Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is poised to win a seat on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, in what would be a victory for progressives fighting to curb Wall Street’s clout in Washington and inside the Democratic Party itself.
The assignment, which lawmakers say they expect her to receive, would pit the 29-year-old New Yorker not only against banks that make up a major local industry but also potentially against business-friendly Democrats who have backed financial deregulation.
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Some moderate Democrats have privately raised concerns that they’ll be targeted by the former bartender-turned-progressive icon, whose willingness to challenge her party’s establishment propelled her to Congress and the national spotlight.
Committee Democrats see great potential, but some are wary because of the pressure she will face to lead a crusade against corporate interests, even if it means taking a hard line with fellow lawmakers.
“I don’t know enough about her to be able to determine if she’s going to be a good member or what,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a senior Financial Services Committee lawmaker who survived an Ocasio-Cortez-backed primary challenge last year. “Time will tell, and this one term will tell us a lot about her abilities as a legislator.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a democratic socialist, has criticized Democrats for supporting deregulation. She has also shunned corporate campaign donations — traditionally a big draw for lawmakers to join the Financial Services Committee.
"This is why I am running for Congress," Ocasio-Cortez said after the House passed a sweeping set of banking rollbacks in June 2017. "Because we cannot stand idly as big banks gut every last protection working families have left."
It’s a fight that many of her supporters want her to lead. But it’s also one that could pose a dilemma for new Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) as she tries to keep Democrats aligned on committee business. Waters, another liberal idol dubbed "Auntie Maxine" in the Trump era, has also clashed with moderates on the committee and could benefit from an injection of progressives more aligned with her own views. But she’ll need to forge some degree of unity to pass legislation.
House assignments have not been finalized but Democrats told POLITICO that Ocasio-Cortez has a strong chance of landing on the sprawling Financial Services Committee, which may have up to 60 members again this Congress.
Some Democrats on the panel, including moderates, have already tried to start building relationships with the new lawmaker known as "AOC."
Rep. Gregory Meeks, who represents New York on the House panel that makes committee assignments, said he planned to recommend Ocasio-Cortez for the spot after she requested it.
He’s a member of the New Democrat Coalition, which consists of centrist Democrats and has several on the Financial Services Committee.
Meeks, who represents Queens, hasn’t been shy about his position that when Wall Street does well, so do his constituents. He also says he wants to be a bridge-builder between the finance industry and consumer advocates.
Meeks has talked with Ocasio-Cortez about concerns that some Democrats have about her siding with potential competitors, as she did with Clay. She was elected to Congress in her district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, after unseating former House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley in a primary.
POLITICO reported last month that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a fellow New Yorker, was another possible target.
“No one has said that came out of her mouth,” Meeks said. “So I hope that we don’t have that issue.”
Ocasio-Cortez has indicated she wants to be a “team player,” he said.
“Clearly, she’s going to speak her mind on what she thinks is right, as I will, and anyone else will on that committee," he said.
Staff for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to requests for comment.
Progressive advocates are energized by the prospect of Ocasio-Cortez exposing the workings of the committee to her millions of social media followers.
They have been pushing for Democratic leaders to appoint more progressive members to high-profile House committees including Financial Services. They’ve stepped up efforts to direct attention at Democrats who they see as too cozy with Wall Street.
"Having members who refuse to take corporate PAC money on a committee that has historically pandered for Wall Street dollars could be a game changer for policy outcomes," said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. "It could impact how Congress deals with CEO pay structures, systemically risky big banks, corporate crime and more.”
With a single tweet, Ocasio-Cortez could frustrate efforts by moderate Democrats to cut deregulatory deals with Republicans, said Jeff Hauser, who tracks corporate influence as executive director of the Revolving Door Project.
"When industry lobbyists or their shills in Congress throw shade at a new member, it probably reflects a genuine fear that the newcomers will become a force for fixing a broken system," said Porter McConnell, campaign director of the Take On Wall Street coalition.
Lobbyists privately expressed mixed views on the prospect of her joining the committee. Some see her as a potential threat when it comes to Democrats working out legislation with Republicans. But others say she will be one among dozens on the committee and that it will be difficult for a low-ranking member to make noise.
For Waters, who is touting a committee agenda focused on consumer protection and housing, having an outspoken Democrat to her left could be a new kind of test, in addition to the tensions she has faced with more centrist members who have been more willing to work with Republicans.
But Waters has praised the fighting spirit of incoming lawmakers, and her own agenda could be bolstered by recruiting like-minded members. In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, the committee is expected to take on other new progressive members including possibly Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
"You’re going to see a new kind of approach in the hearings that we have," Waters said in a recent MSNBC interview. "They’re going to come right out with it. They won’t be ashamed. They won’t be afraid. They really believe in what they’re doing. I think that’s good for the institution."
Clay said he has put behind him Ocasio-Cortez’s backing of his unsuccessful primary opponent last year — he won by 20 points. He said he has had a couple of friendly conversations with her since she arrived in Congress, and he even congratulated her on likely joining the Financial Services Committee.
Clay said he would welcome her on the committee so "she could get a full appreciation of financial services in this country."
"Who knows," he said. "She may deal with some issues over this first term and her supporters may start referring to her as a sellout."