Braley Rallies the Populists

Posted January 14, 2009 at 6:03pm

House Democrats are already divided to a near-comic degree into internal caucuses. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) hopes there is an appetite for one more.

The sophomore is spearheading the creation of the Populist Caucus, a group he hopes will unite Democrats across their subgroups behind an economic agenda for middle-class and working families.

“These are core economic issues that cut across the ideological and ethnic caucuses,” Braley said. “But what we want to do is bring a laser focus to those issues across the spectrum, through a caucus whose singular focus is addressing how you protect and also expand the middle class, which has always been a good economic indicator of how this country is doing.”

The group is actually the rebirth of a Populist Caucus that then-Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) formed in the mid-1980s but sputtered out in the 1990s. This version is still in its infancy. Braley said he has about 20 recruits so far. He used Wednesday votes to troll the House floor for new members, passing out cards that offered lawmakers the opportunity to become founding members.

Fair trade is a top priority for the group. Braley himself is a member of the New Democrats, a business-friendly caucus that has promoted free-trade agreements. But he said he is reconsidering his membership in the group — and forming the new caucus — in part to push for tougher accountability mechanisms in trade deals.

The rest of the Populist platform is built on goals that should draw broad support from Democrats: pushing an equitable tax structure, fair wages and proper benefits; providing affordable, quality health care to all Americans; promoting quality primary education for children and affordable college for anyone interested; protecting consumers; and creating and keeping well-paying jobs.

“Even though some of these ideas are not new or unique, what the caucus will do is bring a focus on that message and look for opportunities on legislative initiatives to bring a focused voice to making that a reality,” Braley said.

House Democrats, famously fractious, already count themselves as members in countless caucuses — many of them bipartisan — meant to champion parochial causes, including the House Frozen Food Caucus and the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues.

For the purposes of counting votes, House Democratic whips recognize only a handful: The three ethnic caucuses, the New Democrat Coalition, the Blue Dogs, the Progressives, the women’s caucus and freshmen.

Braley is determined to see the Populists take their place among the major groups.

“I want this caucus to be like the Blue Dogs, like the Progressives, like the New Dems, in that we’re going to expect action from our members,” he said. “And we want to be visible and active and be perceived as a force in the Democratic Caucus because otherwise there would be no point in me doing it. I have no desire to say I was one of the co-founders of the Populist Caucus just to say I did it.”

Nevertheless, if successful, the group will boost Braley’s already rising stock in the party. A top fundraiser, Braley just finished a successful stint helping lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program. This cycle, he is serving as DCCC vice chairman of member services.

In November, his outspoken support for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in the contest for the Energy and Commerce gavel — including a controversial nominating speech in which he took aim at the voting record of then-Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) — helped put the Californian over the top. Waxman rewarded Braley with a seat on the exclusive panel.

Braley said as his group comes together — he expects to hold an organizing meeting in the next 10 days — it will not try to muscle other groups for elbow room. Rather, it will draw from their ranks to develop consensus positions.

Its early roster offers a clue. Beyond Braley, who still counts himself a New Democrat, Reps. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) are Progressives; Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) is a one-time member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and others, such as Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), don’t belong to any major group.

“Time will tell whether they’ll be a force,” said Kristie Greco, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). But she welcomed the group’s formation. “It can be helpful to advance ideas politically, with the media, with other lawmakers and with leadership.”

Hare, who once worked for Evans, the original founder of the Populists, acknowledged the group’s agenda is “broad-brush, but we need to start somewhere.”

He said its guiding purpose will be to work “for the inclusion of people who have been left out of the system.”