Fringe-Left Democrats Wield New Influence

The congresswomen from the 9th and 6th Districts of California put it best. “Progressives have forged new and powerful ways to join and influence the debate here in Washington,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D.). Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D.) observed, “We are in the midst of a progressive awakening in this country, and I have never been more confident and optimistic about the future of progressive politics.” Representatives Lee and Woolsey are the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Lee represents the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, while Woolsey represents Marin and Sonoma counties.

Don’t be fooled by their districts. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is not a tiny faction of lawmakers representing radical university towns and well-heeled chardonnay sippers on the Left Coast. With the control of Congress formally shifting to the Democratic Party last month, the CPC is growing in size and influence. It is shifting into high gear and intends to bring its revolutionary vision to all of America.

In 2005, CPC unveiled “The Progressive Promise,” its policy agenda for the nation. It hired a full-time staffer, and it created a nonprofit fundraising arm, the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation. Conservative activists and Republicans in Congress could be excused if they were unimpressed by these meager achievements.

But what a difference a year makes. In the 109th Congress, the CPC’s membership comprised 59 members of the House of Representatives and the three nonvoting delegates from Guam, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. In the 110th Congress, that number stands at 71, and two former House members in the CPC, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, are now members of the U.S. Senate. (The last CPC member in the Senate was the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.) Lee is jubilant. The CPC is the election’s real winner, she says, rejecting the political pundits who counsel Democrats to move to the right to hold power. Their advice represents “an incomplete picture of the new political landscape in Washington, D.C.,” Lee told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Is Lee correct? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) is presiding over three groups of Democrats. The Congressional Progressive Caucus will push the rhetoric of class warfare and work with a network of left-wing advocacy groups to coordinate attacks on corporations and “the rich.” The conservative Blue Dogs will emphasize fiscal restraint and a balanced budget. And the business-friendly House New Democrat Coalition will back trade deals and tax credits for business innovation and more government support for research and development. Pelosi pledges that Democrats in Congress will consolidate their power and prepare for the 2008 elections by staying away from controversial issues such as impeachment and radical policy proposals such as a military draft.

Riding a Two-Headed Donkey

Pelosi pushed her 100-hour agenda, but many House Democrats and their allies among activists and in the media did not interpret the November election as a chance to merely tinker with public policy. “If the progressives have a certain swagger these days, it’s because they’re convinced it was their vision—opposition to the war, unapologetic Bush-bashing—that won Democrats the election,” wrote the New Republic’s Michael Crowley. Investor’s Business Daily observed that the Congressional Progressive Caucus “can no longer be dismissed as a fringe group.”

The self-styled “progressives” promise to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire and prevent Pelosi from governing from the middle. “Democrats ran the most populist elections in memory,” says Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “We need to make sure the Democrats deliver on their promises, and that the 100 Hours Agenda is just the first step in creating an economy that works for working people. The 100 Hours Agenda gives Democrats a chance to show that we support positive policies for change, and we’re not just against the Republican agenda.”

On December 5, more than 40 advocacy groups met to devise a common strategy to support congressional Democrats while pressuring Pelosi and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) to move further to the left. Led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, USAction and Borosage’s Campaign for America’s Future, the ad hoc coalition also included ACORN, the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters,, National Education Association, National Council of Churches, National Organization for Women, People for the American Way, and the Sierra Club.

These activist groups and the CPC want the House leadership to challenge every action of the Bush Administration. They want to pull the U.S. troops out of Iraq and abandon the War on Terror. On Iraq, Woolsey has said, “We might find there are other ways to leave besides cutting off the money. But bottom line, that might be the only thing that Congress can do.” Indeed, one of the CPC’s first official events after the November election was to invite George McGovern, the party’s 1972 presidential candidate, to address it on foreign policy.

Bernie Sanders and the CPC: What to Expect

The Congressional Progressive Caucus was founded in 1991 by Socialist Bernie Sanders, the mayor of Burlington, Vt., who, in 1990, was elected to the House of Representatives as an Independent. Sanders served eight terms in the House. In 2004 he won 69% of the vote against Democratic and Republican challengers. Last November, just before his election to the U.S. Senate, again as an Independent, the 65-year-old New York transplant was asked by a Washington Post reporter: “Are you now or have you ever been a Socialist?”

