These House Committees Could Make Or Break A Progressive Agenda

The fight for the future of the Democratic Party is already happening on Capitol Hill.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), center, joins a group photo Wednesday with the 116th Congress outside the U.S. Capitol.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), center, joins a group photo Wednesday with the 116th Congress outside the U.S. Capitol.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It is, all things considered, a pretty good time to be a progressive in the Democratic Party. Progressive ideas about inequality, health care and corporate power have taken hold in the ideological mainstream, and after a decisive midterm election, at least 36 fresh Democrats will arrive in Washington ― at least 22 of them new members of what will be the most expansive Congressional Progressive Caucus in history.

But there’s more to exercising power in American politics than winning elections. On much of the key strategic jockeying in Washington that matters most, progressives have a history of losing badly. One of the most important arenas now in play is the Byzantine battle for committee assignments: who gets to sit on which panels devoted to crafting legislation. And the outcome of that struggle may well have greater influence on the shape of the party’s policy agenda than the higher-profile contests for leadership positions. Bills are written and amended in committee, establishing subjects of political change and setting the scope of legislative debate.

In the past, progressive lawmakers have ceded battles over some of the most powerful committees in Congress to more conservative Democrats. “Too often, what’s lacking is a strategy,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a nonprofit devoted to expanding Social Security and Medicare. “Our activists or champion members in Congress get bought cheap by promises. Leadership can promise to fight for anything ... and it can even be a sincere promise, but if the committees are stacked with Wall Street people, Wall Street always wins.”

This time around, according to Lawson and other activists roaming the halls on Capitol Hill in the days since the Nov. 6 election, progressives are getting more serious about the mechanics of power.

Consumer groups, labor unions including the Communication Workers of America, and two leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus ― Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) ― are working to secure posts for left-wing Democrats on the committees with jurisdiction over what matters most on Capitol Hill: money. On Thursday, Pocan and Jayapal issued a joint statement indicating they’d received a commitment from presumed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to guarantee CPC members are “proportionally represented” on the major House committees.

Few major pieces of domestic legislation make it through the House without hitting at least one of four ultra-powerful committees: Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, or Financial Services. Appropriations is responsible for government spending. Ways and Means handles tax policy. Financial Services and Energy and Commerce oversee the rules of exchange for everything from prescription drugs to housing to high-speed securities trading. Each panel exercises so much authority that official party rules forbid any member from serving on more than one without obtaining a special waiver from leadership.

These aren’t just panels that oversee obscure regulations. Any bill to pass Medicare for all, for instance, has to clear both the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Ways and Means Committee. Ditto for any legislation attacking high prescription drug prices.

Progressives are typically underrepresented on all four of these committees. While making up 40 percent of the current House Democratic roster, members of the CPC account for just 27 percent of the Democratic seats on the House Financial Services Committee, 28 percent of the Energy and Commerce Committee, 31 percent of the Ways and Means Committee, and 36 percent of the Appropriations Committee.

Part of the problem has to do with personalities ― young lefty activists don’t grow up to be accountants or bank examiners. The most common career path to Congress for serious progressives involves at least a few years as a civil rights attorney, and so 76 percent of the Judiciary Committee is made up of CPC members. It’s more fun to serve on a committee with a lot of like-minded members ― it’s easier to get things done on issues like immigration or criminal justice reform. The prospect of battling both Republicans and conservative Democrats over offshore derivatives trading doesn’t carry the same allure.

But much of the problem for progressives is about the party’s leadership-driven fundraising strategy. Democratic leaders don’t restrict lawmakers to one A-list committee for the sake of decentralizing legislative power. They do it to spread the wealth. Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Financial Services are magnets for campaign contributions. Every major corporation in America has something at stake on all of them, and they spend heavily to see their interests represented.

The Progressive Caucus vs. The New Democrat Coalition

The New Democrat Coalition ― the traditional intraparty rival of the CPC ― is a 68-member crop of self-styled moderates with close ties to the corporate establishment. Much of the New Democrat agenda is defined in opposition to progressive priorities. They’re against Medicare for all and are sharply critical of the recent Abolish ICE campaign but have devoted much of their legislative energy in recent years to bank deregulation, supporting President Donald Trump’s recent rollback of several rules adopted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

New Democrats know how to play the game. Though the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee is Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a CPC member, she has to contend with the interests of New Democrats on her panel, who outnumber CPC members 11 to 7. Waters can’t just shoot down every bank-friendly bill that New Democrats cook up with Republicans on her committee.

