Originally Published in the Huffington Post

By Daniel Marans


The activist left suffered a major blow on Wednesday when California Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive antiwar icon, lost her bid to lead the House Democratic Caucus.

Notwithstanding Lee’s loss, though, the Congressional Progressive Caucus significantly increased its representation in Democratic leadership.

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 48, who defeated Lee, 72, by 10 votes, is, like Lee, an African-American member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“The fact that Lee, the most liberal person in the caucus, lost the contest for caucus chair by 10 votes should say a lot,” said a progressive House aide who was unauthorized to speak on the record. “And she lost to someone who is in the top one-third most progressive members in terms of his voting record.”

On a number of criteria, Jeffries is simply more moderate than Lee. He is an outspoken proponent of charter schools, which are anathema to both teachers unions and the grassroots left. He delivered a hawkish speech at a New York City rally in solidarity with Israel during its widely-criticized invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014. And during the 2016 presidential primary, he led the charge of Hillary Clinton allies who attacked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for being “missing in action” on issues relevant to the African-American community.

Jeffries’ more cautious brand of liberal politics is matched by a greater dependence on wealthy donors. In the last election cycle, less than 1.4 percent of the contributions Jeffries raised were in increments of less than $200, compared with over 21 percent of Barbara Lee’s campaign haul. 

At the local level, Jeffries is a strident ally of centrist New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and a onetime critic of progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He even reportedly considered challenging de Blasio for re-election in 2017.

“This really seems like a moderate choice,” said New York City-based progressive strategist who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “He has been aligned with Gov. Cuomo and not with the more progressive parts of the New York Democratic Party.” 

By contrast, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, Jeffries’ predecessor as caucus chairman, who lost his primary race due in part to his perceived coziness with big donors, hailed Jeffries’ election.

“I am incredibly proud that a fellow New Yorker and my friend will help lead the Democratic Caucus,” Crowley said. “New York, and the country, are in good hands with Hakeem.”

Later on Wednesday, in a starker ideological battle, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, a CPC member, handily defeated California Rep. Pete Aguilar, a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, to fill the sixth-highest post of caucus vice chair.

In addition, on Thursday, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, another CPC member, defeated Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, a New Democrat, in the race for a new leadership post reserved for junior members of Congress.

Progressives likewise swept elections for seats on the newly expanded House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which oversees messaging on key policy priorities. Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, an authority on antitrust policy, was re-elected to head the panel, while fellow CPC members Matt Cartwright (Pa.), Debbie Dingell (Mich.) and Ted Lieu (Calif.) won contests for supporting seats.

They replace a moderate member, Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), who previously co-chaired the committee with Cicilline. Bustos was elected to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the incoming Congress.

Thanks to those outcomes, the CPC now has made a net pickup of at least five spots in Democratic leadership. In the last Congress, CPC member Linda Sanchez (Calif.) served as caucus vice chair and Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline co-chaired the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. Cicilline was re-elected and will now serve as “chair” ? a superior role over the three 

By contrast, consider the outcome of the Democratic leadership races the last time the Democrats flipped the House in 2006. Not a single CPC member won a seat, moderate Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) defeated outspoken Iraq War critic Jack Murtha, and the famously transactional centrist Rahm Emanuel, then an Illinois congressman, was elected caucus chair. 

Still, Lee’s defeat is a stinging one for the left-leaning activists, organizations and women’s rights groups that flocked behind her candidacy.

Lee, a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is best known for casting the lone congressional vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Although radical at the time, her vote and famous speechaccompanying it are now widely regarded as prophetic: The legislation, putatively meant to authorize the war in Afghanistan, has since become the legally dubious basis for military operations in over 20 countries. 

When Crowley, the outgoing caucus chairman, lost his primary electionto Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezin June, it set off a scramble for his seat in leadership. Soon Sanchez, who had previously bested Lee for the vice chair spot, made clear she would not run to replace Crowley.

Lee was the first to jump in and quickly became a favored contender when she announced her bid for the post, which helps determine what types of legislation come up for a floor vote.

She quickly picked up the backing of the new grassroots powerhouse Indivisible and liberal stalwarts like Democracy for America; civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (Ga.); Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.); activist Ady Barkan; and the women’s rights organizations NARAL Pro-Choice America and Feminist Majority.

For a progressive movement that still faces criticism for the relative racial homogeneity of its most committed partisans, Lee also added welcome diversity. She would have made history as the first black woman in the congressional leadership of either major party.

“Lee is not just a progressive. She’s one of us,” said Murshed Zaheed, a former congressional aide who now leads the progressive consulting firm Strategy and Hustle.

Lee’s loss has echoes of other progressive proxy battles since the 2016 presidential election in which the nascent left wing succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate, but not in installing its champions in sought-after positions of power.

For example, progressive Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison fell shortin his Feb. 2017 bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee, but earned the title of deputy chairman and likely generated political momentum for the presidential nominating reformsthat the central party body adopted in August. 

Of course, there are also still arguments for downplaying the significance of Jeffries’ win for the left. 

Jeffries is not a centrist in the mold of Hoyer, the once and future House majority leader. He is a co-sponsor of the Medicare for all legislation in the House and a passionate proponent of criminal justice reform. 

And Jeffries, who worked as a corporate lawyer prior to his election to Congress in 2012, began his career in public life as an insurgent, unseating veteran state Assemblyman Roger Green in 2000 with a primary challenge from the left.  

Evan Stavisky, a veteran New York Democratic strategist and friend of Jeffries,’ noted that Jeffries is not associated with Brooklyn Democratic machine leaders like borough President Eric Adams.

