Democrats are expected to win back the House. How will they get their house in order to heal America?
We are divided and deeply hurt as a nation. The Trump administration has led an all-out attack on immigration, including the separation of young children at the border and severe restrictions on visas for students, innovators and immigrants of color. Racial tensions are high, with the President and his allies openly embracing white supremacists and their imagery. And, despite the much-needed #MeToo movement, hostility towards women’s voices is evident at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Signs that millennials, people of color and women plan to vote in strong numbers this November gives me hope, as does the record number of women running for Congress this year from both parties. But even as women and progressives work to gain control of Congress, a Democratic takeover of the House alone will not heal America. It will be just the beginning, and the new majority will have much work to do simply to get the House in order.
If we do vote in a Democratic majority, the House’s new leaders will need a long-term strategy that both reflects voters’ demand for change and shows the Democrats to be the adults in the room, representing a functional government that actively addresses the peoples’ problems. Creating change will not be easy. It will include crafting a bipartisan legislative approach that acknowledges the challenge of working with a narrowly divided Senate and a volatile executive branch. It will require the House to do what the current Congress has often abdicated — strong oversight of the Trump administration. And most importantly, it will require rebuilding a Congress that truly reflects America’s diversity in terms of age, gender, race, religion and culture. Democrats have long looked more like America in their demographics, and the new faces running this year accelerate that trend. In its leadership posts and committee assignments, the Democrats have the opportunity to draw a strong contrast with the faces of committee leadership Republicans have shown the country.
Committee assignments matter. It is too soon to forget the makeup of the committee that considered Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and Anita Hill’s in 1991. Eleven male Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to move Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor in October — despite widespread concerns about his integrity and character. All of the Republican majority were men. Two of these Senators — Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch — served on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 during the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings at which Anita Hill testified that Thomas was similarly unfit. Both Grassley and Hatch voted to move then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas out of committee. History has repeated itself once. It should be the last time that all-male majorities sit in judgment on matters that concern women, and of course there are no matters in Congress that do not concern women.
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees wield tremendous influence over pressing issues such as immigration, civil rights, consumer privacy and criminal justice reform, but there are other committees to watch in the next Congress. These include the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and those shaping tax, trade and health care — the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. How Democrats select committee members and advance legislative priorities will be key to addressing voters’ concerns.
Staff expertise matters as a new majority works to enact change as well. As a former counsel and senior policy advisor for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I have experienced firsthand the power of crafting meaningful legislation and effective oversight of federal agencies and officials. Introducing legislation and holding hearings is only part of the job. A failure to understand the House and Senate rules and how to apply them can be disastrous. When Republicans swiftly acted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in 2017, the Senate Parliamentarian noted that parts of the bill could be stripped out for violating Senate rules. In the end, the bill fell apart and symbolized the GOP’s failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It is important to watch who is staffing new members, but also whether staffers at all levels represent the diversity of the country.
There are already many calls for the Democrats to be aggressive in their opposition to Republican policies, but this is easier said than done. We must also get America back on track, and this requires working across the aisle. Coordinating bipartisan legislation with leadership in both chambers is essential for anything to be accomplished in Congress. Strategic alliances — working inside and outside Washington — will lead to effective policies that help heal America.
Over the years, I have registered new voters, crafted and managed federal legislation in Committee and on the Senate floor, prepared regulatory comments submitted to federal agencies, canvassed door to door and volunteered as an election protection attorney. But my most important role has always been as a voter. Voters represent the first step in building change. And none of the best-laid plans for change in Congress will come to fruition if we don’t vote.
Kenya Wiley is a former counsel and senior policy adviser for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She is the founder and CEO of the Fashion Innovation Alliance, a collective focused on public policy, social justice and innovation in fashion, technology and retail.