This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, one of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s earliest moves was to end the public funding for the Democratic Study Group (DSG), a caucus of liberal Democrats that had been created in 1959. It was one of Gingrich’s shrewdest maneuvers. As Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, a staunch conservative then and now, wrote in an internal memo, “The demise of the DSG severely damages the power structure of the House Democrats.”
Roberts was right. The DSG is almost forgotten today, but its history suggests lessons for the current generation of Democrats. Since 1994, congressional liberals have failed to replicate a powerful, independent organization like the Democratic Study Group. They have been dependent on a House leadership that is sometimes but not always sympathetic to their goals. The closest thing to a DSG, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been a pale imitation of its predecessor, a fragile informal coalition that has lacked the same kind of leadership, money, publications, communications strategy, or clout. As liberals prepare for the start of the 114th Congress and hope for stronger Democratic returns in 2016, they would benefit from looking back at the history of the DSG to see just how much a vibrant and robust caucus can offer.
Americans may think of the 1960s as a liberal heyday. In fact, a powerful conservative undertow persisted, especially on Capitol Hill. However, liberal Democrats of that era organized effectively—on the streets, in the workplace, and notably in the halls of Congress.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, obstructionist committee chairmen dominated Congress. Southern Democrats, often with safe seats in the one-party region of Dixie, wielded disproportionate power via the committee system. In a conservative coalition with Republicans, they used their power to block key liberal measures on civil rights, education, health care, and union protections.
The Obstructionist: Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia
House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia, a lanky southerner in his late seventies when President Kennedy took office in 1961, used every available procedural tool to stifle liberal proposals. Once, when “Judge” Smith (an honorific from his onetime service on the bench) said that he couldn’t return to Washington for a vote on a civil rights bill in 1957 because there was a fire in his Virginia barn, Speaker Sam Rayburn quipped, “It’s the first time a man tried to burn down his barn in order to stop the legislative process.” The Speaker might have derided Smith’s tactics, but Rayburn and the rest of the leadership were deferential to the southern committee chairs.
As a result of such obstructionism, the liberal agenda languished in the 1950s despite a Democratic majority in Congress and a moderate Republican president. Among liberals and political scientists, talk of a dysfunctional and deadlocked Congress was commonplace. Southern Democrats were famous for parliamentary prowess; liberals were known for their chronic disarray. Missouri Representative Richard Bolling, among the shrewdest liberal strategists of the era, observed, “One of the greatest weaknesses of the North, East, and West group in the Democratic Party is the great lack of legislative technicians. The obscure congressman from the South knows the tools of the trade pretty well … Ideals are like the stars—you use them to guide you, but you never reach them. Learn the methods that get you there.” The number of liberals in the House had steadily grown during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Toward the end of the decade, a liberal coalition of northern and western Democrats resolved to organize.
On January 8, 1957, Congressmen Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Lee Metcalf of Montana, and Frank Thompson of New Jersey released the “Liberal Manifesto,” calling for the government to do more to ensure civil rights, adequate health care, access to education, and affordable housing. The Manifesto blasted the obstructionist tactics of the southerners. With the support of about 80 members from some 20 states, one of the first projects of “McCarthy’s Mavericks” was to provide assistance to liberals who were running in the 1958 midterm elections.
The elections were a huge success for liberals. Republicans lost 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. The new, younger liberals had little patience with the Dixiecrats. The road to the Great Society started with them. When Congress convened in 1959, they officially formed as a caucus, the Democratic Study Group.
From its founding, the DSG lobbied the Democratic leadership to appoint liberals to serve on influential committees, to support procedural reforms that would weaken committee chairmen, and to back legislation to expand the role of the federal government. The DSG regularly assembled task forces to develop legislation on key issues. The leaders created their own whip system, with 12 Democrats assigned to check on promised votes. They produced and disseminated first-rate research for members and the press, exposing conservative tactics and offering weekly legislative updates on their key issues. In the committee era of Congress, this kind of information was both novel and crucial, since so much of the legislative process was secretive and committee chairs retained tight control over staff and data. The political scientist James Sundquist described the DSG as “the most elaborately organized ‘party within a party’ in the history of the House of Representatives.”
