The Intersection: Aug 2011

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The House Democrats

Even a cursory glance at the three House Democrats on the super committee – Representative James Clyburn (SC), Representative Xavier Becerra (CA), and Representative Chris Van Hollen (MD) – reveals some key similarities that indicate a clear political strategy from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party as a whole.

  • All three members hail from nearly unassailable, politically safe and liberal districts. The most vulnerable among them, James Clyburn, was reelected to his 10th term for South Carolina’s 6th district in 2010 with 63 percent of the vote. Chris Van Hollen was reelected by Maryland’s 8th district with 73 percent of the vote, and Xavier Becerra won a whopping 84 percent of the vote in California’s 31st district.
  • In an echo of Harry Reid’s apparent strategy on the Senate side, Pelosi chose politically influential and highly visible members. Clyburn is the third-ranking Democrat in the House, Becerra is vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, and Van Hollen is the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
  • All three have been previously appointed by Pelosi to deficit-related committees or working groups. Becerra was a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission in 2010, and Clyburn and Van Hollen were appointed to the Vice President’s debt reduction working group.
  • The much-maligned lack of diversity on the super committee was improved slightly with Pelosi’s choices. Becerra is the only Hispanic member of the committee, and Clyburn is the only African American.

Beyond these broad observations, we can expect to see significant agreement – and some natural tension – among the three members as they look to stick to their legislative and ideological priorities.

Rep. James Clyburn has been a visible player in the budget debate over the past year, serving on Vice President Biden’s debt reduction working group and working with Democratic House leadership on the debt ceiling. Clyburn was vocal in his opposition to Speaker John Boehner’s debt ceiling bill, saying that Boehner “did not even pretend that this [was] a serious attempt to solve the problem.” Since then, Clyburn has moderated his tone and has indicated some areas where he may be willing to compromise with super committee Republicans. In a round of interviews on Monday, August 15, Clyburn acknowledged that his opposition to major defense spending cuts (due to a significant military presence in his state and district) could result in a face-off against his Democratic colleagues – particularly since Van Hollen and Becerra are both expected to prioritize defense spending cuts as part of their own agendas. In a statement likely to raise some Democratic eyebrows, Clyburn also said that it would not be necessary to raise tax rates because allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire and closing other tax loopholes “can get us to where we need to be” in terms of raising revenue. Despite this softer rhetoric, Clyburn said that he will use his position on the super committee to work to close the “wealth gap”; it’s difficult to imagine how he would accomplish this without looking to raise taxes on wealthier Americans. Clyburn will also likely stick to his strongly held ideological belief that the government has a responsibility to provide for lower income and disadvantaged communities, which will undoubtedly make him more resistant to significant cuts.

Rep. Xavier Becerra was the first Hispanic ever appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, and he currently serves as the ranking member on its Social Security subcommittee. Like both of his House colleagues, Becerra will have to manage serious political visibility issues; as the Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, he will be expected to take a strong stand against cuts to sacred Democrat programs like Social Security and Medicare.  Becerra certainly will not see this as a hardship, as he named cuts to those programs as his central reasons for voting against both the Bowles-Simpson commission recommendations and the recent debt ceiling deal.  His strong opposition to cuts will be complemented by his support for tax rate increases and other revenue-raising methods. Becerra is also expected to call for significant cuts to defense spending, which will likely put him at odds with fellow House Democrat Clyburn. Becerra is described by National Journal as a “consistent liberal,” and he is not afraid to attack his own party if he feels that they are not sticking firmly enough to liberal principles; he reportedly angered then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi with his critical comments against House Democratic leadership during the 2009 health care debate. He can be expected to stand his ground and provide a voice for more progressive House Democrats.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen is the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a leadership role that he lost after the Democrats suffered significant losses in the 2010 mid-term elections. Pelosi’s appointment points to Van Hollen’s recovery within the party, and he will need to balance his ongoing political ambitions with the need for compromise on the super committee. Van Hollen also serves as the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, and was vocal in his opposition to Paul Ryan’s debt reduction proposal earlier this year, calling it “Orwellian” and stating that Ryan wanted to cut government programs “with a meat ax.” Van Hollen has indicated a potential willingness to make “targeted, smart” cuts in spending, but will likely focus his agenda in the super committee on proposing methods for raising revenue. Like his colleague Xavier Becerra, Van Hollen is expected to support major cuts to defense spending and will oppose major cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security.

Nancy Pelosi’s strategic and highly political choices for the super committee indicate that the Democratic Party intends to stick to its principles, protect major programs from significant cuts, and support various methods of raising additional revenue to close the budget gap. It remains to be seen how the three Members balance this agenda with the compromise that the super committee will require.

From left to right: Representative James Clyburn (SC), Representative Xavier Becerra (CA) and Representative Chris Van Hollen (MD).