Behind the Pay-Go Battle Is a Central Contradiction That Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Her Allies Will Need to Resolve

At the heart of the paradox is the House Democratic caucus’s resistance to political organizing, and Ocasio-Cortez’s grounding in it.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 03: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is seen in the Capitol's House chamber before members were sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on January 3, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is seen in the Capitol's House chamber before members were sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

In the first vote of the 116th Congress on Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was one of just three Democrats who split with their party and voted against a rules package introduced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and backed by the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Ocasio-Cortez’s political career so far has been largely defined by her willingness to break from the pack, but her dissenting vote alongside just two others highlights the paradox of her position in the House: Her high-profile platform allows her to shape the national conversation, but the same energy that fueled her rise can be met with a very different reaction inside the walls of the Capitol.

The debate over the vote started Wednesday morning, when it became clear that the House rules package for the 116th Congress would include a fiscally conservative measure known as “pay-go.” A spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for progressives in the House to oppose it. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., was the first out of the gate, calling it “terrible economics” and promising to vote down the rules package. Ocasio-Cortez soon followed suit.

For a moment, it looked like a rebellion could brewing among the newly energized and organized left. Except it wasn’t. There was no stampede of opposition, and later that day, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., put out a statement in support of the rules package, ending any real chance at a last-minute insurrection.

The next evening, when the package hit the House floor, just three Democrats voted it down: Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez were joined by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who has hinted at 2020 presidential aspirations.

Jayapal, who came to Congress as an organizer and has played a key role in shaping the progressive Democratic agenda on issues like immigration, said she was frustrated about how the debate was framed on social media, in newsletters, and in part by some outletsthis one included. The conversation, she said, lacked the full context of the ways in which the CPC had defanged pay-go.

The narrative that emerged “is so hurtful to the progressive movement because we got so much out of this,” Jayapal said. One result, she said, has been to take the focus off the CPC’s major organizing effort to pack powerful committees full of as many progressives as possible. Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez are both angling to land some of those coveted spots, and their opposition to the rules package could make it harder for them to do so.

“There were lots of things in the rules package that we negotiated in that were really good, and it’s not that we caved on this, it’s not that we just decided we didn’t have the power to change it — it was really a strategic question about what is most necessary to move progressive legislation,” Jayapal told The Intercept.

Jayapal stressed that her criticism was not directed personally at her colleagues, with whom she is in agreement on the issues, but rather at the framing on social media and press coverage of the pay-go conflict. In the hectic final days of recess and the swearing-in, it can be difficult for a coalition to align on strategy, particularly with fast-moving debates.

Indeed, Pocan and Jayapal’s support for the package came after they negotiated with Pelosi and won significant concessions, including seats on powerful committees, the repeal of a rule that required a supermajority for tax increases, hardened rules around sexual harassment, and strengthened language around the War Powers Resolution, which will make it easier for the House to vote to put an end to U.S support for the war in Yemen.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., administers the House oath of office to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., during ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, administers the House oath of office to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress.

Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Pelosi has guaranteed that the House will hold a hearing on “Medicare for All,” Jayapal said, noting that critics who argued that pay-go will get in the way of that are wrong. Pelosi and Rep. Jim McGovern, chair of the House Rules Committee, have both said that pay-go can be waived in such circumstances. “The waiving we’ve been working on for a while with McGovern, but honestly we were trying to keep it kind of quiet, because not all of the conservative members know this, and now they’re saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to waive the rules? What do you mean?’” Jayapal said. “So sometimes I’m just like, come on people, let’s be strategic about some of this in terms of what we take on.”

The rules, waivers, and statutes involved in the legislative process can get confusing, so let’s pause for a primer. In 2007, when Pelosi first became speaker, she instituted the pay-go rule. In 2010, under pressure from Blue Dog Democrats, Pelosi made pay-go not just a rule, but a law, one that was also passed by the Democratic Senate and signed by President Barack Obama. The law allows the president to unilaterally sequester money if Congress passes a bill that isn’t paid for, but if a bill specifically bars the presidents from doing so, then the pay-go statute is rendered moot. When Republicans took over in 2011, they converted pay-go to “cut-go,” meaning that any new spending had to be matched with cuts elsewhere.

Because a statutory waiver would have been needed, regardless of the rules package, the smarter play in 2019 was to nail down a promise of rules waivers and fight on other fronts, Jayapal contended, allowing leadership to keep pay-go officially in the rules. Under a scenario after 2020, when Democrats will potentially hold the White House, changing the rule would take on more significance, she said. (On Friday, Jayapal introduced legislation — co-sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez, Khanna, and Pocan — to repeal the statutory pay-go rule.)

Despite her “no” vote, Ocasio-Cortez said she recognized the value of the CPC’s negotiations with Pelosi. “I think there are a lot of wins that we’ve had so far policy-wise,” she told The Intercept on Thursday, referring to the CPC wins in the package. “When you look at what’s considered a loss, whether it’s the select committee or whether it’s pay-go, I see them as short-term losses, because in the long run, what we’ve accomplished is we’ve put these issues on the map.”

