How Powerful Is the Progressive Revolt Brewing in the House?

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Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee December 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. The subcommittee heard testimony on the topic of "The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States."
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

While it’s not exactly a secret that many Capitol Hill Democrats have a distant — if not dysfunctional — relationship with the White House, rarely has the family feud gone as public as it did with the omnibus spending bill last week. House progressives, inspired by Elizabeth Warren and led by Nancy Pelosi, protested and nearly blocked the $1.1 trillion spending bill, and required frantic arm-twisting from the White House to avoid another round of shutdown brinksmanship next year. Representative Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat and co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, breaks down the progressive revolt and what it portends for the next Congress.

Why did House Democrats revolt against the spending bill?
We decided to fight the cromnibus because it contained two features that were simply unacceptable, and they took on sort of an iconic status for what’s wrong with Washington and what’s wrong with the way that our country is addressing — or not addressing — income inequality. On the one hand, one part of the bill is rolling back banking reforms and on the other hand it’s lifting caps that the donors can use to give more money to political parties. So they can now give about $320,000 and a couple can give almost $700,000. It’s like “We’re hooking you up, so give us donations.” What does that do to income inequality and what is the signal we’re sending to the average American watching this, as we’re just past an election where only 36 percent of people voted? Why aren’t people voting? They aren’t voting because they feel no matter what they do, big rich guys will get their way. We don’t have any time to take care of unemployed; they were cut off last December 26. We don’t talk to them. We don’t have time to raise the minimum wage. But we have plenty of time to run the thing to get the banks what they want. Maybe the raise on the caps was debated in the Senate, but I don’t remember any debate on it in the House. There are people who say this will bring more transparency — no, we need less money in politics, not more. It just proves how much power these interests have; they’re corroding the power of our representative democracy.

You hear that argument a lot now, that donors should be able to give as much as they want as long as they disclose it, like that deals with there being too much money in politics.
The argument doesn’t make any sense. If you have the wherewithal to drop money on a race, then it works. If you’re an ordinary working American slugging it out, making $70,000 between you and your spouse with two kids, it might be nice to know — I’m not going to diminish the importance of disclosure — but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s someone who can blare nonsense over your TV screen all day every day in the last month of an election. Maybe it says “Americans for Great Values” put it out. Does that matter? Now it might say “Paid for by the Republican Party.” Does that matter? Whether you have rich Democrats or rich Republicans, I don’t really care. Now we’ve got to ask rich liberals to give us money — is that good? An arms race based on ideology? Rich Democrats and rich Republicans don’t know anything about what some woman raising her family on $32,000 a year is dealing with. They have no clue. Great, rich liberals like Warren Buffett or Tom Steyer, I’m sure they’re fine people but they have no idea of how to make ends meet with an old beat-up car, $700 a month rent, and you’re making $32,000 a year and you’re trying to get kids to school. And we make sure people who own private jets who can give $340,000 to a political party. This bill only alienates average, everyday Americans and makes them think politics is game of the rich. Can you imagine someone — how rich do you have to be to even contemplate that?

There are other things I don’t like about this bill. Why is Congress interfering with Washington, D.C.’s local decision making? Why can’t Washingtonians make their own decisions about what they want to do with marijuana? In a country where we have this war on drugs and young black kids are ten times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white kids, it makes sense to me that D.C. doesn’t want to spend its budget on chasing people with a small amount of marijuana — that’s their decision. I would not appreciate it if Washingtonians told me what to do about this, but we feel free to tell them what to do just because we can. I think it stinks. I understand this bill got us a year’s budget and takes us out of having a crisis every quarter, but the cost of that is that we have made Americans far more alienated from their government by doing so, so I’m really sorry that it went down this way.

Was part of the concern over this bill a feeling that it’s a bad sign of what’s to come in the next Congress, with Republicans taking over the Senate?
I know it’s going to be rough coming up; I have no illusions about some sort of bipartisan bliss. People better buckle their seat-belts because we’re going to be in for a big fight. I don’t know how you can say income inequality is the defining issue of our time and then back a bill that allows big banks to roll back regulations and open your hand up to get even more money from the donors. I agree with the president that income inequality is the defining issue of our time — so why did we just put more power in hands of rich?

Was this partly about frustration with the president, too?
Well, I agree with the president on a lot of things. I’m big supporter of the Affordable Care Act and the Wall Street reform and consumer protection bill and I’m definitely an ally of the president. But now when the president is wrong, that’s different. He was wrong to endorse this bill and whip it. If he had stood back and said “I don’t like it, either, but for these reasons I am compelled to back it,” that’s one thing. But he’s whipping it! He’s pushing it. If he could have said “I’m not signing that bill, forget about it,” could we be in a different place now? I don’t know. He knows, but I don’t know. I’ll tell you one thing, Jamie Dimon and Barack Obama were whipping members of Congress, but they didn’t call me.

No one called? I bet they assume you’re a lost cause on this.
Nope, they didn’t call me. It’s all right; my feelings aren’t hurt. I would have given them an earful anyway.

Is there a lesson the White House and Congressional leaders should take away from this?
The lesson is that there are at least 206 members of Congress and at least 40-some members of the Senate who have finally realized that a government of, by, and for the people should be on the side of the people. Many of us are hearing the pleas of people who are trying to make ends meet across this country, and we’re going to be on their side. Wall Street’s fine anyway; they don’t need our help. I’m proud that our leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters and Elizabeth Warren, finally just threw a gauntlet down and said, “Yes, we know our Democratic president supports this but that’s not a good enough reason for us to give up what we’re being asked to give up.” You’re seeing a realignment, an adjustment of substantial portions of the Congress in alignment with the American people. Congress is finally catching up on fighting for the interests of working people. We’re gonna dig in.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.