For the past quarter of a century, Jamie Raskin’s day job has been teaching constitutional law to students at American University’s Washington College of Law—including over the last 10 years, when he spent part of his time representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park as an outspokenly liberal voice in the Maryland Senate.
But Raskin will be leaving the classroom, at least for the foreseeable future, when he is sworn in Tuesday afternoon as the new member of Congress from the Montgomery County-based 8th District.
“I love teaching and I want to continue to teach in my life, but I just feel I need to immerse myself entirely in my congressional duties,” Raskin said during a recent interview with Bethesda Beat—as he packed up his office at the American University campus in Northwest D.C., in preparation for a move across town to the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
The possessions he was sorting through included several “favorite professor” citations awarded by law students over the years. “It’s a melancholy time for me,” Raskin reflected, before quickly brightening to observe: “On the other hand, I hope to go in as the champion of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers in Congress. I will be vigilant in terms of defending the civil rights and civil liberties of the people.”
And he seemed to relish the prospect of utilizing his academic expertise to help educate some of his new colleagues on Capitol Hill. “That’s going to be an enjoyable role for me to play,” Raskin declared. “There are certain things that I want to defend in the Constitution, and there are certain misinterpretations and distortions of the Constitution that I want to refute and clarify immediately.”
He proceeded to zero in on his favorite target of late: President-elect Donald Trump, whom Raskin has derided as the “president-select”—an allusion to Trump’s winning the Electoral College despite having lost the popular vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“The other day, Donald Trump tweeted that he favored stripping citizenship from people who burn the flag, and putting them in jail,” Raskin noted in animated tones, clearly warming to what he views as his new role. “Well, the first problem is that he’s going to end up putting tens of thousands of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts in jail because it is the federally approved and mandated form of flag disposal to burn the flag. You’re not allowed to throw a flag in a trash compacter with pizza leftovers and grapefruit rinds.”
Even as Raskin faces a professional adaptation from law school professor to full-time member of Congress, he will have to adapt to changed political circumstances as well: After a decade in Annapolis serving in an overwhelming Democratic majority, Raskin for the first time will be operating in a legislative chamber where Republicans are in control.
He will be one of 55 freshman members (27 Democrats, 28 Republicans) in a body in which the Democrats, despite a net nationwide gain of six seats in last month’s election, will be in a 241-194 minority in the House that is sworn in today as the 115th Congress convenes.
“Obviously, I’m going to have to be playing a lot more defense in the House than I was playing in the Maryland Senate. I’ve got no illusions about that,” Raskin acknowledged. But he is also reaching out to some of his new Republican House colleagues, while pointing to friendships and alliances he formed during his years in Annapolis—even as he was widely seen as a partisan firebrand on the Senate’s left wing.
“I’m a middle child, and I like to bring people together,” said Raskin, reprising a line he used on occasion during his way to victory in a nine-way Democratic congressional primary earlier this year. He continued: “A lot of my good friends in Annapolis were Republicans—like Sen. [Michael] Hough, from Frederick County, and Sen. [Bryan] Simonaire, who’s my chess buddy from Anne Arundel County.
“In Annapolis, almost every major criminal justice reform that I introduced was done in conjunction with Republicans. In that sense, I would hope to continue to be somebody who gets to know people across the aisle.”
In fact, Raskin recently discussed criminal justice reform with libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. “There’s a strong libertarian strain among the younger Republicans, and I believe that’s going to be a crucial bridge of understanding between Democrats and Republicans,” Raskin said. “There are a bunch of Republicans who probably feel more distance between themselves and the president-select than they feel distance from us. So it’s a time of political fluidity and change—and we have to define the places where our principles and values bring us together.”
Raskin echoed the hope expressed by many fellow congressional Democrats that infrastructure expansion and maintenance is among the issues that will bridge party lines. “I represent a district that has huge infrastructure needs,” said Raskin, citing not only the troubled Washington- area Metro system and congested I-270, but also I-70 that runs through the Frederick County and Carroll County portion of the district. “Basically, it is going to call for everybody’s best bipartisan instincts to make this happen.”
At the same time, Raskin shows few signs of lowering his profile on the more partisan issues on which he has been outspoken in the past, despite bleak prospects for legislative progress in the near future in Congress.
“I’ve already done several speeches over the last month or two about gun safety,” he said. “We need to continue to make progress at the state level wherever we can. We also have to figure out a way that the vast majority of Americans who favor a universal background check can be heard in the halls of Congress and with the president.”
“So I think it’s going to be important for us to continue to push forward. [Thomas] Jefferson said ‘It’s a game where principles are at stake,’ and you have to stand by your principles even if you’re going to take a hit in the short term.”
Raskin’s first choice for a House committee assignment reflects his service on the Judicial Proceedings Committee in the Maryland Senate as well as his advocacy in Annapolis of progressive social issues ranging from gun control to same sex marriage to abolition of the death penalty. “I do have my heart set on getting onto the Judiciary Committee at some point—and I hope right away,” said Raskin, who in college interned for Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, now the senior Democrat on the Judiciary panel. That committee has jurisdiction over the hot-button issue of immigration, and also will be faced with the controversial, if less high-profile, debate over intellectual property in the coming Congress.
Committee assignments for House freshmen are expected to be made in the next week or so, with most members sitting on two panels. Another Raskin preference—the Oversight and Government Reform Committee—speaks to the makeup of his 8th District constituency. Noting that he represents about 85,000 federal government workers, Raskin said that serving on the panel “would put me in a place where I could work hard to defend the rights of federal employees and defend their honor against the ludicrous attacks they’re subjected to.” He recently spoke with the senior Democrat on that committee, fellow Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, about the possibility of being assigned there; Oversight and Government Reform also has been involved in several high-profile probes of the executive branch in recent years, notably involving the 2012 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Libya.
As he awaits his committee assignments, Raskin is preparing for the major task of a member of Congress besides legislating: helping constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy on everything from obtaining passport visas to resolving problems with Social Security benefits. His 8th District predecessor, Chris Van Hollen, who will be sworn in Tuesday as Maryland’s newest senator, had a reputation for close attention to constituent service in a district that covers nearly 300 square miles and extends from Raskin’s hometown of Takoma Park—just north of the border with the District of Columbia—all the way to the Pennsylvania state line.
Raskin noted Van Hollen’s record of constituent service “may have been the key factor” in the latter’s victory in this year’s Senate race, while adding: “I’ve prided myself on diligent and zealous constituent service in Annapolis. And I had only two people working for me.” He’ll now have a staff of up to 18 people in his new role, several of them stationed in satellite offices in Rockville—he’s taking over space formerly occupied by Van Hollen’s congressional operation—and likely in Mt. Airy, on the border of Frederick and Carroll counties. Raskin also said he plans regular office hours at public facilities in other parts of the expansive district.
Back on Capitol Hill, he has been named a vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and has been asked by the caucus to organize “special orders”—in which groups of legislators speak at length to a nearly empty House chamber after the day’s legislative business is completed. It’s an opportunity to highlight a particular issue or point of view for the education of the C-SPAN television viewing audience.
Another opportunity for this comes at the beginning of each day’s House session, when members are allowed to address the chamber on any topic for one minute. “I plan to learn all about that, and to reduce all my thoughts to one minute—which is obviously a challenge for a professor of constitutional law who’s used to being a senator,” Raskin said with a chuckle.