POLITICS
11/27/2018 03:25 pm ET

The Progressive Caucus Has A Chance To Be More Influential Than Ever

But will they deliver?
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks about revelations about President Donald Trump's involvement with Russia on Capitol Hil
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks about revelations about President Donald Trump's involvement with Russia on Capitol Hill on May 17, 2017. 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has historically lacked the clout of other values-based congressional factions, is making a serious play for influence in the next Congress.

In the recent midterm elections, the caucus’ political action committee spent more than three times what it spent in the previous election cycle.

The money paid off. The CPC is on track to pick up 19 more members: 25 people from the incoming freshman class and two incumbents ― California Reps. Jimmy Panetta and Brad Sherman. Eight of its current members are retiring.

That would bring the caucus’ total to 96 members, or about 40 percent of the House Democratic Caucus ― by far the largest bloc in the party.

What’s more, the centrist-heavy rebellion against Nancy Pelosi’s speakership has strengthened the CPC’s bargaining hand. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.), the caucus’ co-chairs, leveraged their endorsement of Pelosi for the promise of proportional representation on five key House committees where their presence is currently lacking: Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Appropriations, and Intelligence.

But the CPC faces significant challenges to becoming as powerful as the House Freedom Caucus, whose far-right members virtually dictated House Republicans’ agenda during the last Congress by operating as a bloc willing to exercise veto power if leadership did not meet its hardline demands. Those tactics make some progressives uncomfortable, and the CPC remains far more ideologically diverse than the Freedom Caucus was.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addresses reporters on Nov. 15, 2018. In exchange for CPC support, Pelosi agree
ASSOCIATED PRESS
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addresses reporters on Nov. 15, 2018. In exchange for CPC support, Pelosi agreed to provide more committee seats.

From ‘Doormats’ To Dominance?

It’s an open secret that many CPC members have questionable progressive bona fides, particularly members like Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Don Beyer (Va.), Val Demings (Fla.) and Darren Soto (Fla.), who also belong to the CPC’s business-friendly rival, the New Democrat Coalition. And even Rep. Joseph Kennedy (Mass.), a CPC member who is not a New Democrat, has yet to sign on to the Medicare for all legislation backed by a majority of the House Democratic Caucus.

CPC leadership plans to stick with a big-tent approach, arguing that it provides it the resources to shape policy debates within the caucus through internal lobbying. Needless to say, the CPC  is not interested in joining New York Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call to primary insufficiently progressive Democrats.

At the same time, committed progressives like Ocasio-Cortez would be free to form smaller, ad-hoc groups of like-minded lawmakers capable of engaging in Freedom Caucus-style legislative hardball if Democratic leadership crosses one of their perceived red lines.

“There’s a great opportunity for an unofficial ‘harder-line’ caucus,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of the progressive nonprofit Social Security Works and a leading figure in efforts to land CPC members spots on key committees.

This election will not mean much if Wall Street’s representatives in the Democratic Party control all of the committees that matter. Alex Lawson, Social Security Works

Jayapal, who replaces Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) as CPC co-chair, also founded a separate Medicare for All PAC to support candidates who back single-payer health care and plans to make it a major force inside the party ahead of the 2020 elections.

She pointed out that it is easier to operate as a bloc when the goal, as it is for the Freedom Caucus, is simply thwarting anything deemed insufficiently conservative. Progressives who have ambitious ideas about expanding the federal government’s role in public life need to build coalitions to advance their agenda, so a similar approach is not as useful, she said.

“The Freedom Caucus is the caucus of ‘no.’ We’re the caucus of ‘yes,’” she said.

Thanks to the leftward shift of the progressive base on economic policy in recent years, the center of gravity has shifted in the House Democratic Caucus in general, and in the CPC in particular. For example, Pelosi, a co-founder of the CPC once on the liberal vanguard, is now far from one of the Democratic caucus’ most left-leaning members. Indeed, on matters like single-payer health care and “paygo,” a rule she backs requiring additional revenue or equivalent spending cuts to pay for any new spending, she is at odds with CPC leaders.