When the Rules Committee bottled up a civil rights bill in 1960 (though it was extremely mild), members of the DSG sought to force it out of committee through a “discharge petition,” a process requiring 218 votes. Chairman Smith was counting on the fact that the signatures on a discharge petition were kept secret. Engaging in guerrilla warfare, the DSG leaked the names of those who had signed the petition to the New York Times so that civil rights organizations could pressure the non-supporters. The strategy worked, and the bill made it through committee and was passed by Congress. “The importance of the Democratic Study Group,” wrote Robert Remini, the late historian of the House, “cannot be emphasized too strongly in the ongoing struggle to safeguard civil rights.”
Savvy Strategist: Representative Richard Bolling of Missouri, an early stalwart of the Democratic Study Group
Though he never headed the DSG, Missouri Democrat Richard Bolling was a leading figure during its formative years. Born in New York City in 1916, he came from a politically eclectic family. Bolling’s father was a southern conservative Democrat; his mother a Robert La Follette progressive. The family moved back to Huntsville, Alabama, after his father died at a young age. Bolling, who studied in Tennessee at Sewanee and Vanderbilt University, then worked as the Midwest director for the Americans for Democratic Action after serving in World War II. He was elected to the House in 1948 and was mentored by Rayburn. Bolling was considered aloof and gruff; his colleagues never made him their official leader. But he was respected for his brilliant, strategic mind. He was well-versed in political science literature on the legislative process and frequently wrote articles for both popular and academic publications about the need to break the procedural muscle of southern Democratic chairmen and to centralize legislative power in a speakership that was accountable to the Democratic Caucus. Late in his career, after these reforms were adopted thanks to the DSG, Bolling would have the satisfaction of chairing a much-reformed House Rules Committee.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, the DSG lobbied Rayburn to rein in the Rules Committee. After Chairman Smith bragged to reporters that he would “exercise whatever weapon that I can lay my hands on” to block Kennedy’s domestic legislation, the DSG went after Smith’s committee base. The most draconian proposal was to purge Mississippi Democrat William Colmer, an ardent racist, from the Rules Committee for having supported Richard Nixon. While Rayburn feared that this proposal would trigger a fierce and counterproductive revolt from southern Democrats, Rayburn did endorse a milder compromise that temporarily enlarged the Rules Committee from 12 to 15 members, thereby enabling the leadership to appoint three liberals to the panel. The House passed the resolution 217 to 212. Twenty-two northern Republicans favorable to civil rights supported the reform.
In early 1964, the civil rights movement created an opportunity for the transformation of domestic policy. Though many presumed he was a southern conservative in liberal clothing, Lyndon Johnson quickly proved willing to push for a bold legislative agenda. John McCormack of Massachusetts, who had become Speaker after Rayburn’s death in 1961, signaled that he liked Johnson’s vision. While the DSG wanted to work with McCormack, they weren’t going to depend on him. During the House debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the DSG, which a Baltimore Sun reporter called the “heart and brains of the liberal Democratic bloc,” played a crucial role in preventing southern Democrats from using last-minute tricks to stymie the legislation. The DSG even set up a “buddy system” for senior members to take responsibility for mentoring freshmen.
When Smith sought to block a floor vote on the Civil Rights Act in January 1964, hoping that further delay would give opponents time to mobilize while civil violence might push Republicans away from the bill, the DSG once again rounded up enough discharge votes to scare Smith into believing that he had to let the bill go to the floor or suffer an embarrassing defeat. Bolling wrote of the civil rights battle, “DSG has served to pull together liberal Democrats, who incline to independence and even irascibility, into a semblance of a cooperative group that grasps the importance of legislative technique.”
The Democratic landslide in the 1964 election resulted in huge liberal majorities in the House and Senate. The DSG grew from approximately 125 to 175 members when the 89th Congress convened.
The DSG quickly maximized the moment. They pressed Speaker McCormack to discipline two racist southern conservative Democrats, John Bell Williams of Mississippi and Albert Watson of South Carolina, who had endorsed Barry Goldwater, by stripping them of their seniority rights and kicking them out of the Democratic Caucus. Watson was a freshman who had been mentored by the notorious Strom Thurmond. Williams was more significant. The 18-year House veteran was second in line to become the chair of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. McCormack endorsed this stringent punishment. But after hearing from President Johnson, who feared that other southerners would retaliate, the speaker backed away from booting them out of the caucus and instead agreed to strip them of their seniority rights. That proposal won by a vote of 157 to 115.
