By Joan Walsh
Pramila Jayapal was speed-walking through the Longworth House office building early on January 3, aiming to visit as many of the Democratic women newly elected to the House of Representatives as possible before the end of the day. It wasn’t going to be easy, since there were 35 of them—and even more progressive activists lining the hallways hoping for a chance to talk with her.
“I love your new bill!” one young man called out to Jayapal, referring to the Medicare for All legislation she’s still drafting. Five minutes later, two California Indivisible activists flagged her down, promising to keep their new representatives on board the Medicare for All train. Jayapal, the representative for the Seventh District in Washington State and the new co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), stopped for a quick huddle with them and shared a secret: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was supporting holding hearings on the bill, which was first proposed by former Michigan congressman John Conyers back in 2003.
In the offices of New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, one of two Native American women elected to the House in November, Jayapal was whisked past the well-wishers to hug the new congresswoman, whom she had endorsed early in the campaign. Haaland’s family members, dressed in Pueblo of Laguna traditional clothing, posed for pictures with Jayapal, an Indian-American activist and organizer who was elected to Congress just two years earlier. It was only the first of the many times that I found myself (unprofessionally) teary-eyed at the history being made around me that day.
It was a glorious morning, but there was already trouble in paradise: Two members of Jayapal’s caucus—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected insurgent representing parts of Queens and the Bronx, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Ro Khanna, had come out against a new House rules package because it included a provision known as “pay-go,” which requires the House to cut spending or hike taxes to “pay” for any new programs. Pay-go has become a powerful symbol of the hold that austerity politics has on both parties, though it ultimately has no force; the House can waive the provision at any time, and has in the past. Jayapal and her CPC co-chair, Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan, had decided to support the rules package after getting major concessions from the Democratic House leadership, including hearings on Medicare for All and a promise to waive pay-go when considering that and other progressive priorities. But that wasn’t enough for Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna, who, along with Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, voted against the package. In Jayapal’s office, her staff assistant, besieged by people angry at the Seattle progressive’s compromise, politely kept telling callers, “Please stop yelling at me!”
The normally upbeat Jayapal was a little peeved: “Strategically, it is not the fight we should have picked—well, it’s not the fight we did pick, actually!” What should have been a banner day for House progressives—as of press time, the CPC reports that it has at least 90 members, and Jayapal and Pocan had negotiated new power for the group—was overshadowed by headlines trumpeting progressive infighting. But not for long: The next day, Jayapal introduced legislation to repeal the pay-go provision. After some scuffling behind the scenes, the pay-go dissenters co-sponsored Jayapal’s bill and seemingly put the trouble behind them.
The skirmish was a window into Jayapal’s new opportunities and headaches, leading a caucus that makes up approximately 40 percent of House Democrats and includes a remarkable number of popular, high-profile, left-leaning female first-termers—not just Ocasio-Cortez, but Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, California’s Katie Porter, and others. Jayapal herself has a long history of protest, at times against her own party—while campaigning for her state senate seat, she joined a hunger strike opposing President Obama’s deportation policies—and that gives her a high tolerance for the more radical members of the class of 2019. But now that Democrats have a House majority, they have an opportunity to craft a progressive agenda that can pass at least one chamber of Congress and show Americans what Democratic governance could mean come 2020. That will require big ideas and insurgent boldness, but also diligence, even discipline. Jayapal now finds herself in the less familiar role of institutionalist, helping a new wave of rebels—many of them women—to understand how to get things done in a system largely designed by and for conservative white men. Does that role surprise her a little?
“Yes!” she laughs.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is now in a strong position, having scored important new committee assignments in its high-stakes negotiations with Pelosi. (After Pelosi’s concessions, Jayapal and Pocan endorsed her return to the speakership.) Pocan credits Jayapal with leveraging their political capital to win CPC members more seats on the most important House committees, including Appropriations, Ways and Means, Intelligence, Energy, Commerce, and Financial Services.
As Pocan observes, “She’s always willing to push harder—to say to the speaker, ‘Hey, we’re 40 percent of the [Democratic] Caucus; we deserve 40 percent of the seats on the powerful committees.’” Pocan has been raising money for the CPC’s policy center, and he jokes, “I’m a lower-income guy from Kenosha; I’d never ask for the kind of money Pramila would ask for. But she’s always able to close the deal and get it done.” MoveOn’s Washington director, Ben Wikler, says Jayapal’s negotiation with Pelosi “was a brilliant demonstration of her inside/outside game,” noting that MoveOn, Indivisible, and activist Ady Barkan had likewise withheld their endorsements of Pelosi until Jayapal and Pocan announced their deal.
“We don’t want a Freedom Caucus of the left,” says Robert Cruickshank, campaign director for the activist group Demand Progress, referring to the nihilistic GOP wingnuts who made former speaker Paul Ryan’s House majority dysfunctional. “We want a caucus that can go to leadership and say, ‘We have 98 votes. If you want to get something done, you need our support; here’s what we need in exchange, and let’s get it done.’ The deals Pramila negotiated during the transition in the House put the CPC on the path toward being the power brokers—and using that power to advance a progressive agenda without grinding everything to a halt.”
It’s remarkable that Jayapal, who came to the United States from India at 16, was able to grab a leadership spot in her first term in Congress. But she never really thought of herself as a “freshman,” having spent almost 15 years as an organizer, mainly on immigrant rights, after a brief stint in the private sector and a partial term in the Washington state senate. (She left to run for Congress.) Jayapal was an early Bernie Sanders supporter, but she endorsed Hillary Clinton after the primaries and worked hard for her election. She expected to go to Congress and be a force pulling President Clinton to the left. Instead, she became one of only seven House members to object to certifying the Electoral College results that gave us President Trump.