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After a Year of Fumbles, Congressional Progressive Caucus Must Chart a New Path

Progressives need to be more durable about absorbing criticism, and even attacks, from the media and their own party.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaks during a news conference held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the U.S. Capitol on May 24, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

In October 2022, a group of left-leaning lawmakers released a letter urging President Biden to seek a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine War. While fellow Democrats have often tempered their criticism of Biden’s policy towards Ukraine, the letter was unusually strident in its tone and forthright in its recommendations. “As legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe such involvement in this war … creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia,” the authors wrote. The letter was signed by around 30 of the most prominent members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), a formation of about 100 members of Congress.

The backlash to the missive was immediate. Commentators and other lawmakers across the political spectrum decried the tone and content of the letter. Just a day after the original text was released, CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal posted a retraction of the letter to the caucus’s own web site. By that point, numerous signatories to the letter had publicly distanced themselves from its content and questioned the decision to release text that had apparently been drafted months before.

The Ukraine letter brouhaha kicked off a run of embarrassing events for the CPC and prominent caucus members. In May of this year, the CPC emerged in the media as a major player in the debt ceiling negotiations. It was reported then that progressives in Congress, unhappy about work requirements for aid programs inserted by Republicans into the debt ceiling agreement, were considering voting against the package. Some took an even harder line, encouraging President Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment to avert default, thereby bypassing the need to bargain with Republicans entirely. But, as the vote approached, the CPC and fellow travelers fractured, with some breaking in favor of the compromise legislation while others held firm to their “no” votes. Some members of the CPC even noted that their commitment to a no vote was soft, and subject to change if the margins for passage of the bill seemed too tight. The final bill contained virtually no wins for progressives, while centrist Democrats and Republicans both walked away with a series of concessions.

The disarray on the debt ceiling negotiations mirrored progressives’ previous attempt to flex their bloc’s muscle when, in late 2021, they threatened to withhold their votes on a bipartisan infrastructure bill unless its passage was paired with a commitment to also pass the Build Back Better bill, which contained far more progressive priorities than did the infrastructure bill. That standoff failed catastrophically for progressives, as mounting pressure from the White House and moderate Democrats drove the CPC to relent and vote independently on the infrastructure bill. Build Back Better ultimately failed to secure enough support from Senate Democrats to pass.

More recently, CPC Chair Jayapal was smeared with charges of antisemitism when she referred to Israel as a “racist state” in response to pro-Palestinian protesters at the Netroots Nation conference, a convening of progressive organizations. She subsequently clarified her position, but not before Republicans and moderate Democrats pushed through a resolution at lightning speed affirming the U.S. Congress’s support for Israel. Jayapal, along with all but nine Democrats, voted for the resolution. Meanwhile, despite polling indicating that Democrats’ attitudes about Palestinians are changing rapidly, the CPC has not called for a similar resolution on Palestinian human rights. And, further complicating CPC’s position as the putative vanguard for progressive foreign policy in Congress, Representative Ro Khanna recently made waves by inviting India’s far right President Narendra Modi on his first state visit to Washington.

Taken together, these incidents have put the CPC on its back leg as it defends against charges of antisemitism from the right and appeasement from the left. This has been a doubly disappointing year for progressive observers outside of Congress who harbored hope that this Congress’s CPC would be among the most militant since the caucus’s founding in the 1990s. As more progressives have won elections over the last few cycles, especially to House seats, many have assumed that congressional progressives would be able to throw their weight around more effectively.

The irony of the CPC’s defensive posture, though, is that many of the policy priorities that are core to its identity are now touted (in a compromised form) by the Biden administration as its biggest accomplishments in the president’s first term, especially those passed into law in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Although it is far from ideal progressive policy making, as some have claimed, the IRA does include major climate investments that have already hastened an increase in green jobs creation and a reduction, albeit modest, in greenhouse gas emissions. The bill also gave Medicare the authority to negotiate the prices of some prescription drugs (though the results of negotiations won’t go into effect until 2026), an enormously popular idea among the American public, and one that tacitly endorses the notion that the federal government should play more of a role in regulating health care expenses. Climate action and health care affordability have long been staples of the CPC’s platform, and many of the measures included in the IRA are descendants of those that progressives initially fought for in the ultimately doomed Build Back Better Act.

While some have argued that the CPC should adopt more obstructionist tactics, like those employed by the Freedom Caucus against Republican leadership or those that Joe Manchin and now-independent Kyrsten Sinema have used to stymie Democrats’ policy making, it’s unlikely that progressives in the House have great enough numbers to credibly threaten the passage of legislation. In the debt ceiling fight earlier this year, for example, only 38 of the CPC’s 103 members voted against the “compromise” agreement. Beyond the House, right-wing senators like Manchin, with his particular penchant for intransigence, have created, at least in the short term, a largely insurmountable roadblock to passing the most progressive legislation being discussed in Congress.

So, while the CPC doesn’t have enough internal caucus discipline to demand backroom deals or else, that doesn’t mean its leadership should allow attacks on progressive members to force the CPC to retreat from vocally and publicly endorsing its policy prescriptions. Creating more renewable energy and ensuring health care coverage for all Americans are both very popular with voters. (Another CPC priority, student debt cancellation, was among the most popular of Biden’s policy achievements among younger voters until it was struck down by the Supreme Court in June of this year.)

Further, the CPC should take its case for progressive policy making to the public far more often than it currently does. Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns showed the power of turning progressive policy into pronouncements that many Americans agree with. Progressives should not be cowed into accepting a backseat role in Congress, despite this recent series of setbacks. Rather, they should sharpen their critiques, even if that sometimes means constructive criticism of the Biden administration. And, progressives in Congress need to become more durable about absorbing criticism, and even attacks, from the media and their own party. The letter progressives wrote to President Biden on Ukraine is a well-researched document that was probably the result of many hours of discussion among CPC members and their staffs. They should have stood by voicing their concerns about the “risk of catastrophic escalation” and opposition to unending military aid. That opposition, by the way, aligns the CPC with the majority of Americans polled recently on this question. To shore up support for their policy proposals and critiques of business as usual, the CPC should also strive to develop a more coherent identity as a caucus that is translatable to those outside of the Beltway, whose daily life does not include keeping up with Congressional affairs.

And lastly, progressives in Congress shouldn’t be anxious about arguments that their critiques hurt Biden’s reelection chances. In fact, by forcing left-of-center ideas to the top of the Democrats’ agenda, the CPC and its allies provide a north star for policy making that, when realized, actually helps Democrats win consequential elections. Perhaps, if the rest of the Democratic caucus was committed to these priorities, the party could begin to win back many of the working-class voters it will certainly need to win in future cycles.

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