The Nation: How Pramila Jayapal’s Inside-Outside Strategy Is Changing the Future of Progressive Politics
By Joan Walsh
Pramila Jayapal was speed-walking through the Longworth House office building early on January 3, aiming to visit as many of the Democratic women newly elected to the House of Representatives as possible before the end of the day. It wasn’t going to be easy, since there were 35 of them—and even more progressive activists lining the hallways hoping for a chance to talk with her.
“I love your new bill!” one young man called out to Jayapal, referring to the Medicare for All legislation she’s still drafting. Five minutes later, two California Indivisible activists flagged her down, promising to keep their new representatives on board the Medicare for All train. Jayapal, the representative for the Seventh District in Washington State and the new co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), stopped for a quick huddle with them and shared a secret: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was supporting holding hearings on the bill, which was first proposed by former Michigan congressman John Conyers back in 2003.
In the offices of New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, one of two Native American women elected to the House in November, Jayapal was whisked past the well-wishers to hug the new congresswoman, whom she had endorsed early in the campaign. Haaland’s family members, dressed in Pueblo of Laguna traditional clothing, posed for pictures with Jayapal, an Indian-American activist and organizer who was elected to Congress just two years earlier. It was only the first of the many times that I found myself (unprofessionally) teary-eyed at the history being made around me that day.
It was a glorious morning, but there was already trouble in paradise: Two members of Jayapal’s caucus—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected insurgent representing parts of Queens and the Bronx, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Ro Khanna, had come out against a new House rules package because it included a provision known as “pay-go,” which requires the House to cut spending or hike taxes to “pay” for any new programs. Pay-go has become a powerful symbol of the hold that austerity politics has on both parties, though it ultimately has no force; the House can waive the provision at any time, and has in the past. Jayapal and her CPC co-chair, Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan, had decided to support the rules package after getting major concessions from the Democratic House leadership, including hearings on Medicare for All and a promise to waive pay-go when considering that and other progressive priorities. But that wasn’t enough for Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna, who, along with Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, voted against the package. In Jayapal’s office, her staff assistant, besieged by people angry at the Seattle progressive’s compromise, politely kept telling callers, “Please stop yelling at me!”
The normally upbeat Jayapal was a little peeved: “Strategically, it is not the fight we should have picked—well, it’s not the fight we did pick, actually!” What should have been a banner day for House progressives—as of press time, the CPC reports that it has at least 90 members, and Jayapal and Pocan had negotiated new power for the group—was overshadowed by headlines trumpeting progressive infighting. But not for long: The next day, Jayapal introduced legislation to repeal the pay-go provision. After some scuffling behind the scenes, the pay-go dissenters co-sponsored Jayapal’s bill and seemingly put the trouble behind them.
The skirmish was a window into Jayapal’s new opportunities and headaches, leading a caucus that makes up approximately 40 percent of House Democrats and includes a remarkable number of popular, high-profile, left-leaning female first-termers—not just Ocasio-Cortez, but Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, California’s Katie Porter, and others. Jayapal herself has a long history of protest, at times against her own party—while campaigning for her state senate seat, she joined a hunger strike opposing President Obama’s deportation policies—and that gives her a high tolerance for the more radical members of the class of 2019. But now that Democrats have a House majority, they have an opportunity to craft a progressive agenda that can pass at least one chamber of Congress and show Americans what Democratic governance could mean come 2020. That will require big ideas and insurgent boldness, but also diligence, even discipline. Jayapal now finds herself in the less familiar role of institutionalist, helping a new wave of rebels—many of them women—to understand how to get things done in a system largely designed by and for conservative white men. Does that role surprise her a little?
“Yes!” she laughs.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is now in a strong position, having scored important new committee assignments in its high-stakes negotiations with Pelosi. (After Pelosi’s concessions, Jayapal and Pocan endorsed her return to the speakership.) Pocan credits Jayapal with leveraging their political capital to win CPC members more seats on the most important House committees, including Appropriations, Ways and Means, Intelligence, Energy, Commerce, and Financial Services.
As Pocan observes, “She’s always willing to push harder—to say to the speaker, ‘Hey, we’re 40 percent of the [Democratic] Caucus; we deserve 40 percent of the seats on the powerful committees.’” Pocan has been raising money for the CPC’s policy center, and he jokes, “I’m a lower-income guy from Kenosha; I’d never ask for the kind of money Pramila would ask for. But she’s always able to close the deal and get it done.” MoveOn’s Washington director, Ben Wikler, says Jayapal’s negotiation with Pelosi “was a brilliant demonstration of her inside/outside game,” noting that MoveOn, Indivisible, and activist Ady Barkan had likewise withheld their endorsements of Pelosi until Jayapal and Pocan announced their deal.