The DSG also won a “21-day rule,” which allowed a committee chairman or a majority of committee members to bring a bill to the floor if the House Rules Committee had held it up for 21 days or more. In addition, the DSG pushed through a change to the party ratio on all committees to reflect the new balance of power following the election. The proposal even altered the Ways and Means Committee, a fortress that the caucus traditionally didn’t challenge. Ways and Means shifted from fifteen Democrats and ten Republicans, to seventeen Democrats and eight Republicans, enough to allow the committee to be stacked with more pro-Medicare members. Wilbur Mills, the chairman of Ways and Means who had opposed health care expansion, had been outflanked. “This change means half the battle of enacting the Johnson program is over,” exulted White House legislative liaison Larry O’Brien.
In the following months, liberals took advantage of their huge majorities to pass landmark domestic legislation, including Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, federal aid to education, environmental regulations, and more, all at breathtaking speed. The DSG worked with outside liberal organizations such as the AFL-CIO and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to coordinate inside strategy with grassroots lobbying. As Bolling explained, his colleagues understood that legislative success was all about the daily grunt work, the “phone-call lobbying, gathering information on when which Members will be in town, consulting the calendar to make sure that a favored piece of legislation requiring urban votes is not scheduled on Yom Kippur.”
Their momentum stalled when the conservative coalition gained ground in the 1966 midterms, capitalizing on a political backlash against racial unrest in cities and the war in Vietnam. But the DSG kept growing. One of the most important personnel additions took place in 1968 when DSG Chair Frank Thompson of New Jersey hired his former staffer, Richard Conlon, to become executive director. At a moment when the liberal Democratic coalition was increasingly fractured and strained over the war in Vietnam, Conlon breathed new life into the caucus. A former journalist at the Duluth Herald & News Tribune and fellow at the American Political Science Association, Conlon had been deeply influenced by Senator Hubert Humphrey and his drive for civil rights, and was an opponent of Johnson’s policies in Vietnam.
Dynamic Duo: Phil Burton (top) supplied the muscle behind
the DSG, while Richard Conlon supplied the tactical genius.
Conlon redoubled the DSG’s investment in research, assigning four of its 12 staffers as researchers. Their major publication was a five-to-ten-page fact sheet on each key bill, including a legislative history, a primer on major provisions, and talking points. The weekly legislative report offered more detail, such as the views of the administration, interest groups, and federal agencies. The DSG even offered research services such as weekly bulletins to assist staff with items like sample letters for constituents, and offered campaign services like seminars on strategy. The DSG continued to raise money for liberal candidates who were not priorities of the Democratic National Committee.
One writer would later call Conlon “one of the most important House staffers of the postwar era, a man who played a more significant role in reforming the House than almost every elected representative.” In 1970, the DSG won another major procedural reform with the Legislative Reorganization Act, which weakened the authority of committee chairs. Its provisions ensured that members would see the report on a bill three days before it was voted on and required the leadership to take recorded votes so that members would be held accountable for their positions.
There was an important leadership change in 1971 when the DSG elected California Democrat Phil Burton as their chair. If Bolling was the brains behind the DSG, Burton was the muscle. He was a tough and curmudgeonly, hard-drinking and fiercely partisan liberal from California. An Ohio native, Burton had been educated at the University of Southern California and the Golden Gate College School of Law. His first election bid for a seat in the State Assembly was blocked by the San Francisco machine boss, William Malone. Burton defeated an incumbent two years later by creating a coalition of African-American and Asian-American voters. He developed strong ties to all the key liberal groups, such as organized labor, students, Mexican Americans, and leftists frustrated with the anti-communist purges. Elected to Congress in 1964 with the assistance of the DSG, he quickly became one of the most ardent voices of liberalism. As the head of the DSG, Burton displayed his uncanny ability to nurture loyalty. He and Conlon met with liberal legislators and lobbyists, over a hefty amount of whiskey and vodka, at the end of every working day to devise strategy.
