WASHINGTON — Progressive leaders in Congress are currently strategizing about how they’ll pull President-elect Joe Biden to the left and make their demands — including policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — unavoidable once he’s sitting in the Oval Office.
The plan, described to BuzzFeed News by progressive members of Congress, is being developed whether or not Republicans maintain control of the Senate after January’s two runoff races in Georgia. The tactics will involve high-profile and social media–ready grillings of members of Biden’s administration, the same way they have for Trump officials, partnering with activist groups to hold Biden to his campaign promises and push him to use executive orders enact progressive policies, and, less realistically, championing bipartisan legislation on issues Republicans might support, like transportation.
Rep. Katie Porter’s plan for pulling Biden to the left looks, in some ways, like her approach toward the Trump administration, one that has repeatedly made her go viral for, well, the last reason you’d expect someone to go viral: aggressive government oversight.
“When I think about what progressives need to accomplish going forward, yes, it's about passing legislation, yes, it's about working with the administration, but progressives also need to embrace oversight,” Porter, who was recently elected as the Congressional Progressive Caucus deputy chair, said.
Soon, many of the Cabinet secretaries and Trump allies whom Porter has eviscerated on camera will be out of their jobs as Biden takes office. But Porter — who has a T-shirt that proclaims “I <3 oversight,” and she’s gifted matching ones to some of her colleagues — isn’t going to back down on that work in the new administration.
“We need to be the sort of movement of transparency, of oversight, of stewards of taxpayer dollars, because we're saying this money would make a difference, and then we need to make sure that it really is. We should increase funding to this program [and] we need to make sure that increased funding is actually helping people on the ground,” she said. ”I continue to think that oversight is as important as ever, despite a Biden administration.”
On Twitter, it feels like every few weeks, a video of Porter dismantling various officials, such as pharmaceutical executives, the postmaster general, the secretary of housing and urban development — the list goes on and on — blows up. Her strategy of asking basic, clear questions during Oversight Committee hearings seems to consistently baffle people who should definitely know the answers. Porter sees this as a central part of the progressive mission, and one that will not cease just because a member of her own party is in the White House.
“Do you know what an REO is?” she asked Housing Secretary Ben Carson last year.
“An Oreo?” he responded before trying again with “real estate e-organization.” (Also incorrect. REO stands for “real estate–owned.”)
Porter stumped Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in August simply by asking him if he knew what it costs to send a postcard and how many people voted by mail in the last presidential election.
“There's a lot riding on those two Georgia Senate seats,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, who currently serves as CPC cochair, during an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It's huge,” he added, “but at the same time, you know, we really are relying on Georgians to be making the calls, right? We're not going to campaign there.” (Pocan's office clarified that they would not be campaigning in the state due to the coronavirus).
But activist groups have been using the Georgia runoffs to push Democrats at all levels of government to embrace progressive policies. In a Dec. 10 memo shared with reporters, Justice Democrats, a progressive group, outlined a plan it described as “a winning issue on a silver platter.”
Biden, the group argued, should promise to pass a stand-alone bill that would send all Americans $1,200 in relief in his first week in office if Congress does not do so before he’s inaugurated. (This week, Congress agreed to a deal that included $600 relief checks for people making less than $75,000 per year.) Additionally, in Georgia, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock should campaign on that and make it clear that Democrats will deliver relief if voters deliver them to the Senate.
This strategy, the group argued in the memo, would “give Democrats something they haven’t had in years: a clear message about something tangible that Democrats will do for you.”
Pocan said he believes working with outside organizations to pressure the Biden administration will be one of the most successful tactics available to progressives. He has experience serving on the Oversight Committee during a Democratic presidency; he sat on the panel after he was first elected in 2012, during the Obama administration. It’s a distinct experience with your own party in the White House, he said.
“You're not going to see the egregious actions that we've had for the last four years,” he said. “It was a different committee than it was in the last four years.”
Instead, Pocan said, he’s been focusing on working with activist groups on issues important to him, including labor rights and defense spending, and preparing for either outcome in the January elections in Georgia. And if Democrats don’t control the Senate, he said, working with outside organizations to pressure the Biden administration will be, “in some ways, the only vehicle we have to get some things done.”
