The Yemen Vote Is a New Low for the Democratic Party
House Republicans voted yesterday to keep the monstrous war in Yemen going. But they couldn’t have succeeded without the help of several Democrats.
Sadam Khadam Mahdi, 27, lies on a bed in a field hospital on September 22, 2018 in Al Khawkhah, Yemen. Andrew Renneisen / Getty
Why are people disillusioned with politics?
There are, of course, many answers to that question. But if you only need one, look no further than yesterday’s vote to keep the US government fueling the genocidal war in Yemen.
Paul Ryan and House Republicans managed to pass a bill blocking Congress from ending US involvement in Yemen for the rest of the year. They did so by inserting a provision into the 2018 farm bill rule — that is, not even the farm bill itself, but simply the language that establishes how the legislation will be debated and voted on — that effectively bars the House from taking up any measure that halts the war for the rest of this Congress.
This is as close to unambiguous evil as you’re likely to find in the real world, which is saying something considering we’re talking about a party steadfastly devoted to ensuring the extinction of humans on Earth through environmental destruction. There’s no set of voters who are clamoring for the continuation of Saudi war crimes in Yemen, particularly given that both the war and Saudi Arabia itself have become markedly unpopular since the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, so much so that even Lindsey Graham — Lindsey Graham! — voted in November to advance a resolution ending US involvement in the war.
This latest move was clearly a step too far for even some in the GOP, because a small fraction of House Republicans (eighteen of them) voted against the measure, which would have ordinarily sailed through with little controversy, and an additional seventeen Republicans abstained from voting. It was a testament to the way that the ghastly war in Yemen has, quite bizarrely, become increasingly untenable since Khashoggi’s death.
But the GOP doesn’t deserve all the blame for yesterday’s outcome, because the Yemen resolution wouldn’t have passed (by a mere three votes) had it not been for the support of a handful of centrist Democrats and the absence on the floor of several antiwar Democrats.
Let’s have a closer look at the five Democrats who voted for the resolution. One was Jim Costa, outgoing chairman of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and a member of the House Agriculture Committee. Costa doesn’t get much money from the defense sector, but the oil and gas industries are his second most generous donors, with names like Edison International, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, and Pacific Gas and Electric among his top donors. According to one expert on the global fossil-fuel industry, “the threat of heaving an Iranian backed Houthi regime wielding power on Yemen’s main strategic geographic choke-points” would be a “nightmare scenario” for the oil industry, which, besides his seat on the Agriculture Committee, perhaps also explains Costa’s vote, particularly given that the Houthis have been targeting the Saudi coalition’s energy infrastructure.
Costa, who votes in line with Trump quite often despite representing a district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, has been deemed the fourth-most “primaryable” House Democrat in the country by the left-wing think tank Data for Progress. If a progressive or socialist challenger takes him on in 2020, they’ll no doubt be sure to point out this vote for the Yemen war, as well as his otherwise Trump-friendly voting record.
Someone who does get a lot of money from the defense sector is Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a national security hawk who has long been targeted by defense industries while serving in powerful positions affecting them. Ruppersberger has received nearly $120,000 from the defense aerospace and electronics industries this cycle, including Northrop Grumman, his single largest donor over the course of his career, and a company that has profited handsomely from not just this war but the Saudi-US alliance as a whole. Ruppersberger, who has voted symbolically against the war before, issued a statement insisting he supports withdrawing from Yemen but didn’t want to derail the farm bill.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, cast his “yea” vote for similar reasons. The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson told journalist Jeff Stein that he didn’t want to jeopardize the farm bill, doesn’t “know a damn thing about” the war in Yemen, and that “our party gets off on tangents,” declining to answer why the House couldn’t do over the vote another time without the Yemen provision. Peterson has previously voted against ending the war in Yemen, and is ranked by Data for Progress just ahead of Costa for his primarability.
Georgia Rep. David Scott, who likewise voted for the bill, serves alongside Peterson on the House Agriculture Committee. Long viewed with suspicion by local progressives, Scott’s record includes voting with Republicans to make it harder for families to file for bankruptcy, trying to permanently repeal the estate tax, giving the fossil-fuel industry one of its biggest giveaways of the past few decades, and receiving consistently high scores from the National Association of Police Organizations.
In 2008, Scott appeared on the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s list of “most corrupt” congressmen, owing to tax evasion allegations and payments to himself, his business, and his family from his campaign committee. Some of his notable Trump-era votes include: support for rolling back parts of Dodd-Frank, eliminating the medical device tax introduced by Obamacare, and abstaining on a vote on a balanced budget amendment (it passed the House). Mystifyingly, despite this record, Scott has served for sixteen years in his safe Democratic seat, often fielding no primary challenger.
And finally, there’s Al Lawson, another Trump-friendly congressman in a safe Democratic seat, this time in Florida, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. He easily put away a primary challenge this year from similarly mediocre Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown, who attacked Lawson for his support for school vouchers and his vote in favor of the original “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005, among other things.
So it seems the five Democrats who voted to ensure innocent Yemenis continue to starve and die for at least a couple more months have one thing in common: they’re all uniformly disappointing Democrats on other issues, too. Worse, they voted for the war only a day after a major, stomach-churning report on Saudi atrocities in the country appeared in the New York Times.
An added, head-scratching twist to all this was the failure to vote at all by seven Democrats, several of them progressive, antiwar lawmakers who have specifically registered their opposition to this war, and who would have tipped the scales had they voted.
Keith Ellison, a former Bernie Sanders surrogate who just won the Minnesota attorney general’s race under a cloud of domestic abuse allegations, has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the war, saying last year that “we have to stop this war and famine”; Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva said less than three months agothat the US “has no business aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen”; Michelle Lujan Grisham, who just became governor of New Mexico, has voted against sending cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia and for last year’s resolution against the Yemen war; Alcee Hastings, Jared Polis (now the governor-elect of Colorado), and Tim Walz all signed a letter last year demanding the administration explain its legal justification for the war.
Each of these lawmakers missed the vote yesterday, even though the resolution was approved for a vote the day before.
In a statement today, Grijalva called his absence “an honest mistake,” and said he wasn’t present for the vote “due to a miscommunication about the number of votes in the series.” Grijalva pointed to his genuinely strong record against the war, and called the GOP’s actions “nothing short of an accessory to war.”
I’ve reached out to the other Democrats who missed yesterday’s vote, and this story will be updated with their statements as they come in. One possibility is that some of the absent Democrats were blindsided by the maneuver while they were managing the transitions in their newly won state-level offices. Ellison, for instance, has been working out of borrowed office space in downtown Minneapolis.
Nonetheless, the sum of what’s happened is that a small number of Democrats, either by refusing to vote against a procedural resolution or by simply missing the vote, have ensured that Yemenis, many of them small children, will continue to be incinerated and starved to death until the next Congress takes office, at the earliest. With any luck, there will still be enough momentum to try once more to end US government support for this war — support without which it “would end tomorrow,” to quote one former CIA and Pentagon official.
There are no shades of gray in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. There are no moral complexities. The details of its horrors are now finally unignorable. It was monstrous when Barack Obama was giving it the green light, and it remains a perverse monument to the depths of human cruelty and indifference nearly four years later. What else is there to say anymore? We expect this kind of thing from the likes of Paul Ryan; but even for this Democratic Party, this is a new low.
Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs