Progressive Caucus Stands Down On 'Pay-Go' Battle

The objections of Ro Khanna and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were not enough to stop the pay-as-you-go budget rule.

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives easily enacted a set of rules on Thursday that included “pay-go” budget limits loathed by some progressive members of Congress and outside activists. Just three Democrats voted against it: Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii). An equivalent number of moderate Republicans voted for the rules.

These progressives object to the pay-as-you-go, or “pay-go,” rule because it would prevent legislative priorities like Medicare for All to come up for a vote unless they were paid for.

However, the Congressional Progressive Caucus effectively decided it was not worth tanking the entire set of rules governing the new Congress to jettison pay-go, since they had received assurances from Democratic leaders that the provision would always be waived to allow progressive bills to proceed to the House floor.

“With the assurances that PAYGO can be waived, we do plan to vote for the House rules package and proceed with legislation to fix the statute,” CPC co-chairs Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said in a Wednesday statement.

Progressive congressional leaders have also noted that a change in House rules alone would not clear the path for deficit-increasing legislation to become law. Since pay-go is also written into the legal code, Congress would have to enact another law overturning it ― or otherwise exempting a particular bill from it.

Reps. Jayapal and Pocan promised Wednesday that they would introduce a bill overturning pay-go entirely.

Asked about pay-go on Thursday, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a member of the CPC, likewise cited the need for a larger legal fix.

“Congress can always change that law. And I think I will be supportive of that move,” he said.

When Democrats re-took the House in 2007, they reinstated expired pay-go rules requiring any new spending to be offset. But following a decade of frustration with Republicans’ willingness to discard their professed fiscal conservatism to cut taxes for the wealthy ― and a burgeoning field of research downplaying the importance of low budget deficits ― many Democrats have soured on pay-go as a vestige of a misguided era of centrist triangulation.

That’s why Reps. Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez staged a last-minute protest to thwart pay-go on Wednesday, despite the CPC co-chairs’ willingness to accommodate it (provided the co-chairs had the proper assurances from Democratic leaders).

The outspoken progressive members vowed Wednesday to vote against the bill, generating national attention that raised the possibility of another internecine Democratic showdown.

Ocasio-Cortez’s staff claimed that she would try to rally the 18 “no” votes necessary to kill the package.

But Democratic leaders were confident they had the votes. By Wednesday night, it became clear that even incoming Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the freshman class’s progressive firebrands, would be voting “yes.” In her statement, Omar noted that the rules package contained a change that would permit her to wear the Muslim headscarf, or hijab, on the House floor.

Khanna insisted in an interview Thursday that his public statement was intended as an expression of principled disagreement, rather than a wager that he could stop the measure.

“Pay-go is terrible economic policy. And I am voting what I believe is my conscience on the issue,” Khanna told HuffPost.

The eleventh-hour effort by Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez showcased the potential power ― and pitfalls ― of would-be efforts to leverage a smaller ad-hoc group of progressive Democrats to shape Congress’ agenda.

The CPC has eschewed emulating the far-right House Freedom Caucus, whose smaller but more ideologically coherent membership has allowed it to operate as a bloc capable of exercising veto power over any legislation GOP leaders introduce. The caucus instead welcomes all members, including some who belong to the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, while permitting smaller groups to take stands of their choosing.

Thus far, the CPC has had more success when its co-chairs exercise their leverage in concert with outside activists.

Jayapal and Pocan demanded that CPC members receive proportional representation ― 40 percent of the seats ― on five influential committees in which they were previously underrepresented, in exchange for endorsing California Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s speakership.

They also blessed a successful effort to block a rule that would have required three-quarters support in the House for any tax increase on all but the wealthiest Americans.

Omar acknowledged the latter accomplishment in her statement about voting for the rules.

“I am pleased that the rules package will include important reforms I helped negotiate,” Omar said.

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