The Progressive Case Against Steny Hoyer
by Opinion Haver
Steny Hoyer was first elected to the Maryland Senate in 1966, over 52 years ago. Congresswoman Linda Sánchez is in her eighth term in the US House, and Steny Hoyer had already been in government for two years when she was born. Hoyer has been part of House leadership since the presidency of George HW Bush. With a tenure this long, it would be easy to assume that Hoyer is a nimble figure, easily adapting to the politics of the day. Unfortunately, the reality is that his politics have long since calcified, and he is attempting to bend the party to his will to fix the gap between where he is and where the party is headed.
Hoyer entered the House in 1981 and, to his credit, was a fairly liberal representative for the time. Now, keep in mind that this the time where a Democratic representative could prefer the John Birch Society to the Great Society and still get easily reelected, so “fairly liberal” means that he still did things like attempt to make stealing a US flag a federal crime punishable by a year in jail. He was at least a Reagan critic, so there’s that.
To understand his role during the Clinton era, a little context is important. The narrative often presented of that time is that Bill Clinton pulled the party to the right, and in near unison the party followed him, proceeding to make a combination of liberal gains and grave mistakes that have effects still felt today. But that’s not quite right. By 1992, the party had a clear liberal majority, and most of the legislation we’d like to forget from that era was passed by Clinton, the Republicans, and a quarter to a half of the Democratic caucus. You didn’t need to be a Sanders-level social democrat to not go along with this stuff - most progressives of the time didn’t. Hoyer however, often was in that quarter to half of the caucus that went along. He wrote a three strikes law, an attempt to make “late term abortions” illegal, a weakening of estate taxes, and a weakening of campaign finance limits. He co-sponsored a balanced budget amendment, and then did so again, and again, and again all the way into 2004. He voted to bar undocumented immigrants from public assistance, supported both Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. He also supported the bankruptcy reform bill that Elizabeth Warren famously helped kill at the last moment.
During the Bush years, things weren’t particularly different. He opposed the most unpopular Bush policies, but for the largest fault of the Bush years, Iraq and the War on Terror, Hoyer was behind Bush. He supported the Patriot Act in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2002. In 2006, long after most of the base had turned hard against them, he was still supporting the Patriot Act and Iraq War. Meanwhile, most of the party was organizing around opposition to the war, creating a Democratic wave that delivered Congress to them (and made Hoyer the Majority Leader under Speaker Pelosi 1.0). Around that time, he was attacking the Democratic for an Iraq withdrawal timetable, saying that it “could lead to disaster” in late 2005. Even after the election, in November of 2007, he still stood by his vote to invade Iraq.
Lack of Leadership
It’s the Obama era where Hoyer’s big problems begin to shine through. Obama entered office in 2009. Hoyer was then, as he is now, House Majority Leader, the second in command. While Pelosi was putting in an incredible amount of effort to forge a path to 218 votes on every progressive priority, Hoyer took the view that the party should not be so bold. When Obama came to him early on in 2009 with the intention making high income tax deduction less regressive, one of his campaign promises, Hoyer opposed the move, worried about upsetting donors. While the house was debating cramdown legislation (an Obama campaign promise and eventually-stripped provision in Dodd-Frank that would allow bankruptcy courts to do more to help borrowers avoid foreclosure), Hoyer was publicly expressing doubts about whether it was even a good policy, and pushing for a compromise measure instead.
Hoyer’s position during the ACA battle was similarly less than helpful. Almost immediately Hoyer said that the public option would need to be taken out of the bill to get it to pass. Pelosi disagreed, and less than two months later passed a version of the ACA with a public option. The public option would eventually be stricken from the bill for a reason entirely outside of the House’s control (Joe Fucking Lieberman), but not before moving the debate to the left and winning other concessions for its exclusion.
During the home stretch of the disastrous 2010 midterms, instead of talking about the successes of the Obama administration, he was publicly expressing concern about the actions taken, for instance telling the Fiscal Times “The public is rightfully concerned about the debt and the deficit and they understand they are not sustainable in the long term,” during his speaking tour about deficit reduction.
In 2011 and 2012, when Republicans and Obama were fighting over the debt limit, Hoyer urged the so-called “Grand Bargain”, a centrist dream package which combined cuts to the social safety net with tax increases. In a speech to the Third Way, a centrist think tank, he specifically cited keeping the Pentagon budget at current levels as an impetus for backing the Bargain. He wouldn’t let the Bargain go, either. Long after Obama and Pelosi had figured out that they didn’t need to do anything of the sort, he was still fighting for it in 2014.
Today, Hoyer stands in opposition to progressive priorities of all sorts. He is the only member of the House or Senate in the DC aread to oppose statehood for DC. He announced that the new climate committee in the House won’t have subpoena power, essentially defanging it. (The previous version of the climate committee had subpoena power.) This is potentially because it is stacked with Green New Deal supporters, of which he is not one. Hoyer has been critical of single payer healthcare, and instead says he wants an “affordable” system. He does not support tuition-free college or abolishing ICE, and in a particularly telling move, unveiled his jobs agenda last year at one of the hubs of the gig economy. That jobs agenda, by the way, is barely changed from 2010.
