The freshman class of House Democrats is already making waves
Even before they are sworn in today, the 100 newly elected House members are promising to be one of the most independent — and difficult to control — freshman classes in years.
They are far younger and more diverse than their predecessors. It’s the largest freshman class in nearly 50 years, with a record number of women, the youngest female House member ever elected and the first two Native American women and first two Muslim American women elected. They include the first single mothers with young children, more than 18 veterans, two NFL players and even a mixed martial arts fighter.
But along with that generational shift and diversity has come a fresh outlook and willingness to buck party and cast aside time-honored Washington precedents. It is particularly true of House Democrats, many of whom as candidates last year distanced themselves from their party’s leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
The first test of how these newcomers will approach their jobs comes as soon as next week, when coveted committee assignments are doled out to lawmakers.
Several freshmen have asked for — some have demanded — prime slots on powerful legislative committees writing laws regulating taxes, healthcare and environmental policy. Such positions are typically out of reach for first-year lawmakers.
“We’ve got a really assertive, take-charge freshman class…. They’re demanding a lot of opportunities that have historically not been made available to freshmen,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who said she has waited 10 years to get on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the prime committees. “They’re going to shake this place up, and that’s kind of a good thing.”
Other veteran lawmakers were less charitable, viewing the newcomers’ demands as audacious. “I don’t know if I want to say ‘Sit down and shut up’” in the newspaper, said one Democrat.
Friction between the freshman class and the veterans will be one of several challenges facing Pelosi, who is expected to be elected as House speaker in a vote Thursday. She’ll also have to bridge the gap between progressives who want to take a strong stand against President Trump and those Democrats who won in moderate districts where Trump is more popular.
The influx of brash, young House members will be particularly precarious for a Democratic leadership team in which the top three members are all over 78. The new members will be seeking to make waves in a Democratic caucus that has not seen leadership turnover in more than 15 years.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, of New York, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and perhaps the highest profile freshman, has asked for a slot on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy. Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy organization, circulated a petition demanding Pelosi put her on the committee and included a fundraising link — a point that galled veteran House Democrats.
“That’s not how things work,” said another Democrat who didn’t want to be named criticizing a colleague.
On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez asserted her independence again by announcing she would not vote on a rules package endorsed by Democratic leadership because it would require that any new spending programs be offset by taxes or other revenue, rather than adding to the deficit.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has also advocated for freshmen to get on committees. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and her co-chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), “made it very clear that we thought some of these seats should be for new members because new members bring in incredible talent,” she said.
Even so, Ocasio-Cortez is not expected to get a position on Ways and Means, according to Democratic sources, and neither are many other freshmen.
Incoming Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) declined to weigh in on who will fill open positions on his committee, but said he’s hearing from “everybody.”
“It took me four years to get on the committee,” he added. “Freshmen generally don’t go to the Ways and Means Committee.”
Some new lawmakers could get prime positions. Rep.-elect Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), 77, who served as a secretary of Health and Human Services and is one of the oldest freshman lawmakers in history, has a shot at a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees healthcare policy. Orange County Rep.-elect Katie Porter, who has significant experience investigating consumer bankruptcy, could get on the Financial Services Committee.
Fellow California Rep.-elect Katie Hill, who is one of the freshman class’ two representatives to House leadership and serves on the group that will make committee assignments, acknowledged the struggle between putting freshmen in key roles and respecting the more experienced lawmakers who want the same slots.
“You’re talking about people who have dedicated years and sometimes decades to hard work in the hopes or the goal of getting on these exclusive committees,” she said. Now there are freshmen who are “sort of wanting to jump the line. It’s tough. I understand.”
The new lawmakers have also shown that they’re willing to air their grievances loudly and directly to the public. Unhappy with climate policy, Ocasio-Cortez protested in Pelosi’s office on her first day in Washington for freshman orientation.
And when lobbyists presented to an orientation program for new members at the Harvard Kennedy School, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) went to Twitter to chastise them for what she viewed as their cynical, outdated approach.
A lot of politicians come to Washington promising to change the way the system works and end up becoming part of it. It’s unclear whether members of this freshman class will be able to deliver on their pledges.
“There is a narrative of ‘Washington fighting’ because it’s interesting and it’s drama,” Hill said. “There is a change that is happening that is hopefully not going to be as entertaining because it’s going to be about trying to make Washington functional.”
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