Progressives Fought for Key Committee Spots, but Centrist New Dems Came Out on Top

The Congressional Progressive Caucus’s high-profile members were largely shut out of new assignments to three critical “money committees.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, speaks during the opening of the 116th Congress in the House Chamber in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Pelosi was elected speaker of the House of Representatives in a triumphant return to the post as Democrats took power Thursday with the authority to investigate President Donald Trump and perhaps begin impeachment proceedings. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nancy Pelosi speaks during the opening of the 116th Congress in the House Chamber in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 3, 2019. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez failed in her long-shot bid for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, according to an announcement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Wednesday evening. Pelosi named a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the centrist wing of the party, to the seat instead, part of a sweeping set of wins by the Wall Street-friendly caucus.

However, Ocasio-Cortez is in line to get a solid consolation prize — a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, with jurisdiction over Wall Street. Sources close to the process said that it is also likely that Progressive Caucus member Katie Porter, D-Calif., a financial services expert, will get tapped for the committee, and that Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., are in the running. This would put a strong bloc of progressives on an important committee headed by Rep. Maxine Waters of California.

Democrats have struggled to find many members to serve on Financial Services, leading to speculation that the party would actually shrink the size of the committee. Alternatively, that quandary could result in progressives being added as a last resort.

The imminent Financial Services Committee announcement would take some sting out of several disappointments for the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s high-profile rising stars, who on Wednesday were largely shut out of new assignments to three critical committees where they sought expanded representation.

The Progressive Caucus had cut a deal with Pelosi for increased representation on the so-called money committees that handle most domestic legislation. They sought membership on the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, and Financial Services committees equal to their roughly 40 percent membership in the Democratic caucus.

Progressive Caucus members did receive several new assignments announced Wednesday night, but only hit 40 percent on Ways and Means, on which progressives had already achieved a 40 percent threshold in the previous Congress. As of now, the total averages out to 38.3 percent across all three, but those numbers will rise to 41.8 percent if three committee members join the CPC as expected.

According to numbers provided by the Progressive Caucus, membership increased on Ways and Means from 42 percent to 54 percent. Energy and Commerce moved from 29 percent to 31 percent, and Appropriations held steady at 36 percent.

Progressives have also asked for increased representation on the Financial Services Committee, with jurisdiction over Wall Street, whose makeup is still to be determined. So far, though, the caucus’s most prominent figures have not been given new committee assignments on the three major committees. Ocasio-Cortez; Tlaib; CPC co-chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; and vice chair Ro Khanna, D-Calif., all vocally pushed for inclusion on the money committees. Justice Democrats waged an outside campaign on their behalf, and other organizations engaged in petition drives and marched on Pelosi’s office. None of that was successful, showing the limits of an outside campaign on an insider issue like committee assignments.

By custom, Ways and Means, the tax-writing committee, reserves one seat for a member who represents one of the five boroughs of New York City. The previous holder of that slot was former Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in a primary election. Ocasio-Cortez sought to replace her predecessor, but House leaders instead chose Tom Suozzi, a New Democrat who represents the “Gold Coast” of Long Island and a few blocks of Queens.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., third from left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., second from right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., being sworn during the opening session of the 116th Congress in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 3, 2019.

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

It’s extremely rare historically for a freshman to win a seat on the committee, and indeed, none did this time around, leaving people to cite Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of seniority, rather than her politics, for the snub. But it’s also rare for a man from Long Island to claim a seat reserved for New York City. What’s more, Suozzi is just a sophomore, which drains a bit of the punch from the seniority argument. (While New York City got no representation, Philadelphia picked up two new members.)

Regional politics played a key role. “The regional structure is the heart of the committee seat distribution process. So I think what we learned on the Progressive Caucus is that it’s not about getting the leadership of the Progressive Caucus to go to Nancy Pelosi to ask for seats,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a CPC member who won a position in the lower ranks of House leadership in November, and sits on the committee that that divvies out committee seats. “Like everything else, it’s an organizing operation where you need to organize a movement within each of the regions, because that’s where the action is. Having said that, I think that progressive members did pretty well across the board, and I think are going to do increasingly well in this process,” he said, a reference to the likelihood that several of them will make it onto Financial Services.