Centrist Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) has been encouraging freshman lawmakers who have pledged their allegiance to the New Democrats’ cause to pursue seats on the Financial Services Committee, emphasizing the fundraising potential the slots offer his new colleagues, according to multiple sources familiar with his remarks. Gottheimer spokesman Matt Fried denied that the congressman brought up fundraising with other members, calling it “a lie.” “He’d never say that,” Fried said.

It isn’t a new strategy. New Democrat chair and Financial Services Committee member Jim Himes (D-Conn.) raised over $964,000 from the financial sector for the 2018 cycle alone, part of a $2.3 million haul he secured despite representing a safely blue New England district. Himes turned over $560,000 of this total to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which in turn spends on behalf of Democrats around the country.

New Democrats aren’t just playing for seats on committees. They’re making aggressive maneuvers to control key leadership slots and even subcommittee chairs. Though CPC members have floated the idea of creating DCCC co-chairs and advanced Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) as their progressive stalwart, the plan hasn’t received much traction. All four members of Congress who have put their names forward as candidates for DCCC chair are New Democrats.

Trade And Finance

On the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a New Democrat, is trying to oust Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) in a contest to chair the panel’s subcommittee on international trade. The trade panel is extremely powerful, particularly for its size, with jurisdiction over every industry involved in trade negotiations, from Big Pharma to heavy manufacturing to high finance. Pascrell has put in the work as the ranking member on that subcommittee with Republicans in control, but Kind is trying to gin up support by invoking a rare claim on bizarre rules governing seniority ― which is typically an overriding factor in Democratic leadership contests. Though both Pascrell and Kind were sworn in on the same day, Kind is technically more senior ― his last name is ahead of Pascrell’s alphabetically.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Pascrell hasn’t received any complaints about his leadership so far, and he sent a letter to his colleagues the day after the election affirming his commitment to remaining the top Democrat on the panel. But it will ultimately be up to the party to decide who stays in charge.

And even this decision depends on further complications. If Kind wants to press Pascrell for the subcommittee gavel, the Ways and Means Committee ultimately gets to decide whether Pascrell should be removed. And we won’t know who the members of the Ways and Means Committee are until leadership decides on assignments.

This is not merely a matter of signaling for 2020. The position will play an outsized role in the congressional response to the Trump administration’s very real and frequent changes to U.S. trade policy. Kind is an old-school free-trader, an advocate of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership. That puts him out of step with the party more broadly ― just 28 House Democrats voted for TPP in 2018, while 158 opposed it. (Though in another previous, failed vote, the Democratic yeas went as high as 40.)

Even with Pelosi committed to a proportional representation for the CPC, it will require actual CPC members to step up and put their names forward to secure posts on the money committees. So far, most of the leading freshman lefties ― Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) ― are staying mum in public about their preferences.

It’s always hard to get new members on powerful committees in a system that rewards seniority, but activists are marshaling arguments. Ocasio-Cortez ousted Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary ― shouldn’t she get his Ways and Means Committee seat? Pressley defeated Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), one of the few reliably progressive votes on the Financial Services Committee, while Omar is replacing one of the others, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). Shouldn’t they take over the committee seats, as well?

The Take On Wall Street campaign, a coalition of consumer groups, labor unions and civil rights organizations, is hoping to secure slots on the Financial Services Committee for incoming Reps. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), Colin Allred (D-Texas), Jason Crow (D-Colo.), Katie Hill (D-Calif.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.).

“Financial Services is one of those sort of unsung places,” said Porter McConnell, who directs the campaign. “Housing, jobs, remittances, retirement, student loans, big banks, corruption ― it’s a huge list, and there’s a lot you can do with it.”

Though she acknowledges that in the past the committee has “been used as a vehicle for a lot of terrible things,” she’s optimistic that “that’s starting to change.”

“I think there’s a growing realization that you can’t talk about economic justice without talking about racial justice, and you can’t talk about racial justice without talking about economic justice.”

This article has been updated to include a comment from Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s office and his fundraising numbers. The fundraising numbers for Rep. Himes have also been updated to include contributions from both individuals and political action committees.

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