Meet President Biden’s legislative affairs chief

Louisa Terrell
Courtesy photo

When former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler heard Louisa Terrell had been tapped to lead President Biden’s Office of Legislative Affairs, his first reaction was to both congratulate his former adviser and console her on the unenviable task ahead.

“I told her when she got the job, I said, ‘Congratulations, you’re head of leg affairs! Sympathies, you’re head of leg affairs!’ ” Wheeler joked in an interview.

Terrell, a Capitol Hill veteran who has worked closely with Biden for years, inherits a treacherous political environment running the office tasked with coordinating the president’s agenda with members of Congress.

She will work for a president who is a creature of the Senate and who has shown a desire to try to work with Republicans in a highly polarized climate. Terrell will have to balance that desire for bipartisanship with a need to unify various factions of the Democratic Party on key legislation, despite divisions on certain health care and economic issues.

Those who worked with Terrell in the Obama administration acknowledge she faces an uphill battle to win over Republicans during legislative talks, as Congress has become more partisan over the past several years.

But they cited her focus on listening and long-standing relationships with Biden and lawmakers on the Hill as reasons to believe she will be successful.

“She’s incredibly smart. She has terrific relationships on the Hill,” said Phil Schiliro, who worked with Terrell when he served as then-President Obama’s director of legislative affairs in 2009 and 2010.

“She’s terrific at communicating with the Hill and she has the trust of the president because she’s worked with him so long,” Schiliro added. “So, I can’t think of anybody better.”

The White House declined to make Terrell or any members of her team available for an interview for this story and did not respond to questions about Terrell’s role in the early weeks of the administration.

Legislative affairs directors are typically under-the-radar figures who play an outsized role in the administration, serving as a president’s envoy to Capitol Hill.

Terrell brings a broad portfolio of experience to her role in the White House, with much of the past two decades spent working alongside Biden and members of his team. She spent eight years on Biden’s staff in the Senate, worked in the Obama White House and served as executive director of the Biden Foundation.

Her other jobs in Washington included working for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and as an adviser to Wheeler at the FCC despite limited prior experience in telecommunications.

“The number of times I have thought of her in the last few weeks as the $1.9 trillion deal moves through, I have lost count,” Wheeler said. “There are so many complexities and so many issues in that package. She’s got a great ability to be able to learn issues quickly.”

Outside of D.C., Terrell did stints at Yahoo as a director of federal policy and strategy, at Facebook as the company’s public policy director, and as deputy general counsel at McKinsey.

Terrell’s ties to Facebook and McKinsey drew initial skepticism from some progressives when Biden tapped her to lead the legislative affairs office, and certain watchdog groups have expressed concerns about the revolving door between government and corporate America.

But Terrell has managed to win over progressives with early and regular outreach. One of Terrell’s first calls after taking the job was with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of roughly 100 lawmakers in the House that wields considerable influence given the party’s narrow majority in the chamber.

“I think it’s been a really strong start. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree on every single issue,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the caucus, said in an interview.

“I think the legislative affairs team, at least from my perspective, they’ve been extremely responsive,” she added.

Terrell and her team have conducted more than 300 calls in the past week with lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. Of those, 40 calls were with Republicans or bipartisan groups.

Terrell, who graduated from Tufts University in 1991 before attending law school at nearby Boston College, told Boston College Law School Magazine in 2018 that she defined a good leader as a “listener, and a real listener, not just someone who is waiting to make their point!”

Allies say Terrell has an ability to listen to different constituencies and figure out possible solutions that appeal to all sides, a skill they say will serve her well in her new job. Perhaps most valuable at the outset of a new administration, they said, is the fact that she has Biden’s confidence from years of working together.

But being so close to Biden can prove to be a limitation in itself for Terrell’s usefulness, some officials said, given his decades spent in the Senate and Vice President Harris’s time in the upper chamber.

“The biggest challenge is every Democrat in Congress has some sort of Biden relationship, so how do you do that job in a world where the president is his own legislative affairs director?” said one former Biden adviser.

Biden has played an early role in seeking GOP support for his $1.9 trillion economic relief package. He hosted 10 Republican senators at the White House last week before welcoming congressional Democrats to the Oval Office.

The two sides touted the cordial nature of the talks, but there was little traction on an agreement as Biden and White House aides have signaled they will support plans to push the legislation through with the budget reconciliation process, which will allow Democrats to pass the relief bill without a single Republican vote.

The process reflects how difficult it will be for Terrell and her team to find bipartisan consensus even on legislation with popular features such as direct payments for Americans and aid for small business in the middle of the pandemic.

Former colleagues say Terrell’s time in the Obama administration, where Republicans in both chambers relentlessly opposed Obama’s policies, will serve her well in seeking whatever deals she can find during the Biden years.

“I don’t think that the approach will change that much,” Schiliro said. “I think President Biden has made it clear he wants to reach out to all Republicans; he wants to find common ground whenever he can. And I think that Louisa and her team will put together strategies to do that, to try to find common ground.”

Tags Cory Booker Jen Psaki Joe Biden Louisa Terrell Pramila Jayapal
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