Green New Deal Still Faces Major Obstacles, Many of Them from within the Democratic Party


The Sunrise Movement tweeted earlier today that the Green New Deal now has the support 43 House representatives, or roughly ten percent of the House membership. The Sunrise Movement, along with Democratic representatives such as Ro Khanna and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been leading the campaign for the Democratic Party to adopt a Green New Deal.

The Sunrise Movement’s tweet follows a recent poll that showed that more than 80 percent of registered voters, representing a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, support a Green New Deal.

There have been other signs that progressives are gaining grounds in the fight against climate change, at least on the political front. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is expected to grow by 20 seats when the next Congress convenes in January. Nancy Pelosi offered several concessions to progressives in exchange for their support in her bid to become Speaker of the House again. These concessions included a guarantee that progressives will have proportionate representation on the House’s so called “A committees,” specifically the Appropriations Committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Financial Services Committee, the Intelligence Committee, and the Ways and Means Committee. Jayapal and Pocan also asked for “expanded leadership that allows for more progressives in the top spots,” but the details on that remain unclear.

Despite these gains, House progressives still face an uphill battle in terms of getting the type of bold legislation they advocate passed. It remains to be seen if Pelosi will hold true to her promises. Even if she does, progressives still may not be able to overcome the numerous obstacles that the Green New Deal still faces from Republicans and Democrats alike.

As HuffPost Senior Reporter Zach Carter notes, progressives are often underrepresented on major committees. The CPC accounts for roughly 40 percent of the Democratic Party caucus but comprises only 27 to 36 percent of seats on the Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Ways and Means committees. Increasing the number of progressive seats on these committees would obviously be a step in the right direction, but there are signs that the CPC might already be having trouble trying to fill those seats because of House rules that limit the number of committees a representative can sit on.

“CPC members who already have committee assignments of their own on less powerful committees are reluctant to switch, as they would lose the seniority they’ve built up over the years,” David Dayen explained in a recent article for The Intercept. “Separately, they worry about the jockeying that would be required on the new committees, which would put them in confrontations with centrist members that many would rather avoid for internal political reasons.”

There’s also no guarantee that progressives will stay unified on committees. There is, for instance, a considerable difference between the voting records of CPC members like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard or Rep. David Loebsack when compared to those of Rep. Jim McGovern or Rep. Judy Chu.

On climate change, one of the most vital issues to progressives (and anyone else living on Earth), some members of the CPC have already joined forces with Pelosi and other establishment Democrats to resist the call for a select committee on a Green New Deal advocated by Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ro Khanna, and grassroots groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats.

Pelosi has been reluctant to adopt the idea. Instead, she has alluded to reinstating the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming she created the last time she served as Speaker. That committee was ineffective at getting major legislation passed and would fall far short of the ambitions of a Green New Deal.

The response to the Green New Deal from some CPC members has been even worse than Pelosi’s. Rep. Frank Pallone, a member of the CPC who serves as a ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and sits on its Environment and Economy Subcommittee, has insisted that a select committee on a Green New Deal “is not necessary.” Rep. Peter DeFazio, another CPC member who serves as a ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, mocked the idea of the Green New Deal, declaring that is “technologically impossible” that “in five years or 10 years we’re not going to consume any more fossil fuels.”

Any legislation as ambitious and far-reaching as the Green New Deal would need strong support in Energy and Commerce as well as Transportation and Infrastructure.

So far, 43 Democratic representatives have signed on to support the formation of the Green New Deal select committee. Many of them are incoming freshmen, with a few tenured CPC members, such as Rep. John Lewis, being a noteworthy exception. Even representatives as Raú Grijalva, a current co-chair of the CPC and arguably one of the most progressive members, has been reserved in his support for the proposed committee.

Commenting on the possibility that the Democratic Party might actually establish a select committee on a Green New Deal, environmentalist Naomi Klein concluded:

“Smart money would bet on the party doing little more than resuscitating the climate committee that helped produce cap-and-trade legislation in Obama’s first term, an ill-fated and convoluted market-based scheme that would have treated greenhouse gases as late-capitalist abstractions to be traded, bundled, and speculated upon like currency or subprime debt (which is why Ocasio-Cortez is insisting that lawmakers who take fossil fuel money should not be on the Green New Deal select committee).”

Indeed, on Thursday the Democratic leaders in the House named Rep. Kathy Castor, who is not a member of the CPC and does support a Green New Deal, to head a new committee on climate change. The committee does not have a mandate to pursue a Green New Deal and does not require its members to forgo contributions from the fossil-fuel industry. A Huffpo article on the decision ran under the headline “Democrats Just Killed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Push for a Green New Deal Committee” and the Sunrise Movement issued a statement dismissing the proposed committee as “just another of the many committees we’ve seen failing our generation our entire lives.”

