Representatives of 13 progressive organizations are hand-delivering over 150,000 petition signatures Thursday to the Capitol Hill office of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), demanding that she appoint Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to the influential House Ways and Means Committee.
The in-person action, which the groups plan to livestream, is part of an unprecedented, months-long effort by activists to secure greater representation for progressive members of Congress on the influential “money” committees: Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, and Financial Services.
“The grassroots progressive movement is flexing more power than ever before,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, which is participating in the petition delivery and played a lead role in Ocasio-Cortez’s June victory in the Democratic primary. “Now we need to see that energy translated to the most powerful committees in Congress.”
As House speaker-designate, Pelosi heads a Steering and Policy Committee that doles out committee assignments to members of the House’s Democratic majority. The Steering and Policy Committee has decided on committee chairmanships but has yet to meet to discuss other senior roles, let alone the distribution of seats for rank-and-file members, according to a Democratic House leadership aide.
However, in exchange for its support of her speakership, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus already secured a commitment from Pelosi that their members would have proportional representation ― 40 percent of the seats ― on the four “money” panels and the Intelligence Committee.
But left-leaning groups, concerned that Democratic leadership might be reluctant to allot seats to first-term members or grant waivers to incumbent CPC members that allow them to keep existing committee assignments, have mounted a pressure campaign to make sure Pelosi follows through.
That campaign took a public turn on Monday when the same coalition of progressive groups visiting Pelosi’s office on Thursday ― a contingent that includes Justice Democrats, Social Security Works, UltraViolet and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee ― came forward with specific demands.
In addition to calling for Ocasio-Cortez to serve on the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for taxes and spending, the coalition called on Democratic leaders to name CPC co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) to Ways and Means; Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) to Appropriations; and Rep.-elect Katie Porter (Calif.) to Financial Services.
The groups are also asking for leadership to give Jayapal a waiver so she can keep her current seat on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration policy, one of Jayapal’s areas of specialty. (Members of the money committees are limited to serving on those committees alone unless they receive a waiver from leadership.)
The progressive effort to prioritize the “money” committees reflects a realization that influence on those panels is essential to passage of ambitious left-wing legislation, such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
In the recent past, however, centrist Democrats have prioritized seats on those committees more than their liberal counterparts. This year, progressive activists and their allies in Congress hope to change that.
What’s more, the petition delivery is in keeping with Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to leverage the grassroots passion she inspires in the halls of Congress without unconditional deference to norms traditionally adhered to by new lawmakers.
Ocasio-Cortez, a millennial democratic socialist who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, shocked many of her peers by addressing a sit-in by the climate change-focused Sunrise Movement in Pelosi’s office on her first day of new member orientation in November.
She has since stuck by her demand for the creation of a select committee on climate change tasked with drafting a “Green New Deal” that would convert the economy to renewable energy by 2035 and guarantee every American a job in the process. She also wants the committee’s members to not receive money from the fossil fuel industry.
As of Wednesday, 40 members of the next Congress had publicly endorsed a committee with those characteristics.
Democratic leaders are supportive of the creation of a committee, but not necessarily one with the strength Ocasio-Cortez envisions. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader-designate, said Wednesday that, unlike a previous iteration of the panel under the last Democratic majority, Ocasio-Cortez’s climate change committee would not have subpoena power.
Ocasio-Cortez immediately objected. The Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats likewise blasted Hoyer’s comments in a joint statement to the media.
“If true, this decision is an insult to the thousands of young people across the country who have been calling on the Democratic Party leadership to have the courage to stand up to fossil fuel billionaires and make sure our generation has a livable future,” said Varshini Prakash, a spokeswoman for the Sunrise Movement.