Forget the Twitter drama: Here's how the newly energized progressive caucus is winning where it counts
Rep. Pramila Jayapal on CNN (screengrab)

Underlying the resistance of Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership to the “Squad” of progressive freshmen Democrats of color is a presumption that, while it’s nice to dream big about Medicare for All and Green New Deals, the mainstream of the House Democratic Caucus—or at least the members from purple district—live in the center. It’s impossible to fulfill ambitions beyond that narrow sliver of political terra firma, or so the theory goes.

But the reality of the past couple months of experience renders a negative verdict on that theory. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, newly energized by determined leadership and many more members, has been winning repeated battles on domestic and foreign policy, revealing a caucus that can unify behind popular proposals on the left. The wins keep racking up in ways that are too numerous to be anomalous.

I recognize that these progressive votes were taken in a kind of model Congress, where there’s no Senate willing to concur or a president willing to sign off. To that extent, they were free votes. But they do set a course for the future, when Democrats might have a governing majority again. If these votes are any indication, the next flurry of liberal policymaking will look far different from the last one.

The winning streak started in June, when Democrats passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which would supply lawful permanent resident status for immigrants who entered the United States as children, as well as others here under Temporary Protected Status because of situations in their home countries. Those bills have costs attached, because effectively legalizing DREAMers and other immigrants makes them eligible for federal benefits. The cost was around $34.6 billion over ten years.

The usual deficit hawks warned about offsetting the costs, and indeed the House has a rule barring new programs without offsets, known as pay-go. When that rule passed, I expressed concern that this would dim the ambitions of activist liberal policymaking by forcing budget modesty, even as Republicans blow giant holes in the budget with tax cuts.

However, the Progressive Caucus persuaded Speaker Pelosi and the House leadership to simply waive the pay-go provision. Only nine Democrats, mostly first-time members in purple districts, rejected the pay-go waiver; the vast majority agreed that the $34 billion price tag was trivial relative to the benefits of allowing immigrants who have only known America the ability to participate in society. That includes the financial benefits: legalizing DREAMers puts them on the books in ways that can increase tax revenues. That deficit hysterics only have nine votes in the Democratic caucus is a sea change.

Last week, two more bills passed the House. The first, a repeal of the so-called Cadillac tax, an Obamacare-era excise tax on high-end insurance plans, might not seem like a Progressive Caucus win, since it got a whopping 419 votes. But here again, the deficit hawks, who have always preferred this tax as a way to force health care spending downward, were drowned out. The $200 billion in expected costs over the next decade were not offset.

The Cadillac tax, scheduled to go into effect in 2022, always hung on a theory that, by nudging health plan costs down, workers would be rewarded with a boost in pay. To this day there’s no actual study showing this would be the case, and experience suggests that businesses hoard corporate profits without pressure from unions and tight labor markets to return the excess to workers. Without those channels, taxing good health plans just denies benefits to workers that businesses suck up for themselves.

Labor leaders, who negotiated good health plans and would see them taxed if this provision went into place, vigorously opposed the idea. In the Democratic caucus, progressives drove opposition to the tax as attacking the wrong problem in healthcare—quantities instead of prices—and they won. Just three Democrats, all members of the New Democrat Coalition, opposed the bill.

Last week’s passage of a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour by 2025, which would give a raise to 27 million workers, showed an even bigger triumph for the Progressive Caucus. Democrats had been squabbling all year over whether to apply a $15 minimum wage uniformly, or add variation by region, a key priority of centrist members. Ultimately, progressives rounded up the votes for a $15 minimum without exceptions, after adding a relatively meaningless study on the wage’s effects on small business after two years of enactment and a one-year addition to the phase-in. The bill also eliminated the tipped minimum wage, which gave an unconscionably low pay scale to tipped workers like waitstaff, and sub-minimums for workers with disabilities.

Only fourteen Democrats voted for a motion to recommit that would have exempted certain businesses from the wage hike. On the final vote, just six centrist Democrats opposed, dwarfed by the many more Democrats in purplish areas who voted for it. Another win is on the way. After initially saying that a popular bill to increase Social Security benefits wouldn’t get a vote, Speaker Pelosi has relented, with the vote expected in September.

The victories are not confined to domestic policy. Progressive antiwar Democrats have led numerous bipartisan votes to deny the president a free hand on war-making: a War Powers Act vote to end U.S. participation in Yemen’s civil war, an appropriations rider denying funding for a future conflict with Iran unless it has specific Congressional authorization, and a block on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Democratic war caucus on these votes was microscopic; the center of gravity has shifted to seizing a larger role for Congress in foreign policy, and to reject further projections of power in the Middle East.

The dynamics of caucus votes obviously change when they might actually have a chance at passing. And indeed, on the one vote that has mattered in the first six months of this Congress, Pelosi sided with the moderates in passing a no-strings border supplemental bill that funneled more money to Trump to impose cruelties on migrants. This vote fractured the caucus, and portends potentially ugly bipartisan votes on hot-button issues. However, the lack of action on the renegotiated NAFTA, a natural for centrist Democrats to triangulate, shows that not all House votes have to end in heartbreak for the left.

Looking forward, locking members into popular liberal positions now makes it easier when the time comes to actually turn the policy into law; their vote is already on their record, after all. And the caucus may grow more liberal, if primary challenges to older members like Richie Neal and Elliot Engel and conservadems like Henry Cuellar and Dan Lipinski are successful.

Most important, these votes do foretell the trajectory of Democratic policy thinking. The caucuses of House progressives and moderates are relatively similar in size; there’s no reason that the House’s effectively free time couldn’t be spent passing tax-advantaged savings accounts and the like. Instead, after some early missteps, the roster of bills has been pretty solid, and in head-to-head matchups, progressives are succeeding in dragging more members to their side. Solid organizing from Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal has paid off.

While Democrats who play strategists on TV fret about a lurch to the left, members in contested districts are routinely siding with progressives on pocketbook issues and even matters of war. Maybe that long-lost Democratic unity is finally coming to pass.