Exclusive Interview With Rep. Bruce Braley, Populist Caucus Founder And Chairman

Exclusive Interview With Rep. Bruce Braley, Populist Caucus Founder And Chairman
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Representative Bruce Braley recently announced the formation of a new congressional caucus dedicated to the economic concerns of the middle class. The Iowa Democrat (as reported in The Huffington Post) unveiled the new Populist Caucus last month, and as its chair immediately set to work addressing their concerns in the stimulus package in the House. But since the term "populism" has been used for a variety of movements throughout American history, I thought I'd ask Representative Braley himself what the caucus is all about, and what they're trying to achieve. The interview below is a transcript of our conversation.

From Braley's own press release announcing the caucus' formation, the six goals the caucus will rally behind are:

1. Creating Good Jobs and a Secure Retirement: Creating and retaining good-paying jobs in America, providing fair wages, proper benefits, a level playing field at the negotiating table, and ensuring American workers have secure, solvent retirement plans;

2. Cutting Taxes for the Middle Class: Cutting taxes for the middle class and establishing an equitable tax structure;

3. Affordable Healthcare: Providing affordable, accessible, quality healthcare for all Americans;

4. Quality, Affordable Education: Ensuring quality primary education for all American children, and affordable college education for all who want it;

5. Fair Trade: Defending American competitiveness by fighting for fair trade principles;

6. Protecting Consumers: Protecting consumers, so that Americans can have faith in the safety and effectiveness of the products they purchase.

The new caucus has 23 founding members, all from the House. When Braley was asked, he responded that he would be open to the idea of senators joining, and even open to Republicans who shared the same populist goals.

[Representative Braley announces the formation of the Populist Caucus with Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN), Vice-Chair Betty Sutton (D-OH), Vice-Chair Michael Arcuri (D-NY), Peter Welch (D-VT), Leonard Boswell (D-IA), and John Yarmuth (D-KY).]

[Other founding members (not shown): Vice-Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Joe Courtney (D-CT), Bob Filner (D-CA), Phil Hare (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Steve Kagen (D-WI), David Loebsack (D-IA), Eric Massa (D-NY), Tom Perriello (D-VA), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH), and Louise Slaughter (D-NY).]

The Populist Caucus' first foray into wielding legislative leverage was to push strongly for the "Buy American" provision in Obama's stimulus package, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While they were successful in inserting this language in the House, it was later watered down a bit in the Senate, meaning the first effort of the Populist Caucus was a somewhat qualified success.

Braley has set up a web page on his congressional website for those who would like to keep up with Populist Caucus news, current actions, press clippings, photos, and historical notes.

Below is my interview with the Congressman.

Congressman Braley, I'd like to first thank you for the time you've given me. My first question is a very basic one: How do you define "Populism"?

A populist is someone who fights for common sense economic policies that sustain and expand the middle class. The Populist Caucus is intended to bring members of Congress together around a few core economic issues to strengthen the middle class. Generally speaking, populists in history have championed the needs of working people and advocated a more democratic society. Given this history and philosophy, I think calling a caucus whose chief focus is economic issues the "Populist Caucus" is an obvious choice.

Is there any continuity between your newly-formed group and the Populist Caucus which existed in Congress in the 1980s and 1990s (which included such members as Tom Harkin, Tom Daschle, Al Gore, and Bill Richardson)? Do you share any connections to any other historical Populist groups, or is it merely the concepts of Populism which you hold in common with previous Populists throughout American history?

I actually didn't learn about the first Populist Caucus until my staff was doing research right before the official launch of our caucus. So while there aren't any direct connections in that sense, it is striking to see some of the similarities between our priorities today and the priorities of that original group. For example, both groups were formed in historic moments where the viability of the middle class was being threatened by a larger economic crisis (the earlier Populist Caucus was formed in the midst of the 1980s farm crisis), and both groups share a common commitment to advocating policies that strengthen the middle class. Also, many members of the first Populist Caucus were young freshmen or sophomore Congressmen when that caucus was first formed, like many of the members of our caucus. Because of that, I think we're instilled with a unique energy and drive to change the business-as-usual behavior in Washington that too often leaves the middle class behind.

[Laughs] Well, to be honest, I had never heard of the earlier Populist Caucus either, until I saw the reference on your website. Your staff deserves a pat on the back.

What exactly is required to join the Populist Caucus? Would the caucus accept members from the Senate? Would it accept Republican members? To put it another way, is there some set of core beliefs a member must agree with in order to join, or is it open to anyone who wants to call themselves a Populist?

