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An unusually honest conversation about wielding political power, with Rep. Pramila Jayapal

The co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus on how to save the economy, and the harsh realities of Congress.

House Judiciary Committee Meets For Markup On Articles Of Impeachment
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) holds a copy of the US Constitution while giving an opening statement during a committee markup hearing on the articles of impeachment against President Trump on December 11, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is the co-chair of the 95-member House Progressive Caucus. That means, in the aftermath of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, she leads the most influential bloc of progressive power in the federal government. And one thing that separates Jayapal from other elected officials: She’s actually willing to talk about it.

This conversation on The Ezra Klein Show is broadly about two things: First, how does the US prevent a Great Depression? In particular, Jayapal has a bill — the Paycheck Guarantee Act — that would replace payroll up to incomes of $100,000 for businesses slammed by Covid-19. And if that sounds wishful to you, recalibrate: It’s been endorsed by Nobel prize-winning economists, a former Federal Reserve chair, and more. There’s even Republican support for the broad idea.

Second, how does the left wield power? Are Democrats getting rolled by Republicans on stimulus? Why doesn’t the House Progressive Caucus act more like the Freedom Caucus? What leverage do Democrats or progressives have, and why don’t they seem willing to use it in the way Republicans do? I wasn’t sure if Jayapal would actually answer my questions here — most politicians don’t — but she did, and the result is an unusually frank discussion about how the left does, and doesn’t, wield power in Congress.

You can listen to our full conversation by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show or wherever you get your podcasts. Excerpts of my discussion with Jayapal, edited for length and clarity, follow.

Ezra Klein

Let me start here: Are Democrats getting rolled on stimulus?

Pramila Jayapal

I don’t think we’re getting rolled at all. But the whole set of circumstances has been challenging, and we have not responded yet at the scale of the crisis that we face.

The first [Covid-19] death in my home state was on February 29. We passed our first package the week after that. The administration was in denial. The president was on TV likening it to a hoax and dismissing concerns repeatedly. It wasn’t just that Congress had to step in: We had to step in against a president who was dismissing the threat. So when you think about the fact that we passed three packages in three weeks that totaled almost two-and-a-half trillion dollars, that’s a remarkable achievement.

Ezra Klein

The reason I asked the question that way is because in the most recent stimulus bill, people saw the 25 billion dollars demand for a national strategy on testing described as a “concession” made to Democrats. That sheds light on what I view as a dynamic at play here: Democrats are acting as the governing party from the minority.

A lot of liberals make the analogy to Republicans in the Obama years, who were willing to kill bills to get what they wanted; whereas Democrats now seem to be doing what you would expect the majority party to be doing, not a traditional minority party.

Does that feel right as a description of the dynamic to you? And, if so, how does it shape the way Democrats can operate?

Pramila Jayapal

I think that’s right on. Traditionally, we would be looking to a Democratic House majority to push the envelope of what an appropriately bold response would be. That’s not a role that we can play easily in the midst of a crisis where every single state of the union has declared an emergency declaration. This is unprecedented. People really haven’t dealt with anything like this. We’re going to reach depression era levels of unemployment. We have just surpassed the number of American lives lost during the Vietnam War.

So you have these dual pressures of an intransigent administration and a relatively intransigent Senate. And I only say relatively because it’s really written itself out of the process. Mitch McConnell has basically said he’s not going to engage on anything. So you’ve got [Treasury Secretary] Mnuchin negotiating with Pelosi and trying to bring the president along.

It’s extremely difficult in this environment then to use some of the procedural maneuverings that you might use when three chambers are negotiating with each other. And then you add on to that the fact that we’re remote, so we don’t really have access to those procedural maneuvers that we might have used on the floor. I think these are all dynamics that we’re still trying to figure out.

Ezra Klein

Sen. Brian Schatz, the Democrat from Hawaii, said something to me about this that I’ve been thinking about: “Democrats have had to step into the breach to minimize suffering. There are a lot of keyboard pundits who view this as a forfeiture of leverage. And I understand what they’re saying. But we have to be very clear: They’re talking about using suffering as leverage. That is what the Republicans do, not what we do.”

I think that raises the question for Democrats and House progressives: What is the leverage in this situation if it is Democrats who bear the responsibility for making sure a bill gets done to prevent human suffering? What leverage do they have to make it the kind of bill that is sufficient to the scale of the suffering before us?

Pramila Jayapal

That is exactly the point: How do we respond to the scale of the suffering if we are just responding to one piece of it? If we are giving away the thing that Republicans are hanging their hat on, then what brings them back to the table for negotiation?

So I think it depends on how you use the word leverage. For me, the leverage is that there is enormous suffering, and if we do not respond with the boldness and the scale that this crisis demands, then that suffering will continue. I think it’s important for us to not allow ourselves to be pulled into a place where we don’t define the agenda, given that we are the ones that seem to be put in the position of really defining what the solution is going to land on.

