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The New Progressive Caucus Is Ready to Hold Feet to the Fire

An end-of-year conversation with the leaders of the far left section of Congress

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc.

AP/REX/Shutterstock, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP

WASHINGTON — Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), the new leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, often get asked the same question: “Are you going to be the Tea Party of the left?”

No, they say during a recent interview with Rolling Stone, and here’s why: the Tea Partiers and the far-right Freedom Caucus, which peaked in popularity near the end of the Obama administration, mostly succeeded at killing legislation, forcing moderate Republicans into early retirement and derailing the work of Congress. The Progressive Caucus, on the other hand, has a different mission: Make sure the newly empowered Democrats, from Nancy Pelosi to the lowest-ranking freshmen, act on the promises and ambitious policies that got them elected. “Our job is to convince [members] why these aspirational ideas are really what people want and why people voted for us on November 6th,” Pocan tells Rolling Stone.

Beginning January 3rd, the Progressive Caucus, which represents the left-most flank in the House of Representatives, will have between 90 and 95 members — the most ever. That’s about 40 percent of all House Democrats. Thirteen committee chairs and roughly 30 subcommittee chairs will likely be filled by Progressive Caucus members. The caucus should have more influence in the 116th Congress than at any other point in its 27-year history.

And never has the Progressive Caucus been as diverse as it is now. Two years ago, Jayapal became the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress, and 2018 saw the election of the first Muslim-American women, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, not to mention dozens of new young men and women of color. At a recent caucus meeting, Jayapal recalls, one of the few straight white male members told the room, “I’m just so honored to be here representing the minority.”

“This is the most progressive caucus we’ve ever had, and you see it reflected in all these different ways,” Jayapal says. “We need to make sure we’re delivering on that. Otherwise, we will have a lot of people step back again from the Democratic Party.”

The CPC, as it’s known, began more as a social club for lefty members of Congress. When Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) became co-chair in 2011, the caucus began to take on a more active role in progressive politics writ large, Pocan says, connecting different grassroots groups directly to members of Congress. But it wasn’t until recently that the Progressive Caucus — not typically seen as a source of real political muscle within the Democratic Party — started to look more like a political operation to be reckoned with.

Last month, Jayapal withheld her support for Pelosi’s bid for House speaker until she and Pocan had extracted concessions that would give Progressive Caucus members seats on the so-called “A committees”: Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Intelligence. For the 2018 midterms, Pocan and Jayapal raised a record $1.8 million for the caucus’ political action committee — a sixfold increase from 2016. That money went toward polling on issues like Medicare-for-all, recruiting progressive candidates and winning elections. (Pocan is hoping to surpass $2 million in 2020.) And under Jayapal and Pocan’s watch, progressive Democrats this fall launched a new affiliated outside group, the CPC Center, which will build on the CPC’s work and hire up to 15 full-time staff and fellows to serve as a hub for strategy, organizing, research and messaging for House progressives. “Otherwise, everyone is just going to the K Street lobbyists, because they’re ubiquitous and they’re right outside the door waiting to give you that information,” Jayapal says.

Jayapal, who spent nearly two decades as an immigration-rights organizer before winning her seat in 2016, says she came to Washington looking for ways to organize within the government. Borrowing from one of the popular new rallying cries on the left, Jayapal calls the revamped Progressive Caucus the intersection between the Indivisibles, MoveOns and other activist groups on the ground, the liberal think tanks doing the research and legislators on the inside. “As we try to move Medicare-for-all, foreign policy and other critical priorities, we will have this real body of research that’s already been done,” she says, “but also the power of the progressive movement across the country that helped win us these victories.”

Jayapal and Pocan rattled off a slew of policy goals for the upcoming Congress. Many of those will be found in the People’s Budget, an annual blueprint of sorts for the priorities of the Progressive Caucus. Last year’s People’s Budget called for $2 trillion in new infrastructure investments, a $100 billion investment in increasing access to high-speed Internet in underserved areas, $1 trillion for early-childhood learning and childcare programs and heavy investments in clean energy, all to be funded by ending corporate tax loopholes and rewriting the tax code to have “fair tax rates for all Americans.”

Jayapal and Pocan tell Rolling Stone that this year’s People’s Budget will be no less ambitious. They zero in on Medicare-for-all and are pushing their fellow Democrats to embrace the policy given the wide support it enjoys, with polls conducted by Reuters and the Kaiser Family Foundation showing support in the 60- to 70-percent range. They plug the so-called Green New Deal, which would put people to work in the places where they live building the clean-energy economy needed to transition off fossil fuels and fight climate change.

Other issues they raise include support for medical marijuana and opening up the banking industry for the burgeoning cannabis industry; antitrust and regulating the big tech companies; and figuring out what a progressive foreign policy looks like. “Let’s talk about the military budget, the Pentagon, fraud, accountability,” she says, “all of those things that have been swept under the rug, even by Democrats in the past.”

Many of these policies — Medicare-for-all, for instance — stand little chance of passage in a Senate run by Republicans and their corporate-bought overlord, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But Jayapal and Pocan believe there could be bipartisan cooperation between the House and Senate on liberal priorities such as finally passing the DREAM Act and criminal justice reform. And the Progressive Caucus, its two co-chairs insist, is ready to work with Republicans when the opportunity presents itself. Jayapal name-checks Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), dubbed the “Trumpiest congressman in Trump’s Washington,” as a potential collaborator. “For everything I disagree with him on,” she says, “Matt Gaetz on medical marijuana is fantastic.”

The real targets of the Progressive Caucus, Jayapal and Pocan contend, are the moderate and pro-corporate Democrats who may resist policies like cutting the bloated Defense Department budget or giving workers more rights in the form of collective bargaining. Pocan remembers a meeting with the moderate New Democrats and the centrist Blue Dogs about the top issues Democrats should run on in 2018.

“We all agreed, and then one of the other people — I won’t say who it was — said, ‘Well, let’s take it to the more vulnerable members and see what they think,'” he says. “Let’s face it: there are members who are very risk-adverse or very willing not to do something even though we know that their constituents support it,” Pocan says. “Our challenge is to convince members that their constituents actually support all of these ideas.”

That also means bucking the party leadership if necessary. Pocan says senior Democrats resisted an idea that came out of the Progressive Caucus to hold town halls in Republican-held districts where the incumbent hadn’t held a town hall in months, sometimes years. Adopt-a-District was a hit, and the leadership quickly got on board, he says.

And if Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are trying to push through a deal that isn’t sufficiently progressive, Jayapal and Pocan say they will leverage their numbers — Jayapal envisions a solid bloc of 40 to 45 members — to kill the deal. “Whatever the issue is, our members will be helping to make those arguments at the table where those decisions are being made,” Jayapal says. “If politics is the art of the possible, then it’s our job to push the limits of what is seen as possible.”

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