Progressives hold a significant portion of the total Democratic seats in the House, including some exciting first-term progressives. In order to pass legislation, Democratic leadership needs the support of as many of their members as possible and can only afford to lose a few votes on any bill. This reality gives progressives the ability to commit their votes together as a voting bloc and use that leverage in legislative negotiations to secure progressive wins and prevent harmful compromises. This leverage only matters if progressives use it—and fortunately we’ve already seen some promising examples.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Progressive Voting Bloc.
In preparation for the 117th Congress, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) adopted a number of new rules to increase their power and influence in Congress (see our op-ed from when they made these changes). This included a process for operating as a voting bloc in key moments. Any CPC member can ask for caucus support on a particular position, whether that’s supporting a major progressive bill or amendment, or opposing a harmful concession. If at least two-thirds of CPC members agree, then they are all expected to cast their votes as a bloc. Even if only a smaller portion of the caucus agrees, those members are still able to coordinate with each other and operate as a bloc.
We want to be clear that this is a momentous step forward for progressives, but we didn't get here by accident. This took coordinated efforts from strategic progressives in the House, like-minded organizations like Indivisible, and the hard work of grassroots activists making it known that they expect their representatives to be bold and wield their power. It will take our continued engagement for the voting bloc to be used successfully and achieve the progressive wins in Congress that we want to see.
What does the Progressive Voting Bloc Look Like in Action?
We have already seen some effective uses of the Progressive Voting Bloc as a tactic, even before the caucus process officially went into effect, which only builds momentum for future opportunities and makes it more likely that progressive ideas are consulted—as they should be!—when legislation is still in formation
2020 Survival Checks
Towards the end of 2020, when Senate Republicans finally came back to the negotiating table to hammer out a COVID-19 relief package, initial conversations did not include any additional direct cash assistance in the form of survival checks (also referred to as “stimulus checks” or “economic impact payments”). Advocates were rightly upset that this crucial form of aid was being left out of negotiations, and it seemed like an uphill battle to reinsert the needs of millions of people who would benefit from survival checks into a potential agreement.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus got together and demanded, crucially with the power of their collective vote, that survival checks be included. This demand also stated that inclusion of survival checks should not come at the expense of other vital provisions like enhanced unemployment insurance. Because the CPC was willing to threaten to withhold their votes, by the time an agreement was reached, the legislative text included $600 survival checks. While these checks should have been bigger and the final bill remained an inadequate relief package, it was improved markedly because progressives acted together.
House Rules Changes
At the start of each Congress, the House of Representatives passes a set of rules that govern its operations. Most of these are relatively non-controversial, like how Congress will keep records or how Members of Congress can use their office funds. However, there are two provisions that have hampered progressive legislation in the past: the “Motion to Recommit” (or “MTR”) and the “Pay as You Go rule” (or “PayGo”).
The MTR had been a procedural mechanism used by Republicans to force last-minute “gotcha” votes that were tied to any bill Democrats brought to the floor, and these votes were most often used in bad faith to demonize immigrants and people of color. Unfortunately some Democrats fell for this trap, and allowed Republicans to divide Democrats and endanger popular bills.
PayGo is a budget rule that blocks any new spending unless it is “paid for” at the same time by reducing spending elsewhere or raising taxes. This reinforced harmful austerity framing and effectively prohibits bold, progressive legislation that would deliver resources to those who need it most.
Both of these rules clearly needed to be changed. Progressives started early, offering their proposed solutions (getting rid of these harmful rules all together) well before the rules for the 117th Congress would be adopted. They worked with outside partners (including Indivisible) to bring more Members to their cause and put increased pressure on Democratic leadership. Progressives in the House made it clear that in order to receive their votes for the rules package, progress needed to be made on these two provisions.
The final House rules package for the 117th Congress did not include full elimination of the MTR and PayGo, but it did blunt the worst of their harm and paved the way for progressive legislation. The MTR was changed to remove the “gotcha” vote, and is now simply a vote on whether the bill should be sent back to committee for further deliberation. And while PayGo was not eliminated, there are broad and necessary exemptions for legislation responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis, as well as for dealing with the urgent need to combat climate change. Neither of these solutions are perfect, but they are a step forward and were only made possible by Progressives making clear demands and backing those demands up with their collective votes.
The American Rescue Plan
Shortly after Joe Biden took office, he announced his American Rescue Plan to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. Congress then needed to put that plan into legislation and send it to the President to sign into law. The House took the lead on the drafting the bill, and it quickly became clear that some Democrats were willing to leave out two key planks of the rescue plan: raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and building on the inadequate $600 survival checks from December for a total of $2,000.
