Progressives seeking a model for an effective Congress could learn from the nearly forgotten history of the Democratic Study Group.By Julian E. Zelizer
When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, one of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s earliest moves was to end the public funding for the Democratic Study Group (DSG), a caucus of liberal Democrats that had been created in 1959. It was one of Gingrich’s shrewdest maneuvers. As Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, a staunch conservative then and now, wrote in an internal memo, “The demise of the DSG severely damages the power structure of the House Democrats.”
Roberts was right. The DSG is almost forgotten today, but its history suggests lessons for the current generation of Democrats. Since 1994, congressional liberals have failed to replicate a powerful, independent organization like the Democratic Study Group. They have been dependent on a House leadership that is sometimes but not always sympathetic to their goals. The closest thing to a DSG, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been a pale imitation of its predecessor, a fragile informal coalition that has lacked the same kind of leadership, money, publications, communications strategy, or clout. As liberals prepare for the start of the 114th Congress and hope for stronger Democratic returns in 2016, they would benefit from looking back at the history of the DSG to see just how much a vibrant and robust caucus can offer.