The contradiction Ocasio-Cortez and her allies will need to resolve

At today’s swearing-in ceremony in the House, Jahana Hayes and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were seated next to each other, while I watched from the gallery. Doesn’t get a lot better than that. To refresh your memory, Hayes was the candidate who came up in Connecticut housing projects, struggled to graduate as a teen mom, and then was robbed of the party endorsement at a rigged convention. She overcame that, won the primary, and won the general. You probably know who the other is.

I walked part of the way to the swearing-in with Ocasio-Cortez and caught this poignant moment with the Capitol guard who often greets members of Congress warmly and enthusiastically, but not like this.

Perhaps the most un-poignant moment I witnessed was this one: Republican Rep. Ben Cline brought his two daughters to the ceremony. When one of them, who looked to be about 4 years old, began clapping for Pelosi’s nomination as Speaker, he gently stopped her, then whispered into her ear, presumably explaining why the occasion was not to be applauded.

On Wednesday morning, after it became clear that the House rules package for the 116th Congress would include a conservative measure known as PAYGO, a spokesman for Bernie Sanders called for progressives in the House to oppose it. Rep. Ro Khanna was the first out of the gate, calling it “terrible economics” and promising to vote down the rules package.  

Ocasio-Cortez announced her opposition to the rules package shortly after Khanna did, and it looked like a rebellion was brewing among the newly energized and organized left. Except it wasn’t.

PAYGO -- which requires that any new government spending be offset by tax increases or budget cuts elsewhere -- would hinder policy initiatives like “Medicare for All” or tuition free public college. Still, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who extracted major concessions from Nancy Pelosi in exchange for their support of her speakership, chose to sit this one out. CPC co-chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Wash., and Mark Pocan, Wisc., put out a statement in support of the rules package Wednesday, unwilling to risk the other gains they had won.

By the next evening, when the package hit the House floor, just three Democrats voted it down, with Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez joined by Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The sudden burst of energy, and the just-as-sudden collapse, brought into relief in the starkest way yet the paradox that is Ocasio-Cortez’s position in the House -- she has as much influence outside of Congress as anybody else she serves with. Her every tweet is a potential news cycle, and the routine happenings of her high school and college life get turned into fodder for conservative faceplants on disturbingly regular occasions. She has used that platform to shift the broader political conversation in ways previously unthinkable. For nearly two decades, Democrats have quietly grumbled that it’s just not possible to get people interested  in doing something about climate change. Ocasio-Cortez, in a matter of days, got people interested.

But inside the building, she is heavily outgunned. Aside from her close ally Khanna, the only member of Congress to endorse her primary bid (after first endorsing the incumbent), Ocasio-Cortez is strengthened by her “squad,” which includes Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

But even the squad broke with her on the House rules package and supported Pelosi. The gap between her power outside the Capitol and the display of it on day one inside of it could hardly have been greater, and it’s an imbalance that simply can’t hold long-term. Something has to give; one side or the other will need to break or bend. It remains to be seen which one it will be.

At the heart of the paradox is the House Democratic caucus’s resistance to political organizing, and Ocasio-Cortez’s grounding in it. On the way to the swearing-in ceremony, I asked Ocasio-Cortez how her view of politics and Congress had changed since she’d won her primary. “I think coming through this process from the background of organizing, and as an organizer, it really makes you think of the political process as -- it really opens what that field looks like, of what change is possible. So it’s not just about whipping votes or getting someone to a yes or no -- although all of those are critical elements of the job -- but the other part of it is really shaping the landscape of what we think is possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Her most successful organizing effort so far began with the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats-led occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office during orientation. Ocasio-Cortez and the activists demanded a select committee to craft legislation toward a Green New Deal. It sparked a national conversation that is still alive today, but the committee Pelosi ultimately created -- unveiled in Thursday’s rules package -- is weaker than one she created on the same issue in 2007.

“I think there are a lot of wins that we’ve had so far policywise,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to the gains made by the CPC in the rules package. “When you look at what’s considered a loss, whether it’s the select committee or whether it’s PAYGO, I see them as short term losses, because in the long run what we’ve accomplished is we’ve put these issues on the map.”

But getting them on the map came at a cost -- and here’s where the contradiction comes in -- in that it angered her colleagues, who furiously defended the turf of their own respective committees, seeing themselves in competition with the new climate committee. Indeed, incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone flat-out refused to move an unrelated bill by Khanna, citing his public support for what he saw as a rival committee.

That hostility built upon already strong wariness on the part of her colleagues, who see in Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of people-powered, corporate-free politics a challenge to their own integrity or progressivism. She is a walking reminder to some Democrats of the space between their ideals and how they have come to practice politics -- and they don’t appreciate the reminder.

Some of the PAYGO collapse was specific to the moment. Pocan and Jayapal had been negotiating with Pelosi over rules changes and won significant concessions, including seats on powerful committees and the repeal of a rule that required a super-majoriy for tax increases. It was only at the last minute that Ocasio-Cortez realized PAYGO would still be in the package, and by then it was simply too late no matter her outside power or organizing skills, since the broader CPC was ready to move on.

Those types of communication kinks can be worked out over time, but if every win Ocasio-Cortez notches on the outside simply creates more distance between her and her colleagues on the inside, organizing an effective progressive majority will be impossible, and even getting the dozen to two dozen members needed for a solid progressive sub-caucus would be difficult. But it’s not that simple, as the groundswell of support Ocasio-Cortez has experienced on the outside has yet to be fully felt on the inside.

Congress is a place out of time -- or, more accurately, cultural and social movements outside of Congress can often take years to be felt inside the Capitol walls. Things eventually catch up, but the problem is just how long that might take -- as the U.N. has given humanity roughly a dozen years to turn its fossil-fuel based economy around, which climate scientists say can only be accomplished on a wartime footing. Politics have moved awfully fast the last few years, but perhaps not fast enough yet.