Ezra Klein

Given that it is an election year and that the president of United States is typically held responsible for the condition of the country, you would think that the White House would be pursuing an “always more” strategy: more aid to states, more aid to the unemployed, more aid to businesses. My sense is that has not been true — it’s often been Democrats trying to push funding and authority and the White House is resistant.

Given what you’ve seen in these negotiations, if it was just left up to the White House to craft this response, what do you think they would do? What would their reaction to this be?

Pramila Jayapal

If this were just left to Trump, I honestly think that anything that made the stock market move in a positive direction would be the only thing he would do. I think the only reason we got some of the things we got was because the stock market freaked out.

That puts everything in a very different picture. I think that he would have continued to just channel money into the Federal Reserve until the moment when it became clear that even that would not hold it up. But by then, I think we would have been months further down the road. And those who participate in the stock market are not stupid, so I think that at some point the market would have crashed.

This could have been an opportunity for him to shore things up and show leadership from the White House. But I think he’s lost that chance now.

A plan to prevent economic suffering now and smooth the transition to the post-coronavirus economy

Ezra Klein

Congress has now passed a number of economic rescue bills, and the belief is that more will be done quickly. You’ve proposed something substantially more ambitious than what we’ve done so far: the Paycheck Guarantee Act. Can you talk about what that is and how it differs from the unemployment insurance and loans packages that we’ve seen so far?

Pramila Jayapal

The idea is that we want to stop people from going into unemployment and keep workers tied to their jobs. The Paycheck Guarantee Act says the federal government would actually guarantee paychecks and benefits up to a salary cap of $100,000, and would also give a 25 percent maintenance cost for all the operations that a business has to take care of. This money would go straight from the government to businesses, not using a network of private banks that favor big corporations.

So let’s say you’re a restaurant and you’ve got 30 percent in takeout, so you’ve lost 70 percent of your revenue. There’s no way you can keep your full staff. This would give you 70 percent of the grant amount so that you could at least stay going. It would also be retroactive because we should have done this right at the beginning. This would allow people away to come back off of the unemployment rolls, be back on payroll, and continue to get their benefits.

It has gotten incredible support from 100 economists just wrote a letter, including Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. And it’s actually what other countries have done. Germany had this in place coming out of the last recession, and it’s widely credited for why Germany has been able to recover quickly. But other countries have put it into place with the coronavirus: not only European countries like the UK, France, and others but Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia.

Ezra Klein

In the Senate, Sen. Josh Hawley, who’s a Republican, has a similar, but somewhat less generous, version of this kind of proposal. Have you been working with him on it?

Pramila Jayapal

Yeah, we rolled our proposals out almost at the same time and it was really interesting to see a conservative senator and the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus roll out the same idea. So I reached out to him. Our offices have talked and then we have we sent our proposal over to the Senate.

The Senate Democrats [who support this] are a really interesting group of Democrats, Mark Warner, Bernie Sanders, Richard Blumenthal, and Doug Jones — sort of representing all the parts along the caucus.

Ezra Klein

What’s the advantage of keeping people attached to their employer — as the PGA does — rather than letting them go onto unemployment insurance?

Pramila Jayapal

There’s so many. Something we don’t talk about all the time is the mental psyche of somebody knowing that they have the certainty of a job at the end of this. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety of going into the unemployment system. People want to know they’re going to have a job coming out of this.

Add to that that these unemployment systems were not built for a massive disaster of this nature. They were mostly built in the 1970s. So there’s all kinds of issues just in terms of getting money through the unemployment system.

Beyond that, we know that when people go into unemployment — particularly black and brown folks and lower wage workers — they have a much harder time getting back into the employment market. The reality is that for workers to be able to continue to keep that relationship with an employer is more valuable than we give it credit for. From the business side, it’s a huge advantage if you don’t have to go through and rehire and retrain and all of those other things.

Mark Zandi at Moody’s, who used to work for McCain and is quite a respected economist on both sides of the aisle, has been working with me on a cost estimate. His initial estimates are that it would cost us far less than what we’ve already spent or appropriated on the paycheck protection program. And we would stop mass unemployment, which provides huge benefits down the road that he hasn’t even calculated.

Ezra Klein

One that I think makes it very hard to think through the correct kinds of economic support and rescue packages right now is that there is no widely shared vision of what the economy is going to look like a year from now. How do you think about not only what is needed to stop the suffering happening right now, but what we are building toward or trying to make possible in a year?

Pramila Jayapal

I think it could be a six to eight month process for us to get to a level of stasis where we could make any decisions about what the next year is going to look like. And I think we’re going to face 10 percent unemployment rates at least for a year even after that, because businesses are going to have to completely change the way that they do business. My goal would be to try to get that down to 5 percent with a program like the Paycheck Guarantee Act. But even that will be elevated.

