House progressives are building something new, exciting, and powerful

The Congressional Progressive Caucus will be a legislative force to be reckoned with in the 117th Congress

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-Chairs Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan speak at a House Democratic retreat in Leesburg, Va., in April 2019. New reforms have given their caucus leverage to ensure future bills include progressive priorities, Greenberg and Levin write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-Chairs Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan speak at a House Democratic retreat in Leesburg, Va., in April 2019. New reforms have given their caucus leverage to ensure future bills include progressive priorities, Greenberg and Levin write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 20, 2020 at 12:40pm

When we were Capitol Hill staffers more than a decade ago, the Congressional Progressive Caucus had members, but not much power.

Times have changed. As a result of both successful Democratic primaries and proactive power-building by progressive incumbents over the past four years, a reformed and strengthened CPC is now poised to make progressives a more powerful force within the House than at any time in modern American history.

They aren’t just the four-member “squad” but also include newly elected progressive insurgents like Marie Newman, Cori Bush, Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman. Combined with Pramila Jayapal, the CPC’s current co-chair, and her deep bench of committed progressives like Ro Khanna and Lloyd Doggett, the squad has become a platoon on the way to a battalion.

It’s not just votes though, it’s how you organize those votes. For years, the CPC has grown in size, but membership has traditionally required little of its members. No more. Just last week, the CPC passed game-changing reforms to its own caucus rules. These rule changes will empower the CPC to organize itself to negotiate and vote as a single bloc on specific legislation to secure progressive improvements or remove dangerous provisions. With just a slim margin in the House, Democratic leadership will need the votes of progressives to pass legislation. The CPC now has the opportunity to use this leverage to ensure bills include progressive priorities. 

Conservatives have long been at this game. We’ve seen the consequences when progressives are not willing to wield the collective power of their votes. Over and over again, House Democratic leadership has asked progressives to compromise their values to pass bills that have been watered down or contain trade-offs designed to satisfy the most conservative members of the Democratic Caucus. The reality is that those conservative members have been better organized and more willing to make clear demands backed up by their votes. With this newly organized and empowered CPC, progressives have cards to play in all future legislating during the Biden era — cards they just haven’t had during the Trump era.

Organizing for more progressive power in the House means claiming a seat at the table and advancing the Democratic agenda. Progressives are interested in engaging in good faith to craft amendments, raise concerns about harmful concessions and do the work of legislating to pass the boldest possible bills out of the House. An ideal legislative process would incorporate their contributions early on, strengthening the underlying bill and making it more responsive to constituents’ needs. The voting bloc only becomes necessary in the event that progressive voices are shut out of the process and good  faith concerns are not given a fair hearing. Progressives want to govern, and the voting bloc guarantees they are included in the governing process. 

Is this the Freedom Caucus of the left? No, the opposite of the racist, antediluvian policymaking and power-grabbing of the tea party-generated Freedom Caucus is not an equal and opposite destructive force on the left. The opposite of the Freedom Caucus is representative democracy — a powerful force that responds to the will of the people rather than amplifying the will of a vocal, extremist minority. The Freedom Caucus repeatedly took a “burn it down” approach to lock in wealth inequality and punish immigrants and communities of color. A progressive voting bloc is a tool of strategic governance — a chance to build up our representative institutions to better reflect the will of America’s increasingly unequal, increasingly diverse electorate.

Will there be fights? Of course, there will — it’s Congress. Strategic use of the voting bloc will empower progressives to hold their own during those fights. Being strategic will mean pushing for policies that are popular and have a viable path to overcoming opposition, and clearly communicating the stakes of those conflicts to the public.

With the new CPC, House progressives are heading into the post-Trump era with a few more cards to play. The voting bloc cannot deliver a win on every movement priority overnight, but it can shift the policy debate and give the broader progressive movement a goal to organize around. By playing these new cards right, the CPC and its outside grassroots supporters will strengthen the Democratic Party by making it more responsive to the electorate.

But most importantly, this is no mere political game: The end result can and should be a strengthened democracy that enacts popular policies benefiting a nation desperately in the need of a fair and just recovery from the Trump era.

Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin are the co-founders and co-executive directors of Indivisible, a group dedicated to building progressive grassroots power and holding members of Congress accountable.