Young, outspoken and diverse, the 2018 House class began with high hopes. Did it deliver?
Five dozen bright-eyed Democrats rode an electoral wave into the House nearly two years ago on a promise to shake up Congress and enact ambitious social reform on healthcare, climate policy and immigration. They were younger, more female, less wealthy and less white than any previous freshman class.
And although these first-term representatives were noticeably more outspoken and defiant than their predecessors — culminating in President Trump’s impeachment — they face reelection with no major legislative achievement to their credit. The 116th Congress is on pace to enact the fewest number of laws in recent history.
“Our mark is more institutional than it is legislative,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), one of seven Democrats from California elected in 2018. She said the impact of the 2018 class had yet to be fully seen. “Changing the institution to make it work better will ultimately produce better legislation.”
Though some freshman lawmakers succeeded in pushing through narrow bills that helped their constituents, several acknowledged their frustration at the lack of any major legislative wins.
“Results speak for themselves, and it’s pretty clear there hasn’t been enough progress on these issues,” said Rep. Josh Harder (D-Turlock), another first-term Democrat from California. “Obviously it’s hard when you control one half of one branch of government.”
At the same time, however, these new lawmakers helped reshape and redefine the traditional role of a first-term House member. They have generally been more active on social media and more engaged with their constituents than their elder statesmen. Several quickly established national profiles by speaking out on issues at hearings and in public or pushed narrow bills that helped their constituents.
Though they’ve largely eschewed corporate PAC money, several became mammoth fundraisers by focusing on small-dollar donors. And when the pandemic hit, they led the calls for Zoom hearings and remote voting. Harder hosted a drive-through town hall.
“C-SPAN has never been more popular,” quipped Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who was elected by her colleagues to act as co-president of the 2018 freshman class.
First-term House members also point to their defense of the Affordable Care Act and efforts to hold Trump accountable as
important parts of their legacy.
The 2018 Democratic takeover of the House ended GOP efforts to repeal the 2010 healthcare law, although it is under threat of elimination in a lawsuit set to be taken up by the Supreme Court in November.
Late last year, the House impeached the president for soliciting Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election and for obstructing Congress’ investigation.
But outside of legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the government funded, this Congress has enacted 175 bills so far, according to GovTrack.
That figure will certainly rise by the end of 2020, but there is little chance the 116th Congress will surpass the 284 bills passed during the 112th Congress that ended in 2012 — the last record low in recent history — when tea party conservatives and other Republicans controlled the House during the Obama administration.
“They struck me as freshman lawmakers learning the ropes,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “I didn’t see a revolution or unique freshman-class fingerprints on congressional operation.”
Though stymied by the GOP-led Senate from realizing major reforms, House Democrats on their own approved several largely symbolic bills to address prescription drug prices, immigration, climate change, gun policy, LGBTQ equality and voting rights.
There was no real negotiation between Republicans and Democrats — Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have an almost nonexistent relationship — except in the most dire situations, such as funding the government and enacting coronavirus relief measures. Even those have been exceedingly difficult.
“There would be compromise if we agreed on the goals,” said Rep. TJ Cox (D-Fresno). “We don’t agree on the goals.”
Voters appear to be unconcerned about the lack of major legislative wins by the new House Democratic majority.
Polls show that even many of the freshman who were elected in Republican-leaning districts and were once thought to be vulnerable are expected to win reelection. Democrats could even expand their majority in the House.
Of the seven Democrats from California elected for the first time in 2018, only three — Cox, Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) and Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) — are facing hotly competitive races. (One of the seven, Rep. Katie Hill of Santa Clarita, left office in 2019 amid allegations that she had a relationship with a congressional staffer. Republican Rep. Mike Garcia was elected to the seat.)
If Democrats take control of the White House and Senate this fall, the next two years will be the real test of House Democrats’ effectiveness in enacting legislation and their political longevity, particularly after two years dominated by a historic government shutdown, impeachment, a pandemic and a national reckoning on race.
Democrats will be eager to quickly capitalize on their majority to move on major legislation. But the political fissures that emerged this year between the moderate and progressive ends of the House Democratic caucus are likely to grow when legislation becomes more realistic. Many of the major policy bills the House passed this year — such as those addressing gun control, immigration and prescription drug reform — were messaging bills because the House knew the GOP-controlled Senate would never take them up.
“It’s easier to vote along party lines if it’s not going anywhere,” Rouda said, adding he might have voted differently on some of them had they had a chance of becoming law.
Several first-year lawmakers took an outsize public role over the last two years, becoming some of the most well-known members of Congress outside of leadership.
Four young female members of color — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar — became known as “the Squad.” They drew rebukes from Trump and were among the freshmen most willing to buck Democratic leadership in public votes or private meetings.
Another group of lawmakers with national security experience, including Cisneros, wrote a Washington Post op-ed article detailing why the House should impeach the president, a pivotal moment in the Democrats’ decision to go forward with impeachment.
Porter, with her now-trademark whiteboard, became known as one of the most successful questioners in Congress for putting corporate executives or government officials, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Robert Redfield, through a public grilling.
“There are a lot of members of the freshman class that don’t hold anything back,” Cisneros said.
But while much of the public attention focused on the progressive newcomers, behind the scenes Pelosi and Democratic leaders worked to protect the more moderate freshmen, who corralled dissatisfaction with Trump in the midterm to wrest away formerly GOP districts. These more politically vulnerable members had perhaps even more of an influence on the direction of House Democrats in the last two years.
Although progressives were eager to move articles of impeachment sooner, Pelosi didn’t move forward until the more moderate Democrats were on board. The House hasn’t had a floor vote on the Green New Deal or “Medicare for all” — measures that progressives want to advance but that would put moderate Democrats in a tough squeeze.
Many of the moderates, dubbed “front-liners,” were set up by Democratic leadership to succeed by putting them on high-profile committees or having them chair subcommittees.
Several front-line freshman members got at least one minor bill signed into law — an important accomplishment to tout at home.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), chairman of a subcommittee on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has focused away from the high-profile fights and drilled down instead on bipartisan bills to reform veteran housing vouchers and training programs.
“If you just kind of look at the national narrative of what happens here,” he said, “I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that we’re not getting much done and that the whole place is overrun by gridlock.”
Harder spent months on a bill to help California eradicate nutria — beaver-like, semiaquatic rodents that destroy wetlands and can damage water infrastructure, as they did in the Central Valley. The bill is now waiting for Trump to sign it into law.
Said Harder: “You really can do a lot of good, if you focus on issues that are important but no one else is leading the charge on.”
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