Of course, progressives will not only be fighting Democratic centrists on House committees. They will also be facing off against Republicans and more conservative Democrats, including members of the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition (NDC). Case in point, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Blue Dog on the Appropriations Committee, recently warned that Democrats cannot “go too extreme” when asked about the Green New Deal.

The once influential Blue Dog Coalition has declined to less than two dozen members in recent years, but the NDC has nearly 70 members, making it almost as large as the CPC. The NDC is comprised of Third Way Democrats who are stridently pro-business and highly experienced in the art of navigating the bureaucracy of committees. They are not prone to giving ground during negotiations.

As Carter notes in his HuffPo piece, many NDC members frequently vote in favor of policies advocated by Trump rather than their Democratic colleagues, especially when it comes to deregulation and supporting Wall Street. They are also adamantly opposed to progressive causes like Medicare for All or curbing prescription drug prices.

Another obstacle progressives may face in regards to committee bureaucracy is the troubling “dues” system that has been linked to holding committee seats and gaining influence on committees. Members of major committees are often expected to divert hundreds of thousands of dollars from their own campaign coffers to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the branch of the party that directs efforts to get Democrats elected to Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez and other popular progressives had no trouble fundraising during the midterms, but it may be more difficult for some lesser known progressives to raise such large amounts of donations from grassroots support now that they are incumbents, especially if their seats are considered secure during the next election. This creates a situation where some progressives may be tempted to accept donations from corporations in the industries the committees they sit on are supposed to oversee and regulate.

Progressives are bound to face continued opposition from centrist Democrats outside of committee wranglings and the halls of Congress as well. The schism that arose between progressives and the Democratic establishment during the 2016 primary illustrated that even when centrists hold only the slimmest possible majority, they are still good at staying unified against progressive minorities. It also showed that they are determined to prevent progressives from securing leadership positions or otherwise gaining too much influence.

When Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic nomination in the 2016 primary, her campaign and the DNC realized they need to bring as many of Bernie Sanders’s supporters as they could into their fold if they wanted to defeat Donald Trump in the general election. In an ostensible gesture of good will, the DNC allowed Sanders to name five of the fifteen members of the DNC Platform Committee that would design the party’s new political platform.

Sanders named CPC member Rep. Keith Ellison, philosopher Cornel West, environmental activist Bill McKibben, Arab American Institute founder James Zogby, and Native American activist Deborah Parker to the committee. Clinton named four of the remaining ten members. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a staunch Clinton supporter who served as chair of the DNC at the time, chose the other four.

Clinton’s and Wasserman Schultz’s appointees included two more progressives, CPC members Rep. Elijah Cummings and Rep. Barbara Lee, along with several corporatist “influence peddlers,” such as lobbyist Howard Berman, Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, and Albright Stonebridge Group staffers Wendy Sherman and Carol Browner. The centrists effectively held only a one-seat majority.

In the first round of voting on a new platform, the centrists on the committee stayed unified against the progressives and rejected nearly all of their proposals outright. The progressive proposals that did pass were watered down in compromises. Things were slightly better in later rounds of voting, and Sanders ultimately touted the platform that emerged from the committee as “the most progressive platform in party history” even though he could point to only a handful of examples in the platform to justify the claim.

The infighting between progressives and establishment Democrats at the DNC didn’t end there.

When it became obvious that Ellison was likely to win the February 2017 election to replace the embattled Wasserman Schultz as chair of the DNC, President Obama urged his Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, to run against Ellison even though Perez had shown no interest in the position. The Obama-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party threw their weight behind Perez and defeated Ellison in the second round of voting.

Perez made a political gesture to progressives by naming Ellison “deputy chair” of the DNC, a role that was previously left unfilled because it held no actual authority, but once Perez assumed his position as chair he quickly moved to purge progressives from the DNC. Ellison was left as an isolated and powerless figurehead within the DNC that the the Democratic Party establishment could nevertheless point to as evidence that they were working with progressives.

As the 2018 midterm primaries began to take shape, the DCCC made a concerted effort to sabotage and suppress the campaigns of progressive candidates and causes across the country. They justified these efforts under the pretense that centrists candidates and rhetoric were more electable despite growing evidence that a majority of Democrats wanted a “bold leftward shift.”

The DCCC’s chair, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, oversaw a smear campaign that released opposition research files against at least one progressive candidate and sternly discouraged candidates from supporting Medicare for all and gun control, among other issues. The groups Justice Democrats, Credo, and Our Revolution, the latter of which was founded by Sanders, asked the DCCC to “stop attacking progressives” but were essentially ignored.

