Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Daily Kos: The Netroots and the House Progressives: Toward More Progressive Policy"

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has had some successes in recent weeks, particularly in holding the line against the Blue Dogs on a trigger-free public option in health care reform (remember that?).
Three weeks ago, they outlined their requirements for a public option in health care reform, and in the ensuing weeks, have reiterated their opposition to any plan that does not include one, along with the black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American caucuses.

Leaders of four Democratic caucuses representing more than 120 members of Congress said Wednesday that they would vote against any health overhaul legislation that excludes a "robust" government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers.

The leaders of the black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and Progressive caucuses said at a news conference that they would consider a government-run plan to be robust if it resembles Medicare, the health entitlement for the elderly. The plan would have to be available to everyone in the country and could not be subject to a "trigger," or some other mechanism that might delay its implementation, the lawmakers said....

"What we’re telling you this time: it’s different," [Lynn Woolsey] said. "Not that we’re going to vote with Republicans. But if reform legislation comes to the floor and doesn’t include a real and robust public option, we will fight it with everything we have."

Now, the CPC in the past has had a hard time coalescing to the point that they could actually leverage their power and their numbers, and they haven't necessarily been organized enough to do that. But the dynamics behind all that have shifted significantly since November. Some of the fundamental structural changes in the Congress could make it possible, finally, for the CPC and allied caucuses to become the deal makers and breakers for more progressive policy.

The first significant change in the dynamics is having a Democrat in the White House, and a Democrat with some very ambitious policy goals: economic recovery, transportation, energy, health care. While the White House might be cautious (witness a severely watered down ACES bill), it is going to be pushing major legislation through in the next session, and won't be threatening vetoes over any aggressively progressive stuff. This ambitious, must-move legislation provides some key opportunities for progressives to have their imprint on that legislation.

The second change is a tactical one, with Raul Grijalva moving into a co-chair position on the caucus. Grijalva is a pretty savvy head-counter and maneuver, and is actively doing something that hasn't really been done by the Caucus much before--he's whipping. He, along with Keith Ellison, whipped on health care reform to find out what bottom line members would accept. The majority of them are single payer advocates, but the majority are realists who know what they're going to have from the Senate to work with. The overwhelming majority of members are behind a robust public option, but more importantly, the whipping effort has managed to achieve a critical mass of them who would be willing to vote against a plan without one.

The final structural change for the House, beyond the sheer majority of Democrats, is the degree to which the Republicans will be obnoxious and be willing to obstruct everything coming down the path. Because the Republican caucus has decided to throw temper tantrums rather than trying to act strategically to change legislation, the entire Republican caucus can be written off when it comes to vote counting. Thus, the 80 votes of the Progressive Caucus--the 120 votes when you throw in the allied caucuses--have to be there to pass anything.

Summarizing, given those structural changes, what do we know about the individual caucuses, and how can we effectively work with them to strengthen their position?

  • Caucuses are not big or powerful enough to move legislation on their own.
  • What they can do is draw bright line criteria to change the content of legislation, e.g. no health plan without a robust public option.
  • In general, it works best for legislation that must move (either regularly scheduled or politically key).
  • The bright line criteria should be clear enough to be able to easily tell whether it has been met.
  • A critical mass of the caucus must be willing to withhold vote.

That last bullet point is obviously the key. Part of it is going to require a, for lack of a better term, cultural shift within the CPC, which has operated on a very small "d" democratic, loose basis. Contrast it with the Blue Dogs, who are highly organized and very protective of one another. For instance, on tough floor votes, where one Blue Dog might be considered vulnerable to arm twisting by the leadership to vote against what the Blue Dogs see as in their best interest, they'll physically surround that member, providing a human buffer zone to keep that member "protected" from leadership. It sounds childish, but it's how it works. That's the mentality the CPC and allied caucuses are going to have to maintain, however, to hold tough lines. The new generation of leadership in the CPC seems to recognize that.

So what does it mean for us, the netroots, and other progressive grassroots organizations. I've been spending a lot of time talking this over with Darcy Burner, former congressional candidate and now director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation. Darcy, being the systems geek that she is, views it in terms of diagrams, as you see on the right.

As part of the progressive movement, we're in a sort of a feedback loop with the Caucus, working on both the policy formation and policy framing efforts--sort of the stick part of the process, as well as the "amplification" side--more the carrot part where we do our best to shore up their good efforts, provide them the public support, the financial support and, frankly, the ongoing pressure they need to have to become what will essentially be a progressive stop to the Senate.

Don't ever underestimate the pressure part of this, on the House, on the Senate, on the White House. Even Max Baucus came, too late, to recognize the importance of the left position in any debate:

He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a "single-payer plan," not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.

A solid left flank is absolutely necessary for our Democratic leaders in giving them the room they need to make policy more progressive--the Overton Window, if you will. That means ongoing pressure on even our left to keep shoring them up, to keep giving them the reason to push policy leftward. It means helping them to draw those bright line criteria for what is acceptable progressive policy.

It means helping the Caucus whip, as Jane has been doing on the public option. By the way, FDL Whip Count Tool is invaluable. I recommend you use it, frequently.

The CPC has a major challenge ahead of it. After years of functioning as the opposition, they now have to understand that they have the power to govern, and they have to figure out how to use. Up until now, it has been structurally impossible for them to win any battle, so they were forced into the position of being the opposition, always fighting, and always losing. That's changing for them, to the extent that they have determined the House line on health care reform. Here's Nancy Pelosi:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post Thursday that a health care overhaul that did not include a public option wouldn't make it through the House because it "wouldn't have the votes."(...)

Asked by HuffPost if she would allow a reform package without a public option out of the House, she responded: "It's not a question of allow. It wouldn't have the votes."

The health care reform fight is the most critical policy fight this Congress will face, not just because of the stakes for the entire country and the economy, but for the progressive movement. If the progressives in the House of Representatives can force this Congress into passing a health care reform bill with a solid, robust public option, the dynamics not just in the House, but in the entire Congress, will be dramatically altered. Harry Reid won't have to worry about whether he can get Ben Nelson or Mary Landrieux on a bill, he'll have to worry about whether he can get Senate legislation past the House progressives.

As it should be.

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