House Progressives Are Facing an Unexpected Problem in the Quest for Committee Power

Progressive generals are finally ready to lead in the House. But there are no troops following.

WASHINGTON, DC - On the US Capitol east front plaza 116th Congressional freshman Representatives walk down the east-front stairs for the Member-Elect class photo on the Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday November 14, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The 116th congressional freshman representatives walk down the east-front stairs for the member-elect class photo in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14, 2018. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After a wildly successful election for House Democrats, progressives in Congress did something relatively novel: They tried to wield power.

Last week, the heads of the Congressional Progressive Caucus won a major concession from Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, but it’s now an open question whether they’ll have the foot soldiers to complete the mission.

The particular play the CPC is making will have a dual end result, if successful. First, it will build progressive power within the House caucus, which is currently in scarce supply. And it will throw a wrench into the gears of the money-and-politics machinery of Washington, by making it more difficult for corporate-friendly Democrats to do legislative favors for lobbyists.

Taking advantage of Pelosi’s need for votes to return as House speaker, the CPC’s honchos, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, secured a commitment that at least 40 percent of Democrats on five key committees would be members of the CPC. This would give the caucus a greater ability to impact critical legislation, which runs through those committees and helps prepare the ground for a time when a Democratic president is in place to sign those bills.

It would also deprive members of the centrist Blue Dog or New Democrat coalitions access to the seats, along with the campaign contributions that can come with them. The key panels in question are Intelligence, Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, Financial Services, and Appropriations.

But finding enough progressives to sit on those committees has thus far proven difficult, The Intercept has learned. CPC members who already have committee assignments of their own on less powerful committees are reluctant to switch, as they would lose the seniority they’ve built up over the years. Separately, they worry about the jockeying that would be required on the new committees, which would put them in confrontations with centrist members that many would rather avoid for internal political reasons. Broadly speaking, incoming progressives are not traditionally captivated by the notion of slogging it out on the “money committees,” as they are sometimes known on Capitol Hill.

In the past, progressives have ceded these committees to New Dems and Blue Dogs, who have long understood their importance, both for setting the direction of policy and earning access to corporate donors. “Progressives come to Congress to change the world, and New Dems come to Congress to get on the Ways and Means Committee,” said Alex Lawson of Social Security Works, who has spent months on an inside-outside effort to increase progressive committee representation. (The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over tax policy.)

As the jockeying for committee assignments unfolds, other fights have taken on importance, like stopping Pelosi from putting in House rules that limit spending without revenue offsets and bar increases in taxes on 80 percent of low-income earners. But committee assignments have been foregrounded as an achievable and critical goal for the future of progressive politics.

And yet, it’s a precarious situation for the CPC. Several key retirements and the blue wave adding between 38 and 40 House Democrats has led to an unprecedented number of open slots on the money committees. The unsettled race for speaker provides a unique opportunity for influence. But if progressives cannot find the warm bodies willing to fill committee slots, they’ll have put their reputation on the line in a bid for power, without being able to follow through.

Last week’s meeting between Pelosi, Pocan, and Jayapal, which led to the committee deal, was months in the making. As Democratic success in the midterms looked more likely, labor unions and progressive groups strategized over how to build power in the House. Committee assignments were an obvious target.

The CPC currently has 77 House members, with two additional members, Brad Sherman and Jimmy Panetta of California, joining since the elections. The caucus expects around 20 more to join for the next Congress, meaning that it will comprise roughly 40 percent of the entire Democratic caucus.

Yet on the committees that control most domestic policy, progressives are more scarce. Currently, CPC members hold 27 percent of the seats on the House Financial Services Committee, 28 percent on the Energy and Commerce Committee, 31 percent on Ways and Means, and 36 percent on Appropriations. On the Intelligence Committee, it’s even worse: Just one of the nine Democrats on the panel, Andre Carson of Indiana, is a CPC member.

The underrepresentation can handcuff progressive priorities. Incoming member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has pushed strongly for a select committee on climate change, but any legislation on a “Green New Deal” will ultimately get reviewed by the Energy and Commerce Committee, and if it includes revenues, the Ways and Means Committee will have a look at it too. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., just wrote a new bill with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to force competition for patented prescription drug monopolies if prices are too high. But he’s not on the committees — Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means — that would have jurisdiction over such legislation. Instead, for instance, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, regarded as one of the most pharma-friendly Democrats in Congress, chairs the health subcommittee on Energy and Commerce that could bottle the bill up.

“Medicare for All” would need to go through those two committees as well. Legislation to fix America’s affordable housing crisis would go through the Financial Services Committee. And any new programs would have to be designated funding through the Appropriations Committees. Practically nothing with a major impact can avoid one of these four committees.

That’s what makes them magnets for corporate lobbyists, seeking to curry favor with members. Corporations spend heavily to get their way onto these committees. But this year, scores of incoming Democrats took a pledge to reject corporate PAC donations, and sitting members are getting pressured to join in that promise as well. Candidates managed to raise millions of dollars in grassroots donations, avoid corporate money, and win.

