The People's Caucus - by Jesse Broad-Cavanagh
The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was founded in 1991 by a number of left-leaning Democratic Representatives and one Independent Senator who wanted to fight for progressive issues, including pushing back against organized interests and the influence of big money on politicians. The Independent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was the first chairman, and today, he along with 70 House members make up the CPC. Other members include co-chair Ellison, who came close to being selected as the chair of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year; John Conyers, the current longest serving member of Congress; and Jan Schakowsky, who has served as a Chief Deputy Whip since 2003. The CPC describes their four main principles as fighting for economic equality, protecting civil rights, promoting world peace, and saving the environment. In a neoliberal political climate dominated by tax cuts, deregulation, decreasing labor union strength, and calls for the retrenchment of the welfare state, these leaders avoid the luring siren call of big business interests and represent those who have no voices in politics. Their extensive backgrounds in fighting for equality and civil rights over the past few decades gives them a clear claim to calling themselves the champions of ordinary people.
The Caucus Mounts a Challenge
Mark Pocan, the Representative for Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional district, stepped forward in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol with twelve other members of Congress on Thursday, March 23, to tell the story of the Trojan Horse. “Queen Helen of Sparta was abducted by a Trojan prince,” Pocan stated to seven television cameras, a group of reporters, and a crowd of about fifty at the House Triangle, just southeast of the Capitol.
During a week that featured hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, endless chatter about Trump’s claims that the Obama administration wiretapped him, and the questioning of FBI director James Comey about potential collusion between Russia and Trump during the campaign, this group of Representatives had come together for a different reason.
“Why am I sharing this story with you?” Pocan continued as he finished up his tale of the Greeks strategically hiding in a wooden horse before laying waste to Troy and its citizens. Pocan pointed to a board next to him titled “TrumpCare” as he answered, “It is because this bill really, in many ways, is nothing more than a Trojan horse bill.”
What seems like a health care bill, explains Pocan, is nothing more than Republicans’ attempts to please America’s corporate elite. “In the end,” he concludes, “There’s really $600 billion worth of tax cuts for the wealthiest, and there’s less health care for more money for everybody else.” The press conference continued for about an hour, as each Representative got an opportunity at the mic to add to the group’s message. “Repealing the affordable care act will be a death sentence for thousands of Americans,” Barbara Lee of California said. “Pass this bill”, Jamie Raskin warned Republican legislators, “and your control of Congress will be a pre-existing condition”.
“When the people are woke, when the people are active, when the people are engaged,” Keith Ellison of Minnesota concluded to loud applause, “we can turn back the tide of these money interests.” These are only a few of the members that make up the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and protecting people who can’t afford to buy their votes is what they do.
The 2016 presidential campaign, a Donald Trump presidency, and Republican control of both the House and the Senate, have put the CPC members in a position to cement themselves as the future faces of the Democratic Party and the country. Looking at the big picture, Sanders’ seemingly out-of-nowhere bid for the Presidency brought together people from a wide variety of social, economic, and political backgrounds, and it showed that a Democratic Party led by progressive values could be the key to future victories. Although eventually losing to Hillary Clinton in the primaries, Sanders’ widespread support forced the Democratic Party’s nominee for President to make issues like accessible education, fighting inequality, and regulating the financial sector core parts of her campaign. Echoing these messages, the CPC is working with progressive organizations (that come together at ProgressiveCongress.org) to plan regional hearings this year in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Los Angeles on the need for Wall Street reform.
Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating has been hovering in the mid-30 percent range for weeks, his executive orders and potential ties with Russia make impeachment a real possibility, and policy like the proposed ACA replacement has been shown to hurt low-income workers who helped vote him into office. On top of Trump’s personal failures, as the health care vote demonstrated, the Republican Party has been incapable of getting on the same page. While the CPC rallied to oppose the health care replacement, the House Freedom Caucus (which grew out of the “Tea Party” uprising that emerged from the first Obama victory) bashed it as “Obamacare lite.” Many Republican representatives were met with backlash from constituents who realized they would be part of the estimated 14 million newly uninsured. These early missteps by Trump and Republican lawmakers have done little to add, or even keep, votes for the upcoming elections in 2018 and 2020, and they have opened the window for a resurgent Democratic Party backed by progressive values.
The Future of the Caucus
Although many of the CPC’s leaders have been fighting for equality together for years, two of its vice-chairs, Pramila Jayapal and Jamie Raskin, have only just joined the team as newly elected representatives. Jayapal, of Washington’s 7th Congressional district, has built her career as a civil rights activist, fighting for immigrants and refugees, for fair and equal pay, and for peace and a “just transition” to post-fossil fuel economy. Raskin, of Maryland’s 8th district, was a member of Maryland’s State Senate from 2006-2016, and has used his legal background to become one of the most active voices when it comes to questioning the constitutionality of Trump’s actions while in office. Both are members of the House Judiciary Committee, and are poised to lead the battle for impeaching Trump if and when the time comes. They are the future of the CPC.
Jayapal, who moved to the United States when she was 16, is the first Indian-American woman in Congress. Like Raskin, she learned the legislative process while serving in the State Senate before running for Congress. As a State Senator, she maneuvered through a Republican majority to help pass progressive legislation, expansive social service programs for non-citizens, and funding for pre-apprenticeship opportunities in transportation for women and people of color. She played a strong role in the successful fight to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15. An immigrant herself, Jayapal has extensive experience as an activist leader, founding the immigration advocacy group OneAmerica in response to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment and civil liberties abuses following 9/11. “We create the space for their extraordinary selves to emerge in collective action for change,” Jayapal explained during her 2010 TED Talk on the dangers of restricting immigrant’s movement and rights.
In 2017, Jayapal has played an active role in questioning Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Her strategy in politics is simple: organize and get things done. “We ask too little of elected officials,” she said bluntly at a fundraiser during the summer of 2016. Jayapal’s time in office has shown just how committed she is to not being one of those officials. Although she’s only been in Washington, DC for a couple of months, Jayapal was credited as being the organizing force behind the CPC’s press conference on health care. Combined with her determination and ability to pass effective legislation, Jayapal’s focus on bringing “outsiders” into the political conversation will be essential in a country plagued by low voter turnout and increasingly polarized politics.
Raskin, a law professor, and one of the country’s leading scholars of the 1st Amendment, has been questioning the constitutionality of Trump’s presidency since his inauguration. “He’s completely oblivious to the constitution, to the rule of law,” Raskin said to MSNBC as he explained his reasoning behind not attending the inauguration in person, “This is a very scary moment for the American republic.” On a more recent TV appearance, Raskin bashed Trump’s flurry of executive orders as being financially unrealistic, unconstitutionally coercive, and far from a legitimate way of forcing so much major change. He has described some budgetary aspects of Trump’s policy and executive orders, such as punishing sanctuary cities, as “Godfather offers,” explaining that they threaten to pull unspecified federal funding from states that don't adhere to Trump’s orders, something that the Court has long deemed unconstitutional. In Maryland, he has fought for marriage equality, social and political rights for non-citizens, and the expansion of legal rights for victims of race and gender discrimination. He was part of one of the most expensive Congressional race in 2016, where 8th district candidates spent over $20 million total on their campaigns. Raskin’s legal expertise, focus on promoting the rights of the less privileged, and widespread support, gives him the means to play a leading role in the Democratic party throughout his career in office.
Jayapal, Raskin, and the CPC will continue to bring marginalized groups to the center of the political debate, and promote progressive values in a climate that has been dominated by elite interests and inequality. As Trump alienates voters and the Republican Party continues to stumble, the CPC and its members have positioned themselves to take a leading role in promoting effective policy for years to come.