With Burton and Conlon in command, the DSG emerged as a true powerhouse on Capitol Hill. Congressional Quarterly said that under Burton’s direction, the DSG had gained “a reputation it has never had before … It was Conlon who drafted and redrafted the reform proposals to make them acceptable to a majority of Democrats in the House. And it was Burton who served as the chief lobbyist and tactician for the ideas, compromising in many places, but insisting that the end product was still a long step toward basic reform of the House … [They] were the most effective leadership team the organization has had in the years it has been pushing for House reform and liberal legislation.”
By the mid-1970s, the DSG would claim approximately 225 dues-paying members, a strong majority of the House Democratic Caucus. At the time, David Cohen of the reform organization Common Cause marveled, “In the old days, the DSG was viewed as a band of Young Turks. Now its leaders are matured legislators with a sense of how power relationships work.”
Everything came together in 1974 when Watergate shocked the nation and public pressure for congressional reform intensified. By the time of Nixon’s downfall, the DSG was part of a broad reform coalition that included Common Cause and Ralph Nader’s group, Public Citizen. In the 1974 midterms, the DSG threw its support behind candidates who were running on the theme of government reform in response to Watergate. The agenda included reforming campaign finance and dismantling the power of the committee system.
Democrats picked up 49 House seats, reversing all the gains Republicans had made since Johnson. The class of 75 freshman “Watergate Babies,” such as California Representatives Henry Waxman and George Miller, would not be bound by the traditional rules or norms. As the new members arrived, the DSG mentored them, explaining the intricacies of the legislative process and helping them hire staff.
Progressives in Motion: Richard Bolling (upper left) with Robert Kennedy at a campaign visit to Kansas City in June 1964.
The DSG received an unexpected boost when Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills was brought down by a sex scandal. Earlier in 1974, Mills had killed a massive effort by Bolling to reform and reorganize the committee system. Mills’s committee controlled taxation, trade, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. Mills had nothing but contempt for the DSG, the Watergate Babies, and everything they stood for. He had been re-elected by the Second District of Arkansas despite having been caught one month before the election cavorting near the Tidal Basin with a stripper named Fanne Foxe, known as the “Argentine Firecracker.” Mills had appealed to his constituents by apologizing and explaining that he had become addicted to booze and painkillers because of chronic back problems. Yet in late November, fresh off his victory, Mills made a fatal mistake. With a packed room of reporters watching, Mills stumbled onto the stage of Foxe’s first public appearance at a Boston strip club called the Pilgrim Theater. As photographers captured the entire incident on film, the DSG led the successful campaign to force Mills to resign his chairmanship; Mills announced that he would not seek re-election in 1976.
With one chairman down, the liberals kept going. In January, the Democratic Caucus voted for a series of DSG proposals. They added subcommittees to decentralize power and stripped Ways and Means of its function as “committee on committees,” a role that had allowed its chairman to make committee assignments for the entire party. The Speaker was given the power to nominate all the members of the Rules Committee. The reforms all shifted power away from the committee chairs toward the speaker, while simultaneously granting power to the caucus rank and file to challenge the speaker if his actions failed to carry out the views of the members. This was Bolling’s reform design of more than a decade earlier.
The drama reached a climax when the Democratic Caucus turned to the job of voting on who should be made committee chairs. Traditionally, this had been a pro forma procedure. The party voted for the most senior members to become chair. Nobody asked questions.
But in January 1975, things were different. As they had done so many times before, the DSG urged members to support only legislators who voted with the position of the Democratic Caucus majority. Public Citizen and Common Cause, using data leaked by Conlon, published lengthy and often blistering reports detailing the political history of each committee chairman, including their records of supporting or opposing bills favored by the Caucus.
The freshmen, under the guidance of the DSG, did something even more dramatic. Defying everything sacred about the norms of seniority, they called some of the most powerful members to appear before them and justify why they should be re-elected as chairs. House Armed Services Committee Chair F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “The freshmen had been transformed from individuals into a mob of crusading knights out to slay evil dragons,” he said. After he met with the freshmen, feeling as if he had been interrogated, Hébert dismissed them as “boys and girls.” The freshmen were not impressed. “We may be new kids on the block,” said Gladys Noon Spellman of Maryland, “but we’re not stupid.” Observing the atmosphere in the House, the editors of the Washington Post concluded, “A revolution has occurred. The seniority system as the rigid, inviolable operating framework of the House has been destroyed.”
