A Left Sub-caucus in Congress Could Help Push Medicare for All

Back in 1991, Bernie Sanders helped create the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Now, a sub-caucus within the CPC could help rally the progressive Left.

In These Times Staff

John Canham Clyne’s May 1995 article, “Life of the Party,” covers the early days of the CPC. (Rick Reinhard/Impact Visuals)

After her June 2018 vic­to­ry over incum­bent Rep. Joe Crow­ley in New York’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) float­ed the idea of orga­niz­ing a left cau­cus with­in the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus (CPC).

'The terms may have changed in 2018, but the debate is the same.'

If you can carve out a sub-por­tion, a sub-cau­cus of the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus … but one that oper­ates as a bloc, then you could gen­er­ate real pow­er,” said Oca­sio-Cortez on Jacobin pod­cast The Dig. Though she lat­er clar­i­fied that this was a casu­al” idea and not a draft­ed plan,” it has gen­er­at­ed excite­ment on the Left.

A sim­i­lar idea lay behind the 1991 cre­ation of the CPC by five mem­bers of the House: Ron Del­lums (D‑Calif.), Lane Evans (D‑Ill.), Peter DeFazio (D‑Ore.), Max­ine Waters (D‑Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.). They were soon joined by Bar­ney Frank (D‑Mass.) and Nan­cy Pelosi (D‑Calif.), among oth­ers, in a cau­cus formed to counter the tepid cor­po­rate lib­er­al­ism of Clin­ton Democrats.

In In These Times’ May 1995 cov­er sto­ry, Life of the Par­ty,” John Can­ham-Clyne explored how the CPC mobi­lized against the sig­na­ture leg­is­la­tion of House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich (R‑Ga.), the Con­tract with Amer­i­ca, which was nur­tured in the bull­shit of the rightwing Con­ser­v­a­tive Oppor­tu­ni­ty Soci­ety. This was a group of about a dozen House mem­bers that col­lab­o­rat­ed with the much larg­er con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee (the GOP equiv­a­lent of the CPC). Can­ham-Clyne wrote:

Soon after the [1980] elec­tion a group of young House Repub­li­cans began hold­ing week­ly meet­ings ded­i­cat­ed to build­ing a con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty. Led by Newt Gin­grich, they coa­lesced around a vision of a free-mar­ket mer­i­toc­ra­cy dubbed the Con­ser­v­a­tive Oppor­tu­ni­ty Society.”

Four­teen years lat­er, the sec­ond wave of the Rea­gan Rev­o­lu­tion is crest­ing in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, fed by the ideas and ener­gy of Gin­grich and his con­ser­v­a­tive colleagues.

Can­ham-Clyne went on to write that if the GOP’s red wave in the 1994 midterms rep­re­sents the high tide of a well-orga­nized con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment,” it was being coun­ter­act­ed by the strong under­tow [that] has gath­ered beneath it thanks to the resilient House Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus.” The cau­cus, he wrote, was gain­ing pow­er as rifts in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty become more pronounced”:

With the Democ­rats in dis­ar­ray, the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus alone has fash­ioned a broad intel­lec­tu­al and leg­isla­tive response to the Repub­li­can agen­da. Their 11-point man­i­festo, titled The Pro­gres­sive Promise: Fair­ness,” calls for a crack­down on cor­po­rate crime, the clos­ing of dozens of tax loop­holes for cor­po­ra­tions, an increase in the min­i­mum wage, sin­gle-pay­er health care, deep cuts in defense and intel­li­gence spend­ing, and a $127.2 bil­lion invest­ment over two years in infra­struc­ture repair and envi­ron­men­tal cleanup.

The par­al­lels between 1995 and today are strik­ing, with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s pro­gres­sive and cen­trist wings at odds, par­tic­u­lar­ly over health­care. Can­ham-Clyne wrote:

Gin­grich and the Repub­li­cans have exploit­ed pop­ulist dis­con­tent by denounc­ing the lib­er­al elite,” rail­ing against big gov­ern­ment and appeal­ing to anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment. But many pro­gres­sives believe that focus­ing on bread-and-but­ter issues such as cor­po­rate wel­fare and health­care reform offers a chance to redi­rect pop­ulist sen­ti­ment. … House pro­gres­sives feel that the skit­tish­ness of par­ty lead­ers is cost­ing the Democ­rats impor­tant polit­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ties. The health­care bat­tle was a case in point. The sin­gle pay­er option, unlike Clinton’s unwieldy man­aged care” plan came equipped with for­mi­da­ble grass­roots appeal among the elder­ly, the mid­dle class and the work­ing poor — con­stituen­cies that make up a major­i­ty of Americans.

The terms may have changed in 2018, but the debate is the same. Sin­gle-pay­er par­ti­sans are ral­ly­ing under the ban­ner of Medicare for All, which is where Ocasio-Cortez’s sub-cau­cus, should it come to fruition, could play a promi­nent role.

The Repub­li­can far Right has long under­stood the pow­er of ide­o­log­i­cal­ly cohe­sive cau­cus­es. In 2015, they formed the Free­dom Cau­cus, most of whose known mem­bers also belonged to the Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee. (Since the names of all of the Free­dom Cau­cus mem­bers are not pub­lic, the exact num­ber of U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives who belong to this secret soci­ety is unknown.) In 2015, the Free­dom Cau­cus suc­cess­ful­ly purged for­mer Rep. John Boehn­er (R‑Ohio) as House Major­i­ty Leader.

With the 2018 midterms, the CPC has grown from 78 to 98 mem­bers (includ­ing Bernie Sanders) — or 40 per­cent of House Democ­rats — too large to serve as a cohe­sive vot­ing bloc on many issues. But, if Rep. Oca­sio Cortez’s idea catch­es hold, the Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus may soon be leav­ened with new, left ener­gy — a sub-cau­cus that, if it can hold itself togeth­er and vote as a bloc, could wield con­sid­er­able influ­ence in a Demo­c­ra­t­ic House. Sin­gle pay­er, any­one? A 70 per­cent tax on all income over $10 mil­lion? Free col­lege education?

The times seem ripe for a sub-cau­cus nam­ing contest.

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