Congressional Progressive Caucus Increasingly Vocal, Critical of Obama

Since President Obama’s inauguration and Rick Santelli’s movement-making call to action that inspired the tea party, national politics has been a triangular affair, with the Republican “establishment” caught in the middle between an anti-incumbent reaction and a seemingly united Democratic front. This triangular dynamic guiding policymaking in the past few years — from the credit downgrade to the fiscal cliff to the government shutdown – has led to the exclusion of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party from having much of a say in legislative affairs.

Like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is not without its own internal fissure – one that could widen and surface preceding the presidential primary process when the Democratic Party will have to reinvent itself in the waning months of the Obama era.

An ideological and organizational X-ray of the Democratic Party in Congress reveals a surprising split: there are approximately 20 members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition in the legislature, while the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) boasts more than 60 members. With progressive and even nonpartisan outlets and pundits calling for progressive candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Governor Martin O’Malley (D-Md.) to run, progressives – much ignored in the fracas of the last several years — might begin to find venues to ventilate their ideas.

The CPC — founded in 1991 and currently led by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — has been especially active since the 111th Congress took its collective seat in 2009 and has not been afraid to challenge the president during his politically-mandated drift rightward since taking office.

For instance, in addition to advocating for a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act, progressives have pushed for the Sanders-Leahy-Welch “State Leadership in Healthcare Act” to expedite the implementation of Section 1332 of the health care law, which provides waivers to states interested in finding innovative ways to administer health care. Progressives believe that Section 1332 can be a vehicle for the implementation of single-payer or single-payer-like insurance systems in states such as Vermont, Hawaii, Washington, and others.

Perhaps the CPC’s most significant contribution to public debate has been its iterations of budget proposals that counter the austeritymeasures advocated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

In 2011, the CPC unveiled “The People’s Budget” in the House, and in 2012 it proposed “The Budget for All.” In 2014, it unveiled “The Better Off Budget,” which ambitiously promised to create 8.8 million jobs by 2017 — including 4.6 million after one year — and to reduce the deficit to 1.4 percent of GDP by FY2024 and to reduce the debt by $3.6 trillion over 10 years.

To stir job creation immediately and reduce the “output gap” that has the economy operating at $800 billion below its potential, the CPC’s budget allotted $1.35 trillion in money for direct job creation in infrastructure, green manufacturing, and research and development. To help the unemployed, the budget also called for restoring the emergency unemployment benefits that expired in December 2013 and would extend the duration up to 99 weeks as well as provide retroactive benefits — amounting to a total investment of $78 billion through FY2024.

To help the working and middle classes, The Better Off Budget also proposed a generous Hard Work Tax Credit and postponed the expiration of refundable tax credits, including the earned income tax credit (EITC), the child tax credit, and the tuition tax credit. It also proposed $126 billion in tax credits for businesses and a tax incentive for research and green manufacturing.

To balance this public spending, the budget also included numerous proposals predicted to add $6.6 trillion in revenue above the CBO’s current projection over 10 years. The plan called for keeping the Bush tax cuts intact for filers making less than $200,000 while raising taxes for those above this threshold. It also created additional tax brackets, ranging from a 45 percent rate on filers making between $1 million and $10 million to a maximum rate of 49 percent for those making $1 billion or more.

The proposed tax code would have regarded income derived from labor and capital gains equally and would have eliminated or reduced the cap for deductions on items such as bonus pay, corporate jet provisions, and corporate meals and entertainment. It would also have ended a tax deduction for advertisements promoting unhealthy food to children and created a minor 0.35 percent tax on the largest financial institutions.

Despite its highly expansionary fiscal stimulus — which neo-liberal economist Larry Summers believes is required to supplement the Federal Reserve’s expansionary monetary policy and maximize productivity — and despite its long-term reduction of the deficit and debt, the budget failed to cut through the partisan chatter or establish itself as a legitimate rival to the Republicans’ proposals.

Nevertheless, some of the CPC’s other ideas have percolated upwards within the Democratic Party and caught the ear of the president, who has embraced the CPC”s call for raising the minimum wage and ending LGBT discrimination for government contractors.

These recent proposals show that the CPC is becoming increasingly vocal. The co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Keith Ellison, has been a consistent proponent of civil liberties in his criticisms of the PATRIOT Act and of the extensive reach of the NSA.

The CPC also calls for changing FCC policy to classify telecommunication services, such as the Internet, as public utilities in order to enable greater regulation of the industry and to protect net neutrality. It has also pressed the administration to be more transparent about its drone program.

These policy proposals and ideas demonstrate an adherence to its 4-item “Progressive Promise,” which includes “fighting for economic justice and security,” “protecting and preserving civil liberties,” promoting global peace and security,” and “advancing environmental protection [and] energy security.”

With dissatisfaction with the president growing from his left flank, including in his handling of the budget, the economy, immigration, and government transparency and secrecy, the CPC and its allies may become major players in national and congressional politics in the near future.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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