A Beacon Rises from Capitol Hill

By Ralph Nader

August 26, 2021

The idea didn’t come from a newly arrived Harvard or Yale Congressional staffer. They mostly feel sufficiently anointed to the ways of Capitol Hill – getting along with style while going along for ambition.

Jacob Wilson, hailing from Pomona College in California, has a different definition of self-respect, and of his own humble significance in the furiously moribund culture of our most constitutionally powerful branch of government. He most certainly doesn’t fit in with the staff on loan from the corporatist canyons of K Street.

Wilson came from the peace movement – Peace Action – to be exact. He pitched practical peace to one Congressional office after another. His important message was not exactly a head turner, he discovered. War, military armaments’ lobbyists signaling campaign donations get the attention at the abdicating war-permissive legislature.

Wilson, 28, and Peace Action opposed the wars of Empire, nuclear proliferation and the giant, wasteful military budget authorized by both the Democratic and Republican Parties in the Congress. Once inside, he started thinking sequentially, observing that the staffers were either uneducated about these and other momentous issues, or they were indentured to corporate lobbyists for whom the doors were open. Corporate lobbyists are experts at cultivating Capitol Hill support with campaign contributions or by wining and dining our public servants. and other convenient facilities.

Wilson wondered why there weren’t more staff from the civic community, from those citizen advocacy groups that, over the decades, provided critiques and proposals for improved, responsive government that proved so accurate.

After joining Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI)’s office as a press secretary, Wilson in his free time began asking chiefs-of-staff and legislative directors about getting progressive employees of members together into what became the Congressional Progressive Staff Association (CPSA). They were very responsive.

Over a year old, CPSA has over 550 staff members, including 175 senior staff from the House and recently some from the Senate. Given its unprecedented nature, this is an impressive number. CPSA has been given formal recognition by the Congressional Administrative Committees so that it can use Capitol Hill rooms rent free for its gatherings.

Hundreds of official source journalists covering the Capitol Hill scene might ask “what’s the big deal?” This informal group has no real power base, hasn’t yet established any substantive agenda and hasn’t been either applauded or condemned by lawmakers. This would be a mistaken appraisal.

A more aware, connected group of staffers in touch with each other occupies a very large vacuum that is not remotely filled by the taciturn Progressive Caucus, composed of several dozen lawmakers in the House that should welcome their conscientious subordinates.

This new association of staffers knows what it doesn’t know. Jacob Wilson and his colleagues want to educate themselves about progressive history, and the contemporary, ignored progressive agenda and civic activities back home. The unexercised duties and authorities of Congress under the Constitution – many of which having been abdicated to the Presidency – will be a subject of increasing interest to the CPSA.

The CPSA wants to find its own voice, wants staff recruited for Congress from working class and civic backgrounds – “class diversity” – and more productive performances by legislative committees. They have launched a virtual lecture series that addresses the many delayed necessities of the American people and the world at large. They’re also aiming to start an educational book club.

Education, networking, and recruitment of Congressional staff from working America are the group’s initial three goals. In the process, the hundreds of national citizen organizations located in Washington, D.C. with millions of members around the country, may finally be able to get through to Congressional offices on current and proposed initiatives that are presently obstructed. The chance to make their case should excite citizen advocates for justice writ large and small.

Perhaps the CPSA will spark openness and more accountability by the members of Congress and their Committees. Senators and Representatives in Congress from both parties have reduced and robotized access to their offices like never before in this occluded Internet Age.  The CPSA might also move some of the 535 members of Congress to engage in some collective introspection about the way they are using the sovereign power given them by “We the People” in the Constitution. It is, after all, delegated to them as a matter of public trust – so often betrayed!

Unless you are a campaign donor, a circle of supporting politicians or a constituent who qualifies for personal “case work,” getting through to your Congress, its offices, committees, and staff has been getting more difficult by the year. The ingenious but devious ways the lawmakers block or impede access is a frontal assault on the people’s First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The CPSA might also increase Congressional receptivity to ending the two-party duopoly, embracing the ideas of third parties, and not obstructing independent political competition. Our political system needs more voices and choices!

The CPSA has its historic work cut out for itself. It will take calm dedication, stamina, and wisdom while keeping their eye on the major objective – a functioning democracy where the laws are much more equated with justice than with limitless avarice and entrenched concentrated power.