Right now, the Populist Caucus is made up of Democratic members of the House -- and these members come from diverse backgrounds. We have members affiliated with the Progressive Caucus, the New Democrats, the Blue Dogs, the Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and some who are affiliated with no other caucus. We haven't ruled out adding Republican members, and no one's asked about members of the Senate -- but I'd be open to either.

There are core principles that the Populist Caucus is organized around. Above all, the caucus aims to bring members of Congress together around seven core middle class economic issues: creating good jobs, cutting taxes for the middle class, providing affordable healthcare for all, ensuring quality education for all American children, fair trade, protecting consumers, and corporate accountability. So Populist Caucus members would have to agree with these core priorities.

There is a lot of overlap among the membership of the Populist Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. What goals do the two have in common? Where do they differ?

There are a number of Progressive Caucus members who are Populists, but the Progressive Caucus tends to focus on a broad range of foreign and domestic policies. The Populist Caucus is the only caucus in Congress devoted solely to addressing middle class economic issues. We formed the caucus because the founding members felt like there wasn't enough focus on middle class issues in Washington, and we're going to keep it focused on middle class issues. I think that Blue Dogs, Progressives, and New Democrats can all find common ground on middle class issues, which is why we formed this caucus -- to bring people together and to expand and strengthen the middle class.

Are you planning on introducing specific Populist legislation, or do you see the caucus influencing the way key legislation is written, as with your efforts on the "Buy American" provision in the recent stimulus package? Are there any current bills which the Populist Caucus endorses, or is actively working against? What sorts of bills will the caucus introduce in the future?

We're going to be increasingly active on legislation and plan to be outspoken on these core economic issues. I think one issue you'll see a lot of activity from the Populist Caucus is on trade. Irresponsible trade policies can cost Americans jobs, and we'll be standing up for fair trade. Another big issue we all want to influence is the healthcare debate. Middle class families are being squeezed from a thousand directions these days, but one of the biggest issues is the rising cost of healthcare. Many companies are reducing benefits in the midst of this recession, and families lose coverage when breadwinners become unemployed. The healthcare debate is beginning, and I think we're well-positioned to influence it. But in sum, the Populist Caucus will be active on our seven core economic issues, as I outlined above.

You've been quoted in The Huffington Post about how you've recently gotten "a faceful of ... populist rage" in town hall meetings. Do you think this rage is directed towards anything in specific? Or, for that matter, against anything in specific? Or is it more of a free-floating anxiety from your constituents? And do you think this rage could be harnessed by the Republicans, if Democrats fail to address it adequately and assuage it with legislation designed to calm middle class fears?

I think people are frustrated to see these big corporations and titans of industry, who took risks no middle class person could or would have taken, get off seemingly scot-free after helping usher in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Over the past eight years, Congress and the White House were too often accomplices to irresponsible corporate behavior. Given the mood of the country and our hunger for change, I think President Obama and Congress have a unique opportunity to accomplish some real reforms, but I think it's important for Washington to remember that this crisis is hurting the middle class more than it's hurting CEOs. We need to be responsive to regular folks, or we'll lose this momentum and this moment.

I think people realize that this huge mess will take time to fix, and that it won't happen overnight. Yes, frustration from constituents can be dangerous, but it can also be enabling. We can choose to harness this energy and use it to demand a new era of responsibility and policies that strengthen the middle class. Or, we can ignore this opportunity and face the consequences. The Populist Caucus is all about seizing this moment.

Does the Populist Caucus yet have a position on healthcare reform, or are you waiting to see what President Obama comes up with before injecting yourselves into the debate?

No matter what we do to stabilize the economy, we will not see a full recovery unless we address the growing crisis in access to healthcare. The healthcare delivery system of today is pricing the middle class out of the market, through rising deductibles, co-pays, and premium cost-sharing. Middle class families are hurting because of the high cost of healthcare -- and this cost goes up every year. The Populist Caucus believes that all Americans should have access to affordable, quality healthcare. That's one of our organizing principles. We'll be outspoken advocates for a healthcare reform plan that extends affordable healthcare coverage to every American. We won't be afraid to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty on this issue, either -- too many families' well-being depend on it.

How strongly do you think the Populist Caucus will stick together when it comes down to crucial votes on issues you either support or oppose?

We'll be working toward a common message that brings us together on these middle class issues, and most of the time we'll agree on these issues, especially when it comes to our core economic principles. While we may not agree on every single issue, we will try to reach consensus on core values votes. I'm sure there will be times when some of us disagree with one another. Since the Populist Caucus aims to bring people together around middle class issues, so we can tolerate a little difference of opinion.

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

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