Politics

Progressive Groups Crash Historic Harvard Bipartisanship Forum for New Members

Groups are holding an ‘alternative orientation’ outside to challenge ‘middle of the road’ policymaking

Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., promised to push forward “unprecedented legislation” in a speech outside Harvard University on Tuesday night. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A prestigious orientation at Harvard University that has for 50 years coached incoming members of Congress on the values of civility and compromise has for the first time gotten some counter programming from the left. 

Most incoming freshman congressman attend the storied Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress hosted by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sessions began Tuesday and run through Thursday. Since 1972, Harvard has hosted more than 700 current and former representatives, according to the school’s website.

But left grassroots groups — the Center for Popular Democracy, Rights & Democracy and New York Communities for Change — are holding an “alternative orientation” right outside Harvard’s doors to challenge the virtues of middle-of-the-road policymaking.

The groups are calling for “bold action” in lieu of “centrist compromises that do not address root causes” of pressing issues.

The Harvard Kennedy School did not respond to requests for comment.

Several members-elect who belong to Democratic Party’s insurgent left who were in Cambridge for the Harvard forum spoke at the alternative orientation, too — underscoring the challenges they’ll face in the new Congress as they straddle coalition building with satisfying a base that is increasingly militant on health care, climate change and gun control.

In their speeches to the groups, Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York looked to strike that balance, stressing both cordiality and the pursuit of a policy agenda that includes sweeping proposals like a Green New Deal and Medicare for all.

“I know that today standing alongside me, and in that room behind us,” Pressley said, gesturing to Harvard, “are statesman and women who are worried about the future generations,” while promising to push forward “unprecedented legislation.”

“Our stance has always been an unabashed push for progressive values,” Pressley spokesman Harry Shipps said. “But there’s room for everyone at the party.” 

The bipartisan forum at Harvard is a collaboration with the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Organizers of the alternative orientation were critical of the think tanks for accepting grants and other contributions from corporations with a financial stake in shaping public policy, and also critiqued Harvard for its private sector donors. 

“Ivy Leagues and DC think tanks get millions of dollars from corps to influence the legislative process,” the Center for Popular Democracy wrote on Facebook Tuesday. “Our new leaders can take a new approach by pursuing a policy agenda addressing our most pressing challenges.”

Lobbyists for private interests have signaled they will increasingly court influence through think tanks in order to sway the 32 incoming lawmakers who have abstained from corporate PACs.

“Harvard’s orientation for new members of Congress is an important chance to focus on policy and build bipartisan relationships. AEI is happy to be a part of it,” said John Cusey, vice president of communications and government relations for the think tank. “We look forward to seeing how this new class can work together to solve the pressing challenges facing our country.”

CSIS declined to comment.

Watch: Ayanna Pressley Says She Won’t Be a Single-Issue Representative

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