Sanders replied, “Yeah. I wouldn’t deny it. Not for one second. I’m a democratic Socialist.”

Some other CPC members also aren’t afraid to tout their connections to democratic socialism. “I’m a member of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America],” Rep. Danny Davis (D.-Ill.) said in 2000. “There’s an active chapter where I live. They’re basically no different than a lot of the people I know.” Former Rep. Major Owens (D.-N.Y.) is also a DSA member.

Leftist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America, an affiliate of the worldwide Socialist International, must be thrilled at how far they’ve come. In the late 1990s, the House CPC was a 50-member minority faction in a minority party facing Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution. Today the Congressional Progressive Caucus will push Socialist policies in the House—and the Senate. “A Socialist in the Senate?” headlined a 2005 profile of Sanders’ political aspirations. “If Sanders moves over to the Senate, he’ll have even more power to grill [Alan] Greenspan and the rest of the plutocrats in power.”

Despite his Independent affiliation, Sanders was endorsed in 2006 by senior figures in the Democratic Party, including Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and Reid. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) campaigned in Vermont for Sanders.

As long as the Democratic Party was out of power, CPC initiatives were largely ignored. But caucus proposals are sure to be trumpeted as common-sense solutions in the new Congress, and Sanders’ new position in the 100-member Senate gives the CPC added clout. Reid has given Sanders five committee assignments: Environment and Public Works; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Veterans Affairs; Energy and Natural Resources; and Budget.

Leftists Lee and Woolsey

CPC leaders Lee and Woolsey personify the modern left in America.

Barbara Lee, born in 1946, has a long history of radical political activism. A former social worker and chief of staff to former Rep. Ron Dellums (D.-Calif.), Lee was first elected to Congress in 1998 to replace the retiring Dellums. In 2006, Lee won re-election with 86% of the vote. In 2001, Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing the President to use military force against any group or nation that assisted the terrorist attacks of September 11. Her stand—the vote on the resolution was 420 to 1—and other votes against the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act have made Lee a heroine of the anti-war movement. Perhaps unaware of the existence of the State Department, Lee and Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (a CPC member who has announced that he will run again for President in 2008) have co-sponsored a bill to create a redundant cabinet-level “Department of Peace.” In February 2005, Lee introduced a non-binding resolution “disavowing the doctrine of preemption,” which the resolution says
“poses a threat to international law and to the national security interests of the United States.”

Writing about Lee’s hold-out vote less than a week after September 11, conservative critic David Horowitz called Lee “an anti-American Communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.” Horowitz should know. A former Berkeley leftist, he has recalled meeting Lee in the 1970s at the Oakland headquarters of Black Panthers chieftain Huey Lewis.

Lynn Woolsey, born in 1937, was first elected to Congress in 1992 to replace Rep. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) after Boxer won election to the Senate. Now in her eighth term, Woolsey received 70% of the vote in November. If Lee speaks for angry radicals on Oakland’s mean streets, then Woolsey represents the well-to-do liberals of the wine country.

However, Woolsey’s own background is not privileged. Her website calls her “an unapologetic progressive and the first former welfare mother to serve in Congress.” The bio describes “a young single mother struggling to raise three children by herself, even though she was employed she needed public assistance just to make ends meet.” It continues, “That experience of needing a helping hand from her government has never left her.”

Woolsey’s top domestic priority is her bill to provide paid family leave, daycare for children under three, and public pre-school for all three-, four-, and five-year-old children “for every family that wants it.” She names the legislation “The Balancing Act” because “it helps parents manage the balance between work and family.”

Woolsey opposes restrictions on homosexuals’ serving in the military. In 2000, she introduced a bill to rescind the federal charter of the Boy Scouts of America because it does not accept gay scouts and scoutmasters. The bill was defeated by a vote of 12 to 362.

Woolsey not only voted against the Iraq war but she introduced a bill to repeal the authorization to use military force against Iraq. In February 2006, she invited anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan to the President’s State of the Union address as her guest, and in March 2006, she introduced the “Common Sense Budget Act” to reduce the Defense and Energy department budgets while boosting the budgets for social welfare and to fight global poverty.

In 2004, a public outcry forced Woolsey to apologize for writing a letter on her official congressional stationery that urged a judge to be lenient in sentencing a rapist, Stewart Pearson, whose mother worked in Woolsey’s San Rafael office. Pearson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison for incapacitating a 17-year-old girl with chemicals and raping her.

