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Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is the new co-chair of House Progressives. Jayapal represents Washington’s 7th congressional district, which includes most of Seattle and its nearby suburban areas.
Photo Illustration by Amanda Northrop/Vox

Pramila Jayapal is Congress’s activist insider

Here’s how Jayapal plans to make Democratic leadership take progressives seriously.

Pramila Jayapal came to Congress in 2016 as a progressive outsider, but she’s quickly adapted to become the activist insider — negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the goal of turning progressive ideas into real policy.

The new co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus along with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Jayapal immigrated from Chennai, India, as a teenager and now represents a district that covers most of Seattle. She’s at the forefront of the fight for a long list of ambitious left-wing priorities, from Medicare-for-all to the Green New Deal. Jayapal’s job is trying to convince House Democratic leadership to give these ideas a real shot, and readying legislation in the hope Democrats take back the Senate and White House in 2020.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) rushes through the US Capitol between meetings on December 11, 2018.

The 53-year-old representative has shown she knows how to navigate the halls of Congress. Already, she’s persuaded Pelosi to hold committee hearings on Medicare-for-all, and worked to boost a progressive presence on key House committees. As the new co-leader of the largest values-based caucus in the House of Representatives, she wields important power on Capitol Hill to move Democrats to the left — if she can keep her caucus unified and on message.

“The progressive caucus hasn’t leveraged its power strategically before,” Jayapal told reporters last month. She seems game for the challenge.

During her first term in the House, Jayapal was an early, outspoken member of the progressive pressure campaign to pull the national Democratic Party to the left. She endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the party’s presidential primary in 2016; Sanders returned the favor by endorsing her that same year in a House race she won handily against a fellow Democrat (thanks to Washington state’s top-two primary system).

Jayapal is tasked with trying to make these progressive ideas a reality — or at least give them serious traction on Capitol Hill. A former immigration activist, she has the trust of many progressive groups. But she also needs Pelosi and moderate House Democrats to trust her.

Jayapal’s tactics, which involve negotiating with Pelosi, differ from those in her caucus like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has shown she is adept at using outside pressure and social media to move the national Overton window to the left.

Instead, Jayapal is playing the inside game, quietly pulling the levers of power inside Congress to move the progressive agenda forward. It’s a time-tested strategy, one that Pelosi has mastered. And it’s getting Jayapal noticed.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks with a reporter after she and her Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) held a question answer session with the press on December 11, 2018.

“I’ve said that of all the progressives in the building, she has the best chance of becoming one of the top three leaders in Congress in the next generation of leadership,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). “I think she’s struck that balance of how to navigate progressive priorities, but do so as a coalition.”

Jayapal has adopted Pelosi’s negotiating tactics

So far, Jayapal and House progressives have taken a cooperative approach with Pelosi and her allies, rather than the more confrontational style the conservative House Freedom Caucus adopted with Republican leadership.

“We don’t like to surprise,” Jayapal said. “We don’t like to be surprised; we don’t like them to be surprised. We do try to let leadership know if we have a problem.”

Behind the scenes, there’s a push and pull going on. The Democratic base may be clamoring for bold ideas like Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, but they need the support of moderate lawmakers to pass these bills in Congress.

Realistically, it’s all about preparing for 2021; progressive hopes hinge on Democrats being successful in their bids to win back the Senate and the White House in 2020, as well as keeping their House majority.

Even if everything goes right, there’s still no guarantee Democrats will enact a sweeping progressive agenda, especially if the party wants to hold on to the red districts it flipped blue in 2018. But Jayapal is quietly working to give progressive ideas a real foothold in Congress. Her most potent victory so far has been a commitment from Pelosi to hold hearings on Medicare-for-all. She won it during a separate negotiation over the “pay as you go” rule, also known as PAYGO, something first enacted in the 1990s and implemented again during the Obama years.

Progressive Democrats are skeptical of PAYGO; it’s a rule that says that a major piece of legislation like entitlement reform, or a tax cut that will increase the deficit substantially, must be offset with budget cuts to mandatory spending or tax increases.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan wrote, the rule can only be waived with a majority vote — and progressives want to use their majority to junk it. But Democrats largely won their majority by picking up Republican-leaning suburban districts, and moderate Democrats aren’t nearly as eager to ditch PAYGO.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) walks into the US House Judiciary Committee hearing to question Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Google’s data collection and filtering practices on December 11, 2018.

Jayapal took a page from Pelosi’s own dealmaking playbook to get the Progressive Caucus to agree to support a House rules package (including PAYGO) in exchange for getting hearings on Medicare-for-all.

“‘I need to be able to take back something that I can put in the bank around hearings on Medicare-for-all,’” Jayapal remembered telling Pelosi during rules negotiations (Jayapal later introduced a bill repealing PAYGO as well). Fellow progressives who watched Jayapal negotiate recalled her “not giving an inch” but also being respectful.

“I’ve seen her style, which is principled and bold but not personal,” Khanna said. “I’ve never seen her go after someone personally or be snarky.”

Pelosi committed to helping Jayapal get Medicare-for-all hearings in the House Rules Committee and House Budget Committee. To be clear, Jayapal sees this as a starting point, albeit a significant one.

“I think that was a significant victory — not that I couldn’t have negotiated something separate from that — but it matters as you know, for the speaker to be supportive of it,” Jayapal told Vox. “I’m not necessarily thinking she’s going to be the No. 1 champion for Medicare-for-all, but I think the fact she’s supporting these hearings, I think that’s all a really, really good sign.”