Some progressives see the House Freedom Caucus, chaired by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), as a model for wielding power, but CPC
Alexander Drago / Reuters
Some progressives see the House Freedom Caucus, chaired by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), as a model for wielding power, but CPC co-chairs do not plan to emulate his tactics.

Matt Stoller, who worked for former progressive Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ― the latter of whom also co-founded the CPC in 1991 ― said CPC members were widely viewed as “doormats” during the previous period of Democratic House control from 2007 to 2011. He witnessed the caucus’ impotence firsthand in 2009, when it failed to stop junior Democrats on the Financial Services Committee from joining Republicans to pass an amendment exempting car dealerships from the oversight of a new consumer protection agency. Among other abusive practices, auto dealerships are known to discriminate against nonwhite buyers.

Stoller, who was fighting the amendment’s approval, flagged the bad vote for the national media. But it was a lonely quest, he recalled.

“Now there’s gonna be hundreds of staffers doing” similar work, he said.

Stoller warns against putting too much stock in the extortion-fueled tactics of the Freedom Caucus, which he called “sexy,” but less relevant than the more mundane work of internal wrangling. That’s likely to take the form of the caucus making its policy case to fellow members of Congress and horse trading for deals, or else leveraging the media and outside activists to exert pressure on wayward Democrats.

Former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's landmark Wall Street reform bill was watered down by centrist Democrats on the Finan
Jim Young / Reuters
Former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's landmark Wall Street reform bill was watered down by centrist Democrats on the Financial Services Committee.

The ‘Money’ Committees

Securing seats on the House’s most influential committees, sometimes nicknamed the “money” committees, was a high priority for progressive activists eager to avoid more defeats. The most transformative, long-term priorities championed by progressives must pass through those committees whether it’s a Green New Deal, which would go through Energy and Commerce, or single-payer health care, which would likely be under the jurisdiction of both Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means.

Centrist Democrats, who are more likely to have business backgrounds, have historically had a disproportionate presence on the influential committees. That has made them targets for corporate campaign money, which they are less conflicted about accepting, and put progressives at a disadvantage when it comes to shaping economic policy.

“This election will not mean much if Wall Street’s representatives in the Democratic Party control all of the committees that matter: Ways and Means; Energy and Commerce; and Financial Services,” Lawson said.

But while Jayapal is already touting the CPC’s success in this respect, having secured a formal commitment from Pelosi, the caucus still has its work cut out for it.

The Intercept reported on Wednesday that some veteran progressives are reluctant to volunteer for seats on four of the five committees where progressives are seeking proportional representation, since, under present rules, doing so would require them to vacate other committees where they have burnished a niche or developed seniority.

Members of the Committees on Ways and Means; Energy and Commerce; Financial Services; and Appropriations are barred from serving on a second committee unless they receive a waiver from House leadership. (Members of the governing Rules Committee must also get a waiver to serve on other committees, though that is not a panel that the CPC has prioritized.)

Without such a waiver, Jayapal, an outspoken immigration rights leader would have to leave both the Budget and Judiciary Committees to occupy a seat on one of the four exclusive panels. Her spokesman Vedant Patel declined to make any firm pronouncements about her plans in a follow-up exchange with HuffPost, saying she’d decide closer to the start of the new Congress.

Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), a CPC vice chair, said the success of the effort to secure CPC seats on the “money” committees would likely hinge on Democratic leadership’s willingness to distribute waivers.

The tax and spending-focused Ways and Means Committee might be a natural fit for Khanna, who has introduced legislation with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that would dramatically increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for low- and middle-income families. But he would also strongly prefer to remain on the Armed Services Committee, where he has used his perch to advocate ending U.S. support of the Saudi Arabian war in Yemen. 

