New Democrats Asking More From Members

Posted February 1, 2005 at 6:33pm

The centrist House New Democrat Coalition is planning a major restructuring, hoping to regain its voice and influence within Congress that has fallen over the past several years.

Leaders of the organization, established in 1997 to promote an agenda centered on technology, education and free trade, sent a letter Monday to its 74 members informing them of the planned changes. The overhaul involves setting new fundraising and participation goals, a refocused agenda and putting heightened emphasis on message and outreach.

“As the 109th Congress begins, we believe it is time to reorganize and restructure the House New Democrat Coalition,” Reps. Jim Davis (Fla.), Ron Kind (Wis.) and Adam Smith (Wash.), the group’s co-chairmen, wrote to the members.

Smith said Tuesday members of the group recognize its voice has tempered since its inception when it enjoyed the blessing of President Bill Clinton.

The goal of the restructuring is not only to strengthen the group’s influence by helping find and elect candidates sympathetic to New Democrats, but to promote a centrist agenda that focuses on economic growth and national security and help the larger Democratic Party hone its policies and message.

“With the change in the environment in Congress, and since we cannot easily work with the White House, we were feeling the need to refocus our efforts and re-energize our efforts,” Smith said.

Kind said the start of a new Congress was the right time to make the changes and “to bring order, structure and discipline” to the group. The goal is to better organize and ask more of the New Democrats’ members, he said.

The Wisconsin lawmaker said leaders want to ensure “there is some there, there” to the group so it can work to influence policy both in the Democratic Caucus and the whole House.

As part of the restructuring, the leaders invited the existing Members to rejoin the group, but asked them to commit to greater financial and participatory obligations.

Members will now be required to give $2,000 a year to the group’s newly formed political action committee, attend 70 percent of the organization’s events and find ways “to participate in our message and legislative activities.” The letter names 18 Democratic House Members who have already committed to staying with the group in the next Congress.

The New Democrats also promised to hold more fundraisers and political activities, assist more incumbents and candidates, as well as introduce legislation focusing on their core issues.

“Now calling yourself a member of the New Democrats actually means something,” Kind said. “It’s not just a name on the list.”

Added Smith: “We don’t want to be a caucus of members that just have ‘New Democrat’ next to their names.”

Beyond Member participation, the New Democrat Coalition is also working to concentrate its agenda more on foreign policy and personal responsibility, while keeping an emphasis on its traditional issues of economic growth, trade and technology.

The group said it plans to introduce legislation on those issues, put forth an annual agenda on “new economy” issues and work to revive the group message so the “pro-growth Democratic agenda is heard.”

In the past, the New Democrat Coalition was viewed a prominent force in the Caucus, but in recent years it has fallen somewhat in stature. Senior Democratic sources within the Caucus said that beyond getting over the loss of the Clinton bully pulpit, the group seems to have lost its way with the departures of some its founders and because many of its core issues of trade and technology are no longer front and center.

One House Democratic aide familiar with the New Democrats said efforts to reorganize couldn’t come at a better time.

“This is a positive development in the evolution of the NDC,” said the staffer. “The last several years have been an embarrassment and if they can finally bring themselves back to the realm of relevancy, it will be great for the NDC Members, the overall Democratic Centrist movement, and House Democrats.”

The New Democrats meet on Feb. 9 for its first organizational meeting of the 109th Congress. At that meeting, the group will discuss the restructuring and elect its new leadership that includes administrative, legislative and message co-chairmen.