POLITICS

The Progressive Caucus Used Freedom Caucus Tactics To Win On Prescription Drugs

Is this the new normal, or the exception to the rule?
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) hold a news conference
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) hold a news conference in May 2019.

WASHINGTON ― As House Democrats finish their first year in the majority since 2010, the Progressive Caucus is ending 2019 with its most significant legislative victory this Congress: The passage of a prescription drug bill.

From the very beginning, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been heavily involved with this prescription drug measure, which passed Thursday by a vote of 230-192. The CPC was instrumental in writing the legislation, moving it through Congress, and most recently, fighting to expand how many drugs will be subject to negotiation between the government and pharmaceutical companies.

Against the wishes of progressive members, Democratic leadership was moving forward with a bill that would subject at least 25 drugs to price negotiation, with that number growing to 30 drugs in five years and 35 in 10 years. But in a rare show of force, the Progressive Caucus delicately made it clear to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that they would block the bill from getting to the floor by voting down the rule ― unless Pelosi made changes.

The speaker had no choice but to play ball.

Pelosi agreed to increase the number of drugs up for negotiation to at least 50, and she restored a provision that would eventually restrict the ability of pharmaceutical companies to raise the price of a drug above the rate of inflation.

For now, it’s a symbolic victory. The bill is expected to go nowhere in the Republican Senate, and for all of President Donald Trump’s bluster about lowering prescription drug prices, he seems very willing to accept the pharmaceutical industry’s talking points against the legislation.

However, passage of the measure now could lay down a marker for a future president and Congress ― and the willingness of the Progressive Caucus to finally use hardball tactics to extract concessions from Democratic leaders could be a signal of a tougher, more intrepid minority faction.

A Freedom Caucus Of The Left?

All year, the Progressive Caucus has struggled with flexing its muscle. It’s been pushed around on spending caps, immigration, defense policies, even internal House rules and committee powers. And the reluctance of progressive leaders to use hardball tactics ― like voting down rules ― has left some members questioning whether the CPC should be the only left-leaning caucus in Congress.

Over the last five months, HuffPost interviewed more than two dozen Democrats about the prospect of starting a new caucus, seeking to find out why there isn’t already a Freedom Caucus of the left.

The reasons vary. Some just aren’t interested. Those that are worry that they don’t have the numbers. Others want to avoid any comparison to the Freedom Caucus. And still others just don’t think Freedom Caucus tactics would work for Democrats.

But if there was one member who seemed most open to the idea, it was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“I think we should exercise power,” Ocasio-Cortez told HuffPost in September. “And I think we leave it on the table. I think that we don’t always play things out at our maximum power.”

Ocasio-Cortez was careful to note many of the differences between the Freedom Caucus and a potential counterbalancing group on the left. But she was enthusiastic about the idea of having “a critical mass of that 20 to 25” progressives that could “throw that weight around and exercise power on behalf of working people.”

“Like, hell yeah,” Ocasio-Cortez continued, “I think that should be done.”

Even this week, Ocasio-Cortez told HuffPost she’s been arguing that the Progressive Caucus should be smaller and have more committed members. “I don’t think that we just allow anyone to just walk through the door and be able to call themselves a progressive when their voting record doesn’t do it, when they don’t go to the mat on the issues,” she said.

“There’s a lot that we’re leaving on the table,” Ocasio-Cortez said of the CPC. “And it’s certainly disappointing.”

Even before Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in, she was asking some liberal members what they thought about organizing a new caucus. And in July, when the frustration with Speaker Pelosi’s opposition to impeachment was reaching its zenith, staff from some of the most progressive offices in Congress met and discussed the prospect of creating a new group.

But the conversations never really went anywhere, partly because Pelosi eventually came around on impeachment after the Ukraine scandal came to light, but also because there just aren’t that many members interested.

Still, some in the CPC are willing to admit that a large Progressive Caucus — it currently has 97 members — might become incompatible with an effective one. An illustrative feature of the caucus’s diversity is the presence of 14 members who also belong to the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, including CPC Vice Chair Donald Norcross of New Jersey.

“In the future, it’s either going to get tighter, or we’re going to have subgroups that want to do things differently,” former CPC co-chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told HuffPost. “I just see that is going to happen at some point.” 

Just Say ‘No’

If you ask left-leaning Democrats about potentially forming a new group in the vein of the Freedom Caucus, you’ll hear a lot of reasons why they won’t: They consider the right-wing GOP group the obstructionist, “hell no caucus” that’s afraid of compromise.

“I’m in favor of strong progressive change for this country, but I also appreciate the act of governing,” Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told HuffPost.

“The Freedom Caucus has this attitude, ‘It’s my way or the highway, either I get everything I want, or we get nothing,’” McGovern said. “And I just don’t think that’s good governance.”

When we asked Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) why there isn’t a Freedom Caucus of the left, his answer was that progressives “actually cares about what happens.”

“It’s not just, you know, ‘Hey, hold my beer while I blow the whole world up,’” Huffman continued.

Another liberal Californian, Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, had a similar take ― that the ideology of the left wasn’t conducive to a minority faction whose primary goal is to block things. “The ideology is not about government being the enemy,” Takano said.