She’s also clear-eyed that the hearings will be broadly focused on America’s health care system and how Medicare for all could change things, rather than hearings on her forthcoming bill. She’s hopeful Democrats can have a bill ready to go if they can manage to take back the White House and Senate in 2020. To that end, Jayapal is working on her own bill — a revision of the existing Medicare-for-all bill from House progressives.

This bill would give every American health insurance provided by the federal government, and would include coverage for mental health services and long-term care, the Washington Post’s Paige Winfield Cunningham reported. It would also get rid of employer-sponsored health insurance, a provision that has stirred a lot of debate in the Democratic Party.

Democrats like House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) agree they must be ready to strike on universal health care when the iron is hot, but they’re not sure if Jayapal’s bill is the one they want.

“The danger is you throw something out there — like, you throw Pramila’s bill out, which is Bernie-plus — and that kind of creates a brand that maybe is not the most effective way to approach it. I’m concerned about that,” Yarmuth told Vox. “Any bill that tries to reshape what will then be 20 percent of the economy, the situation is going to be so fluid that I think it’s important we have a starting point.”

Even though Yarmuth is wary of pushing the health care debate too far to the left, he has nothing but praise for Jayapal herself.

“People consider her a serious thinker, a serious legislator, and so I think she has a very significant place at the table,” he said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) speaks to her aide as she runs from one meeting to another on December 11, 2018.

Jayapal’s theory of change starts with a diverse Congress

Jayapal believes real change can’t happen unless Congress looks like the people it represents.

“People across the country don’t trust either Republicans or Democrats, and so the way we do that is by having people I think are more representative, more grounded in a movement for change, and come from the movements,” she said.

In the age of President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies, Jayapal has spoken out forcefully and repeatedly. A former activist and immigrant, she knows what it feels like when your country doesn’t want you.

“So much of it is ‘you’re not really one of us,’” she said. “That feeling accompanies me through my journey.”

She first came to the United States at the age of 16 from Chennai, India, to attend school. Years later, after she married an American citizen and was working toward obtaining full citizenship, she nearly lost her legal status during a health emergency in her home country.

On a fellowship in India in the early 1990s, a pregnant Jayapal went into labor very early, giving birth to her son at 26.5 weeks. Jayapal had thought she had plenty of time to travel back to the US to renew her green card and prepare for a home birth.

“Best-laid plans, you know?” she quipped. Jayapal was at her son’s side constantly after his birth, unsure if the tiny baby would live to see another day. All the while, US immigration authorities were reminding her that if she did not come back, she was in danger of losing her green card.

“Six weeks where we literally went into the ER every day and we had no idea if he was going to make it through the day,” she said. “My son was a US citizen because he was born to a US citizen father, and I was facing the prospect of not being able to come back to the United States to be with him because he was really, really sick.”

After a long back-and-forth, Jayapal was able to get her green card reinstated, but she had lost her status. The experience of nearly losing her child had almost cost her citizenship as well; it would take her another three years to start from scratch and redo the process.

“For years, I had this deep worry that I was not going to be let into this country, which had become my home, but I wasn’t a citizen,” Jayapal said.

Jayapal knows that feeling has intensified for thousands of immigrants living in Trump’s America. She feels it acutely herself, even though she is a member of Congress.

“Even today, the first thought I had when I read about the denaturalization efforts of the Trump administration was, ‘He’s going to take away my citizenship,’” she told Vox in December.

A progressive vision for immigration

On immigration, Jayapal is ready to be a progressive answer to Trump. It’s not enough to simply call out Trump’s harsh policies; she believes Democrats need to present their own clear vision.

“What Trump has done is not only turn immigrants into scapegoats, but also, he has basically simplified everything, but with lies. We just have to reclaim that,” Jayapal said.

From left, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), John Lewis (D-GA), Judy Chu (D-CA), Al Green (D-TX), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), and others march toward the US Customs and Border Protection offices in protest of the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents and children at the border on June 13, 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Much of Jayapal’s plan includes reversing the trends of the Trump administration, but she also wants to reform an immigration system that has been bloated and broken for decades. She envisions an immigration system where the border is demilitarized, migrants who come into American ports of entry and detention facilities are treated humanely, and where the US can clear its 4 million-person backlog in the family immigration system. Then she wants to have a serious conversation about expanding legal immigration.

“If we have needs in the fastest-growing sectors, align those sectors with the work visas,” she said. “Home care, nursing care, domestic workers, that’s one of the fastest growing industries for us in terms of our needs between now and the next 10 to 15 years. We should be having work visas that match those needs.”

There have been missteps along the way; at the height of the family separation crisis last year, Jayapal and her fellow progressives introduced a bill that would have abolished US Immigration and Customs Enforcement within a year, and looked for alternatives to the agency, among other things. Though “Abolish ICE” had become a progressive rallying cry, it proved divisive among the House Democratic caucus.

The bill infuriated the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who complained they hadn’t been consulted on it beforehand. They came out against legislation, and ultimately Jayapal and others decided to vote against their own bill when Republican leadership tried to force a vote. Though the bill ruffled feathers, it may well have been a valuable lesson in the need for coalition-building.

Jayapal hopes Democrats can someday enact her longterm immigration vision, but for the short term, she plans to bring the Trump administration’s harshest immigration policies into clear focus. During a recent Judiciary Committee hearing, Jayapal took acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to task for Trump’s family separation policy — which he denied even existed.

Jayapal has many tools she’s using during her time in Congress, but she says her most important strength lies in people underestimating her.

“I don’t mind tussling — as you’ve probably noticed,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of people who, because I’m a woman, because I’m a person of color and because I look younger than people think I am, they take me for granted. And that’s helpful sometimes, because you don’t always need to be loud from day one.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal chats with an aide standing outside Capitol Hill in between meetings. The sun begins to set on Capitol Hill.
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