In one of the more petty snubs to progressives, DNC members refused to meet with with a delegation of 60 activists led by Nina Turner, a former surrogate for Sanders’s presidential campaign and the president of Our Revolution, as they attempted to deliver a “People’s Platform” to the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington DC in August of 2017. Turner and her delegation were turned away by security guards at barricades set up outside the Democrats’ headquarters and were offered donuts and water, a gesture that Turner saw as patronizing.

There is little reason to believe that things will be much easier for progressives with Pelosi as Speaker of the House again, especially when considering her tumultuous history with progressive politicians and causes.

To the pro-Sanders, Democratic Socialists who helped Ocasio-Cortez and other incoming progressives win their midterm elections, Pelosi symbolizes the Third Way brand of politics that has transformed the Democratic Party into a right-of-center, “Republican lite” party that has contributed to shifting the Overton Window in America further to the right by kowtowing to corporate interests.

In turn, Pelosi has not been shy about her opposition to the progressive insurgence in the Democratic Party. In January of 2017 an NYU student at a CNN town hall meeting featuring Pelosi asked how the Democratic Party planned to respond to the growing popularity of socialism among young voters. In a response that sounded like a jab directed at Democratic Socialists, Pelosi replied, “I have to say, we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.” She has been dismissive of questions of the DNC tipping the scales in Clinton’s favor in 2016, a wound that still hasn’t healed for many Sanders supporters. She also downplayed the significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory over 10-term centrist Rep. Joseph Cowley, telling a reporter, “The fact that in a very progressive district in New York it went more progressive…is about that district. It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”

In terms of policy, Pelosi backed President Barack Obama’s unprovoked war on Libya. She voted in favor of President Donald Trump’s bloated military budget, and actively encouraged other Democrats to do so. As soon as it was clear that Democrats had retaken the House in the midterms, Pelosi rejected the possibility of trying to impeach Trump (a rallying cry for progressives if not a viable political pursuit) and declared her willingness to compromise with the Trump administration, saying “We have a bipartisan marketplace of ideas that makes our democracy strong.” She has since, however, show some support for demanding that Trump submit his tax records to Congress.

On two major sticking points with progressives, Pelosi still refuses support a single-payer, Medicare for All healthcare program and is currently pushing to reinstate PAYGO, a Congressional rule that requires any new budget expenses to be offset by either tax increases or budget cuts elsewhere. As David Dayen put it in a recent article for The Intercept, resurrecting PAYGO would “handcuff” any “progressive ambitions” the Democratic Party may have.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of how Pelosi will engage with progressives as Speaker of the House is how she’s engaged with them when she previously held leadership roles. For the past 15 years, the House Democratic Caucus has been led primarily by Pelosi, Cowley, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and Rep. James Clyburn. During that time, America has witnessed constant war, the ongoing degradation of the working class, intense debate over healthcare being a civil right, growing awareness about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the realization that climate change has advanced so far that it may destroy civilization as we know in approximately 20 years. All of these issues are at the center of progressive politics, yet Pelosi and the other Democratic leaders have not seen fit to promote progressives to leadership roles in the House so that they may help to address them.

To be fair, Pelosi did recently create a leadership position for progressive stalwart Barbara Lee after centrist Democrats sabotaged Lee’s bid to take the role of the fourth-ranking position in the Democratic House leadership went to Hakeem Jeffries, who is a member of the CPC but has deep ties to corporate interests and a more centrist record than Lee. In response to Lee’s loss, Pelosi created a position for Lee on the panel that determines committee assignments for Democrats by expanding the number of the panel’s co-chairs from two to three.

As Rachael Bade points out in an article for Politico article, as the November vote to elect new Democratic leadership approached, Rep. David Cicilline was the only progressive other than Lee running for a leadership position. He was running to be Assistant Democratic Leader, which will be the third-ranking position in the Democratic Caucus once Pelosi ascends to the Speaker position.

It’s not that progressives don’t want leadership positions. It’s that they know their odds of winning against centrists are unlikely. Cicilline has been in Congress since 2011, he has a solidly progressive voting record, he is a vice chair of the CDC and has the support of that caucus, but when it became obvious he had no chance of winning the position of Assistant Democratic Leader, he bowed out of the race. Luján, the DCCC chair who helped smear progressives during the midterm primaries, was elected to the position.

The gains progressives made in the midterms are important and inspirational, as is the work that the Sunrise Movement, Ocasio-Cortez, Khanna, and others have done on promoting awareness of climate change and the Green New Deal.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen time and time again that when centrist Democrats talk about party unity, they mean only if everyone is unifying behind their agenda. Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership and establishment cannot be trusted on climate change or pretty much any other issue.

This doesn’t mean that we should give up. It means we need to keep fighting, and that we need to fight harder.



*Featured image: “Global Day of Action in Copenhagen” via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

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