Any major piece of legislation — whether it’s “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal, or free public college — would involve some level of revenue, putting it squarely in the domain of Ways and Means, which makes it a key spot for a legislator looking to have an impact. The seat is also traditionally sought after for its fundraising potential, as every industry in the country is concerned with federal tax policy, meaning that members of the committee are more likely to get their fundraising calls returned. (Suozzi told The Intercept that he had no interest in the committee for that purpose and that he was attracted to it because of his prior career in accounting.)

Jayapal, co-chair of the CPC, also wanted a spot on Ways and Means, but her request for a waiver to remain on the Judiciary Committee, where she has influence given her high-profile work around the Trump administration’s family separation policy, was rejected. “Representative Jayapal had been clear from the beginning that she would only seek a Ways and Means Committee assignment if she could get a waiver to continue her service in the Judiciary Committee,” said Vedant Patel, her spokesperson. “She was notified that there would be no waivers given for the Judiciary Committee, given the desirability of the Judiciary Committee at this important time. Given that, Rep. Jayapal is excited to stay on the Judiciary Committee and continue to bring her experience on the critical issues before the committee.”

Khanna, the CPC vice chair, also failed in his bid to get a Ways and Means seat. The Intercept asked if he thought his public Twitter battle with Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill over the economics of pay-go, a fiscal austerity provision Pelosi entered into the House rules, had anything to do with the decision. “Drew wishes he had that much power here,” Khanna said. “I welcome Drew to have more debates with me and Paul Krugman about economics.”

The Progressive Caucus’s demand for 40 percent representation was stymied by the composition of the caucus itself. There are no real barriers to membership and the caucus rarely whips its members for votes, meaning that members who want to wear a progressive badge without altering their legislative record can do so. Some members of the Progressive Caucus are even also affiliated with its centrist counterpoint, the New Democrat Coalition.

Pelosi and House leadership made skillful use of those progressive/New Dem hybrids in making the committee assignments, which may be cynical from a leadership perspective, but was only possible as a result of the Progressive Caucus’s less-than-stringent membership rules — rules that are within their own control.

And adding CPC members who are not genuine progressives to positions of power on committees could actually be a net loss, argued some operatives. Indeed, it sets up a dynamic in which weak legislation could earn the imprimatur of an influential CPC member, which makes it more difficult for the CPC itself to oppose. A version of that was on display even with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., a strong progressive and a former co-chair of the CPC. He is now chair of the Natural Resources Committee, and while he ultimately endorsed the creation of a select committee to focus on a Green New Deal, it was plain that there was some hesitation related to how it would impact his own committee. (Grijalva said he didn’t have a great deal of angst about the new committee, not exactly a ringing endorsement.)

Instead of pushing for proportional representation for a disorganized, amorphous caucus, the CPC should have first organized itself, then pursued power, argued Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which backed Ocasio-Cortez and other freshmen whose bids for the committees were rebuffed. “Numbers won’t mean much if being progressive means nothing. If everyone has their own definition and now has increased personal power through a seat on an executive committee, accountability to the progressive movement will be more difficult,” Shahid told The Intercept.

The move by Pelosi, to tap CPC members who are also in the New Dems, should have been anticipated, he argued. “Pelosi played by the CPC’s rules and appointed some of the least committed progressives to executive committees, including five CPC members who are also members of the centrist, corporate-friendly New Democratic caucus. Nearly all of the CPC members appointed to executive committees still receive corporate PAC donations,” he said.

“Instead of racing for numbers, the CPC should consider demanding stricter membership criteria — such as rejecting corporate PAC money, co-sponsoring priority legislation, and willingness to engage in bloc voting — otherwise progressive ideas risk being significantly watered down,” he said.

Of the 26 new members named to the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees, 13 are members of the Progressive Caucus. However, five of those members are also part of the New Democrat Coalition: Michigan’s Brenda Lawrence (Appropriations), Delaware’s Lisa Blunt Rochester (Energy and Commerce), Florida’s Darren Soto (Energy and Commerce), Virginia’s Don Beyer (Ways and Means), and Pennsylvania’s Brendan Boyle (Ways and Means), who only recently joined the Progressive Caucus.

Blunt Rochester was one of two Progressive Caucus members who voted for last year’s bank deregulation bill, one of the few major bipartisan measures in the last Congress. Soto is part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which pushed Pelosi to change House rules to give Republicans a larger voice in legislation, as is Suozzi.

