Women poised to take charge in Dem majority
If Democrats win the House in November, 35 women are poised to lead committees and subcommittees in the next Congress — an historically high figure that would put female lawmakers in the driver’s seat for some of the most pressing issues facing Congress and the country.
That number would almost triple the amount of GOP women currently holding similar positions, and it would mark a measurable achievement for Democratic lawmakers looking to take the “Year of the Woman” to new heights of power.
The shift also would come at the outset of a crucial 2020 presidential cycle, when Democrats want to topple President Trump — a radioactive figure in the eyes of many women’s groups — and use a long-elusive House majority to battle against the administration on issues as diverse as abortion rights, family separations at the U.S. border and the ongoing probe into Russia’s election meddling.
Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 sparked a wave of interest from female candidates, who have jumped into races around the country, increasing the odds of a record number of women occupying congressional seats next year. And while much of the election-year discussion has been focused on those potential newcomers, a shift in legislative power to veteran lawmakers would likely prove even more significant.
“The critical issue is the agenda changing,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s health and labor panel, said Friday by phone.
The 14-term lawmaker rattled off a list of gender-based issues Democrats are vowing to tackle if they take control of the House, including women’s health care, domestic violence, equal pay and family leave. DeLauro said those were once considered “fringe issues” that went too long ignored or underfunded by Republicans who have controlled the chamber since 2011. She’s been passing out a pamphlet to fellow Democrats arguing that women are uniquely positioned to turn the ship around.
“When women take the gavel, Congress responds to the major issues facing working families today,” it reads.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) argued another benefit of having women in charge: They are simply more open to compromise, a breath of fresh air in a Congress practically defined by partisan conflict.
“I believe women tend to find common ground, work together and accomplish big tasks,” said DeGette, who’s in line to lead the oversight subpanel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“As more of us get elected to Congress and fill these critical leadership roles, chances are good that we will see less gridlock and more cooperation.”
They may have a chance to prove that theory next year.
Democratic women are set to take control of six full House committees if the lower chamber flips in November. They include Reps. Maxine Waters (N.Y.), of Financial Services; Nydia Velazquez (N.Y.), of Small Business; Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), of Science, Space and Technology; Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), of House Administration; and Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), of the Joint Economic Committee.
Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.) would become the first woman in history to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee.
In addition, 34 subcommittee gavels appear poised to go to Democratic women if the party takes the House. Those include spots atop five Appropriations panels, as well as influence over other major issues: digital commerce (Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky); counterterrorism (New York Rep. Kathleen Rice); higher education (California Rep. Susan Davis); and immigration (Lofgren).
The numbers could fluctuate, but Democrats tend to defer to seniority when it comes to naming committee heads — a system Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has largely honored — and challenges are rare.
Party leaders are practically giddy at the thought of positioning more women in power, and they’re taking a page from the late Ann Richards, a former Democratic governor of Texas: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely on the menu.”
Pelosi on Friday went a step further.
“It is absolutely vital that women leaders take their rightful seat at the table: at the head of the table,” she told The Hill in an email.
The potential for 40 women in high posts contrasts starkly with the Republican-led Congress, where leaders have long been accused of empowering men at the expense of female voices. Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) came under fire in 2012 when Republicans seated an all-male slate of committee heads for the following Congress. Under pressure, he later appointed then-Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) to lead the Administration Committee.
Since then, Republican women have fared better. In the current Congress, three full committees are headed by women — Reps. Diane Black (Tenn.) on Budget, Virginia Foxx (N.C.) on Education and the Workforce, and Susan Brooks (Ind.) on Ethics — and nine others hold the gavel of subcommittees. Four of the 12 are retiring or seeking higher office after this Congress.
GOP leaders are quick to reject the notion that they’re out of touch with women’s issues. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the fourth-ranking House Republican, has long argued that GOP policies like ObamaCare repeal and tax cuts will do more to benefit women than the Democrats’ favored prescriptions. Her office declined to comment for this story, but in May she trumpeted the advantages of having more female representation on Capitol Hill.
“Being a mom makes politics real,” she told Fox News. “That’s why it’s so critical that more women and moms are elected to Congress.”
The Republicans’ campaign arm also features several women in its leadership ranks. Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) is heading recruitment efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), while Rep. Mimi Walters (Calif.) is the group’s vice chairperson.
NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt pushed back on the notion that Democrats somehow have a lock on women’s interests.
“Some of the best Republican candidates this cycle are women and we’re confident we’ll see them representing their districts for years to come,” Hunt said in an email.
Democrats have long touted the gender diversity of their caucus as evidence that they’re the more inclusive party, one that better represents the different interests of the country at large. And they’re no strangers to propelling women to power.
Pelosi has led the party since 2003, rising in 2007 to become the first female Speaker in the nation’s history. And with several women already announcing bids for leadership positions next year, the number of women at the highest ranks of the party appears ripe to grow.
The 2018 cycle is the first since the anti-harassment “Me Too” movement swept the country, toppling titans of business, Hollywood, the media and a handful of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including the Democrats’ own veteran Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), who was forced out last year.
With Trump dogged by scandals that include allegations of sexual assault and paying hush money to a porn star, the would-be Democratic gavel holders see an opening on the campaign trail, vowing the tough oversight they say has been neglected under Republican rule.
“You can bet the President and his allies within the administration will not be getting a free pass,” DeGette said. “I’ll work to make these inquiries bipartisan when possible, but the priority has to be getting the answers our constituents want and deserve.”
DeLauro, citing gains the Democrats have made fighting child separations at the border, summarized the Democrats’ hopeful sentiments in one sentence: “Imagine what we could do if we were in the majority.”
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