Last week, I got angry with Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Astead W. Herndon of the New York Times for “reporting” that women of color in the incoming congressional Democratic freshman class might become a potential headache for Nancy Pelosi, reminiscent of the way the 2011 freshman class of Tea Party Republicans wound up ending John Boehner’s political career. In truth, I would have been annoyed by the comparison even if it didn’t single out black, Latino, and Native American women. The Democrats’ freshman class is nothing like the Republicans from 2011 or any other year.
You can see this very clearly by looking at a letter that 46 freshmen Democrats sent to the party’s leadership on Monday. Whereas the Tea Party class came into office determined to roll back Obamacare and pursue specious conspiracy theories in the oversight committees, the incoming Democrats are urging that the party put more focus on problem solving and legislating rather than scoring cheap political points and holding investigations.
“While we have a duty to exercise oversight over the Executive Branch, particularly when the Administration crosses legal lines or contravenes American values, we must prioritize action on topics such as the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs, our crumbling infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, and criminal justice reform,” the freshmen wrote. “While we may not always agree on how to approach every issue, we are united in the belief that we have a mandate to debate, draft, and work across the aisle to pass legislation.”
This puts the whole freshman class closer to the No Labels-sponsored Problem Solvers Caucus than to the fire-breathing Tea Party-inspired Freedom Caucus. But I wouldn’t misinterpret this as some kind of radical moderatism. It’s more a clear-sighted strategy for holding the majority than a genuine disinterest in oversight. The Democrats did not run so much against Trump as against the Republicans’ ineffectiveness on the opioid crisis, infrastructure and guns, their efforts to sabotage health care and the resulting increase in cost of care and medicine, and their extremism on immigration and climate change. The people gave them a chance to tackle these issues and they’d be committing political malpractice if they didn’t at least make a show of trying to work with the president and the Republican Senate to get something done in each of those areas.
Yet, they also know that the base of the party expects investigations and they have every intention of meeting that expectation. What’s important is that the party leadership not fall into the trap of making it seem like the freshman class is ignoring or reneging on their campaign promises.
The 2011 Tea Party class shared an interest in keeping their promises, but their promises were not based on addressing real problems that they could then turn into plausible legislation. Their promises were premised on ridiculous alarmism and fever swamp conspiracies like death panels, Bengazi! and birtherism.
Of course it’s not exactly an easy set of dance steps to work with the other party on an infrastructure package at the same time that you’re holding hearings on the potential impeachment of their leader, so I’m not sure that there’s much cause for hope that the Democrats’ Class of ’19 is going to get very far “working across the aisle to pass legislation.”
But one thing is clear. No freshman class of Republicans would ever send a letter to their leadership urging them to deemphasize investigations and focus on legislating with the opposition.