The Congressional Progressive Caucus A Time to Stand

Robert Borosage

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus convene today in their first-ever strategy retreat. The meeting will be opened by newly selected co-chairs Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

With 83 members, the CPC is the largest caucus in the Congress. In 2010, while Blue Dogs and New Dem conservative Democrats were getting decimated, progressives suffered relatively few losses – and the CPC emerged as a larger force in a smaller (193-person) but more liberal Democratic caucus.

But as a minority within a House minority, what is the role for the Caucus? Unlike the Senate with its arcane rules that empower minorities of one, in the House of Representatives, the majority rules. It controls the calendar, determines what issues get debated, limits the amendments considered and drives the process. Despite ritual promises of comity, the majority in these polarized times seldom gives much room for the minority to operate.

So what can a faction within that minority do? Traditionally, the Progressive Caucus has tended to operate primarily as a leadership vehicle. Its co-chairs would use it as a platform from which to issue statements. Passionate members with a cause – say opposing the Iraq War – would organize separate caucuses, inside and outside the Progressive Caucus, to speak more collectively. In past years, the CPC released an alternative national budget – highlighting the need for new priorities, investing in social programs with money taken from the Pentagon budget or more progressive taxes.

In the debate over health care, with Democrats in the majority, the CPC had its first truly visible scrape with acting collectively. Almost all of the members joined a pledge to support the public option, and to oppose health care reforms that did not include it. The pledge strengthened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s argument in the often fierce interplay between the White House and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Progressive activists across the country rallied in support of the public option. Arguably, the force of that drive strengthened Pelosi’s hand when she insisted on going through with universal reform after the loss of the Kennedy Senate seat in Massachusetts put the effort at risk. But the CPC was widely criticized on the left when its members gave up on the public option and lined up to help pass the final reforms.

But that was when the Democrats controlled the House. What can the CPC do now, with Democrats in the minority? Here lessons might be learned from the newly prominent Tea Party on the Republican right.

Michelle Bachmann’s “Tea Party” response to the President’s State of the Union was widely panned by the commentariat (who couldn’t figure out why she was looking at the wrong camera), got barely disguised resentment from Republican leaders, and little attention from bleary eyed citizens. But for Bachmann, self-anointed leader of the Tea Party caucus, and for the Tea Party activists, it was further recognition of the importance accorded to an independent force on the Republican right.

It wasn’t that Bachmann had much to say that was different than Rep. Paul Ryan’s official Republican response. She had the savvy to focus on jobs, and to adopt the progressive theme of “making it in America,” while he was warning about impending doom. But both promised to take a meat axe to spending, differing only on how savage the cuts should be. The tea party right doesn’t really believe much differently than the now very conservative Republican congressional party, just more intensely.

Clearly, however, the tea party has been established – and not just by Fox propaganda operation –as a separate force on the right. Bachmann leads a separate congressional caucus. The views of Tea Party spokespeople inside and outside the congress get press attention.

The reasons for this prominence, again beyond the Fox echo chamber which helped to spawn and magnify the “movement,” seem clear. A grasstops-grassroots reaction against Obama turned into a challenge against establishment Republicans, particularly those who dared compromise with Democrats on the Obama recovery act or the Bush bank bailout. That revolt took electoral form in primaries in 2010, where insurgents knocked off establishment choices (most visibly in Senate races in Florida, Delaware, Arkansas and Utah). Sarah Palin provided a media savvy boost to many. The ambitious Bachmann put herself at the head of that parade in the Congress. And now the movement – such as it is – has an independent voice in the national debate.

Are progressives in the Congress prepared to be part of a similar uprising on the left?

The political space is clearly there. The president’s State of the Union put forth a powerful contrast between an argument for investment led growth to “win the future” as opposed to the Republican focus on cut or gut. This is an argument progressives will join, and one worth waging seriously.

But what was striking about the president’s State of the Union address is what was not mentioned. There was no mention of the staggering job crisis we face – the 25 million unemployed or underemployed – and no plan to address that, other than belief in the tax cuts already in place. There was no mention of the continuing housing crisis, with housing prices falling again, over a million more headed into foreclosure, one in four homes still under water – and no plan to address that.
The economy is now reverting to the unsustainable imbalances that helped drive it off the cliff – yet none of these made it into the president’s address. The excessive concentration of wealth and income, with the richest 1% capturing nearly 25% of the nation’s income while the middle class continues to decline, saps the economy. The revival of trade imbalances – we’re still borrowing over $1 billion a day to cover our trade deficits — imperils the recovery. The president wants the US to capture the clean energy industrial revolution, but the Chinese have already applied their mercantilist wiles to capturing solar and windmill production. Yet there is no mention of a different trade strategy for the US. The six largest banks are now more concentrated and bigger than before the collapse, still leveraging the reality that they are too big to fail. The US continues to squander lives and resources in Afghanistan, while the wrong-headed war on terror generates more terrorists than it dispatches. Instead of unpacking America’s costly commitment to policing the world and its “empire of bases,” the president and the Republicans are focused on cutting vital domestic programs while the Pentagon, the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, goes virtually unscathed.

This vacuum offers progressives a popular and compelling platform on which to stand. Acting collectively, the CPC could give voice to excluded alternatives that could be echoed and amplified by the progressive media and blogosphere. Needless to say, progressives have nothing that can rival the force of the right-wing’s propaganda Wurlitzer, but a broad audience of activists and concerned citizens can be reached.

What is required to give this legs? It won’t be action on the House floor, for progressive alternatives will seldom be given the light of day by Republican leaders. Progressives will have to imitate Newt Gingrich, and use “special orders,” speeches at the end of the day on C-Span to gain an audience.

No, the tea party suggests what will give this force. Congressional leaders can’t spark a constituent revolt or create a movement. Are progressives outside the Congress prepared for one? Are they prepared to challenge sitting Democrats and Republicans on their foolish priorities, their distorted agenda that is weakening this country? Are progressive donors and institutions and activists prepared to organize to support progressive challengers in primaries both to take back seats won by Republicans in the last cycle and to challenge conservative Democrats to send a message? Are CPC members prepared to provide the leadership, the visible voices that magnify these efforts?

There is no question that progressives have the resources, the capacity, and the energy to challenge the limits of the current debate. This is a question rather of will and of risk. Are progressives so angry that they will ignore party pressure to unify against Republicans? Are they so outraged that they are prepared to challenge establishment Democrats with the force they could amass if they came together?

By the middle of this year, Democrats will begin coming together in the massive effort to re-elect the president. The Democratic committees will recruit establishment candidates with the proven ability to raise money or self-fund their campaigns. The Blue Dogs and DLC will be out recruiting conservative Democrats. Congressional Democrats will be unified in a pitched battle against truly nutcase Republican proposals.

But that debate will not address areas vital to our future. It will not take on the reforms essential to rebuilding a sustainable economy that works for the many and not just the few. Will the CPC leadership help give voice to that agenda, and galvanize a movement to challenge the limits of that debate? Will outside progressive institutions and activists be prepared to build an uprising that challenges both parties? If not, the populist energy is likely to remain suppressed or captured on the right. American anger and frustration will build, without a sensible outlet.

The imperative is clear. The political vacuum apparent. Congressional leaders can’t create a movement. But they can give voice to an idea. They can, with the help of organizations like ProgessiveCongress.org, reach out to amplify their voice and perspective. They can help recruit and raise resources to support progressive challengers. And they can explore how, if they act together, they can push against the limits of a cribbed debate inadequate to the challenges we face.

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