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For the First Time, the Progressive Caucus Will Have Real Power

New rules will help Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) turn the caucus into a force to be reckoned with.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), the current co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) will lead as the sole chair of the CPC for the 117th Congress. (Photo by Salwan Georges/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), the current co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) will lead as the sole chair of the CPC for the 117th Congress. (Photo by Salwan Georges/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty in the House is shap­ing up to be one of the most pro­gres­sive — and par­ti­san — ever, as mem­bers of the 117th Con­gress assume office Jan­u­ary 3. While some mod­er­ate Dems lost their House seats, the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus (CPC) gained mem­bers, includ­ing Reps. Jamaal Bow­man (N.Y.) and Cori Bush (Mo.), both mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America. 

Yes, Belt­way pun­dits will belly­ache about the death of cross-par­ty comi­ty. But in Con­gress, bipar­ti­san­ship does not serve the inter­ests of the major­i­ty of Democ­rats, espe­cial­ly those who suf­fer the effects of struc­tur­al racism and gen­er­a­tional pover­ty. Look no fur­ther than three ​“crown­ing” bipar­ti­san achieve­ments of the 1990s: the 1994 crime bill, the Wel­fare Reform Act of 1996 and the 1999 repeal of Glass-Stea­gall bank reg­u­la­tion. The lat­ter came home to roost in 2008, enabling the finan­cial cri­sis. The George W. Bush administration’s sub­se­quent $700 bil­lion bank bailout res­cued Wall Street but did noth­ing for the 10 mil­lion fam­i­lies who lost their homes. 

Fast for­ward 12 years and we are again head­ed toward eco­nom­ic cat­a­stro­phe. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and the expi­ra­tion of pan­dem­ic-relat­ed unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits will move 14 mil­lion Amer­i­cans one step clos­er to deep pover­ty and home­less­ness. This lev­el of eco­nom­ic des­ti­tu­tion has not been seen since the 1930s. 

One dif­fer­ence between the Covid-19 Reces­sion and the 2008 Great Reces­sion is that pro­gres­sives in Con­gress have since got­ten their act togeth­er. The CPC has restruc­tured itself (start­ing Jan­u­ary 3) into a dis­ci­plined, small‑d demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal oper­a­tion that will push pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion on the inside while help­ing raise a ruckus on the outside. 

Under new rules approved in Novem­ber 2020, the CPC will no longer be led by two co-chairs. For the 117th Con­gress, Rep. Prami­la Jaya­pal (Wash.) will lead. Anoth­er change requires mem­bers to vote as a bloc on issues sup­port­ed by two-thirds of the cau­cus. Should a mem­ber fail to adhere to this rule at least 66% of the time, they could face expul­sion. In addi­tion, mem­bers must attend CPC meet­ings and respond to requests from the cau­cus whip (cur­rent­ly Minnesota’s Rep. Ilhan Omar) about where they stand on issues. 

If some CPC mem­bers find the new rules unac­cept­able, no sweat. Jaya­pal made clear she ​“would rather have peo­ple who are real­ly com­mit­ted to the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus in the cau­cus and par­tic­i­pat­ing rather than sort of just hav­ing it as a label.” 

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Bow­man greet­ed news of the reforms with a tweet: ​“Ready to flex our mus­cle and join the era of col­lec­tive pro­gres­sive power.” 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has restructured itself into a disciplined, small-d democratic political operation.

Jaya­pal, who entered Con­gress in 2016 (after a 20-year career as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er), admits in an inter­view with Seattle’s alter­na­tive week­ly, The Stranger, that it will become all but impos­si­ble to pass pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion should Repub­li­cans con­trol the Sen­ate. ​“Then we have to use an inside/​outside strat­e­gy like the one I was part of when we got Oba­ma to agree to [the Dream Act],” Jaya­pal says. ​“We may have to be the wind behind the sails that helps Joe Biden and Kamala Har­ris deliv­er change through exec­u­tive action, if we can’t do it legislatively.”

Because the Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty in the House is so slim — just 13 seats — a unit­ed CPC could even extract the con­ces­sions from House lead­er­ship so des­per­ate­ly need­ed right now: evic­tion mora­to­ri­ums, stu­dent debt relief, unem­ploy­ment assistance.

These types of poli­cies are anath­e­ma to par­ty cen­trists, who appar­ent­ly would rather cap­tain a sink­ing ship than sur­ren­der any con­trol to par­ti­sans in steer­age. But pro­vid­ing actu­al eco­nom­ic relief is essen­tial to pre­vent Demo­c­ra­t­ic loss­es in the midterms and 2024. Move­ment-backed Democ­rats must be dis­ci­plined and orga­nized in work­ing with the new pres­i­dent, who inher­its a crisis.

Oth­er­wise, a ship­wreck is imminent.

Joel Blei­fuss

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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