“We can have the most beautifully crafted legislation, but if you don't have a Senate…” Pocan said, trailing off. “You know, you can put it out there if it's an organizing tool … But ultimately, if you want to get something done, we have to have an executive agency, executive branch strategy. And the good news is most groups are thinking in that way, so they've got parallel track plans going forward.”
That executive branch strategy is already in full swing, as activist groups and congressional progressives have been pushing the Biden transition team for progressive Cabinet picks, with mixed results, and plan to employ similar tactics to push the president-elect on issues like healthcare and climate change once he takes office.
Late last month, in an interview with NBC News, Biden was asked about nominating Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, his former primary rivals, to his administration. “We already have significant representation among progressives in our administration,” Biden said, adding, “but there is nothing really off the table.”
In a text message to BuzzFeed News, Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez two years ago, linked to a tweet with a clip from the interview and wrote, “Who is he talking about?” He added a laughing-crying face emoji.
In the weeks since, Biden has appointed many of his more moderate allies to his Cabinet. But some progressives have cheered the announcement that he will appoint Janet Yellen as treasury secretary, and activist groups launched a full-scale campaign for the appointment of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary. As Reuters reported earlier this month, many progressives sent letters to the Biden transition team pushing for Haaland’s nomination and publicly called for her appointment on social media, using the hashtag #DebForInterior.
The campaign was ultimately successful, and Haaland’s historic appointment as the first Native American Cabinet secretary last week thrilled progressives. As Julian NoiseCat, who works with Data for Progress, a progressive think tank and polling outlet, wrote on Twitter on Thursday, “We fought and prayed hard for this one.”
Ahead of the official announcement, Pocan said he was hoping for a Haaland pick too. He praised Biden’s choice of Alejandro Mayorkas for homeland security secretary and Xavier Becerra to head the Health and Human Services Department.
“What we're not seeing are some of the picks that we were afraid of, right? People coming from the old Democratic Leadership Council or, you know, some of these oldies but not so goodies,” Pocan said. “Really, I think he’s going to pick the people he feels closest to.”
Porter, however, said she hoped to see more generational diversity in the coming Cabinet picks.
“A lot of his appointments so far have been people that he worked with in the past,” she said. “Many of those people are going to be tremendous assets to the Biden administration and to the people of this country, but I hope in the next couple waves of appointments we see more new voices coming into government.”
Biden’s Cabinet appointments are particularly vital without a united Democratic control of Congress. With the two tight runoff races in Georgia set to determine the Senate majority, progressives know the legislative route could turn out to be the least fruitful. Democrats did have new success in Georgia on the presidential level this cycle as Biden became the first Democrat in 28 years to win the state. Both Senate races in the state — where Ossoff and Warnock are facing off against incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively — went to runoff elections that will take place on Jan. 5.
But the races appear to be extremely tight, at least according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling analysis, which shows Perdue leading Ossoff by an average of 0.6% and Loeffler leading Warnock by 0.1% at the time of publication.
If Republicans hold on, the same issues that have plagued progressives since Democrats took the House two years ago — nearly all legislation has been dead on arrival in the Senate — will continue.
“It's incredibly important that we remove Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader,” Porter said. “This is not a typical partisan disagreement; this is somebody who simply refuses to do the work of Congress. So it's one thing to bring up bills and have someone vote against them. That's not what's happening here. We simply have someone who isn't putting solutions before members and allowing them to vote them up or down.”
But even with McConnell at the helm, some lawmakers are hoping for bipartisan agreement on some legislative goals.
“A bold transportation package is again something that's bipartisan but would signal, I think, the hope and the opportunity for people to be able to get back into jobs, to rebuild our communities, our schools, our water infrastructure, to move towards a green energy future,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the CPC’s other cochair. “That would be a huge plus.”
The House can also pass bills that signal to the public that the administration is, as Jayapal said, “committed to addressing the deep hurt and pain and suffering that people across the country are facing, particularly Black, brown, and Indigenous communities with COVID” — and she wants to ensure those bills include relief for immigrants.
“We can't say that immigrants are essential workers, putting food in the food banks, and then say that they're expendable by making them deportable,” she said.
Jayapal also said she’s hopeful Biden will act quickly with executive orders addressing progressive priorities in the first days of his administration. “Everything he does by executive action will send a very important signal to people,” she said. “That's critically important.”