Ezra Klein

Let’s say we pass the Paycheck Guarantee Act tomorrow and it has provisions within it for renewability. So let’s say that we are under a regime like that for 10 months. At the end of that period, we begin to reopen because we have the contact tracing and mass testing and therapeutics to do so. And so we begin to poke our head up. And what we see, which I think is likely, is that a lot of the businesses people are attached to are actually dead.

As an example, it is likely that in office jobs where people can work from home, they’re going to be encouraged to do that for a really long time. I’m one of them. There are all kinds of businesses built around where offices like mine are in San Francisco, built to serve those office workers. If only 40 percent of those office workers are back in a year, those businesses aren’t coming back. What do we do then?

Pramila Jayapal

If we had the Paycheck Guarantee Act in place, we would protect a lot of jobs and a lot of businesses. Let’s say we do it in this next package and we’re able to protect some of that. Then, when we start to reopen partially, the paycheck guarantee is scalable. If a business can open 70 percent, but they’re still losing 30 percent, they can get money to make up the difference. Hopefully that provides enough of a transition.

And then you have to do the kind of investment recovery that we should have done a long time ago. I would start with broadband and infrastructure. We can start to invest in that kind of recovery that puts people back to work. We can invest in green buildings. We can invest in our schools and our community colleges, and perhaps even train people toward some of the work that will need to be done in this new recovery. There is a workforce that has to be developed to do that contact tracing — that is an enormous workforce that will put people back to work.

In some ways I’m less concerned about that piece because I think we’re more accustomed to the recovery pieces. That’s why I say job number one is to beat the virus. And to beat the virus, we’ve got to stay home and get contact tracing and testing in place until we are ready to go back to work. Once those things happen, then we’re in less uncharted territory.

The dilemma for House progressives

Ezra Klein

You are co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus — the single largest caucus of progressives that holds power anywhere in American government. The criticism I hear of the House Progressive Caucus from people on the left is that it’s too willing to take half a loaf — it signs onto things that are overly compromised.

I guess the simplest way to put this refrain is that I hear a lot of people wish that the House Progressive Caucus would act more like the Freedom Caucus and take more of a burn-it-down strategy if they didn’t get what they want. That’s obviously not the strategy you and your co-chair have taken. Why?

Pramila Jayapal

I think that it’s a lot easier to be on the outside and to be pure and never having to make compromises. But I believe we give up a lot of power doing that. Elected office is a platform for organizing — one that organizers have shunned to our detriment.

One factor is you’ve got to have the numbers to block any bill. I would tell you honestly that we don’t always have the number of members that we would need. But I would argue that we have been very effective on a number of things that don’t get noticed as much as they probably should. We pushed for 40 percent representation of Progressive Caucus members on key committees. We got Katie Porter on Financial Services, AOC on Financial Services. That sounds arcane, but if you think about who controls money, it’s those key a A-list committees like Ways and Means and Financial Services. So changing the composition of those structures that are inherently geared to keep the status quo in place was a big priority of ours.

I get why people are frustrated. I think that the Freedom Caucus is an easy analogy, but I don’t think it’s a good analogy, because it is quite different in terms of the number of people that they have that were ready to go there, their relationship to the caucus, and a whole number of other factors.

Ezra Klein

For people not as deep in the Congress stuff here: The Freedom Caucus only has 32 seats in the House, which is nowhere near the 95 members that the House Progressive Caucus has. But what I understand you to be saying here is that almost every single one of the members of the Freedom Caucus is willing to nuke the place; meanwhile, the House Progressive Caucus has had a more inclusive approach to membership and includes many members who are not comfortable with the more obstructive tactics needed to create leverage but which could also cause blowback.

Pramila Jayapal

That’s right. If you had 20 members every time who were willing to stand up and say, no, we’re not going to vote for this —even in a really difficult situation knowing all of the things that can come down on you if you vote no on an important leadership priority — that would be a different situation. We don’t always have that. You need to have a sufficient bloc.

It also depends on whether Republicans are going to vote for the bill. If the Democratic majority has decided that they’re going to go with moderates and Republicans so that they have enough votes to pass the bill, you have no leverage.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you about a specific example that will be coming up. You introduced a bill last week to create a “Medicare Crisis” program for people who need health insurance in this period. That bill strikes me as a very popular proposal. What would be the rebuttal of members of the House Progressive Caucus to you if you said, I think that we should not vote for the next stimulus bill if it doesn’t let people get on Medicare. What’s the counter argument on that? What are people worried leadership will do to them and why would leadership do anything?

Pramila Jayapal

In this situation, let’s imagine it’s a $1.5 or $2 trillion package. And let’s imagine that they put stimulus checks in there and expand rental rental assistance and assistance for homelessness and they put in significant resources for state and local governments. And let’s imagine that they put more money for, name your top priority.

