House Leadership Keeps Inexplicably Rolling Along

In the accountability-free zone in the Capitol, nobody has managed to challenge those responsible for the disappointing electoral result.

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

At first glance, it appeared to be a rare instance of personal responsibility in Washington. Cheri Bustos, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), announced last week she would not seek a second term. As the architect of the 2020 election debacle, whereby House Democrats lost several seats despite the top of the ticket winning by well over 5 million votes, that seemed appropriate.

But just days later, Bustos, who barely won her own race and needed a $1 million advertising lifeline from House Majority PAC in the last week, found a soft landing. She picked up a nomination for co-chair on the powerful Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a secretive organization that primarily hands out committee assignments to all members. Nancy Pelosi pretty much runs Steering and Policy herself, and the co-chairs get a sinecure that makes them look important to their colleagues. For someone who blew a golden opportunity to build a lasting Democratic majority, it was a nice consolation.

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That Steering and Policy position will be confirmed after the main House Democratic leadership elections taking place this Wednesday and Thursday. Remarkably, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the leadership will look almost exactly the same in 2021, heading into a dangerous midterm that could put the House in the minority.

No progressive is in the running for the open DCCC position, though conversations are still taking place just days before the vote.

As of right now, the top three leaders, all of them over 80 years of age, who have been entrenched in their positions for 14 years, will run unopposed for another two-year term. The quick-strike leadership election, just a couple days after House members returned to Washington, is designed to frustrate any opportunity for opposition to form. But the fact that there are no challengers at all to Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn is still quite amazing, given what happened on Election Day.

Progressives and moderates have beat up on one another since the election. Centrists would rather talk about progressive ideas hurting their brand in swing districts, and progressives would rather talk about organizing and turnout in deep-blue areas saving Joe Biden’s skin. Neither of them want to address the issue of Nancy Pelosi, who has dictatorially controlled Congress since the pandemic began and is uniquely responsible for the work output and strategy since then. It’s easier to carp about ideology than deal with the actual problem.

House elections over the past decade have generally turned on whether Republicans completely alienated the electorate or not. House Democrats have been immaterial, because they’ve done next to nothing. For example, Democrats won a mandate in 2018 vowing to take on the cost of prescription drug prices. Pelosi commandeered the process and came up with a unworkable plan that alienated allies and tossed out work that had been done across the caucus’ ideological spectrum. Progressives had to credibly threaten to kill the bill to make it even marginally tolerable. After passage, it predictably generated no interest from Mitch McConnell, and no interest from a public health advocacy community that hated the end product, consigning it to the legislative dustbin.

The pandemic, similarly, saw Pelosi first create an economic relief package in the spring that didn’t last long enough, and then resist a second stimulus deal with Donald Trump to at least place the blame on McConnell directly for denying further relief. The unsatisfying result amazingly managed to tag Democrats as the party of both lockdowns and no economic help. The lack of meaningful oversight of the executive branch and the failure to take advantage of legislative opportunities left a caucus seeking power for little more than power’s sake.

This is how the House has been run for a decade, and it keeps failing in elections unless the GOP does something catastrophically wrong. Democrats didn’t have a counter to the usual conservative attacks about socialism because they literally didn’t run on anything tangible, hoping only that Donald Trump’s buffoonery would wear off on their opponents. That didn’t work.

Progressives claim to have better ideas on policy and messaging. But they’re making no play for the leadership positions that could push them forward, despite an even stronger position within the caucus (all of the losing candidates thus far were centrists).

Because of a deal Pelosi made in 2018, she needs two-thirds support of the caucus to continue as speaker. A small contingent of progressives could force a new leader or at least concessions. That doesn’t appear to be happening. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who as the House Antitrust Subcommittee chair showed his colleagues during the Big Tech investigations how Congress can act, is running for the number 4 position in leadership, but his main competition, Katherine Clark, is a Progressive Caucus vice chair herself; that would just rearrange the deck chairs.

No progressive is in the running for the open DCCC position, though conversations are still taking place just days before the vote. According to my sources, several Progressive Caucus members have been asked to take a run at the spot and turned it down. Some cited family concerns and others that they didn’t want to be in charge in such a tumultuous cycle, when decennial redistricting and the usual midterm losses for the party of a new president could cost Democrats their majority.

That is fairly pathetic. There’s nothing preordained about the 2022 midterms that an actual strategy couldn’t fix. The fear of losing is preventing winning, once again. And now Bustos, who began her tenure by creating a blacklist for vendors who support primary challenges, immediately antagonizing (and paradoxically energizing) the left, is likely to be replaced by functionally the same person from a different district. The two leading candidates for the position are Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), who was backing Republican mayors in his district as recently as last year and whose own race isn’t even called yet, and Tony Cardenas (D-CA), who ran the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ BOLDPAC this election cycle, which was so successful that Latinos shifted in droves to Republicans.

It’s unclear whether Pelosi will even hold herself to her vow to have this be her last term as Speaker; she’s said almost nothing about it since cutting the deal in 2018. In the final analysis, you’re sure to have a leadership team that is virtually identical to the one that just put the House on the verge of Republican control.

The Progressive Caucus is going through some significant changes. They have ditched the co-chair leadership that strained messaging and cohesion and moved forward with a single chair, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). A new deputy chair position seemed to be destined for populist Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), who is running unopposed. New bylaws changes could shrink the caucus to weed out members who aren’t all that progressive, and force those who stay to vote as a bloc if two-thirds of members support a particular directive.

That shows that the Progressive Caucus is thinking strategically, at least internally. But they have shrunk from the larger fight. The shouting matches with moderates do nothing to acquire power from those who hold it. Because the House has been run like North Korea for the past decade and a half, with no successor groomed, there is no alternative to the past-its-prime leadership of the Pelosi era. And while that reality is not etched in stone, everyone is acting like it is.

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