Politics & Policy

The Feel-Good Freshmen of Congress

The newest class, on both sides, is eager for bipartisan comity.

In the first presidential debate of 2012, in Denver, President Obama pledged to end a tax deduction that companies receive for “moving a plant overseas.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” retorted Mitt Romney, who went on to handily defeat Obama that night before losing the election in November. Representative John Delaney of Maryland, a freshman Democrat, recalled the episode at a recent forum on economic competitiveness: “That was actually the best line that Mitt Romney had. And I’m a Democrat. Because I used to say this myself — I’ve been in business 20 years, and I’ve never seen a tax break to move jobs overseas. It does not exist!”

#ad#Delaney, who has a background in finance, is emblematic of a class of freshman lawmakers in the House who are willing to flout the dogmas of their respective parties. Many in the group see their class as an antidote to the intransigence of the 2010 tea-party class that came to Washington, D.C., hell-bent on cutting spending.

On the Democratic side, that means a willingness to consider bold reforms to entitlement programs and, more recently, the nerve to buck Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Obamacare votes.

Compared with the previous batch of newcomers, Republicans such as freshman representative Tom Rice of South Carolina, who co-hosted the economic-competitiveness forum with Delaney, are less interested in drawing lines in the sand on taxes and other issues and more willing to negotiate a bipartisan deal.

That’s not to say there aren’t hardliners in the group, especially on the Republican side. A handful of the freshman Republicans — Matt Salmon, Ted Yoho, Jim Bridenstine, Thomas Massie, and Steve Stockman, among others — are some of the loudest voices calling for confrontation with Obama. Others, though, are willing to confront the political demagoguery of their own party. In a recent interview, Representative Trey Radel, a Republican and a former journalist who has cultivated relationships with the D.C. press corps, harshly criticized Oregon representative Greg Walden, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, for remarks he made about Obama’s budget.

Obama had included small reforms to Social Security in his budget, but within hours of its release, Walden appeared on CNN and excoriated the president for his “shocking attack on seniors.” The comments deeply unsettled rank-and-file House Democrats, who fear the GOP will use the attack line in 2014.

“Inexcusable,” Radel told me. “The president actually, dare I say the word, compromised. And then, ‘Oh, well you’re all wrong!’ I understand there’s politics, but these are numbers. We’re talking about mathematics.”

Overall, there’s an animating spirit of earnest comity. In February, Representatives Robert Pittenger (R., N.C.) and Patrick Murphy (D., Fla.) led a group of freshmen who wrote a letter calling for vague reforms to entitlements. The group held a celebratory press conference to announce their bipartisan proposals. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, responded by saying, “Bless their naïve little hearts.”

Murphy was recently tagged the “most boring member of Congress” by National Journal — the magazine concluded that Murphy has adopted a dull, scripted demeanor in a bid to help him win the election of 2014. He is vulnerable because he represents one of nine districts held by Democrats that Romney won in 2012.

And certainly, there are signs that the calls for bipartisanship on the Democratic side arise out of political expediency.

Forty percent of the Democratic freshman class voted for a recent bill to delay Obamacare’s employer mandate, despite what Politico described as “repeated — and sometimes emotional — lobbying by Pelosi.” That was more than twice the percentage of the full Democratic caucus that voted for the bill, and the freshman “yes” votes were the majority of the Democratic votes in favor.

At events with reporters — both Republicans and Democrats have hosted off-the-record mixers for the new lawmakers to meet the press corps — the freshmen are exuberant, so much so that  jaded reporters tend to grumble in annoyance as they walked out. Despite the feel-good bipartisanship, there are signs that the grind of day-to-day life in Congress is beginning to produce the kind of cynicism — or, to be more generous, realism — that pervades much of the Capitol.

One top factor: fundraising. In January, the Huffington Post published a recommended daily schedule for freshman lawmakers that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had sent to the newbies. The schedule recommended four hours for making fundraising calls, one hour for “strategic outreach,” which mostly consists of fundraising events, and only three to four hours for the actual duties of being a member of Congress.

In private conversation, freshmen reveal deep frustration at how little they’ve been able to accomplish, both individually and as a Congress. Their junior status at least partly explains their ineffectiveness. But Delaney, for one, is making progress through sheer energy. The Maryland Democrat says he has met one on one 90 times with Republican members about a bipartisan infrastructure bill he introduced.

The legislation would finance infrastructure projects by giving corporations tax incentives to purchase low-yield bonds, an innovative and inexpensive method that has attracted 38 co-sponsors from both parties.

Efforts such as Delaney’s show that, while it may be a few years before these new lawmakers start to really affect the direction of their parties, a change is coming.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @j_strong.

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