“Mr. Pearson’s mother is a faithful employee, who I wanted to help, but I should not have intervened,” wrote Woolsey in a letter published by the Marin Independent Journal. “Given my outspoken support for both women’s rights and victims’ rights, my constituents and my community are right to be shocked by my action. I apologize to them.”

The Socialist Connection

CPC may soft-pedal its Socialist ideology in the new Congress, but a 1999 position paper on economic inequality makes clear its rejection of capitalism:

“Economic inequality is the result of two and a half decades of government policies and rules governing the economy being tilted in favor of large-asset owners at the expense of wage earners. Tax policy, trade policy, monetary policy, government regulations and other rules have reflected this pro-investor bias. We propose the introduction or reintroduction of a package of legislative initiatives that will close America’s economic divide and address both income and wealth disparities.”

“The Progressive Promise,” CPC’s new political manifesto, recites the left’s usual complaints: Taxes are too low, capitalism is unfair, Americans are racists, and U.S. foreign policy can’t be trusted. But if CPC’s ideas are trite, its power is fearsome.

Here are the Democratic CPC members who control many of the most powerful committees in the new Congress: New York’s Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.), Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.), Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich), Education and Workforce Chairman George Miller (Calif.), and International Relations Chairman Tom Lantos (Calif.).

The CPC Agenda

What to expect from the Congressional Progressive Caucus? “The Progressive Promise,” the caucus master plan for killing the U.S. economy, vows to nationalize the health care industry, raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation, preserve Social Security, re-build schools and infrastructure, and “promote environmental justice.” The caucus promises to gut the 1st Amendment by fighting “corporate consolidation of the media.” It would also build more affordable housing and strengthen unions and union organizing rights. In foreign policy, progressives would bring American troops home from Iraq, re-build U.S. international alliances, combat global warming and support debt relief for poor countries.

The CPC is likely to propose a program similar to its “American People’s Dividend” of 2001, which Nation magazine described as “a progressive alternative to Bush tax cuts when the federal budget was in surplus.”

CPC may also engage in political theater stunts such as its “Economic Human Rights Bus Tour.” During a 2001 tour, the CPC delegation (including Pelosi, Lee and Conyers) traveled to rural and inner-city sites in California where activists choreographed hearings on injustice and the need for more grassroots organizing and federal government programs.

Policy Foundation

The American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation was set up in 2005 to be a “nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization formed to work with the Congressional Progressive Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives.” While the CPC is aggressively partisan, the foundation must assume the pose of nonpartisanship. The foundation’s mission—to “bring together the collective wisdom of progressives inside and outside of Congress” and to “serve as a communications, fact-finding, research and education center”—suggests that it will follow the usual practices other 501(c)(3) advocacy groups use to avoid IRS scrutiny.

The foundation’s current chairman is Laura Kalick, an attorney with BDO Seidman, LLP, who has an extensive background in tax law and the law of nonprofits. Kalick said that she developed a personal interest in the foundation’s mission while helping it obtain tax-exempt status. She acknowledges the lack of public information: “We really are just getting off the ground and hoping to get grants and contributions.” Other members of the board include Lee and Woolsey, vice chairman Lorelei Kelly, and board secretary Stephen Shaff. Kelly taught peace studies at Stanford University and has worked on national security policy for Woolsey. In a May 25 column on the Huffington Post website, she lamented that “the ability of progressives to stake out more visible positions on Capitol Hill is an activity that has been vital and lacking for more than a decade.” Shaff is vice chairman of the board of Progressive Democrats of America, a political action committee.

What Now?

America’s future increasingly depends on the Democratic Party in Congress. The public, which has had a poor opinion of Congress, has given the party a chance to lead. But Democrats will first have to decide what they want to do.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has no doubts about its own agenda. They think the country is anti-Republican and wants radical change. New Republic’s Crowley notes that CPC members have every reason to be “suspicious that moderates plan to shunt them into the attic like so many crazy relatives.” That will be difficult, however, given CPC’s control of so many important congressional committees.

Many Republicans blame their losses on their own political shortcomings, but are sure the country supports them on core values. How the Democrats handle their victory may well determine whether they are right.