Congressional Progressive Caucus Challenge Party Leadership and Congress on Militarism and Foreign Policy

The little known Congressional Progressive Caucus is the largest caucus within the Democratic Party and has an important track record in calling attention to the highly interventionist and harmful foreign policy of the US, says CEPR’s Mark Weisbrot

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

As president Trump concluded his participation in a NATO summit this week, he called for a doubling of NATO members’ military spending, from a target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024, to 4 percent of GDP. In effect, Trump is proposing even greater militarization of world affairs, both at home and within NATO. There are, however, members of Congress who have recently been pushing back against the militarization and interventionism of US foreign policy. People such as Representatives Ro Khanna, Mark Pocan, Keith Ellison, Raul Grijalva, Barbara Lee, among the 77 others. This caucus is generally not that well known, but with 77 members in Congress it is the largest Democratic Party caucus.  It was founded in 1991 and has grown steadily in size since then. It takes positions on both foreign and domestic policy that tend to be significantly to the left of the party leadership.

Joining me to discuss the foreign policy work of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is Mark Weisbrot. Mark is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and is the author of the book, “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy.” Thanks for joining us again, Mark.

MARK WEISBROT: Thanks, Sharmini, and thanks for doing this show. I think it’s a very important institution that hasn’t really gotten much attention.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thanks for that endorsement, Mark. Let’s start off by defining the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Who are they?

MARK WEISBROT: Yes. Well, it’s 70, around 76-77 members of Congress, all from the House except, as you mentioned, Bernie Sanders in the Senate. And they were formed to provide something of an alternative to a lot of the policies, both domestic and foreign policy, of some of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and turn it to the left of that.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Mark, what are the kinds of things that they are engaged in, and their past policy positions that are significant?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, they’ve taken a lot of positions on domestic issues that were always ahead, you know, on the budget, the monetary policy, the Federal Reserve and fiscal policy. What I think is most striking now, because we’re in a period where most of the foreign policy discussion is kind of retrograde, you know, even by U.S. foreign policy discussion standards, and they’ve taken consistently progressive positions on a whole variety of foreign policy issues. And I think that’s really important to see that there is this pull, because, you know, otherwise you could be really discouraged where you look. You know, you turn on the television and you look in the newspapers here, and all the debates are about various enemies around the world. And even, and you have this special period now where I think, because so much of the leadership and a significant part of the base of the Democratic Party, which would normally be taking a less-hawkish position on foreign policy, has become the more aggressive and interventionist part.

SHARMINI PERIES: Mark, the Caucus has taken some really important positions that we’ve covered here at The Real News, like that of Yemen, and Brazil, and Syria. Give us some of those policy positions that-. You have actually worked on some of them, on the Hill.

MARK WEISBROT: Yes. Well, the issue of Yemen and the war in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and supported militarily by the U.S., you know, in terms of refueling Saudi planes and selecting targets. And this is an actual participation of the United States in the war, and it’s unconstitutional. It’s against the law. You know, Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution reserves to Congress the power to decide on U.S. military intervention. It isn’t just declaring war, as you might, as some people read it. It actually, if you look at the legislative history, it really is any kind of military, or paramilitary intervention, for that matter. That’s what the framers of the Constitution were describing when they put that in.

And so the Congress has that power, and it just hasn’t asserted it enough. This is the law of the land. And so this war is unauthorized and illegal under the Constitution. So what the Progressive Caucus and various members of the Progressive Caucus did in November of last year is they invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which didn’t, you know, reinterpret the Constitution, but gave the Congress another way, a procedural way, of enforcing the constitutional power that they have. So it said that they could, any member of Congress, when the U.S. was involved in hostilities overseas without the authorization of Congress, they could actually demand a debate and vote on that military involvement, and that the leadership of the House couldn’t block it. And so that’s what they did. And in the House there was some negotiation, but a resolution did pass. And it didn’t say that the U.S. had to withdraw, but it did recognize that the participation of the United States in this war was unauthorized.

And then they came back to the Senate in February. And it was a resolution-. By the way, these resolutions were sponsored not only by progressive members of Congress and Bernie Sanders in the Senate, but also by more conservative legislators who just believe in the Constitution, like Mike Lee of Utah in the Senate, and in the House there was Walter Jones and Thomas Massie. And so in the Senate, that vote was defeated, but they got, they got 44 votes for it. And it was the first time that the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which came out of the Vietnam War, was used to force that vote.