Hoyer’s gratingly centrist policy, while bad, is not uniquely awful in the Democratic Party. Someone like Jim Cooper is just as bad, if not worse. What makes Hoyer such a problem is the influence he has and the power he exerts. In general, he has a lot of control over legislation, and is a major voice in the direction of the party. One way this can be seen is in his PAC, AmeriPAC. Through his PAC, he has weighed in to a great number of primaries, seemingly always choosing the less progressive candidate. In the 2018 primaries alone, he put money behind Bobby Kaple, Mike Capuano, Jay Hulings, Joe Morelle, Brad Ashford, Stephen Lynch, and Dan Lipinski, all of whom also happened to be white guys running against women, many of them women of color. For Lipinski he wasn’t satisfied giving only the legal limit for PACs, $5,000, he also gave $2,000 from his campaign account. In 2016, AmeriPAC helped out Corrine Brown, who lost a redistricting primary and is currently in prison for committing 18 white-collar felonies. In 2012 it backed perhaps the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, Tim Holden, against middle-of-the-road liberal Matt Cartwright, who attacked Holden for running for a district Obama won by double digits, yet constantly voting against Obama’s legislation. In 2008, it tried to save Al Wynn, an Iraq War supporter who lost to progressive Donna Edwards in the primary by over 20%. It’s a little on the nose as an example, but in 2018, Hoyer donated to the Blue Dogs, AmeriPAC donated to the New Democrats, and neither donated to the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Steny and Race
Hoyer is from Prince George’s County, Maryland, which borders DC. At the time he moved there, it was a white flight haven, but it has since grown steadily more diverse. During his early years, he played to that aspect of local politics, playing a lead role in opposing busing in the 1970s. He was also one of the most powerful politicians in the county, helping to run the Blue Ribbon Selection Committee, an official organization that ran slates of candidates, and usually did very well. It was tepid about including black and labor voices, and ultimately failed to make Hoyer governor like it was built to.
There’s also the uncomfortable dynamic of how he’s handled being a white representative in an area that’s getting blacker. He’s dealt with it by seeking out whiter and whiter districts to represent. His first redistricting event, in 1992, saw him move to a new district to avoid running in a majority black district. In 2011, he had the power to decide a lot about how his district was drawn, and contrary to the desires of grassroots minority groups who wanted a third district that would elect the candidate of minority voters’ choice (something that is easy to do), the choice was made instead to split the black population of southern Maryland in a way to get the black population of Hoyer’s district down to 30%.
Additionally, Hoyer has had his tiffs with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for their attempts to fight Republican attacks on immigrants. In 2007, after the Caucus had derailed a bill on the floor over Republican anti-immigrant amendments, Hoyer allegedly yelled at Rep. Joe Baca, the CHC head, “How dare you destroy this party? This will be the worst loss in 10 years.” 2008, in fact, did not go down as the worst Democratic loss in 10 years. And he did much the same thing again ten years later. In 2018, after a few CHC members protested Trump’s family separation policy at a press event, Hoyer stepped on their message by calling chiding their actions as “not appropriate” and not the right “level of decorum”. He even equated the CHC protest with the Trump administration, saying, “That does not, however, justify us following suit.”
Hoyer has a close relationship with lobbying group AIPAC, close enough that he’s willing to put his name on what they’ve written for him. In one instance, he forgot to take AIPAC’s name off a letter he circulated, sending it out with the file name "AIPAC Letter Hoyer Cantor May 2009.pdf." His speech at their most recent conference took this relationship to another level. The line of his that has been repeated the most since then is one of his potshots at freshman Rep. Illhan Omar: “So, when someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: Accuse me.” Even under more charitable interpretations of what he could have meant by that line, it is remarkably unhelpful to say. That wasn’t his only swipe at Omar. He also said “By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? 62. Not three.” In case it was unclear who he was referring to during that speech, that line was actually recycled from a Fox News appearance of his, when he was very explicitly talking about Reps. Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yes, he took a cheap shot at a Palestinian woman for an applause line at an event that was hosting a leader of the groups seizing Palestinian lands for settlements.
Steny Hoyer has built his career on conservatism--on immigration, on finance, on taxes, on the budget, and on everything else. He’s stood in the way of minority voices within the party, both in his home state and outside of it. He was a key player in the greatest hits of the Clinton and Bush years, and he’s never shown any remorse. What’s he shown instead is a desire to drag the currently vibrant and progressive Democratic Party back to those days, and a hostility to those who want to push forward. And while that would be a problem with any Congressman, what makes him especially dangerous is his use of his position of power in the caucus to further these goals. He’s consistently the worst member of Democratic leadership, which is impressive, given that it includes Cheri Bustos and Jim Clyburn.