When Common Cause described Banking Committee Chairman Wright Patman, the rare progressive who had benefited from the seniority system, as an abusive chairman, Ralph Nader cried foul. “If the winds of reform are not to mock their own echoes,” he said, “they should be directed toward Chairmen Hébert, [William] Poage, and [George] Mahon, and not against that bastion of progressivism and courage that is Wright Patman.” But Patman went down.
Taking over the role that had been accorded to the Ways and Means Committee since the 1910s, the Steering and Policy Committee—an arm of the speaker—rejected Poage (Agriculture), Hébert (Armed Services), and Patman (Banking) as chairs. In January, the Caucus voted to unseat Poage by a vote of 152 to 133, Hébert, 144 to 141, and Patman, 152 to 117. While the other committee chairs survived, the message of these powerful and influential chairmen losing their jobs was clear.
The DSG remained an important player through the 1980s. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when Democrats retained control of the House, the DSG kept pushing the leadership to the left even when there was growing pressure to compromise with a popular conservative president. The DSG worked to resist Reagan’s proposals in 1981 and 1982 to cut Social Security benefits and gut much of the rest of the social safety net. At a time when many nervous Democrats, fearing Republicans would tag them as weak on defense, joined in Reagan’s chorus of the need to boost military spending and authorize military operations in areas like Central America, the DSG continued to just say no. They pushed for deficit reduction, but through military spending cuts and progressive taxation. Conlon and his group continued to promote issues like campaign finance reform. The caucus was doing well with its own funds. Besides public money, the DSG raised money through its research and dues to finance a staff that had grown to about 20. Any legislator in Congress could pay $2,500 a year for their research services, while the dues for DSG members were $200 a year. By 1988, all but six Democratic members were DSG subscribers—and so were 24 Republicans.
Ironically, the DSG was already starting to lose some of its value because it had been so successful. Since the DSG succeeded in opening up the legislative process through sunshine reforms and the spread of power to subcommittee chairmen, there were now many more sources of information for liberals to draw on. With the 1970s reforms, conservative Democrats had also lost much of their institutional power, a goal that had always been a central objective of the DSG. Power was now centralized under the accountable leadership of the House, which itself had become much more liberal as Democrats shifted to the left.
Nor was the DSG able to continue serving as a central clearinghouse for liberalism. The proliferation of specialized caucuses in the 1970s, many of them devoted to liberal causes (like the Congressional Black Caucus) and many modeled on the success of the DSG, siphoned off support. Every issue seemed to have its own splinter group. Liberals, in a sense, had reverted to their pre-Bolling habits of emphasizing the parts rather than the whole. The House had nurtured this fragmentation in 1979 by certifying certain caucuses to be Legislative Service Organizations eligible to obtain office space, hire staff, and obtain funding for supplies.
Meanwhile, centrist Democrats pushed back against the DSG, seeking to win back “Reagan Democrats” who had drifted from blue to red. In 1985, in response to Walter Mondale’s 1984 landslide loss to Reagan, Al From and Will Marshall, both of whom had worked for Louisiana Congressman Gillis Long, created the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). They had the support of elected officials such as Virginia Governor Chuck Robb, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and others. They also established its DLC-affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, with money largely raised from Wall Street.
The goal of the DLC was to push the party away from its left-wing base. Their hope, From said in an early memo, was to stop Democrats from focusing on “wrongheaded, losing strategies” that made them look like the party of “big labor.” Despite having only a minority of House Democrats as members, the DLC was soon emulating the strategic prowess of the DSG. It did not hurt that the DLC could raise substantial sums from business and in turn steer corporate money to more centrist Democratic candidates.
The DLC goals meshed well with California Democrat Tony Coelho, a fundraising juggernaut who took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1981. Between 1981 and 1986, Coelho worked hard to expand the fundraising base of his party, and like the DLC cultivated big business and Wall Street. “Special interest is not a nasty word,” he explained to one group of lobbyists. The market-based ethos of the DLC agenda complemented his successful fundraising strategy that left Democratic congressional candidates, especially centrist ones, flush with money.