Having Barbara Lee in leadership will do a lot to ensure that we see the bold agenda that the progressive movement, black women, and all Americans deserve. Ady Barkan

Waivers are only granted under rare circumstances, some Capitol Hill insiders maintain.

But 37 members of the current Congress have received the requisite permission to serve on more than one committee, including 20 Democrats, according to a list obtained by HuffPost.

A source close to Democratic leadership would not say whether party chiefs are willing to give out more waivers in the interest of meeting a commitment to the CPC. The process of distributing waivers is still weeks away, since freshman lawmakers have yet to receive committee assignments, according to the source.

Freshman Democrats offer another pool of potential recruits to powerful committees. Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, a Justice Democrats-backed firebrand from Detroit, has her sights set on the Appropriations Committee, her chief of staff Ryan Anderson confirmed.

Ocasio-Cortez is reportedly seeking a spot on the Energy and Commerce Committee, according to Democratic sources who spoke to Politico; her spokesman would not confirm her interest.

A spokeswoman for Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) would not say whether she wants to serve on one of the five powerful panels, or if she has a different preference.

A spokesman for Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar (Minn.) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) questions Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Capitol Hill on May 24, 2017.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) questions Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Capitol Hill on May 24, 2017.

House Democratic Leadership And Shaping Policy Priorities

Having diminished the ranks of her would-be challengers, Pelosi is now favored to reprise her reign as House Speaker when Congress reconvenes in January. The CPC’s support for her ascent secured it important political capital at a time when a motley group of moderates is seeking to unseat her, or, in the case of some members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, undermine her power.

Now progressives on and off Capitol Hill have their sights set on other positions in party leadership, which the Democratic caucus will vote on on Wednesday morning. Chief among them is the post of caucus chair, where Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.) is a favored contender. Lee is competing with New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is also in the CPC. But Lee, whose lone vote against the post-September 11 bill authorizing war in Afghanistan sealed her place in the progressive pantheon, is backed by the CPC co-chairs, as well as a host of liberal and women’s groups. She would be the first black woman in the leadership of either party.

Ady Barkan, a progressive activist with ALS who has traversed the country campaigning for Democratic candidates and causes, is spearheading an outside campaign in support of Lee’s bid ― complete with its own website.

“Having Barbara Lee in leadership will do a lot to ensure that we see the bold agenda that the progressive movement, black women, and all Americans deserve,” Barkan said.

In other, lower-profile leadership contests there is an even starker choice between progressive and centrist contenders. Progressive Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.) is facing off against Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), a member of the New Democrat Coalition, for the job of caucus vice chair. And Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), a CPC member, is battling Rep. Terri Sewell (Ala.), another New Democrat, for a leadership spot reserved for newer members of Congress.

Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) walks with a reporter on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2018. Tlaib is seeking a spot on the Hou
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) walks with a reporter on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2018. Tlaib is seeking a spot on the House Appropriations Committee.

The House speaker and his or her deputies dictate the House’s policy agenda, determining what bills committee chairs prioritize and bring to the floor for a vote.

Most Democratic legislative priorities are almost certainly dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate, to say nothing of President Donald Trump’s desk, but they provide an opportunity for the party to present an alternative governing vision to the public.

Democratic leaders have already vowed that the first bill they take up will be a far-reaching suite of anti-corruption and electoral reforms. The legislation has broad support in the Democratic caucus.

Crafting health care policy, however, could test the CPC’s strength within the Democratic caucus. The House is likely to take up legislation empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, which would save the federal government and Medicare beneficiaries hundreds of billions of dollars over a 10-year period.

Progressives hope to pass a bill at least as strong as the legislation introduced by CPC member Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) in July. Doggett’s bill would allow bulk price negotiation but also enable the government to open up patented drugs to competition if it cannot agree on a lower price with a drug maker.

“Doggett’s bill should have every single Democrat on it,” said Khanna, who has introduced an even more aggressive bill aimed at reducing drug prices. “That’s a slam dunk.”

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