And I think this is very important for several reasons. First of all for this war, because this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. You have a million people who have gotten cholera from the destruction of water supplies in the bombing. And you had thousands of people die from that. And you have 8 million people on the brink of starvation. And so this isn’t over. And in fact, there’s negotiations going on right now with a U.N. envoy, and there’s some hope that there actually will be a settlement. And some more conservative members of Congress like Steny Hoyer and Eliot Engel, more conservative Democrats, they have even moved, and said to the Saudis in a letter recently that, you know, this is enough, and this has to stop, and you should negotiate a solution. And that’s because of this effort, because they use this power that the Congress has always had, but not used, to actually, you know, stop the, to try and stop this U.S. intervention. And they know, these other legislators know that this actually can be done. They can keep coming back with this, and they’re going to. They’re going to come back, and they can get a vote.

And the final thing I’ll say about this, because I think it’s so important, is it’s a structural change that the Progressive Caucus and people like Ro Khanna, Rep. Ro Khanna from Silicon Valley in California, that are leading this effort. Mark Pocan from the Progressive, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. This, if they continue this, down this path, which I’m very certain they will, this will be a structural change. Because this will now, if you look at the whole history of the United States, there are very few wars where the Congress was leading the charge. It’s, you know-. So this will help prevent a lot of wars in the future as the Congress reasserts its constitutional authority. So that’s very, very big.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Mark, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC, as it’s known, is currently the largest Democratic Party caucus with 78 members, which includes Bernie Sanders from Senate. Now, however, only about-. This only constitutes 15 percent of all the 535 members of the House and Senate. Now, given the size, just how much impact can they have, how effective can they possibly be?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, the example I gave was very important because they’re changing the rules of the game. They’re actually, they’re just enforcing the rules of the game, and therefore changing, changing them. But also on other issues they have a voice where nobody can really push back against. And so when it gets in the news and it gets in the news in other countries-. So for example, there’s a letter circulating in Congress now from progressive members on Brazil, because of, you know, in Brazil they’ve got the leading presidential candidate, former President Lula da Silva is in jail right now. And it’s become more and more obvious that this is because, not because he committed a crime for which they did not present material evidence at his trial, but also, but really because he’s the leading candidate and he would win in October. And you know, you get very little real information about this in the news. But these kind of letters, they make the news. If the reporters ignore them here, which they don’t always, they make the news in Brazil. So they have an influence there, and it shows that there is this force that really is, is pushing for a different foreign policy.

And they’ve had similar letters, you know, for other countries, as well. A number of letters on Honduras, for example, when they, with the help of the United States and support of the United States, the Honduran government stole the election in November, and they came out with letters and statements about that. If you look at the election of AMLO in Mexico that just happened, the statement on that was very positive, and it went against the, all the punditry and the most of the media coverage by agreeing with AMLO on his foreign policy, where he wants a more peaceful and non-interventionist foreign policy in the hemisphere. In other words, they’re not going to support like they did, they’re not going to support the United States like they did in the Honduran election, where they came out in favor of recognizing their election, then the U.S. pretended to follow them, after the U.S. had already asked them, the U.S. government had already asked them to do that.

Now, those are the kind of things that they’re not going to do. And the Progressive Caucus will be supporting them while everybody, you read all the opinion leaders in the newspaper are worried, and saying bad things about AMLO, because he’s not lining up with U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere. And I think what they can do is provide a progressive vision, but not just a vision like an intellectual or a professor can do, but a vision that they’re actively implementing. So it’s far outsized in relation to its percentage of the Congress, because this is, after all, these are positions that the vast majority of Americans would agree with and do agree with, and they’re not represented because of the hegemony of this foreign policy establishment, which includes the government and the media. And this is especially true in Latin America where you see almost no dissent at all, so it’s almost monolithic.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Mark. Now, to tie all of this back to my introduction, which was about Trump’s presence at NATO, and calling for more spending on the part of NATO members, just a few weeks ago the U.S. House passed the 2019 Defense Authorization Bill, allocating $717 billion to the Pentagon. What is the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ position regarding military spending, particularly given just yesterday the House actually reinstated their commitment to NATO?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, the caucus members, I mean, the people that are leading this effort, especially in the Progressive Caucus, are definitely for less military spending. Bernie Sanders has, of course, said this publicly, but also Ro Khanna and other members of the Progressive Caucus. So they’re definitely on the record on this issue, and they are also against, you know, what a lot of the military spending is used for, which is regime change. And that’s a very important position that they’ve taken, as well. Even in Venezuela, for example, where you don’t have any, very little dissent at all against the regime change effort that is currently underway led by the U.S. government. You have opposition, again, from the Progressive Caucus.

So yeah, they’re presenting a consistent view of a positive foreign policy. It’s not isolationist, but it’s against the destructive things that our foreign policy is doing around the world.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Mark. Great discussion. I thank you so much for joining us today.

MARK WEISBROT: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.