The DLC worked hard to shape public debate and to influence and promote like-minded presidential candidates. The group rejected the kind of economic arguments that Democrats had embraced in the 1930s and 1960s, stressing “market-based” solutions to public problems. The DLC promoted welfare reform and targeted other signature programs of liberalism. On foreign policy, the DLC tended to be more hawkish than their colleagues, trying to dampen the concerns over military intervention that had been spawned by Vietnam. A key electoral goal was to bring back moderate southern Democrats.
When Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who had served as chair of the DLC from 1990 to 1991, defeated President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election, the DLC felt triumphant. They saw his victory, as well as his survival and repositioning after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, as evidence that the left-liberal agenda championed by older groups like the DSG was no longer relevant or politically viable. For example, though the majority of House Democrats and nearly all of the DSG opposed NAFTA in 1993, they could not prevent its passage.
When Republicans took over the House, they ended the Legislative Service Organizations; funding for the DSG stopped. Notwithstanding all the changes that had rendered the DSG less influential by the time Gingrich made this move, liberals felt they had suffered a major blow to an organization that had been at the center of the epic battles they had been fighting over three decades.
DSG's children? Representatives Raul Grijalva (Arizona) and Keith Ellison (Minnesota) co-chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It has fighting spirit, but little of the clout of the DSG in its glory days.
The DSG still attempted to remain active after 1994, even without its public funds. The group raised money by selling its research outfit to Congressional Quarterly. But the DSG was soon incorporated into the Democratic Caucus. Since then, House liberals have tried to remake the magic that happened in 1959.
The closest incarnation to the DSG on the left has been the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), founded in 1991 in response to the centrist inclinations of many Democrats. Vermont Congressman (now Senator) Bernie Sanders established the group with left-liberal allies like Maxine Waters and Ron Dellums of California. One of the CPC’s most popular projects has been to publish an annual progressive budget intended to restore progressive taxation and public investment and to bring the nation closer to full employment.
But the CPC has never replicated the success or impact of the DSG. Whereas the DSG constituted a broad spectrum of liberals, with a focus on reforming and changing the processes of politics upon which conservatives depended, the progressive caucus represented a narrower group of members, on the left edge of the House. They have always been short on money, culling together what they can from members of the caucus. Most lobbyists and business associations don’t have much interest in funding their progressive agenda, in contrast to conservative or neoliberal groups whose proposals for tax cuts and deregulation are much more attractive. The DSG had 12 whips when they were only at 80 members; the CPC uses one whip for 68 House members. When the CPC hired veteran Hill staffer Bill Goold in 2005, the situation was so bad that his first task was to update the group’s website—for the first time since 2001. While the DSG was able to establish itself as a source of key information for congressional leadership, non-liberals, and the media, the CPC has never assumed this role.
During her speakership (2007 to 2011), Nancy Pelosi, who had been a member of the CPC, didn’t feel the caucus offered her much, especially since she and others in the leadership generally supported similar positions. Indeed, Pelosi and two of her chief allies in the Democratic Caucus, George Miller and Henry Waxman, were protégés of Phil Burton. The leaders saw themselves as the culmination of all those years the DSG had fought for power. As John Lawrence, former chief of staff to both Pelosi and Miller, told me in an interview, “DSG arose in the context of moderate to conservative domination of the Caucus [and House] and a severe absence of substantive information about legislation coming out of committees … The situation in the Pelosi era was totally different: Progressives controlled the major instruments of the caucus, not surprising since they were the largest constituent group of Democrats. Committees are open, there are published reports required for all legislation, there are multiple outside organizations that cover committee action and report on pending legislation … So all of the institutional services provided by the early DSG were really being performed by the leadership itself.” Waxman agrees, and says, “The role of DSG as a place for liberals outside of, or in place of, the caucus is not needed today. But a liberal caucus is helpful … I don’t use it to get info that DSG provided then and the caucus does now.”
Yet after 2008, Pelosi was whipsawed between her own liberalism and the need to support an embattled new president who was inclined to compromise. On some issues, she and the House Democratic Caucus tried to push Obama to the left. In December 2009, as Obama was preparing to pivot to deficit reduction long before the economy was in full recovery, Pelosi successfully pressed the House, against White House wishes, to pass a second stimulus bill. (It died in the Senate.) At the same time, with liberals strongly supporting a public insurance option as part of the Affordable Care Act, Pelosi went along when the White House jettisoned the public option, and nearly every Democrat voted for the final bill anyway.
