Progressive Caucus Looks to Throw Its Weight Around

Like the House Freedom Caucus does on the right, the liberal group hopes to be more aggressive in voting as a bloc and pushing for plum committee assignments.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaks at rally against a Muslim ban outside the Supreme Court on April 25.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Sept. 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

Anticipating a Democratic takeover of the House and a boost to their own numbers, liberals in the chamber are looking at strengthening the Congressional Progressive Caucus into a more formidable group, capable of leveraging its numbers to affect decision-making.

The discussions are ongoing, but leaders hope to reconstitute the organization and its outside nonprofit into a clearinghouse for progressive thought, research, staffing, and communications. Early talks have included, among other ideas, voting as a bloc in some cases and securing more leadership slots.

The group is also looking at adding more of its members to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which assigns members to other committees, and which in turn could lead to more seats on A-level panels, such as Financial Services, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means.

“Those three, our message gets a little muddled in those [committees],” said CPC Cochairman Raul Grijalva, who is stepping down from the group’s leadership at the end of this term. “The Progressive Caucus as a group, to be effective, has to pick its priorities, No. 1; and No. 2, look at committee assignments; and No. 3, look at Policy and Steering; and No. 4, act in terms of leadership.”

Much of this will be long-term work: The group has set up a pipeline project to hire and mentor diverse liberal staffers with the aim of developing more top-level progressive talent. Elsewhere, Progressive Caucus members Barbara Lee and Katherine Clark are running for the Democratic Caucus chairmanship and vice chairmanship, respectively, which could steer them to advanced leadership positions later. But CPC Co-Chairman Mark Pocan said that may not be enough right now.

“What I’ve said from the very beginning is we’re the largest values-based caucus, and we expect to have several people in the top spots,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is just to make sure we’re well positioned in January to be leading the agenda.”

In sum, the changes are intended to reshape the caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, its 501(c)(3), into an organization that more closely resembles the old Democratic Study Group, a congressional organization founded in 1959 by progressives to counter Southern Democrats and Republicans who had banded together to block civil-rights legislation. The group went on to achieve great legislative and procedural successes through the 1980s, including stripping power from chairmanships and reducing the importance of seniority.

Though it's now largely forgotten, forces as disparate as Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and the House Freedom Caucus can trace their lineage to the Democratic Study Group. The former is a protégé of onetime DSG Chairman Phil Burton. The DSG is the prototype upon which Republicans drew to create the Conservative Opportunity Society and then the Republican Study Committee, which later spawned the Freedom Caucus.

Yet whether Pocan and Rep. Primala Jayapal, who is expected to co-chair the CPC next year, can re-create progressives’ former glory remains to be seen for many of the same reasons the DSG diminished in power in the first place: The divisions between segregationist Democrats and progressives of the 1960s were far greater than the differences among modern Democrats, offering a less-compelling contrast. Meanwhile, the CPC contends for members’ loyalties with other groups, such as the Congressional Black Caucus.

Perhaps most important, a former Progressive Caucus member runs the party in the House. Pelosi is as progressive as nearly anybody in Congress and she is a consummate vote-counter, which make it difficult to outmaneuver her, assuming she retains her post atop the Democratic leadership.

“If it comes down to holding hostage something until we get something, I think there’s going to be a real effort to identify those 20 or 30” members who would be willing, said one progressive member, speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations. “We’ve had those before when we say we’re, as a bloc, going to vote this way, and then you look up and there’s 12 of us, you know? She peels us off.”

Still, Jayapal said she and others are open to the idea of banding together in a stricter way as a group within the CPC, much like the Freedom Caucus does. That idea has been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom progressive members expect to be a force in their ranks next year.

“We already have that. It doesn’t have a name, but there are about 35 to 40 members who vote consistently in a progressive manner on everything,” she said. “There’s no rules about it, so whether or not we want to formalize that, that might happen as we get more members. But ultimately it only matters if you have enough, and so if the numbers aren’t really there, you can formalize all you want, but you’re not going to have the power of the Freedom Caucus.”

Rep. Ted Lieu said, however, that it could be more difficult to achieve unanimity on the Left.

“I think it’s harder for Democrats to do that, because we’re not robots, we vote our conscience,” he said. “When the Progressive Caucus makes a recommendation, I look at it, but I ultimately vote my conscience. It’s just that my conscience is going to be very similar to what other progressive members also think.”

Still, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor who has studied the history of the Democratic Study Group, said such an organization could be useful to progressives more as a generational tool, mentoring new progressives in their mold, rather than fighting with Pelosi about policy nuances.

The group would fail, on the other hand, “if the leadership is simply more effective and doesn’t like them and clamps down,” Zelizer said. “If division becomes more than the added value, … if it becomes a focus of discord when they should be focusing on Republicans.”

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