.
© 2007 David Sirota