Jews in Congress Are Making Things Happen

In 2009, the new U.S. Congress has the largest Jewish representation in its history, with 31 members of the 435 in the House of Representatives and 13 senators of the 100. More than a third of all Jews who have ever served in the U.S. Senate were in office as 2009 began.

As big as these numbers are, something else is happening under the surface, and that is the demise of the Jewish Republican in Congress. There were only two Jewish Republican senators in 2008. One of them, Arlen Specter (Penn.), switched parties in April to join the Democrats. The other, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, lost his race to a Jewish Democrat, Al Franken. Ironically, Coleman had won his seat when it was vacated in 2004 by the untimely death in a plane crash of another Jewish Democrat, Paul Wellstone. Who would have guessed that a Senate seat in Minnesota would have three Jewish holders in five years?

Republicans can now claim only one Jewish member of Congress, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. There was a time when Republicans could elect Jews to the House and Senate. No more. The historic collapse of Republican identification among Jewish voters and in public office is a big problem for a party that is searching for ideas and policies for governance.

Meanwhile, the Jewish ranks on Capitol Hill are growing in influence within the bolstered Democratic majority and in concert with an ambitious and popular Democrat in the White House. Jews love public policy, and Jewish officeholders love to legislate. Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman recently gained his greatest legislative victory in a storied career with the passage of the first climate change legislation in American history. Waxman, no slouch at 69, worked his way into this historic position right after Obama’s election when, as the crusading chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he won the position of chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. What was once a roadblock committee now became the path to legislation. After a narrow and dramatic victory on the House floor, cap-and-trade legislation is now in the Senate’s hands.

These days, the real policy struggle is among Democrats, between liberals and Blue Dog moderates. In truth, congressional Republicans, except for a handful of moderates,  have become so weakened as a policy force that they are nearly irrelevant. If not for cable news, the op-ed pages of major newspapers, and the Sunday talking-heads programs, who would know they even exist? Ironically, it is the “liberal” media that is keeping the Republicans barely alive.

Jewish members align with both the liberal and the Blue Dog camps. California’s two female Jewish senators tend to be on opposite sides of this divide. Dianne Feinstein often joins with moderates, while Barbara Boxer is a reliable liberal voice. Independent Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats, is well to the right of the Democratic base. Republican moderates can also be heard joining the debate, and several have provided critical votes for the economic stimulus and for climate change legislation.

Jewish members of Congress are very pro-Israel, but those who fear some Jewish cabal that would block peace in the Middle East must have missed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Capitol Hill. He was surprised that Jewish legislators did not accept his arguments for expanding settlements on the West Bank.

Of course, nothing this Congress will face matches the historic importance of overhauling health care. This is the holy grail of the Democratic Party, the dream of presidents from Truman to Clinton. Health care is the big one, the legislation for which this Democratic era will be remembered, one way or the other.

Waxman will certainly help pave the way in the House, but the real story will be in the Senate. The bottom line for progressives is the inclusion of a public option in the final plan. The main Senate bill is emerging from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee chaired by Edward Kennedy, but the more conservative Finance Committee is working on a somewhat different bill. There, New York Senator Charles Schumer is trying to shepherd the public option. Watching over his shoulder is President Obama’s right-hand man and chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, a former member of the House leadership. Liberals are closely watching Emanuel to see whether Obama is going to fight for the public option. On the other side of the liberal-moderate divide, Joe Leiberman recently came out against the public option.

This is the dynamic scene that Franken joins. In theory, he represents the missing 60th vote for a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, though there is, of course, no real 60-vote barrier, because Blue Dog Democrats can block anything they want by refusing to support a motion for cloture, and a few moderate Republicans can still make the difference in the final vote.

Republicans are apoplectic about Franken, at least in part because he had a successful radio talk show and they consider talk radio to be their property. He committed the sin of playing on their territory and being fairly popular at it. Franken has also written books with sarcastic titles: “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” and “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” but he cannot hold a candle to the vitriol of the right’s talkers. He made fun of them, which they don’t like, but he is hardly the wild man they make him out to be.

In fact, anyone who has listened to Franken’s programs over the years will note that he is actually a rather plodding speaker. I have found him only moderately funny. My guess is that he will be among the most serious and thoughtful senators and a solid liberal vote in a Democratic caucus. He may have to tell the occasional joke just so people won’t forget his previous career.

The rush of major legislation and the important role played by Jewish representatives represent a true historic moment. It’s been a long time coming; there was an upsurge of Jewish office holding after the 1967 Six Day War, and that is what first laid the groundwork for the present level of participation. Certainly Jews were deeply involved in the New Deal and the Great Society before that — FDR had his Brains Trust (often referred to as the Brain Trust), and legislators like Rep. Emanuel Celler and Senator Abe Ribicoff were forces in the Johnson years. But I doubt that Jews were as pivotal to the legislative process in those days as they are today. 

There is no way to know whether Obama’s ambitious legislative agenda will rank alongside those eras, but if it does, the Jews of Congress will have left their mark on it.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.