“Calling him some voice of the establishment is probably not accurate,” Stavisky said. “He’s certainly a progressive.”

Others, like Lee herself, chalked up Jeffries’ appeal to his relative youth ? and the fact that he is male.

But that does not diminish the reality that Jeffries is more of a standard-issue Democrat than Lee. Whatever the reason for Lee’s defeat, it is a lost opportunity for progressive activists who proved incapable of launching one of their own into the fifth-highest House leadership post.

“The moderates still have a lot of strength they’ve built up over the years,” the New York City-based progressive strategist said.

“I don’t think it’s time to despair. It’s still early,” the strategist added. “It’s good for progressives to realize they need to know how the levers of power work in Washington.”

Originally Published in the Huffington Post

By Daniel Marans


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 representationon 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.”

Originally Published in Mother Jones

By Kara Voght


On Monday afternoon, just a block from the White House, a dozen of the country’s most liberal lawmakers gathered in the lobby of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters. The mood was jubilant as Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—introduced 10 new members of the group to the Washington press corps. A throng of reporters had come to see some of the Resistance’s brightest stars, like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, together in the nation’s capital for the first time.

“The press is paying attention to us!” Jayapal said. “I like this!”

Representatives from the progressive groups MoveOn and Indivisible were there, too, eager to celebrate a group of new lawmakers who they view as closely aligned with the the priorities of liberal activists.

The 2018 midterms have transformed the CPC from a caucus Pocan described as once having “weak, skinny arms” into a 90-member behemoth that makes up nearly 40 percent of all House Democratic membership. And there may be more to come—the CPC is floating invitations to a handful of other incoming freshmen who ran on progressive platforms. The House’s largest values-based caucus, which has never really exercised much voting or policy influence, might finally have enough sway to push an ambitious array of legislation that includes immigration reform, Medicare-for-All, and climate action.

One vision of how these new progressives might exercise their influence emerged Tuesday, when Ocasio-Cortez joined members of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-based environmental advocacy group, for a protest outside the office of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to demand that the next Congress address climate change. The display drew comparisons to tactics the tea party movement used to push the House agenda farther right under Republican control.

But the CPC’s leaders have repeatedly rejected that analogy—as well as speculation that they’ll vote as a bloc in an attempt to force their agenda in the way that the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus has done. Still, the CPC’s leaders have spent the past week laying the groundwork for a strategy that includes winning representation on key congressional committees and leveraging the grassroots activism that helped Democrats take over the House in the first place.

“People in DC think we’re the center of the universe, but we’re not—the people who elect us are the center of the universe,” Pocan said. “It’s when you have that kind of activism in the districts, you’re really going to be impactful.”

That’s where the CPC’s allies come in. Among them is Indivisible, the national activist network founded in reaction to President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory that now boasts more than 5,000 chapters. It played a key role in defeating Trump’s efforts to undo Obamacare, and its army of volunteers labored tirelessly to turn red districts blue and blue districts bluer. Their efforts helped deliver roughly 20 new members to the CPC and encouraged Democratic candidates to adopt progressive positions.

Indivisible was on-site at the AFL-CIO headquarters on Monday to help lead trainings for the CPC members. On Tuesday, the group introduced a new guide intended to help its activists go on “offense.” The document explains the points of leverage Democrats will have after winning control one chamber of Congress—specifically, “agenda-setting” powers that will enable House Democrats to put forward legislation that demonstrates the party’s priorities.

“It’s unlikely that the vision of progressive legislation we’re hoping for is going to pass, but there’s a lot we can accomplish during that time,” says Leah Greenberg, a co-founder of Indivisible. “This an opportunity for Democrats to have conversations within the party about what kind of party we’re going to be.”

Greenberg says Indivisible groups will work to apply pressure to members of Congress across the board—including those in the CPC—to garner support for their priorities. CPC leadership will meet with Indivisible, MoveOn, and other progressive partners every few weeks to in an effort to align their agendas and grassroots efforts.

It’s a potentially powerful combination.

“It’s one thing to have a lobby corps in Washington, DC, that represent special interests,” Pocan said. “It’s another thing to actually be able to lobby a member of Congress with their own constituents in large numbers. And that’s something that literally no special interest has, but groups like Indivisible certainly have.”

In addition to the grassroots effort, the CPC wants its size to be reflected across key congressional committees. In a meeting with Jayapal and Pocan late Thursday afternoon, Pelosi committed to shuffling the “seasoned” incumbent CPC members’ current assignments so they are more proportionally represented on powerful congressional panels, such as Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce—the last of which has come under particular scrutiny this week, thanks to Ocasio-Cortez’s climate activism. No names were floated during the meeting with Pelosi, only the fact that the shuffling will occur.

Pelosi also said freshmen members whose personal and professional backgrounds align with those key committees would be considered for plumb assignments. (One might imagine, for example, that Katie Porter, who unseated Republican Mimi Walters in California’s 45thcongressional district, would find herself on Financial Services, given her consumer protection background.)

Critics have suggested that CPC’s size makes it too ideologically diverse to wield real influence. Some have called for paring down the caucus to a core group of 30 or 40 members who move in lockstep, essentially giving them veto power over any legislation Democrats hope to pass without Republican support.

But the CPC leadership dismisses the idea of any purity tests among its members. Its leverage, they argue, comes from its numbers. And while Pocan and Jayapal were encouraged by Thursday’s conversation with Pelosi, they haven’t yet committed to backing her bid for the speakership. It’s possible that by withholding their support, at least for now, they hope to extract additional concessions.