“We don’t want a Freedom Caucus of the left,” says Robert Cruickshank, campaign director for the activist group Demand Progress, referring to the nihilistic GOP wingnuts who made former speaker Paul Ryan’s House majority dysfunctional. “We want a caucus that can go to leadership and say, ‘We have 98 votes. If you want to get something done, you need our support; here’s what we need in exchange, and let’s get it done.’ The deals Pramila negotiated during the transition in the House put the CPC on the path toward being the power brokers—and using that power to advance a progressive agenda without grinding everything to a halt.”
It’s remarkable that Jayapal, who came to the United States from India at 16, was able to grab a leadership spot in her first term in Congress. But she never really thought of herself as a “freshman,” having spent almost 15 years as an organizer, mainly on immigrant rights, after a brief stint in the private sector and a partial term in the Washington state senate. (She left to run for Congress.) Jayapal was an early Bernie Sanders supporter, but she endorsed Hillary Clinton after the primaries and worked hard for her election. She expected to go to Congress and be a force pulling President Clinton to the left. Instead, she became one of only seven House members to object to certifying the Electoral College results that gave us President Trump.
“People told me, ‘That was the stupidest thing you could have done! You’ve ruined your whole time in Congress!’” Jayapal recalls. “I still think I did the right thing.” She won national attention for her work fighting Trump’s travel ban and by visiting asylum seekers who had had their children taken from them under the administration’s family-separation policy. Jayapal also helped organize the massive protests that played a role in ending the policy last summer. In November, she won re-election with more votes—329,800—than any other member of the House. “That’s a pretty good stat, huh?” she says with a smile. Khanna, her CPC colleague, notes: “She’s the ideal leader for the moment, because no one can question her activist credentials.”
The fight against pay-go was one early test of Jayapal’s new role; another involved Pelosi’s establishment of a Select Committee on Climate Crisis. Some activists weren’t happy: The influential, millennial-organized Sunrise Movement, which has close ties to Ocasio-Cortez, wanted the committee to focus exclusively on the Green New Deal—a massive investment in infrastructure, renewable energy, green jobs, and economic justice intended to phase out the use of fossil fuels within 12 years—and to exclude members who took money from the fossil-fuel industry. Pelosi refused both demands. Then came a scuffle over whether the new select committee would have exclusive power to write legislation related to climate change. Jayapal opposed that move.
“Look, everyone has drafting power,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to take legislative authority away from committees [like Energy, Commerce, and Ways and Means], especially when progressives are taking over some of those committee chairs. Raul Grijalva is the incoming chair of Natural Resources—you wanna tell Raul Grijalva that he can’t do anything around legislation related to climate until the climate select committee agrees? The issue is, we haven’t had control of Congress. But now we do, and we’ve got a lot of bills relating to climate. Why not try to do as much as we can, even as the select committee is working?”
The Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash has challenged the structure of the new select committee, though she says Jayapal convinced her that “it makes sense to go through the existing committees” to pursue a climate agenda. She notes the new committee won’t have subpoena power, and she remains concerned that there’s no House body expressly tasked with creating Green New Deal legislation. But she also trusts that Jayapal “is ready to do whatever is necessary to advance a Green New Deal at the legislative level it requires.”
Jayapal hopes that crafting ambitious legislation like the Green New Deal, as well as drumming up support for it and other major progressive initiatives, is something the newly expanded Congressional Progressive Caucus Center will do. (She and Pocan are ex officio board members there.) The CPCC, previously known as Progressive Congress, aims to be a robust research, advocacy, and communications engine to facilitate Jayapal’s brand of “inside/outside” organizing and to infuse Congress with the energy of progressive activism. In a city full of nonprofits, the CPCC may be the only one dedicated to drafting, amending, and shepherding progressive legislation from start to finish and keeping the Congressional Progressive Caucus on track to promote and support it. It will fund “fellows” to work on specific pieces of high-priority legislation; Jayapal’s office hired one for her Medicare for All bill. Other CPCC priorities include comprehensive and humane immigration reform, criminal-justice reform, and a national $15-an-hour minimum wage. (One sign of the progressive times: Among the first bills introduced by Democratic House and Senate leaders in January was one to raise the national minimum wage, gradually, to $15 an hour.) As CPCC co-chair, Jayapal is mindful of the many liberal and progressive think tanks already operating, and she recruited Thea Lee of the Economic Policy Institute and John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies to convene a group of advisers. “I thought [coordinating] like this was already happening,” says Lee. But in a city where many groups are fighting over the same funders, there’s less “generosity” than one might expect.
