Congressional Progressives Are Revamping Their Caucus With an Eye Toward 2021

With nearly 100 members, the CPC’s large size and loose requirements have been an obstacle to its ability to be a cohesive force.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 17: Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) (L) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) hold a news conference in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center May 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Democratic members of Congress talked about prescription drug prices, the Equality Act and other topics. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., left, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., hold a news conference in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is restructuring in order to shape itself into a more cohesive fighting force come 2021, according to CPC members involved in designing the new strategy. A series of proposed reforms to the caucus’s leadership structure as well as membership requirements were sent to CPC members for approval on Sunday, members of the caucus said. The changes won’t go into force without two-thirds support of the current members, said CPC co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. 

The Progressive Caucus has grown steadily since its founding in 1991 and now includes nearly 100 Democratic members of Congress, as the “progressive” label has gained currency in recent years. That size has also paradoxically been a weakness, as the group has been unable to enforce or motivate discipline, particularly as many of those who have joined are not active in the caucus and don’t subscribe to its core tenets.

Shortly after winning her 2018 primary, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the group that backed her, Justice Democrats, identified the group’s size as a hindrance, with Ocasio-Cortez suggesting a “sub-caucus” of Democrats willing to buck party leadership and take down legislation might be more effective. No sub-caucus was formed this term, but the CPC did work to block legislation it found insufficient — at times extracting concessions, at other times getting steamrolled. Its biggest success came on HR3, the fight over drug pricing, when the CPC forced Pelosi to move its way by credibly threatening to take down the bill.

Jayapal said that HR3 was “definitely a significant moment” in the shaping of the CPC’s approach to organizing in the caucus, and it required not just a threat but a set of demands that were ready to go. “One of the things that’s really important in those last negotiating minutes is to drill down to a few things that are most important,” she said.

Under the current CPC rules, essentially any Democrat willing to write a small dues check — $4,000 per year — to the group can become an official member, regardless of their politics, their source of campaign financing, their voting record, or even their attendance at CPC meetings. The benefit for moderate Democrats who fear facing primary challengers from the left is that they can tout their membership as evidence of progressive bona fides without delivering anything substantive.

The proposed changes to the CPC are intended to move it in a tighter direction. “The point of the reform is to shed free riding members that claim CPC membership but aren’t actually progressive,” said one CPC member. 

Jayapal said that the caucus may indeed shrink if the reforms are implemented. “It may. We’re ready for that to happen,” she said. “I just 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.” 

The task force is also pushing to move from the co-chair leadership structure that has been in place since 2005 to a single chair, arguing that the CPC is at a tactical disadvantage because its two chairs must coordinate before making a move, and quickness is often essential on Capitol Hill. 

Rep. Mark Pocan, the other co-chair, said, for instance, a press release may be ready to go by 10 a.m., but getting both members and their staffs to sign off amid a busy day could take until later afternoon. “And by then the press release isn’t even relevant anymore,” he said. “A lot of cooks are in the kitchen and often all we’re doing is making a grilled cheese.”

Having two co-chairs also creates opportunities for opponents to undermine the caucus, he said. “Recently we had two people from … another caucus, I’ll just say … try to divide and conquer us, by talking to us separately and seeing if they could pick one of us off,” he said. “That’s not the first time that people have tried to work one chair or the other in trying to influence the caucus.” Pocan recently announced he would not stand for reelection as co-chair; Jayapal is expected to run again.  

Nearly all other caucuses have only a single chair, which was also the CPC’s structure at its founding, when it had six members and was chaired by then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont. Sanders was blocked early in his career from caucusing with the Democrats by Southern members who didn’t want to be associated with a socialist. Indeed, the political value of the progressive label had so bottomed out that anybody who would willingly label themselves as one was presumed to be telling the truth. That’s no longer the case, as the pendulum has swung back toward the progressive end inside the Democratic Party. Today, a number of members of the CPC are also members of the New Democrats Coalition, which is an ideological rival of the CPC built to be a bulwark against the progressive wing and in support of business interests. 

Under the new rules, if a position wins two-thirds support among the CPC, members of the caucus will be expected to vote as a bloc, which would make it the first Democratic caucus to attempt to bind its members. Yet at the same time, members need only support the official position of the CPC two-thirds of the time before running afoul of the rules and risking expulsion. 

“It’s easy to tank something. It’s much harder to create something.”

Pushing CPC members to vote as a bloc is an effort to find enough strength in solidarity to make credible threats to leadership or to a potential Biden administration. On the GOP side, the Freedom Caucus has exercised its power by voting as a bloc. The difference, of course, is that the right-wing’s default posture toward government programs is one of destruction, so withholding votes is less difficult, said Pocan. It’s more difficult for progressive Democrats to say no to legislation that will benefit even a small number of people, and therein lies their negotiating handicap. 

It’s easy to tank something. It’s much harder to create something,” said Pocan. “One of the reasons that we’ve always not liked the comparison to the Freedom Caucus is they like to say ‘No.’ Quite honestly we like to say ‘yes’ to ideas, and have some ideas that we’re putting out there, and they’re just great at saying ‘No.’”

The new rules would also require CPC members to attend a certain number of meetings and to respond to whip requests, which are questions from caucus leadership about how a member feels about a particular bill or position. That such basic requirements are being written into the rules is a reflection of the current lack of participation. Some of that silence amounted to obstruction; a way to undermine a whip count was to simply ignore it. The new rules would strip the nonrespondents from the denominator, meaning a member who doesn’t respond can’t jam up the process. The caucus will also require members to vote for and sponsor a certain amount of progressive legislation.

The task force set up to write the new rules included Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Jamie Raskin, Barbara Lee, Ro Khanna, Judy Chu, Lloyd Doggett, Chuy Garcia, David Cicilline, Jayapal, and Pocan. The new rules, if approved, won’t go into effect until the next Congress.

Correction: October 26, 2020
This story originally indicated that CPC dues go to the organization’s political action committee. In fact, dues go directly to the caucus to fund the group’s staff and operations.

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