Members Only | December 27, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has outlived her usefulness
Biden and the Democrats have assimilated progressive politics.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a polarizing figure among liberals and Democrats. Some, like me, see the New York congresswoman as a useful figure representing young people and progressive politics. Others doubt her intentions and generally see her as a pain in the ass. Others still see her as giving leftwing cover for rightwing goals.
Though I have understood the complaints, and though I haven’t agreed with them, I have thought whatever cons there are have been reasonable trade-offs for the pros. I don’t want Democrats getting comfortable. If AOC gets their backs up with the truth, so be it.
But her latest vote has me rethinking.
She may have reached the end of her usefulness.
Voting against a lot of good
Ocasio-Cortez voted against the nearly $2 trillion spending bill needed to keep the government running through September of next year. That legislation is usually called the omnibus. She was the only Democrat in both chambers of the US Congress to vote against it. We expect that from conservative gadflies like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, but they voted for it.
That’s fine, but why? Here’s what she said: “I campaigned on a promise to my constituents: to oppose additional expansion and funding for ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and DHS [the US Department of Homeland Security] – particularly in the absence of long-overdue immigration reform. For that reason, as well as the dramatic increase in defense spending which exceeds President Biden’s request, I voted no on today’s omnibus bill.”
Again, that’s fine, but what does the omnibus do for ICE and DHS. According to the Post, “it provides $800 million for shelter and other emergency services for migrants at the Department of Homeland Security, with additional sums meant to improve refugee processing.”
Lucille Roybal-Allard is the chair of the House subcommittee on homeland security. She said in a statement that, “I am especially proud of the work my colleagues and I have done to provide robust funding to support asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants.”
According to Government Executive magazine, the omnibus boosts funding for the Border Patrol by “a whopping 17 percent.” But for what? Three hundred new Border Patrol agents Joe Biden says are needed “to handle the record-high numbers of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.” As for ICE, none of the funds in “those distinct appropriations could be used to hire permanent federal employees.”
According to the National Immigration Justice Center, the law “requires ICE to make data publicly available regarding its use of solitary confinement for people deemed to be members of ‘vulnerable or special populations,’ including the number of days ICE holds individuals in solitary confinement, the basis for the use of solitary, and the process for re-evaluation of placements.”
That seems like … a good thing.
Moreover, the omnibus provides “$20 million for FEMA to administer the Case Management Pilot Program, a new program currently under development by an NGO-led board that is intended to provide community-based case management services for asylum seekers and immigrants in removal proceedings.” The legislation also raises funding to “$750 million for legal services, post-release services and child advocates for unaccompanied children in HHS custody.”
That’s a lot of good to vote against.
A bonanza for progressive priorities
Maybe it was a protest vote. The omnibus does give more money to DHS. Her constituents, many of whom are immigrants, don’t like DHS. She gave them what they wanted. The omnibus was going to pass anyway, what with a handful of Republicans crossing the aisle to support it. There’s nothing wrong with some political symbolism.
I buy that.
Or I would.
If the omnibus were not a bonanza for progressive priorities.
Here’s a list I compiled from public sources. The omnibus:
- Raises the cap on Pell grants by $500.
- Increases the budget for National Labor Relations Board, a labor oversight agency, for the first time in 10 years.
- Boosts funding for the arts and anti-monopoly efforts.
- Gives $3.5 billion to the FDA to fix the baby formula shortage.
- Provides $39 billion to the DOJ to investigate domestic terrorism and prosecute J6 insurrectionists.
- Allots $58.7 billion for “roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections,” per the Post, plus $10 billion for clean water.
- Secures $27 billion to respond to recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida’s gulf coast, and Hurricane Fiona, which devastated Puerto Rico. Ocasio-Cortez’s family heritage is Puerto Rican.
- Averts a lapse in Medicaid funding for US territories, including Puerto Rico. It matches funding on the island for five years. It makes permanent that matching for other US territories.
- Allots $10 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency, “a $576 million increase from current funding,” the Post said, and $46.5 billion for the Energy Department. Ocasio-Cortez is the chief architect for the progressive “Green New Deal.”
- Includes the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which helps farmers to store and contain carbon emissions on their land.
- Activates the Electoral Count Reform Act, which is throws up more obstacles against objections to state electors.
- Requires businesses to create policies so workers are enrolled in 401K retirement account unless they opt out.
- Activates the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. It outlaws workplace discrimination against pregnant people. That’s a BFD. It requires employers to make time and space for those who breastfeed to pump. That’s another BFD.
- Provides $8 billion in assistance to poor people who can’t afford childcare. It provides nearly $12 billion for Head Start.
- Appropriates $5 billion to help poor people with energy costs.
- Establishes permanent summer food assistance. It provides a grocery stipend of $40 a month per child tied to inflation. It changes rules for summer meals in rural areas, per CNN.
There is virtually nothing in the omnibus that meets the Republicans’ spending priorities, first because they don’t have many, and second, because the ones they do have mostly focus on military spending.
So yes, the omnibus bill provides more funding for defense than Biden asked for, but that’s a reasonable trade-off for a bonanza of money for progressive priorities that will help people who need it, and for issues long starved of government attention and funding.
Which brings us back to Ocasio-Cortez.
The most generous reading of her statement explaining why she voted against the omnibus still must account for why she chose to omit any or all of the facts above, especially items related to issues that she says are dear to her, such as climate and women’s rights.
The most generous reading must also account for her voting against programs at the Department of Homeland Security that are intended to lend aid and comfort to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. She said he honored her campaign promise to vote against the government’s abuse of immigrants while failing to vote for them.
But the most generous reading cannot account for these things.
Indeed, on considering the full context, we are left to ask why the most progressive member of the Congress (arguably) voted against the most progressive year-end spending bill anyone can remember.
Here’s what I think.
California Congressman Ro Khanna, a staunch progressive, told Bloomberg recently that Joe Biden has “worked to earn a lot of trust from progressives. He’d have the support of the party, of many of us in the party, if he runs again, and I expect him to run again.”
So the Democrats have assimilated progressive politics. It is now a feature of the party, where it was once a bug. Joe Biden has no serious challengers from the left, despite hysterical concern-trolling about his age and fitness, because he has evolved into a progressive president who does not appear progressive to most Americans.
In 2018, progressives like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez seemed fresh, even revolutionary. At the time, I believed they were a much-needed bulwark against the Democrats’ tendency to preemptively cave to GOP demands. With Donald Trump as president, and with the Republicans embracing fascism, the party needed progressives.
But a lot has changed. They don’t seem as useful.
Perhaps Ocasio-Cortez can sense it.
That’s why she chose symbolism over progressivism.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.