In just about two weeks, 38 new freshmen Democrats (and three former members who recaptured their seats) will take the oath of office as members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
This is the largest group of new Democratic members in a very long time and they clearly bring a unique perspective to the job.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet most of the new House members – I took part in the orientation session for new members run by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government – and have come to some interesting conclusions about this diverse group of politicians. They don’t all fit in neat categories, but it is possible to generalize on some points.
First, as a group, they understand that they were elected to change our policy in Iraq. The voting public spoke through these new representatives and they will not be bashful about carrying out this particular mandate.
Some of them are quite passionate about the subject and will not simply sit on the back row for two years without having their voices heard. They may not all agree on what our new policy should be, but they understand that voters expect something to be done to change the status quo.
Secondly, many of them come from moderate and even conservative districts. They will not be automatic votes for raising taxes or increasing spending. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a social conscience, but they will have to be convinced before they vote to initiate new spending programs or significantly increase existing levels of spending.
The hardest sell will be on the issue of taxes. Many of these members know that Republicans in their districts are laying in wait for the first vote that increases any level of taxation. The hard part is that moderate and conservative new members want a reduction in the size of the deficit. It is hard to accomplish this only on the spending side but the Democratic leadership will need to talk long and hard to this group about anything that smells like increased taxes.
The easiest tax vote may deal with increasing the threshold for the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). This vote will actually reduce taxes for many middle class taxpayers who are being pushed into the AMT category by inflation. Changing the AMT threshold could increase the size of the deficit because it will deny the government tax revenue it would otherwise receive under current law.
It may be possible for new members to justify a tax increase to off-set the effect of fixing the AMT on the theory that some increased taxes are necessary to make sure the AMT fix is “revenue neutral” and doesn’t increase the size of the deficit. This will be an interesting fight to watch.
Another fascinating issue to watch will be Congressional ethics. The new members will feel a strong obligation to make their mark on changing the ethical climate in Washington – another reason many of them were elected.
Some more senior Democratic members will not want to completely eliminate privately financed foreign travel (trips financed by think tanks like the Aspen Institute) and the very powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It will be interesting to see if the new members stand firm on banning all privately financed foreign travel or whether they will have to compromise on this aspect of ethics reform early in their careers.
Then there is the issue of whether these members see themselves as having a long career in Congress or whether they are willing to take risks which may shorten their time in office. In the past, most new members of Congress are risk-adverse in their first term and are preoccupied with making sure they get re-elected. My sense is that some in this class are different. This is a very idealistic group and they may be willing to take some chances that their predecessors shied away from.
Additionally, there is the issue of bi-partisanship. Most new Democratic members in recent years were immediately pushed into a very partisan stance – at least partially because of the highly partisan way in which Tom DeLay and others in the Republican party ran things. Democrats are in charge now and it is possible that some of these new members will genuinely want to work across party lines. That is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Democratic leadership.
It’s a challenge because the Democratic majority is not large and the leadership will want to pass Democratic priority legislation. It’s an opportunity because Congress really does work best when it is possible to reach bi-partisan consensus on key issues facing the country. It’s been a while since this has happened.
And finally, there is the question of how loudly these new Democratic members will speak out on a whole range of issues, not just Iraq.
For a very long time, new members of Congress have been told to speak softly early in their careers – not to make too many waves until they figure out the job. That, of course, did not happen with the Watergate Class of 1974, but it has happened with most new members since then. Indications are that this group could be different. They are not a flashy group that will be looking for headlines from day one. They are serious about their job and serious about making a difference.
I, for one, am encouraged by the new crop of freshmen members. They’re not all the same; they’re more moderate and conservative than many of the older members. However, they are not shrinking violets. This could be a very good year.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.