Can The Progressive Caucus Save The Democratic Party From Itself?

Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin are the co-founders and co-executive directors of Indivisible. This morning they wrote an OpEd for Roll Call, House progressives are building something new, exciting, and powerful, asserting that "the Congressional Progressive Caucus will be a legislative force to be reckoned with in the 117th Congress."

They began by explaining that when they were Capitol Hill staffers more than a decade ago, the Congressional Progressive Caucus had lots of members, "but not much power" and then assured us that "Times have changed. As a result of both successful Democratic primaries and proactive power-building by progressive incumbents over the past four years, a reformed and strengthened CPC is now poised to make progressives a more powerful force within the House than at any time in modern American history."

These are the pre-election members. Two fake-progressives, New Dems Gil Cisneros and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell were defeated for reelection; two retired-- Dave Loebsack (IA), José Serrano (NY)-- and one will be replaced by a progressive and one by a conservative; one corrupt waste of a seat, Lacy Clay, lost his re-election bid to a super-progressive, Cori Bush, in the primary; and two didn't run for their seats-- Joe Kennedy III and quasi-progressive, Tulsi Gabbard, whose seats are are being being taken over by Jake Auchincloss, not really a progressive and Kai Kahele, a solid progressive.

Several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus aren't progressives at all. There are 11 with "F" scores from ProgressivePunch-- not Bs, or Cs or even Ds-- Fs like Blue Dogs and Republicans. Fortunately, three won't be in the House next year. These are the CPC members with F grades, almost all of whom are New Dems and vote with the New Dems, not with the progressives:

Brendan Boyle (New Dem-PA)

Angie Craig (New Dem-MN)

Tulsi Gabbard (HI)

Steven Horsford (New Dem-NV)

Andy Kim (NJ)

Dave Loebsack (IA)

Joe Morelle (New Dem-NY)

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (New Dem-FL)

Donald Norcross (New Dem-NJ)

Jimmy Panetta (New Dem-CA)

Adam Smith (New Dem-WA)

Greenberg and Levin are more optimistic than I am and noted that many of the newly-elected freshmen include "progressive insurgents like Marie Newman, Cori Bush, Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman. Combined with Pramila Jayapal, the CPC’s current co-chair, and her deep bench of committed progressives like Ro Khanna and Lloyd Doggett, the squad has become a platoon on the way to a battalion. It’s not just votes though, it’s how you organize those votes. For years, the CPC has grown in size, but membership has traditionally required little of its members. No more. Just last week, the CPC passed game-changing reforms to its own caucus rules. These rule changes will empower the CPC to organize itself to negotiate and vote as a single bloc on specific legislation to secure progressive improvements or remove dangerous provisions. With just a slim margin in the House, Democratic leadership will need the votes of progressives to pass legislation. The CPC now has the opportunity to use this leverage to ensure bills include progressive priorities."

I'm sure the Blue Dogs and New Dems are thinking the same way-- bending Democratic leadership to their will by threatening to withhold votes. It sounds like a formula for gridlock and failure. Still, if there's anyone in Congress who can navigate these shoals, it's CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal. A couple of weeks ago, she told me that from the minute she got into Congress 4 years ago, "I was committed to running a year-round organizing effort through my campaign. What does that mean? It means instead of just having a fundraiser (or many of them) on the campaign side, I hired an organizer-- and depending on the time of year, several. We kept our thousands of volunteers engaged, not just on our race but on critical issues in the country, on ballot initiatives and on other critical races. I believe that is a big part of why we have such huge turnout here in the district-- because people stay engaged, they see me fighting for them all the time, and they have come to believe they can make a difference through their votes and their volunteering. That’s how we turned out the largest crowd for our healthcare rally in early 2017 when Republicans were gutting healthcare. Our volunteers played an important part in turnout for statewide ballot initiative on climate change and police accountability. They worked on Stacey Abrams' race in Georgia and on other swing district races across the country, like Katie Porter’s. And this year, in just 6 weeks, we trained over 600 volunteers who made over 140,000 phone calls into Pennsylvania and here in Washington state to turn out voters for Biden-Harris and other progressive candidates. When people donate to my campaign, they don’t just donate to keeping me in office-- they donate to the organizing we do all year to build leadership, to keep people engaged and to help drive the movement for progressive policies and candidates across the country."

