(MintPress) – As the 113th Congress was officially sworn in Thursday, the traditional changing of the guard brings 97 new representatives in the freshman class representing districts from across the U.S. However, the induction of a new Congress signals the departure of two stalwart defenders of working families, the environment and a rational foreign policy of demilitarization. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), two of the few progressive voices remaining in Congress have bid farewell — their careers unparalleled in Congress.
Gerrymandering and big money politics endanger the future of candidates reflecting the interests of constituencies rather than the rights of the wealthy elite and corporations. Although new progressive leaders will likely emerge, the divisive Congress will make it increasingly difficult for people’s candidates to effectively sponsor bills helping working families in the ongoing economic recovery.
Dennis Kucinich (Ohio-10)
There is much to celebrate, namely the induction of a record number of women into the new Congress, at least a symbolic reflection of gender diversity in an otherwise male dominated legislative branch. However, the mere presence of women or minority representatives does not guarantee the promotion of similarly progressive legislation.
These two departing members of Congress leave behind big shoes to fill for their Democratic colleagues. As staunch opponents of the Iraq War at a time when the country was sleepwalking into a senseless, illegal military occupation, the legacy these two leave behind serves as ample reminder that the true defenders of human rights are few and far between in an otherwise lackluster Congress — where candidates sell policies to the highest bidders.
Kucinich was one of the few members in Congress to vote against the war in Iraq. The Iraq War, 2003-2011, that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians, later drew the ire of both parties, but not before significant losses for American troops and little hope of finding the non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Often maligned and in the minority, Kucinich’s voting record reads as an epitaph to the broken politics in Washington. In his 15-year career, Kucinich consistently called for marijuana legalization, an end to the war on drugs and the U.S. withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other free trade legislation.
“Congressman Kucinich remains firmly opposed to NAFTA and to all free trade agreements following the NAFTA model that benefit multinational corporations while harming workers, diminishing environmental protections and limiting access to healthcare for the poor,” Kucinich posts on his website. NAFTA has resulted in a net loss of 700,000 American jobs and has largely reduced collective bargaining rights in Canada and Mexico, the other two countries partnered to the disastrous Clinton-era pact.
Despite riling tempers for his unapologetic platform, Kucinich stressed the need for national unity in his farewell speech, an underlying principle on which the U.S. was founded.
“The idea of human unity is implicit in this nation. In my visits across America, I discovered that there is an underlying unity which binds us as Americans, which calls us forward to a higher purpose,” said Kucinich
“I have also come to understand that our politics divides people. The politics of polarization and hyper-partisanship has become obviously quite destructive, nearly incapacitating government.”
Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.-22)
Similarly, Maurice Hinchey announced his retirement in mid-2012 after being diagnosed with a treatable form of colon cancer. Representing a rural, upstate New York constituency (N.Y.-22), Hinchey led a distinguished 20-year career after serving in the U.S. Navy and the New York State Assembly.
Like his retiring colleague, Hinchey was one of the few voices in Congress opposing the war in Iraq from the beginning, when there was robust support nationwide for the invasion. The New York native was also one of just 11 co-sponsors to the sign onto the 2008 Kucinich Bill, “Impeaching George W. Bush, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Where Hinchey really separated himself was in the area of environmental protection, leading the way in support for the Clean Air and Water Acts and the General Electric (GE) cleanup of the Hudson River after an expose found the corporation had illegally dumped 209,000–1.3 million pounds of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyl “PCBs” into the Hudson River river from 1947 to 1977.
The resulting cleanup, fueled in large part by Hinchey’s support, is ongoing, costing GE an estimated GE $460 million.
Once a moderate critic of fracking, Hinchey grew to become one of the most vociferous critics of the dangerous method of oil and gas extraction during his later years in Congress. “This major industrial activity has significant public health risks and has no business being near our kids,” said Hinchey in a statement from the floor of Congress in June.
Hinchey continues pointing out that “hydraulically fractured wells emit huge quantities of smog forming chemicals, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants like benzene as well as methane.” These pollutants cause serious health problems.
After redistricting, what was once a solidly blue, mostly progressive district for two decades turned red, ushering in tea party Republican Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.).
Congressional Progressive Caucus
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, labeled a “Communist party” by former Florida Congressman Allen West (R-Fla.), remains one of the few bastions of bold leadership, where 80 elected officials will carry on the fight to oppose future U.S. wars and advocate for the preservation of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, to the benefit of millions of Americans.
It is not enough to rest easy, as members of Congress, regardless of labels or previous voting records, are susceptible to the same corporatized political machine dominating policy creation in Washington. Kucinich’s and Hinchey’s departures may well be the end of an era. However, public servants are bound by the constituencies they represent.
Beyond the public figure are the millions who show up to the polls to select members of Congress. Overcoming the structural deficiencies of a political system awash in special interest money following the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision will have to come from the people, not the leaders who represent the interests of Wall Street over Main Street.