Fortunately, with support from Indivisible and activists across the movement, the CPC used the Progrsesive Voting Bloc to demand these two provisions be included in the House legislative package. The CPC worked with the Biden administration to insist that raising the minimum wage be written into the bill and fiercely defended it against Republican attacks. Including robust survival checks was an even closer call, and an early draft of the legislation would have left out millions of people that had been promised this needed assistance. Progressives listened to the public outcry and made sure that the bill lived up to President Biden’s campaign promise to send additional survival checks to folks struggling during this economic emergency.
Once the bill moved to the Senate it faced even stiffer challenges because of the narrow Democratic majority and moderate Democrats seeking to weaken the bill. Unfortunately, the $15 an hour minimum wage provision was ruled ineligible for budget reconciliation by the Senate Parliamentarian, and because Democrats continue to make the mistake of keeping the filibuster, the provision was stripped out of the bill. The work of the CPC to keep the provision in the bill helped build the case that key Democratic promises, like raising the minimum wage, will require fixing the Senate rules by eliminating the filibuster.
Simultaneously, moderate Democrats yet again began coalescing around a plan to restrict the $1,400 survival checks, but progressive advocacy effectively prevented that disastrous change. Additionally, some of the same moderates, and Senator Joe Manchin in particular, sought to dramatically water down the unemployment insurance provisions. The united opposition from the CPC to such a move led to Leader Schumer telling Sen. Manchin that watering down the unemployment benefits as much as he wanted to would effectively tank the bill. While the weekly boost to unemployment benefits was cut from $400 per week to $300, the use of the Progressive Voting Bloc in this instance prevented a much more significant cut.
It is clear that because the CPC effectively used the voting bloc mechanism and coordinated with movement allies, they successfully made the American Rescue Plan that was signed into law stronger, advanced progressive priorities, and delivered meaningful results to the American people.
The Fights Ahead
We fully expect some contentious legislating during this Congress. There will be efforts to set aside progressive priorities or make a harmful tradeoff in exchange for support from Republicans or even moderate Democrats. During a Democratic trifecta, it is more important than ever to have a Progressive Voting Bloc that is willing to strategically flex its muscles, advance the progressive agenda, and protect against destructive compromises. We know the Democratic majority in the Senate is slim, and some bills will face an uphill climb to reach the President’s desk. This means our best chance at the boldest, most inclusive legislation is ensuring everything that passes the House is sufficiently progressive, and members of the Progressive Voting Bloc always have a seat at the negotiating table.
How should the Progressive Voting Bloc work moving forward?
It is critical to differentiate between a destructive voting bloc (think Freedom Caucus that grew out of the Tea Party which only tanked bills and had no ability to win things legislatively) and a constructive voting bloc (what we are building).
The real goal is for the threat of the voting bloc to prompt meaningful consultation with and concessions to progressives before a bill or proposal is finalized. Progressives will have to use it several times to establish the legitimacy of the threat, but if it’s actually working as intended, it wouldn’t be used very often.
The voting bloc should most often be used to improve legislation, as opposed to killing it. This will ensure that members of the bloc are contributing to larger Democratic efforts and truly governing, and will also help incentivize leadership to engage rather than ignore the voting bloc.
When do we want to use the Progressive Voting Bloc?
A progressive voting bloc should generally be used when progressives have exhausted other options. Using less conflictive tactics beforehand (like offering amendments during committee markups) justify the members using the bloc and establish a clear narrative of good-faith engagement.
A progressive voting bloc should be used when a bill is being passed on a mostly partisan basis. When bills are passed mostly along partisan lines this makes progressive votes even more important. With Democratic seats lost in the House, leadership needs to win over the progressive wing in order to pass bills. This means they hold a lot of negotiating power.
A progressive voting bloc should be used when progressives are prepared to negotiate strategically. A progressive voting bloc should generally be used when progressives have a menu of demands or other room to negotiate beyond than a single “line in the sand” demand, and most of those demands should be within or nearly within the Overton Window.
What is the Overton Window?
- The Overton Window refers to a set of policies considered mainstream at a given time. The political feasibility of a policy depends on whether or not it falls within the Overton Window.
- Importantly, this window isn’t stagnant and often changes. Public opinion is largely responsible for shifting the Overton Window. A lot of the work we do is to shift this window to the left so that progressive policies become mainstream.
- One example of the Overton Window shifting is the minimum wage fight. Only a few years ago a $15 per hour minimum wage was seen as too radical, however, after a lot of grassroots mobilizing, public opinion has shifted, and the House passed the Raise the Wage Act in 2019. The $15 per hour minimum wage was once outside of the Overton Window, but progressives made it a winnable policy.