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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking on a conservative Democrat for a huge committee seat

A seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee would be a big prize for the Progressive Caucus.

by Rex Santus
Dec 5 2018, 8:58pm

It’s an unspoken rule that one seat on the powerful House Ways and Means committee always goes to a New Yorker. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going for it.

The 29-year-old Congressman-woman elect is seeking a seat on the committee, her spokesman confirmed to VICE News, in a bold move for a freshman member of Congress. Ways and Means is the House’s tax-writing body, and it's generally packed with the most senior members of the House, including outgoing Rep. Joe Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in November.

Ways and Means as well as Energy and Commerce are the two committees progressives need if they’re going to begin implementing their policy ideas in a meaningful way; without it, Ocasio-Cortez and other newly elected progressives will have a tough time getting any bill of consequence to advance to a floor vote.

For example: Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez’s most prominent project thus far, can never make it to the House floor without the approval of those committees. “Everything that progressives care about goes through those committees,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, who's been organizing to get progressives on major committees when Democrats retake the House in January.

Freshman members of Congress almost never get seats on Ways and Means or other powerful “A” committees, such as Appropriations, Financial Services or Energy and Commerce, a fact that Ocasio-Cortez herself has noted. But this incoming class has outsized clout, and has exacted concessions from Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi in exchange for speaker votes.

Read: Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez' Green New Deal faces a wall of Republican climate change deniers

Ocasio-Cortez is vying for the seat against another New York City politician, and her opponent is a Democrat that is her opposite in just about every way. Rep. Tom Suozzi, a politician heavily funded by real estate, Wall Street, and defense industries, also wants the seat on Ways and Means, according to organizers in Washington.

"A perfect showdown"

Rep. Crowley was the last New York Democrat to occupy the seat. Suozzi was a prominent member The Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of centrists that tried to pull Pelosi to the right during her campaign to become speaker. He also voted to roll back parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, which placed major regulations on Wall Street.

“It’s like a perfect showdown, he is absolutely the complete opposite of her.”

“It’s like a perfect showdown: He is absolutely the complete opposite of her,” Lawson said. “Nobody knows who this guy is, which is exactly how he likes it.”

Suozzi confirmed to the Intercept that he was vying for the seat. “Am I fiscally conservative? Yes, I’m fiscally conservative,” he told the publication.

Suozzi’s office did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Pelosi promised that the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the furthest-left House caucus, will get 40 percent representation on five major House committees. If Ocasio-Cortez wins the seat, it’s another indication that progressives in Washington are poised to wield more power than they have in recent memory.

The good news for progressives is that the Congressional Progressive Caucus is about to become larger and more influential than it’s ever been. The group now has 70 members and is set to gain 27 more, including 25 freshman and two incumbents, when Democrats retake the House in January, a CPC spokesperson told VICE News.

Read: Democrats are finding it harder to avoid impeachment talk after latest Russia revelations

Those new members include the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who was just elected to be the body’s whip. Omar and Tlaib are far-left progressives who openly support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, an unheard-of move for new members of Congress. Omar has indicated that the Progressive Caucus will push to bring a healthcare bill to the House floor.

"Money" committees

The problem with progressives, organizers note, is that they don’t usually get seats on the “money committees” — so called because Wall Street will “throw money” at their members, Lawson said. The seats usually are favored by more conservative members of the New Democrat Coalition, who support a more pro-business agenda.

“Progressives come to Congress to change the world, and New Democrats come to Congress to get on Ways and Means.”

“Progressives come to Congress to change the world, and New Democrats come to Congress to get on Ways and Means,” Lawson said.

With Ocasio-Cortez’s move to get a seat on Ways and Means, it’s clear that the youngest woman ever elected to Congress has no plans to go about business as usual on the Hill.

Read: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited Nancy Pelosi’s office — to join a protest

Because of their power over the nation’s purse strings, members of the powerful “A” committees cannot sit on more than one unless they get a special waiver from leadership.

Furthermore, CPC will only become an effective organizing body if some of its members form voting blocs, like dozens of members of the Freedom Caucus did when the GOP had a majority in the House. If CPC members get seats on the “A” committees, and progressives can mobilize voting blocs, then the left has a real opportunity to wield influence in the House.

"It’s incredibly important to get progressives on committees like Ways and Means, especially fighters like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which raises money for progressive candidates. “It’s unthinkable that Nancy Pelosi would choose someone like Tom Suozzi instead.”

Cover: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus in Washington, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)