Where they will land in Congress is an open question, however. The money committees can seem intimidating to incoming members who don’t have specific technical expertise. They might even seem boring; the minutiae of tax policy or overnight repo lending does not typically animate people to get into politics. “There’s a self-selecting that has happened,” said Lawson. “This is the progressive committee, and they’ll work together. And this is the New Dem one.”

In particular, the House Judiciary Committee has become packed with progressives, who hold over three-quarters of the seats. That makes it easier for progressives to get important things done on justice-related issues, but harder to broadly affect policy in all areas. “A lot of the things we’re worried about, we can fix with better representation,” said Mike Darner, executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Because Pelosi needs near-unanimous support to get the necessary votes for speaker, progressives were in a novel position to dictate terms. Committee assignments became the main ask, and once Pelosi agreed in principle to 40 percent representation, CPC leaders endorsed her for speaker. But getting this win and implementing it are two very different things.

Rebalancing the committees may sound simple. But it’s the equivalent of putting together a seating chart for a giant wedding, if there were all sorts of arcane and unwritten rules on who can sit next to whom.

For example, Democrats have historically sought regional diversity on the committees. Lawson relayed one example. “I was in a meeting, and someone said ‘New York City has to get a seat on Ways and Means no matter what.’ I had no idea.”

The committees the CPC has targeted are all “A” committees, which are exclusive: Members cannot be on more than one. Staying on a committee like Judiciary while getting onto another “A” committee requires a special waiver from leadership, which is such a rare occurrence that most members consider it impossible to obtain. Similarly, freshmen are generally forbidden from the Ways and Means Committee, though the number of seats available — as many as 10 — could render that inoperative this cycle.

If progressives can make it through that Jenga game and come up with a plan, they have to find members willing to switch committees. Power at the committee level relies on the seniority system; senior members get the plum subcommittee chairs and put themselves in line to take over the committee. There’s an understandable reluctance to give that up or to start from scratch deep into a career. While the conventional wisdom on the Hill holds that it’s hard to get on the A-list committees, it may be even harder to get a member to say yes to that assignment if it means giving up seniority on their current committee.

“We fully acknowledge it as a sacrifice,” Lawson said. “We say that we know it’s hard for you. We’re going to recognize you’re doing it for the movement and hold you up as a champion.”

Reluctance to switch isn’t a problem limited to one side of the aisle; Republicans have found it difficult to get a female senator to move onto the Judiciary Committee, avoiding the embarrassing spectacle of an all-male panel doing the questioning in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. But in this case, progressives’ resistance to filling out the committee rosters has real policy implications. And there’s an odd code of silence around committees; not only does it rarely play out in public, but it’s almost considered impolite to push internally for an assignment.

You’ll be shocked to know that committee assignments also come with some politics. State delegations feel compelled to spread members across numerous committees for parochial reasons, even if that means losing progressive representation. Members with designs on future leadership roles don’t want to mess with the committee assignments of colleagues who may be willing to vote for them. On the committees themselves, the ranking Democrat plays a role in blessing new entrants, though that role can vary depending on the committee. Having a member on the committee as an internal champion, like a sponsor, is important.

Perhaps nowhere else have these dynamics played out more in recent years than the House Financial Services Committee.

After the financial crisis of 2008, Democrats had a top priority of re-regulating the financial system. However, after successive waves in 2006 and 2008, freshmen and sophomore Blue Dogs and New Democrats took over the lower rungs of the Financial Services Committee, placed there by leadership to help them hoover up campaign donations from Wall Street. The size of the committee was even expanded so that 11 freshman representatives from conservative-leaning districts, designated as “frontline” members, could be given precious spots on the committee. From that perch, they raised on average twice as much as the typical House Democrat, using the committee as an ATM.

It’s not just New Dems, though. Nearly all CPC members still take corporate PAC money, which risks a situation in which progressives are giving cover to bad — rather than helping write good — legislation.

This ecosystem frustrated progressive goals for Wall Street reform. Conservative Democrats weakened Dodd-Frank at the committee level, like when they voted for a Republican amendment to exempt auto deals of oversight from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, at the time a senior member of the committee who is retiring this year, referred to the frontline members as “the unreliable bottom row.” (The committee room is an amphitheater, with more senior members sitting higher up.)  

This year, because of the departures of five members, and elections of many more new ones, as many as a dozen seats might need to be filled. Maxine Waters, a CPC member, will take over the gavel in January, and she has expressed a desire to go after President Donald Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank, as well as the continual malfeasance at Wells Fargo, as part of the committee’s oversight duties.

But New Dems currently have four more seats on Financial Services than progressive caucus members have. This year, when Congress passed a bank deregulation bill, 27 of the 33 Democrats who supported it were New Democrats. And they’re already pushing back on Waters’s agenda. “The American people … will bridle at investigations that seem overtly political,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., to Politico. Himes is both a former Goldman Sachs banker and the chair of the New Democrat Coalition.

These tensions between progressives and moderates have played out behind the scenes as well: At a meeting attended by numerous committee oversight staff members, the strategy was set for “measured, discreet, and narrowly focused” investigations, without public disclosure of the probes before findings are in hand. A source inside the room relayed the information to The Intercept.