The CPCC will no doubt play a big role in building support for Jayapal’s forthcoming Medicare for All legislation, which she says will be more “detailed” than the bill that Bernie Sanders introduced last session. She is working closely with the Vermont senator, but she is uncommonly tight-lipped about what the bill will look like, because she doesn’t want it covered by the media until the “stakeholders” learn what’s in it first. Working with two dozen groups, from Physicians for a National Health Program and National Nurses United to the Democratic Socialists of America and Public Citizen, as well as at least nine unions, Jayapal wants to hammer out the details and get the bill into hearings sometime this year. Last session’s House version of the bill had 124 co-sponsors (impressive, given that there were only 78 CPC members); Jayapal expects even more support this time around.
“We’re widely seeking input from members—when people are part of the process, obviously, they’re much more likely to sign on,” she says. After Jayapal met with Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III, who hadn’t signed on to the last version, and explained why her new bill would be different from the last, Kennedy told The Hill, “I would hope I would be able to support that.”
Of course, as Jayapal ventures beyond the CPC’s membership to build support for Medicare for All, she runs the risk of watering down the bill and losing support from the left. That dynamic is at play more broadly, too: Some progressives have expressed concern that the label “progressive” has become so popular that it might be co-opted. There is currently, for example, a 12-member overlap between the centrist New Democrat Coalition and the CPC. After her primary win last summer, Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of creating a “sub-caucus” of truly progressive members who vote as a bloc. Jayapal didn’t comment on that idea directly, but she is having conversations about whether it makes sense to create an agenda that members must explicitly support in order to join the CPC.
“In the minority, it didn’t really matter—it’s easy to vote no on everything!” Jayapal says. But the situation has changed. “We are now talking about what it means to be a member. And we will be trying to hold people together on key votes, in a way we didn’t have the strength to do before.” The question quickly became more than theoretical when Pelosi’s team released the committee assignments. CPC leaders got the 40 percent of seats they’d asked for—but that included some representatives who hold joint membership in the CPC and the New Dems. Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats, the Ocasio-Cortez-affiliated group that backs primary challenges by more progressive Democrats, criticized Jayapal and Pocan for making deals with Pelosi without having first organized their caucus. “If everyone has their own definition and now has increased personal power through a seat on an executive committee, accountability to the progressive movement will be more difficult,” Shahid told The Intercept. But Khanna, who was endorsed by Justice Democrats, disagrees. “If they’d waited until the caucus was seated, we’d have missed the boat,” he says, noting that the CPC has never been so well represented on the top committees before.
Jayapal pronounced herself satisfied with the outcome: “I think we did extremely well,” she told me. She pointed to the appointments of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Pressley, and Porter to the House Financial Services Committee as a sign of real progress. A few days later, it was announced that Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Pressley, and Khanna would be joining Rep. Elijah Cummings on the House Oversight Committee. Still, Jayapal acknowledged that the CPC has to respond to the unprecedented interest in membership by making it clear what membership actually means. “We need to define some critical issues—I don’t know exactly what they’re going to end up being—but then maybe you get a pass on x number of top votes, depending on your district.” Jayapal is mindful that what counts as “progressive” in Seattle or the Bronx is different in red or purple states. “I talked to one member like that—very progressive, but because of her state, she can’t be with us on ‘abolish ICE.’ She was very concerned about that. And I said, ‘Look, are you for comprehensive immigration reform?’ And she said yes. She’s a progressive.”
Nor does Jayapal understand the knee-jerk hostility toward every member of the New Democrat Coalition. “A lot of us are thinking, ‘What about the New Dems who really are progressive, but their districts are less progressive?’ I think we’d rather have them hearing our arguments in the CPC, instead of just meeting with the New Dems.” Even so, the debate over committee assignments “makes me want to speed up the process” of defining what membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus means, she acknowledged.
