Populists in the House

Populists in the House

If the new Populist Caucus is to make a difference in Congress, its members must channel popular fury at Wall Street’s amen corner on Capitol Hill.


Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio, a charter member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), is a committed “new New Dealer” who has spent most of his twenty-two years on the Hill battling to create jobs fixing bridges and building mass transit. But on February 13 he voted against the final version of the $787 billion stimulus bill that President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress hailed as a job-creation bonanza. DeFazio argued that the stimulus bill squandered the promise of economic recovery on too many conservative pipe dreams. “I could support borrowing money for infrastructure investments that will produce a product for generations to come,” he explained, “but not $326 billion for tax cuts that will provide limited relief for working families and little economic stimulus.”

DeFazio’s stimulus vote was a lonely dissent from a still disciplined party line, but it highlighted broader populist ferment among House Democrats. The relative caution of the Obama administration and compromises by Senate Democratic leaders with supposedly moderate Republicans have created a frustrating circumstance for Representatives whose constituents are losing jobs, homes and patience. While most media coverage of Washington’s economic debate portrays a battle between bold Democrats and belligerent Republicans, dozens of Congressional Democrats have been arguing–sometimes in party caucuses, sometimes by breaking with leadership on key votes and frequently by using new media to speak directly to frightened Americans–that their own party must use its political capital to bail out struggling homeowners and laid-off workers rather than corrupt bankers, brokers and speculators.

“As someone who has been out holding town-hall meetings and getting a faceful of that populist rage, I know that it is real, it is a force that needs to be dealt with and it needs to be given a voice,” says Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley, chair of the new Populist Caucus, which launched in mid-February with twenty-three rabble-rousing House members who want their party to stop pulling punches in fights over economic policy. DeFazio is in, as are several other CPC members, as well as a number of rural Democrats who have shied away from joining the liberal CPC. In a Congress with many caucuses and many dual memberships, the Populist Caucus does not represent a break with the broadly focused CPC or with narrowly focused coalitions like the House Trade Working Group. Rather, Braley describes it as a vehicle for members to “focus exclusively” on such economic and corporate power issues as fair trade, fair tax policies and creating and retaining jobs with sound benefits and safe pensions. The group’s not there yet, but the idea’s got potential.

Many of the House’s latter-day William Jennings Bryans were among the ninety-five House Democrats who joined Republicans in mid-September to block then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s bank bailout. Braley, a trial lawyer who grabbed a formerly Republican seat in 2006, dismissed the bailout as “a multibillion-dollar handout to Wall Street that fails to adequately protect the interests of Iowa taxpayers and shortchanges Iowa families.”

House Democratic leaders whipped enough of the dissenters (including Braley) into voting for the reworked version of the measure that it ultimately passed. But the desire to “say no to Wall Street”–to borrow a phrase from Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, whose floor speeches denouncing the “financial crimes” of bankers and speculators have become an Internet phenomenon–remains strong in a chamber where members keep getting asked to bail out yet another bank but still haven’t been able to vote on a plan to protect families from foreclosure. Dismissing the government’s initial banks-first response as “most curious, uneven and incomplete,” Kaptur urged Americans threatened with foreclosure to “stay in your homes” and battle the banks legally. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters have proposed sweeping new protections for renters living in foreclosed properties.

On the other side of the Capitol, Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin are moving to block farm foreclosures. And Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, another bailout foe, is demanding to know why Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner keeps pouring hundreds of billions into failed banks without requiring that “failed tycoons” be removed from their executive positions. Sanders and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich barely let a day go by without demanding accountability from banks that have taken bailout dollars.

This progressive populist agitation is likely to intensify as debates over budget priorities and nationalizing banks heat up. But too often the ferment remains unfocused, freelance in character. There is not enough leadership, coherence or steady messaging. The formation of the Populist Caucus is a healthy development, but it is not enough. Braley and other Populist Caucus members–many first- or second-termers whose opinions are taken seriously by leaders hoping to retain their party’s majority–lobbied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to keep job-creating “buy American” protections for iron and steel production, as well as an extension of aid to workers dislocated by trade-related plant closings. That was a good start. We can hope that the caucus will follow two of its members, Illinois’s Phil Hare and Maine’s Mike Michaud, in demanding that Pelosi block new trade deals that neglect the interests of workers here and abroad.

If the Populist Caucus is to matter, it must go much further in giving voice to the rage at leaders of both parties, who are still quicker to bail out a bank than a foreclosed homeowner. To do that, the caucus must attract urban members like Kaptur and Waters, who have yet to join. And it must channel populist fury more effectively by making policy demands that are as blunt as those from Wall Street’s amen corner on the Hill–and back up those demands by delivering or withholding votes. Until that happens, populists will keep making the right noises without making much progress. That’s politically dangerous for Democrats, who run the risk of doing too little rather than too much. And it’s economically dangerous for the country, which needs more than caution and compromise to tackle the nastiest downturn since the Great Depression.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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