New Democrats are not as reticent about joining the committee, fully aware of its power. Josh Gottheimer, a New Democrat from New Jersey, has been recruiting several ideological allies to join the panel, according to numerous sources who preferred to remain anonymous, as they are not authorized to speak publicly about committee politics. Gottheimer won a congressional seat in 2016 and immediately got on the Financial Services Committee. He received nearly $1 million in donations from the securities and investment banking industries during the 2018 cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.  

A source with knowledge of the situation told The Intercept that Gottheimer was approached by a member of the New Jersey delegation with a more progressive profile, asking if Gottheimer would sponsor the lawmaker for the committee. Gottheimer, according to the source, told the lawmaker that they weren’t wanted on the committee. Gottheimer denied it. “I’ll tell you on the record, that’s not a conversation I’ve had; your story is completely fabricated. I’d love to have another Member of the New Jersey delegation on Financial Services — that would be great for New Jersey,” he said.

By contrast, the progressive organizing around the committee has been tepid. A coalition of unions and progressive groups called Take on Wall Street publicly listed five potential incoming freshmen that would be pro-regulatory voices on the committee: Katie Porter and Katie Hill of California, Colin Allred of Texas, Jason Crow of Colorado, and Andy Kim of New Jersey.

But the list left many progressives scratching their heads. Porter, an Elizabeth Warren protégé and foreclosure expert, would be a natural choice. But three of the others — Crow, Allred, and Hill — were endorsed by the New Democrat PAC in the election. (Hill also got a progressive cCaucus endorsement.) And Crow worked for a top law and lobbying firm in Colorado with a host of corporate clients.

More worrying, the members seemed to have no knowledge of this recruitment effort. Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for Crow’s campaign, was surprised to hear of Take on Wall Street’s mentioning the congressman-elect’s name. “It’s interesting when a reporter breaks news to me about my boss,” Schwartz said. He added that Crow was still making up his mind about committees.

Crow’s issue page does have a section on consumer protection. Allred worked briefly at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and once issued a press release condemning the Financial CHOICE Act, a Republican bank deregulation measure. Kim criticized his opponent, Tom McArthur, for scheduling a fundraiser with Interim CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney.

These may not seem like deep and considered vows to stand up to big banks. But other incoming members have not even gone this far. It would be a good regional fit to replace departing progressive committee members Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Michael Capuano, D-Mass., with the progressives filling their seats, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. But neither have expressed interest in the committee.

The Take On Wall Street coalition has gone so far as to write up a fact sheet for progressives on the importance of the committee, citing its centrality to tackling homelessness and the housing crisis, ensuring racial and economic justice, and fighting poverty. The pitch cited laws like the Truth in Lending Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Community Reinvestment Act, which ensures lending in low-income areas, as well as Federal Reserve policy, which aims to prevent recessions and ensure full employment in all communities. “(House Financial Services Committee) is an especially compelling assignment for House progressives, both to lay the foundation for bold policies and to exercise critical oversight,” the document reads.

Whether that pitch lands, and progressive members-elect decide to go after a Financial Services seat, could have wide-ranging consequences for banking policy, corporate governance, fair housing, student loans, retirement security, and virtually every aspect of the national economy.

The final verdict on committee assignments is likely to come together quickly. The Democrats’ steering and policy committee formally hands out assignments, although leadership plays an enormous role in who gets what; indeed, Pelosi is the chair of the committee, as is custom. Intelligence Committee seats are directly appointed by the Democratic leader, avoiding the steering and policy committee altogether.

Even if the CPC had a dream list for the committees where they want expanded representation, they cannot present it to Pelosi without firm commitments from the members. CPC staffers are talking directly to members and their chiefs of staff to secure those commitments. The pitch is that this is the perfect time to make the switch, because the seats are open and this big a wave may not come again soon.

This is all happening as the CPC tries to redefine what it means to be a member, toughening up the policy for whether members can make anti-progressive votes or simultaneously be part of the CPC and their ideological opposites, the New Dems. It’s smart for them to make a play for power — but they need to be able to back it up and persuade reluctant members to take advantage.

The coalition of groups pushing for committee assignments have stressed common cause in their meetings with members, promising to push agenda items important to the members if they just switch committees. “There’s a reason why Wall Street gets a stranglehold on these committees,” said Lawson. “We diagram everything progressives care about and how it narrows to these committees. We’re trying to change the mentality on the outside to a more sophisticated understanding.”

Those outside groups have started to pick up on the necessity of caring about internal House politics, demanding that progressives get a place at the table commensurate with their numbers. “The blue wave that sent Republicans packing because of their aggressive anti-consumer record should move all recommendations toward people who are actually champions of consumer financial protection,” said Beverly Brown Ruggia of New Jersey Citizen Action, a statewide social and economic justice group. “We will be watching this process very closely.”

Update: November 21, 2018

This story was updated with a denial from Rep. Gottheimer that he declined to help a colleague acquire a spot on the Financial Services Committee.

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