The Congressional Progressive Caucus is not an organization that gets a lot of press attention. With the Democrats out of power, they’ve been ignored as powerless fringe figures, with a scant 75 members in the House and one in the Senate to their name.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to start paying closer attention to them — especially this week, as they’ve just released their yearly budget plan. There is a strong chance in the future that the CPC budget will be the basic policy framework for the Democratic Party, which has a solid chance to retake power within the next few years.
A good place to start is by comparison with House Republicans. For the past several years, the policy views of this group have received close attention in the press. The party’s ultra-conservative wing, the "Freedom Caucus," got special attention due to their outsize influence and radicalism. So with the GOP in control of the House since 2011, and the Senate since 2015, watching them closely made good sense.
However, many observers, myself included, drastically underestimated the difficulty that Republicans would have in passing their own agenda. When Obama was president, Republicans passed dozens of repeals of ObamaCare. In this the ultras were the main driver, yowling constantly about how the policy was the death knell of freedom. I therefore thought that with Trump as president, they would simply repeat some version of that process, smashing whatever legislative barriers stood in their way. By the second week or so of the Trump administration, ObamaCare and most of Medicaid would be dead.
But when time came to actually enact some legislation, Republicans ran headlong into two things: First, that their health-care policy ideas are brutally horrible; second, that they had been constantly lying about them for years, to the public and to themselves. Even many Republicans in bright red districts looked down the barrel of voting to destroy the insurance of tens of thousands of their own constituents, after having promised that any ObamaCare replacement would cover more people for cheaper, and got cold feet. Meanwhile, the ultras balked at leaving too many people insured, and so the first effort failed.
Now, a potential repeal of ObamaCare is still very much in the cards. But it turns out that trying to pass policy which will kill thousands of people is a tough political lift, even for a party as diseased and morally bankrupt as the GOP.
By comparison, the CPC is much better politically situated to actually enact their proposals, should Democrats win power. Perhaps most importantly, they are not lying about what’s in them. It’s all laid out, clearly and honestly, with realistic assumptions and funding mechanisms. As laid out by the Economic Policy Institute, it would run a large short-term fiscal stimulus to reach true full employment. Additionally, it would boost food stamps, unemployment spending, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. It would also spend $2 trillion on infrastructure over 10 years.
It would partially pay for all this stuff with modest cuts in defense spending and a reduction in health-care price growth, as well as new progressive taxes (putting the budget deficit on a sustainable path, but only after full employment was reached). This would reduce inequality, push money down the income ladder, and a new financial transactions tax would also soak Wall Street a bit while improving financial services for everyone else.
More importantly, the CPC budget is by far the most realistic and serious proposal on offer to deal with the problems in the American economy. Obama’s stimulus package was not nearly big enough, and the proportion of prime working-age Americans with a job is still lower today than it was at the bottom of the previous recessions (despite much improvement since 2009). Despite fairly low unemployment, the economy is still deeply structurally weak — we have quite simply been crying out for something like this since at least 2010. Indeed, as Dean Baker points out, that enormous-sounding infrastructure package is only 1 percent of GDP, and merely brings the figure up to par with historical averages.
The moderate wing of the Democratic Party is, of course, resistant to this sort of spending, because it would horn in on their fundraising and post-officeholding buckraking. But their political position is much weaker than it appears. Half-measure policies like ObamaCare are not good enough, irritating and only popular insofar as they’re better than nothing. Against such left-wing arguments, elite centrist Democrats posed electability — it’s simply the best we can do, sorry! But then their great avatar and leader, Hillary Clinton, lost to the most unpopular opponent in the history of presidential polling.
So in the future, the CPC has an enormously convincing argument, which has only started to take hold: Democrats might as well shoot for the moon and run on actually good policy, instead of fiddly little tax credits. The party has little left to lose.