House Democrats chose Nancy Pelosi today as their nominee for speaker, and perhaps most importantly, no one ran against her. She still needs to win over enough doubters in her caucus to prevail when the entire House votes, but she and the rest of the Democrats have broader questions to answer, too.
Among the most important: What is the ideological character of this new Democratic majority? Is it going to be riven by internal conflict the way Republicans have been in recent years? Is the left wing going to make itself as troublesome as the Freedom Caucus has been for the GOP?
There are indeed a number of high-profile progressive freshman Democrats, and they have arrived in Washington ready to push for influence that goes beyond their seniority, such as positions on key committees and platforms from which to both maintain a strong public voice and have a role in determining the party’s course. Which naturally leads to worries about whether they’ll have too much influence.
The New York Times describes the risk:
But by empowering newcomers like Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ms. Tlaib, Ms. Pelosi risks creating a headache for herself down the road: a Democratic version of the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right group that consistently defies Republican leadership, making life difficult for Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
With Ms. Pelosi in their debt, the potential speaker may be giving voice to their dissatisfaction with mainstream Democrats, emboldening them as tensions between their midterm campaigns and the party establishment linger.
But there are important reasons the progressives are extremely unlikely to create the same kind of disruption that the Freedom Caucus and far-right members generally have created on the Republican side. It has to do with who these progressives are, and some basic differences between conservatism and liberalism.
To begin, you have to understand where a group within the larger caucus can exercise power. The most important point is when there’s a vote coming up on a bill that the leadership very much wants to pass, and the smaller group can threaten to withhold its support and thereby kill the bill if it doesn’t get the concessions it wants. Sometimes that means inserting something into the bill, and sometimes it means taking something out. Even the knowledge that it can happen is often enough to smother a bill in its infancy.
For instance, that’s how House conservatives have prevented comprehensive immigration reform from getting through Congress for years, even though the vast majority of the public favors it and even many in the Republican Party would like to see it enacted. On multiple occasions, comprehensive reform has passed the Senate by comfortable, filibuster-proof margins, only to die in the House because the ultraconservatives wouldn’t allow it. In other cases, the Freedom Caucus threatened to vote against spending bills and cause a government shutdown if they didn’t get concessions.
In theory, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made up of the more liberal Democrats, could do the same thing. It has 77 members in the current Congress and will have more in the next, though not all of them are as progressive as you might expect.
But there’s a powerful reason they won’t: These are people who believe in government. That’s not true of the Freedom Caucus, which is made up in large part of members who came to Congress in the 2010 tea party wave and after, railing against the evil of government in all its forms. They’ll threaten to shut down the federal government because it doesn’t bother them too much if the government shuts down, except insofar as that might create a political problem. They came to Washington to break, not build, things.
The opposite is true of the progressives. They want government to do more and believe it plays a vital role in Americans’ lives; the idea of shutting it down over a budget dispute is abhorrent to them. That means they won’t exercise that veto power.
Something similar applies on other kinds of legislation. Because they care about policy, they tend to be pragmatic enough to be willing to take half a loaf if it’s a genuinely meaningful half. For instance, some (though not all that many) of the new members have called for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be abolished and its responsibilities moved to other agencies. But imagine (in some future in which Democrats also controlled the Senate and the White House) that a package of reforms moved through the House that made serious changes to curb ICE’s abuses but didn’t go so far as shutting the agency down. Would the progressives say it was all or nothing and refuse to vote for the bill? No way.
That’s what happened with the Affordable Care Act: Progressives fought for things such as a public option and a Medicare buy-in, but when those provisions got stripped from the bill to keep centrist Democratic senators on board, the progressives voted for the bill anyway. It was too important.
I suspect that the progressives understand that the party is already moving left and will satisfy many of their substantive demands. They’ll keep pushing for even more, because that’s what their role is, to move the party as far as it can go and then try to get it to go even farther. But they’ll also be willing to bank wins when they’re available.
It wasn’t long ago that Republicans were known for their monolithic unity, their ability to march in lockstep at every key moment. Democrats, on the other hand, were fractious and contentious, unable to agree on anything (thus the cliched headline “Dems In Disarray!”). But in recent years, the opposite has been true for both parties: Republicans fight among themselves, and Democrats mostly stay together (in no small part because Pelosi is able to keep them together). The election of a new group of progressive members isn’t going to change things back.