Similarly, Jayapal sees a role for the CPC in vetting the many Democrats who will compete for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020. “We might have our version of a questionnaire, or conversations with candidates that the caucus hosts. We will certainly have some kind of platform,” she adds, “and we will expect candidates to endorse that platform. We will definitely play a big role.”
I ask if she’s planning to endorse someone personally this time around. “I haven’t endorsed anybody, and there’s no presumption that I would endorse Bernie again. The ideas he ran on are important, but I’m also interested to see what the whole field looks like. I continue to believe that diverse candidates are really important. I’m very grateful to Bernie, and I have no regrets about my endorsement. But we are in a different moment, and I want to look at the whole field. Plus, I’ve been working with most of the people who are running!” She ticks off legislation that she’s collaborated on with Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jeff Merkley, and Cory Booker; only the day before, her home-state governor, Jay Inslee, announced that he’s jumping into the race as well.
To Jayapal, that crowded field is an asset. “I think if we can hold ourselves in this place of multiple possibilities, where each person animates a slightly different audience, brings a different conversation to the table… Part of the problem is that the Democratic Party is always looking for a savior: ‘Let’s move to the person who is the most dynamic and the most charismatic and sign on with them now and be done!’ I’m like, ‘No! We have people! We have to allow that leadership to emerge.’ And it’s emerging!”
Progressive leadership is indeed emerging, from many places, and Jayapal finds herself in the position of having to navigate the differences in style and substance. Just as the pay-go battle was fading, Rashida Tlaib delivered a rousing rebuke to Donald Trump at a MoveOn party on the night of her swearing-in—one that ended with the words “We’re gonna go in and impeach the motherfucker!” Mandatory pearl-clutching ensued, and virtually every Democrat in DC was hounded to criticize the Michigan congresswoman.
“I got asked about it by reporters today,” Jayapal admitted, rolling her eyes. “I was the first member to endorse Rashida. I’ve known her for 20 years. And I said, ‘Look, everyone says things, and sometimes later they’re really glad they said it. And sometimes they say, “If I were to do that again, I’d do that differently.”’ And I’m not saying Rashida’s gonna think it was a bad thing to say!” she adds quickly. “But somebody asked me: ‘Well, are you gonna have a talk with her, to tell her not to do that?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not!’” She chuckles at the notion. “We’re not mothers here.”
I ask her whether she’s noticed any kind of “gendered” response to the brand-new dynamic: female House leaders engaging with a record number of female House members. “Oh, it’s so gendered!” Jayapal replies. When Ocasio-Cortez joined the members of the Sunrise Movement in Pelosi’s office last November to demand support for a Green New Deal, “I must have had a dozen reporters saying to me, ‘So do you think this is a bad idea, for her to be protesting in the speaker’s office?’ I said, ‘No! This is her strategy. I respect her. I think she should do what she needs to do.’ And I gave the example of my protesting the Electoral College vote when I got here. But people keep trying to get me on the record saying Alexandria or Rashida did something wrong.” And she refuses to take the bait.
“Alexandria and I have had a number of great conversations,” Jayapal continues. “She comes in with a remarkable amount of attention from the media, and that’s mostly a terrific thing for progressive policies. But it does mean she has to be extra careful, particularly about these dynamics. And so do we: We have to trust people, as they come in, and not allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.” (Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
“As somebody who cares deeply about organizing—not just on the outside, but on the inside, as Progressive Caucus co-chair—my job is to keep as much unity as possible. In order to do that, people have to be respectful about not going rogue. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t disagree, but we should find ways for everybody to do what they need to do.”
From the outside, MoveOn’s Ben Wikler notes the difficulties, too. “I think everybody has to have enough discipline not to feed media narratives of division,” he says. “And so far, I think they’ve shown they do.” Progressives trust Jayapal to navigate the challenges that come with commanding a powerful caucus in the House majority, he adds, “because of her track record, and because she wears her heart on her sleeve.”
Jayapal has won that trust among seasoned activists, but she knows she has some relationship-building to do with the younger generation that is infusing the Democratic Party with new life, and she’s reaching out to them now. “It’s awesome to see a powerhouse woman of color who’s also from southern India,” the Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash tells me. “I’m excited to see how she puts her organizing chops together with the issues she cares about.”
Ro Khanna insists that Jayapal is the ideal bridge to that younger generation of activists, both inside and outside of Congress. “Pramila probably has the best chance of any progressive to wind up in at least the top three in leadership” as Pelosi and her team transition out, he adds. “I would like to see the caucus rally around her to make that possible.”