The sudden burst of energy over pay-go, and the just as sudden collapse, brought into relief in the starkest way yet the paradox that is Ocasio-Cortez’s position in the House — she has as much influence outside Congress as anybody else she serves with. Her every tweet is a potential news cycle, and the routine happenings of her high school and college life get turned into fodder for conservative face-plants on disturbingly regular occasions. She has used that platform to shift the broader political conversation in ways previously unthinkable. For nearly two decades, Democrats have quietly grumbled that it’s just not possible to get people interested in doing something about climate change. Ocasio-Cortez sparked a national conversation about ambitious climate change legislation, which is now backed by 45 members of Congress and has become a litmus test of sorts for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.

But inside the building, she is heavily outgunned. Aside from her close ally Khanna, the only member of Congress to endorse her primary bid (after also endorsing the incumbent), Ocasio-Cortez is strengthened by her “squad,” which includes insurgent Ayanna Pressley, who unseated a longtime Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, who won competitive primaries to replace Keith Ellison and John Conyers, respectively.

But even the squad broke with Ocasio-Cortez on the House rules package and supported Pelosi. The gap between the New York Democrat’s power outside the Capitol and the display of it on day one inside of it could hardly have been greater, and it’s an imbalance that simply can’t hold long-term. Something has to give; one side or the other will need to break or bend. It remains to be seen which one it will be.

As she was walking to the House chamber to be sworn in on Thursday, The Intercept asked Ocasio-Cortez how her view on politics and Congress had changed since she’d won her primary. “I think coming through this process from the background of organizing, and as an organizer, it really makes you think of the political process as – it really opens what that field looks like, of what change is possible. So it’s not just about whipping votes or getting someone to a yes or no — although all of those are critical elements of the job — but the other part of it is really shaping the landscape of what we think is possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Her first organizing effort in the halls of Congress began with the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats-led occupation of Pelosi’s office during orientation. Ocasio-Cortez and the activists demanded a select committee to craft legislation toward a Green New Deal. It sparked a national conversation that is still alive today, but the committee Pelosi ultimately created — unveiled in Thursday’s rules package — is weaker than one she created on the same issue in 2007.

But putting the climate on the map came at a cost — and here’s where the contradiction comes in — in that her proposal angered her colleagues, who furiously defended the turf of their respective committees, seeing themselves in competition with the proposed select committee. That hostility built upon already strong wariness on the part of her fellow lawmakers, who see in Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of people-powered, corporate-free politics a challenge to their own integrity or progressivism. She is a walking reminder to some Democrats of the space between their ideals and how they have come to practice politics — and they don’t appreciate the reminder. Indeed, incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone flat-out refused to move an unrelated bill by Khanna, citing his public support for what he saw as a rival committee.

Part of what Ocasio-Cortez has been so good at since arriving in Washington is educating the public – introducing people outside of Congress to arcane but crucial levers of power at work, such as the way she exposed elements of freshman orientation as little more than corporate propaganda.

But, said Jayapal, the organizing effort needs to be fully thought about at every step, and it has to be done in a way that doesn’t breed cynicism and limit progress. It requires recognizing that different people respond to different approaches differently, and that while social media pressure sometimes works, in other cases, a direct, educational approach might work better. “Before I came to Congress, I didn’t know what pay-go was. If somebody just said, this is a bad idea and anybody who votes for something that has it is a sellout, I might’ve believed it, but I think it’s our job as members to try to educate people about the different ways to think about this. And the fact that all but three people voted for this rules package — including some really progressive members — should tell people that there’s a lot more to this story than just pay-go is bad, therefore vote against the rules package.”

Outside pressure is still important, she argued. “I’ve been arrested three times for civil disobedience because I think that there are times when that’s appropriate, but you’ve got to pick the right strategy for the right time, and you’ve got to pick the right fight — and we can disagree about what those right fights are — but to somehow believe that the entire Progressive Caucus is wrong on this and two people are right, I think is a disservice to the issue and to the strategy and frankly, to the overall movement,” she said.

Those types of communication kinks can be worked out over time, but if every win Ocasio-Cortez notches on the outside, elevating an issue and reshaping the conversation, simply creates more distance between her and her colleagues on the inside, organizing an effective progressive majority is impossible, and even getting the dozen to two dozen members needed for a solid progressive sub-caucus would be difficult.

But it’s not that simple, as the groundswell of support Ocasio-Cortez has experienced on the outside has yet to be fully felt on the inside. Why, after all, did Jayapal and Pocan even have to contend with Democrats such as Pelosi who wanted pay-go in the rules package, not because it’s already in statute but because they think it’s the right thing to do?

It’s a relic of the 1980s, when Democrats lived in fear of being branded tax-and-spenders, and a reminder that time has long lagged far behind the institution of Congress. It’s the lack of the sense of urgency in the halls of power that Ocasio-Cortez is so eager to take down. The United Nations has given humanity roughly 12 years to turn its fossil fuel-based economy around, which climate scientists say can only be accomplished on a wartime footing. Politics have moved awfully fast the last few years, but perhaps not fast enough yet.

Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book We’ve Got People: The Rise of a New Force in American Politics. Sign up here to get an email when it’s released.

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