There are a lot of exciting people who will be entering Congress for the first time in January and this is getting some breathless coverage in the media. Recent segments on PBS and MSNBC demonstrated a perhaps justifiable amount of enthusiasm for the youth and diversity of the incoming freshman class, but also an irrational exuberance and anticipation about what they’re likely to accomplish.
Back in September, I wrote a piece making the point that people are putting too much faith in newly elected congresspeople to bring about change. I was thinking at the time about the wisdom of ousting Massachusetts Rep. Michael Capuano in a primary, but I was also thinking about people like Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California.
There are a lot of committees in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some are very prestigious. The Ways & Means Committee handles taxes and entitlements. The Finance Committee oversees Wall Street. The Judiciary Committee has a wide mandate and is responsible for looking into impeachable offenses. Obviously, there are weighty responsibilities involved with serving on the Armed Services Committee. In normal times, there isn’t much prestige or even advantage associated with serving on the House Administration Committee.
Members on that panel spend most of their time overseeing management of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and National Zoo, the Clerk of the House, the Sergeant at Arms and Capitol Police, the Government Publishing Office, the Architect of the Capitol, and the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services. Additionally, they’re also responsible for providing the funding to other committees and individual members of Congress.
But they have one other responsibility that is periodically a very big deal.
The Committee’s jurisdiction over federal elections requires it to consider proposals to amend federal election law and to monitor congressional elections across the United States. The Committee was instrumental in the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter called the most meaningful improvement in election laws and voting safeguards in a generation. This law provided more than $3 billion dollars for the upgrades of voting equipment and procedures to make the voting process more accessible and to guard against fraud.
The current chairman of the committee is Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi, a state with possibly the worst and most violent historical record on voting and civil rights in the country. A former chairman of the Rankin County, Mississippi, Republican Party, Harper was assigned as an observer during the 2000 Florida presidential recount. He’s only served as chairman since the beginning of this Congress in January 2017. On the Democratic side, former chairman and current ranking member Bob Brady of Philadelphia is retiring. As next in seniority, it’s likely that Rep. Zoe Lofgren will serve as the chairperson of the committee when the next Congress convenes in January 2019. Fortunately, she has plenty of experience and has been overseeing implementation of the Help America Vote Act for more than fifteen years.
That is likely to come in handy as Florida heads to a reprise of the 2000 debacle, this time with several offices on the line, including the seats for governor and U.S. Senate. Just north, in Georgia, all manner of shenanigans have been employed by Secretary of State Brian Kemp is his effort to win the governorship. And in Arizona, as well as several congressional races around the country, we could be headed to recounts that expose flaws and injustices and security breaches in our voting systems.
Even before it became clear that we are headed for the same kind of controversies that surrounded the Bush v. Gore race in 2000, the House Democratic leadership was expressing a desire to use their new majority status to make a priority out of outlawing “gerrymandering of congressional districts and restoring key enforcement provisions to the Voting Rights Act.” It appears that Rep. Lofgren will spearhead that effort.
She is uniquely placed for the job because, beyond having the gavel on the House Administration Committee, she’s also a senior member of the Judiciary Committee–which has jurisdiction on the Voting Rights Act.
You may see her play other prominent roles. The House Administration Committee oversees sexual harassment rules and training and can even determine things like the number of changing tables that are installed in the Capitol complex’s bathrooms. As the likely chairperson of the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Control, she will surely have some hearings on the Trump administration’s child separation policy and other criminal acts related to shoring up their support with white nationalists. But it’s on voting issues that she’s going to be perhaps the most influential and important member of Congress.
It has been a long climb. Lofgren was first elected to Congress nearly a quarter century ago, in 1994. Rep. Lofgren put in 24 years of work to get to the point where she can drive American policy on elections and voting rights. She’s been working on these issues in an oversight role for decades now and has a wealth of knowledge and experience. Would it have really been better to vote her out in a primary just to have new blood–or someone who is perhaps better on this or that issue?
There is something at least a few of the freshmen congresspeople can do though. Because no one really wants to serve on the House Administration Committee–since it doesn’t directly serve a home district or attract a lot of political lobbyist money–there will be a few slots available for anyone wise enough to ask. We have freshmen members from South Florida like Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Lucy McBath was just elected in Georgia’s 6th District, which is in the Atlanta suburbs. Maybe they’d like a seat at the table when the House convenes and gets to work on reforming our electoral system once again.
Rep. Lofgren can use their help. I’m sure she’ll make a good mentor.