The Caucus of ‘Yes’

A common refrain from the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs ― Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) ― was that the Freedom Caucus is the caucus of “no,” and the Progressive Caucus is the caucus of “yes.”

“It’s totally different scenarios,” Jayapal told HuffPost in September. “And I think we’ve been effective at pulling our caucus together at some key moments.”

“If you look at the priorities that the [Democratic] Caucus has been moving,” Jayapal continued, “it has the Progressive Caucus’s stamp on all of them.”

At the time, Jayapal and Pocan pointed to the prescription drug bill, as well as more progressive version of the Dream Act, stricter gun legislation, and a $15 minimum wage as evidence that the CPC is effective.

But that’s a generous assessment of the Progressive Caucus’ influence. The Dream Act and gun regulations were bills with broad support among House Democrats. The $15 minimum wage passed in July after Democratic leadership ended a protracted battle with moderate members by adding a year to the phase-in process. And even the prescription drug bill that passed Thursday will do little to help the uninsured with high medicine costs.

Those involved in the 2015 fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal look back fondly on the CPC’s willingness to collapse legislation tied to the pact, forcing the Obama administration to ratify the deal with Republican votes.

By contrast, recalled a former aide to a progressive House Democrat, “You’re really hard pressed these days to find situations where the CPC is going to buck party leadership on something big.”

Still, the drug negotiation bill marks a major moment for the CPC. While they never directly threatened Pelosi with tanking the rule ― threats aren’t usually the best way to convince the speaker ― they made it clear they had the votes. And if there’s one thing Pelosi does respect, it’s votes.

Pocan told HuffPost they never had to use the threat of voting no on the rule as a “club,” but they did communicate their frustration with the legislation and made it clear to Pelosi that she could have “some disruption.”

Pocan said he’d like to believe that the arguments swayed Pelosi ― that they weren’t really dragging the bill further to the left so much as doing more of what the bill already promised ― “but I’m also pragmatic.”

Speaking of which, Pocan doesn’t believe there’s any chance this bill will become law with Trump as president. “It is far more likely that we will invent a hair growth method for me in the next year that suddenly I will, you know, look like Frank Zappa,” said Pocan, who is mostly bald. 

Again, he sees the legislation more as a marker. He’s hopeful prescription drug prices will become an issue in the presidential debates, and he thinks voters will be able to contrast Democrats working to make medicines cheaper with Republicans who sided with pharmaceutical companies.

But Pocan is also aware that this was a significant strategic win. One of the toughest parts for the CPC is that, even with nearly 100 members, they hardly ever have the votes to buck leadership. This time they did. 

How To Win Friends And Influence People

When it comes down to the math of 218 ― the majority threshold to pass legislation in the House ― there may not be the 20 “no” votes needed to hold up Democrats from passing partisan bills. On the Republican side, there definitely are. The Freedom Caucus has demonstrated that principle many times.

But why exactly are Republicans more willing to bash their leaders and extract concessions for their base?

Democrats repeatedly pointed to the Freedom Caucus holding back votes on government funding. Ultimately, these Democrats said, that’s a threat progressives just can’t make. They fundamentally believe in keeping the government open, even if means turning over money to line-items they don’t like.

But there’s another reason Democrats are less anxious to start their own group: internal party dynamics.

When Republicans started the Freedom Caucus, the roughly two dozen conservatives who first joined had all largely been ostracized from leadership. They were thrown onto the worst committees, they were constantly at war with then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and they were nowhere near the real power of the Republican Party. For Democrats, it’s a different story.

While Pelosi may make the final decision on just about everything, progressives at least have a seat at the table. Republican leadership staffers love to mock Democrats for having positions like “chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee,” “assistant speaker,” or “co-chairman for the Democratic Steering Committee,” but those seemingly meaningless positions actually have placated a lot of members. 

Looking for a quote critical of leadership? Go to any Democrat who’s been in Congress for a few terms, and you very well may get a response like, “Well, technically, I am leadership.”

‘We’re Different’

If you ask Democrats themselves why they haven’t formed their own Freedom Caucus for the left, the other main thing they’ll cite are the ideological differences between liberals and conservatives.

“Progressives have an aspiration beyond policy,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told HuffPost in July. “We hope to see the reconciliation of the country along the vision of a pluralistic America.”

Beyond this high-falutin vision, Khanna would be a prime target for joining a far-left group in Congress. He’s suggested there should be tougher criteria for CPC membership, like support for “Medicare for All.” And he told HuffPost that, depending on who was involved in a new group ― members like McGovern and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) ― he might be interested. But he made it clear that he saw more power in slowly persuading people to adopt more progressive policies.

“The worst thing we could do is [not be] strategic in building a coalition through persuasion and mobilization,” he said.

Pocan also recognizes that proactively trying to pass legislation is different from blocking it. “If you just want to defeat things, those are good tactics,” Pocan said of the Freedom Caucus this week. “If you want to enact things, they’re not the same tactics.”

But as much as Pocan resists comparisons to the Freedom Caucus, and as much as he doesn’t want to make it sound like the Progressive Caucus threatened to tank the Democratic rule for the prescription drug bill, he seems aware that polling CPC members on whether they would vote against the rule brought Pelosi back to the negotiating table.

“We finally realized after not getting answers for a very long time that we had to get people’s attention,” he said.

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