If you just say, well, you have to vote no on this because it doesn’t expand health care, a lot of members will not be comfortable with that because they are getting other priorities that they wanted in there. That is the hardest part.

It’s much easier if there is something genuinely bad in a bill. We have no problem whipping no votes on the National Defense Authorization Act. Now, I will say that that gets support from the other side, so we still don’t defeat it because they come to a bipartisan agreement.

I think that’s the other thing people have to understand: We can say no, but if we do, it also pushes people to court the other side. On the NDAA last time, we actually made it significantly better because we both worked with them to try to make it better and then ultimately withheld our support at the very end. But those are difficult choices to make when there’s nothing bad in the bill. It will be very hard in the middle of a crisis pandemic to whip a no.

Ezra Klein

What is striking about this conversation is, in a way, it mirrors what we’re talking about with the Democratic Party broadly at the beginning of this conversation. Because Democrats in general and progressive Democrats, in particular, want to use government to help people; it is somewhat harder for them to use their leverage in a way that would shut the government down from helping people.

It seems like an asymmetry that the party faces against Republicans in general, but even that the progressive minority of the party faces against itself. In the same way that it’s hard for Democrats to act like Republicans, it’s hard for progressive Democrats to act like the Freedom Caucus, because it’s just harder for Democrats to say: no, I’m going to stop the government from helping people in an effort to try to get it to help more people.

Pramila Jayapal

We are ultimately very interested in governing, and I’m glad to be a party that is interested in governing and generally in helping people.

However, I’m also an organizer, and I do think that we need to elect more people that are willing to be bold, to take leadership, and build the institutional structures to support organizing efforts, not only on the outside but on the inside. I’m really focused on trying to do all of those things because as long as people think that government isn’t going to help them or isn’t relevant to their lives, they’re not going to be engaged — and progressives lose when people aren’t engaged.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you this from the organizer perspective. One thing that the really good organizers do is they understand that policy is a symbolic form of communication. Democrats, in broad terms, are very transactional about policy. A lot of things they want to get are complicated little programs and changes to regulations here and there.

That’s important for governance. But if you’re trying to actually organize people, they need something to organize around. And something that has been striking to me, even just covering Democrats on these various economic rescue packages, is there isn’t really anything like that.

I’m curious about why there’s not more organizing around a couple big demands that Democrats are willing to go to the mat for? It seems to me that there needs to be some big symbolic demands that people can organize around, not just these bills that seem to come from nowhere and have everything in them.

Pramila Jayapal

We don’t have a lot of organizers on the inside. That’s just the truth. I hope that’s changing. But there aren’t a lot of people who have done that.

What we tried to do with the Progressive Caucus demands is we have four categories. And we’re trying to figure out, how can we elevate one or two and get agreement on them? I think health care is a good one, but the challenge is there are a lot of progressive partners who are pushing for COBRA subsidies. It’s just a very diverse tent of people.

The question is, what ends up in the final bill? And what do you put your stake down on? It will be very hard to have members go against aid to state and local governments because even though it doesn’t move the public, it has a huge contingency of governors on both sides of the aisle behind it.

It is the beauty of this very messy system that has me very frustrated sometimes, but also has me totally intrigued about how we build a more unified, more courageous, more flexible left that doesn’t function only through organizing on the outside, which I find incredibly important, but also is thinking about organizing on the inside.

Ezra Klein

Let me ask you about something I see coming down the pike that, in my view, is going to be the central challenge to progressive governance, even if Democrats win in November: the return of deficit hawkery.

It seems very likely to me that, as soon as Democrats are back in power, not only will Republicans be saying deficits matter, but the Democratic Party leadership will, too. They tend to be more comfortable with the politics and the logic of of deficit reduction. How are you thinking about that coming fight?

Pramila Jayapal

It really drives me crazy. I think we we are trying to reframe this because it’s not about the deficits — it’s about what you spend the money on. Is it an investment in the future?

Just to talk about deficits is ludicrous because we all do things where we take a bunch of money and we put it into something — whether it’s a kid’s education or a house or whatever — even though it costs us a lot of money, because we believe that it is going to help us in the long run. I think that’s what we have to reframe things to be. We’ve been doing a lot of work to talk about austerity politics. I think coming out of coronavirus, there is a real chance I talk about it. We would be in much better shape to deal with this virus and the effects of it if we had a public health system that had been invested in, if we had universal coverage, if we had, if we had, if we had.

And, of course, we have the ammunition now of Republicans putting 2 trillion dollars into tax cuts. I think that they sort of gave away the argument that they were the fiscally conservative party. That’s just not true. But Democrats have to be willing to make a different argument than, “we’re more fiscally conservative than you.” That’s not a successful argument.