Greenberg and Levin warned that "Conservatives have long been at this game. We’ve seen the consequences when progressives are not willing to wield the collective power of their votes. Over and over again, House Democratic leadership has asked progressives to compromise their values to pass bills that have been watered down or contain trade-offs designed to satisfy the most conservative members of the Democratic Caucus. The reality is that those conservative members have been better organized and more willing to make clear demands backed up by their votes. With this newly organized and empowered CPC, progressives have cards to play in all future legislating during the Biden era-- cards they just haven’t had during the Trump era. Organizing for more progressive power in the House means claiming a seat at the table and advancing the Democratic agenda. Progressives are interested in engaging in good faith to craft amendments, raise concerns about harmful concessions and do the work of legislating to pass the boldest possible bills out of the House. An ideal legislative process would incorporate their contributions early on, strengthening the underlying bill and making it more responsive to constituents’ needs. The voting bloc only becomes necessary in the event that progressive voices are shut out of the process and good faith concerns are not given a fair hearing. Progressives want to govern, and the voting bloc guarantees they are included in the governing process." ... Will there be fights? Of course, there will-- it’s Congress. Strategic use of the voting bloc will empower progressives to hold their own during those fights. Being strategic will mean pushing for policies that are popular and have a viable path to overcoming opposition, and clearly communicating the stakes of those conflicts to the public. With the new CPC, House progressives are heading into the post-Trump era with a few more cards to play."

He denies it, but the former co-chair, Mark Pocan (D-WI) was turning the CPC into a protection racket for conservative Democrats in need of a patina of "progressivism" back home. Bu paying the annual dues, Pocan offered membership to overtly anti-progressive members of Congress like Donald Norcross (NJ), Adam Smith (WA), Jimmy Panetta (CA), Darren Soto (FL), Joe Morelle (NY), etc. In some cases, Pocan undermined progressives primarying these pretend-progressives. With him now trying to run for the Senate and leaving the CPC co-chair, this self-destructive behavior will end and the CPC will start excluding conservatives from its membership.

There are only 4 uncalled congressional races left (CA-21, CA-25, IA-01 and NY-22). There are no progressives involved in any of them and Republicans are leading in all of them anyway. The races represent a combined DCCC/House Majority PAC investment of $29.5 million and the losses will leave the Democrats with a slim 222-213 majority in the House. That means committee work is going to be what one member described to me as "hellish." Aside from the Rules Committee and the Ethics Committee, the Democrats will have a one-vote majority on every committee, meaning that New Dems and Blue Dogs, who frequently vote with the Republicans, will hasten re-branding the Democratic Party as a center-right party, especially as the GOP cements its own brand as far right or fascist.

But the first opportunity for the CPC to flex some muscles will come with the Speaker election. The House follows tradition in requiring that the Speaker get 218 votes. It can adopt a rule that provides differently-- under the Constitution, it can adopt any rules it wants. Pelosi probably can't get 218 votes (out of 222) and she is going to have to force a rule change that will allow a binding runoff vote between the two top candidates in the first vote. Last time, five Members didn’t vote, and eight Democrats voted for someone other than her.

There are an awful lot of Members who have gotten used to not showing up during the pandemic, and I don’t think that you can vote remotely in the Speaker election. A certain number, mostly Republicans, have COVID and will not be able to vote.

I'd trust Pramila to make a deal with Pelosi but, if I remember correctly, the last deal included a promise to vote on Medicare-for-All, which never happened. It's time for the CPC to bring Pelosi down and get rid of her once and for all. She's a terrible drag on the House Democrats and it's time to move on-- without her (and her leadership team). The 2022 midterms can't be won with her as Speaker in the 117 Congress.

Let me quote Pharyngula at "[P]rogressive Democratic policies are winners. Voters prefer them when they are not labeled as Democratic policies, because what the voters really dislike (reinforced by conservative media) is the Democratic Party. Maybe if the party actually embraced what they ought to be, a green/labor party, rather than working so hard at being a centrist/corporate party, they’d have more authenticity and earn more trust."

AOC and Pramila by Nancy Ohanian