What Is a Populist Caucus?

By David Swanson

The largest caucus in Congress with 75 members is the Progressive Caucus. It even has one member in that bastion of regressivism, the United States Senate. The progressive caucus uniquely supports majority positions (majority outside of Capitol Hill, I mean) on domestic and foreign issues, on trade and the environment, peace and diplomacy, education and healthcare, speaking up for the poor, the powerless, and all the rest of us. Its positions are not perfect and often appear constrained by a desire not to stray too far from the Democratic leadership. But it’s the best we’ve got, as far as caucuses go.

However, the Progressive Caucus has rarely if ever stood for something and fought for it. It takes positions as a caucus, it even gets its members to all sign onto a position, and then when push comes to shove, usually about four of its members stand on principle and refuse to vote the way they swore they wouldn’t. A prime example of this occurred when 90 Congress members, most of them in the Progressive Caucus, signed a letter to President Bush (why Bush and not Pelosi, I don’t know) announcing that they would not vote for any more money to extend the occupation of Iraq, and then almost all proceeded to do just that. But examples are available all the time. The Progressive Caucus never blocks cloture votes (procedural votes on whether to have a vote), but is satisfied to vote for the losing side and allow measures it opposes to pass.

Once upon a time you could expect fairly progressive positions from the Black Caucus, but its membership consists of any member (41 of them) who is considered black, regardless of their policy positions or performance, and not all black members can be considered progressive — far from it. Steve Cohen tried to join because he represents a majority black district, and was turned away for being white. But Artur Davis is a member in good standing. The Black Caucus Foundation is a corporate money hole. (The Progressive Caucus’ foundation is brand new and its future unknown.)

The New Democrat Coalition with 57 members is militaristic and corporate and suffers from a hard case of voodoo economics. Meanwhile the Blue Dog Coalition, with 47 members, advocates against spending money, except on war and weaponry. These coalitions, the Blue Dogs especially, have been known to challenge the Democratic leadership and fight tooth and nail for their positions — as they should. Another minority caucus that fights for its positions is, of course, the Republican Caucus.

Now along comes a new caucus of Democrats called the Populist Caucus, which has at least 23 members thus far, including my own Congress member, Tom Perriello. This appears to be a caucus for somewhat progressive members who want to say “middle class” a lot but not necessarily mention the poor or the working class, and who may or may not love weapons and wars. The caucus is “devoted solely to addressing middle class economic issues.” If that’s true, and it neither supports nor opposes militarism, but takes a populist and progressive stand on economic issues — perhaps even in alliance with the Progressive Caucus — and really fights for its positions, this could be very good news. And it is good news for my district, whose representative had publicly considered becoming a Blue Dog. He still could, as these caucuses all have overlapping memberships. In fact, 11 of the 23 populists are also members of the Progressive Caucus, which is encouraging. The Progressive Caucus has some new leadership and could conceivably fight for its positions in the coming months, but having a separate caucus that might do so doubles our odds. As the Blue Dogs have shown, it’s not the number of members you have, but your willingness to take a stand that gives you power.

Here’s what the Populist Caucus says it wants to work on:

1. Creating Good Jobs and a Secure Retirement: Creating and retaining good-paying jobs in America, providing fair wages, proper benefits, a level playing field at the negotiating table, and ensuring American workers have secure, solvent retirement plans;
2. Cutting Taxes for the Middle Class: Cutting taxes for the middle class and establishing an equitable tax structure;
3. Affordable Healthcare: Providing affordable, accessible, quality health care for all Americans;
4. Quality, Affordable Education: Ensuring quality primary education for all American children, and affordable college education for all who want it;
5. Fair Trade: Defending American competitiveness by fighting for fair trade principles;
6. Protecting Consumers: Protecting consumers, so that Americans can have faith in the safety and effectiveness of the products they purchase.

There’s potential, but change I can believe in ain’t in that list yet. How do you do #1 but not commit to the Employee Free Choice Act? How do you do #2 but not raise taxes on corporations and millionaires, and slash the expenses of wars, bases, and weapons? How do you do #3 but not back HR 676? Why would you fight for fair trade in order to be “competitive” rather than fair? Protecting consumers is good but what about citizens?

I blogged yesterday about a meeting that some allies and I had with Congressman Perriello. I had asked him if he would cosponsor the Employee Free Choice Act and thought he had clearly said yes. And that’s what I reported. His office now tells me that he said he would support it but not necessarily cosponsor it. They haven’t said that he won’t cosponsor it, only that he’s not saying he will. I’ve asked how, then, he will support it, and I’m waiting for an answer. Maybe the Populist Caucus will have one.