Meanwhile, 15 of the 26 members selected are in the New Democrat Coalition, which has seen its ranks increase even as its influence over the national conversation has diminished. The coalition, like the CPC, is going through its own identity crisis, as a significant number of its own members have endorsed ideas, such as “Medicare for All,” that the coalition itself stridently rejects.

The Blue Dog Caucus, another Wall Street-friendly group, also punched slightly above its weight on the money committees. The Blue Dogs’ 24 members form only about 10 percent of the Democratic caucus. But they snapped up four of the 26 new seats given out, two of them to co-chairs Stephanie Murphy of Florida (Ways and Means) and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona (Energy and Commerce). All four Blue Dogs who were given the coveted seat assignments are also members of the New Democrats.

The only freshmen members who were chosen for any of the three key committees were those returning to Congress after having previously served. That includes Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick (Appropriations), a New Dem; Steven Horsford of Nevada (Ways and Means), a Progressive Caucus member; and Ed Case of Hawaii (Appropriations), who is currently unaffiliated with either caucus, but has deeply conservative politics.

Other Progressive Caucus members who secured slots on these exclusive committees were Lois Frankel of Florida and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey (Appropriations); Nanette Barragán of California (Energy and Commerce); and Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Dan Kildee of Michigan, and Jimmy Panetta of California (Ways and Means).

Moore gave up a spot on the Financial Services Committee to take over the spot on Ways and Means. Panetta just joined the Progressive Caucus after the election, and Kildee is planning to join.

Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., are also planning to join the CPC. Engel, who sits on Energy and Commerce, represents a district that includes some of the Bronx; Kaptur, a member of Appropriations, has generally progressive politics on economic issues, but has long been one of the most strident anti-choice voices in the House, only retreating from that position recently. The additions of Kildee, Kaptur, and Engel boost the percentages of CPC members on the key committees, but it’s a stretch to connect that to the spirit of the demand made by the CPC. Engel, after all, is a New Democrat, so the CPC didn’t get a new member placed on Energy and Commerce; rather, the CPC added a new member who was already on Energy and Commerce and a New Dem.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also snubbed progressives, filling its leadership team with centrist Democrats. DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos on Wednesday announced the new chairs of recruitment and heads of the Frontline Program, which protects members in swing seats, and every single one is a New Democrat. Pete Aguilar of California, Val Demings of Florida, and Donald McEachin of Virginia, who were all named chairs of recruitment, are New Democrats. Ami Bera of California, Suzan DelBene of Washington, and Brad Schneider of Illinois, all New Democrats, were tapped to manage the Frontline Program.

The good news for progressives in the House is that nothing matters — not this congressional cycle, anyway. As long as the Senate is run by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the White House is occupied by Donald Trump, a Green New Deal has bigger obstacles than New Dems. But the structures being put into place today will shape the terms of legislative activity in 2021, when it may start to matter if Democrats take back the White House. The onus will be on outside activists to monitor the legislative behavior of the dual-loyalty members of the committees.

Below are the new House committee members announced Wednesday night:

Appropriations Committee:

  • Cheri Bustos of Illinois (NDem)
  • Ed Case of Hawaii
  • Charlie Crist of Florida (NDem) (Blue Dog)
  • Lois Frankel of Florida (CPC)
  • Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona (NDem)
  • Brenda Lawrence of Michigan (CPC) (NDem)
  • Norma Torres of California
  • Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey (CPC)

Energy and Commerce Committee

  • Nanette Barragán of California (CPC)
  • Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware (CPC) (NDem)
  • Robin Kelly of Illinois
  • Ann Kuster of New Hampshire (NDem)
  • A. Donald McEachin of Virginia (NDem)
  • Tom O’Halleran of Arizona (NDem) (Blue Dog)
  • Darren Soto of Florida (CPC) (NDem)
  • Marc Veasey of Texas (NDem)

Ways and Means Committee

  • Don Beyer of Virginia (CPC) (NDem)
  • Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania (CPC) (NDem)
  • Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania (CPC)
  • Steven Horsford of Nevada (CPC)
  • Dan Kildee of Michigan (CPC)
  • Gwen Moore of Wisconsin (CPC)
  • Stephanie Murphy of Florida (NDem) (Blue Dog)
  • Jimmy Panetta of California (CPC)
  • Brad Schneider of Illinois (NDem) (Blue Dog)
  • Tom Suozzi of New York (NDem)
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