An effective progressive caucus might have come in handy, but none was in evidence. When Pelosi came under pressure from the White House to compromise—as well as from members of her leadership team like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a DLC stalwart—the CPC didn’t have much ability to push back. There was no voice as powerful, to the left of both Republicans and occasionally of a Democratic White House, as the DSG had provided in its glory days.
In fact, if anyone has replicated the success of the DSG it has been conservatives rather than liberals. The Republican Study Committee (RSC) has transformed itself from a group of irrelevant renegades into a powerful force that commands the respect of Speaker John Boehner. The RSC was founded in 1972 by a group of right-wing Republicans who wanted to mimic the success of the DSG. During the 1970s and 1980s, they didn’t have much success doing anything, other than being a “voice of consciousness” for the party in the same way the CPC has acted for Democrats in recent years. In 1994, Gingrich dismantled not only the DSG but also the conservative caucus through his elimination of funding for Legislative Service Organizations. His goal was not just to weaken the Democrats but to centralize his own power. Some Republicans, like John Doolittle of California and Sam Johnson of Texas, were furious with Gingrich’s decision and re-established their caucus with outside funding. Their numbers kept growing, and after the 2010 elections they reached 164. Under Boehner, according to a story in National Journal, the Republican Study Committee became a highly influential force that had the power to subvert any bill they opposed or to push items forward on the legislative agenda. Their position has often been decisive. Boehner could only ignore them at his peril. The group celebrated when one of their most prominent members, Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, was appointed in June as the Republican whip, a sign of how far this caucus had come.
Democrats would do well to study the immense value that the DSG had offered in the heyday of liberalism. At the height of its power, the DSG was much more than an information service. The caucus provided a vibrant organizational home for a cross section of liberal Democrats and served a number of important functions. DSG leaders were very effective at political organization, developing a strong alternative whip system to that of the leadership and offering campaign help to allied members. When the leadership was willing to work with them, they could provide much-needed assistance; when the leadership moved in a different direction, they had the prowess to influence the kinds of compromises being made by fellow Democrats. The caucus made procedural and structural issues central to their agenda, realizing that the way the political process worked had a huge impact on the kinds of policies that were possible. Under Richard Conlon, they developed a system of research and communications that proved to be awesome in its impact, gaining the attention of the media, the leadership, and even some of their fiercest opponents. Bolling and Burton were able to develop ties to House leadership and preserved a seat at the table during discussions over the party agenda.
A key question is how such a caucus could function with Democrats in the House minority, where unity and strategic coherence matter immensely. Proponents of the idea say that such an organization could play an important role both in challenging Republican rule and in helping candidates plan for the 2016 campaign, where the coattails of a Democrat like Hillary Clinton could help win back the majority. “DSG was an incubator of ideas and policy framework,” Mike Wessel, who worked for former Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, tells me. “Today, there is little broad inquiry into issues such as income inequality, workforce development, or other critical issues but, rather, there’s the ‘flavor of the day’ political idea designed to show concern without, all too often, an integrated approach. DSG sponsored political debate on a broader scale and its absence has been deeply felt by average, hard-working Americans.” In principle, a new DSG could provide something of a counterweight to Tea Party Republicans who have been extremely successful at shaping the legislative agenda and pushing their party rightward. They could also work on a long-term strategy to provide assistance to the campaigns of new liberal Democratic candidates and mentor liberal Democratic incumbents, as the DSG did beginning in the 1950s.
Though skeptical that a new DSG would really solve the ideological and strategic challenges that House Democrats currently face, Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, believes there is a role for an organization of liberal Democrats who can work with younger members to show them that “economic populism can work politically,” as senators like Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) have been proving in the upper chamber.
The history of the DSG demonstrates that their organizational prowess was hugely important in moving forward a liberal agenda and in making sure that liberal electoral gains were institutionalized in the operation of the House. Enthusiasts of the DSG believe Democrats, continuing in the minority after 2014, could use something like the DSG to gain momentum before the next elections. If they do recapture the majority in 2016 or afterward, they will need this kind of organizational voice outside the leadership structure to give ideological and organizational impetus to the forces that progressives need to rebuild a majority politics.