As U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park wryly observed in the wake of this month’s election: “I’ve been in the majority. I’ve been in the minority. I prefer the majority.”
After spending a decade in the Democratic majority in Annapolis as a member of the Maryland Senate, Raskin in 2016 was elected to Congress from District 8, where more than half of Montgomery County’s voters reside. Arriving on Capitol Hill, he found himself a member of the minority for the first time in his political career.
His status changed Nov. 6 when the Democrats picked up nearly 40 seats nationwide to regain majority status in the House of Representatives. Come January, that will translate into enhanced influence for Raskin, including a possible post in the House leadership, as well as most of the rest of Maryland’s House delegation, all but one of whom are Democrats.
Among the beneficiaries is Rep.-elect David Trone of Potomac. Elected to represent District 6, which contains more than one-third of Montgomery County voters, Trone now appears to be in line for a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, whose jurisdiction includes such hot-button issues as taxes, trade and health care.
Raskin was often exuberant in a telephone interview last week. “There’s just a really electric feeling among the Democrats, after two years of [the Republicans] grinding our faces in the mud,” he said. “It’s a whole different atmosphere.” Chuckling, he added: “There are Republicans who never spoke to me before who are coming up to me in the hallway and asking how things are going. I’ve got a lot of new friends on the GOP side since we entered the majority.”
At the same time, Raskin acknowledged: “We’ve got to be sober about what can be accomplished with the Republicans controlling the Senate and Trump in the White House. But we have the opportunity to show people that we can run a decent and civil legislative body and pass a strong legislative program for the American people.”
Raskin will vie for a leadership slot set aside for legislators with five terms or less of seniority. The contest for that post will be decided in Democratic Caucus elections later this week. He currently serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is expected to launch high-profile probes of the Trump White House and Cabinet departments, similar to the aggressive manner in which Republicans delved into the Obama White House while in the House majority.
“Obviously, everybody is invested in what is happening at our Department of Justice, and do we have a real or ersatz attorney general,” Raskin said, alluding to Trump’s post-election appointment of Matthew Whitaker. “That’s something we’re going to have to figure out.”
Raskin’s bid for a post entitled “caucus leadership representative” potentially puts him on a path similar to that of his District 8 predecessor, Chris Van Hollen of Kensington, who held several House leadership posts prior to his election to the Senate two years ago.
For his part, Raskin said that his bid for the leadership was motivated by the intraparty divisions over whether to return Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California to the speaker’s post she last occupied when the Democrats were in the majority from 2006 through 2010. It’s a question, he said, that has divided 8th District Democrats as well as his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve been hearing two kinds of things from constituents about the leadership situation,” Raskin said. “On the one hand, lots of people feel that Nancy Pelosi has done a great job and we should return her. I’m with them: I’ve been an early and strong supporter of Pelosi.”
But he noted, “I also hear from lots of people who say that it is time for a new generation of leadership, and we need new voices and new vision in the Democratic leadership in Congress. And I want to be responsive to that, too. So, this is my small effort to create the space for much more involvement by this great new generation. We’ve got spectacular new diversity and accomplishment and energy in the junior members [of Congress].”
Added Raskin, who turns 56 next month, “I definitely don’t want to see a kind of generation clash in Congress,” an allusion to the fact that Pelosi, Hoyer and the likely next House majority whip, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, are all in their late 70s.
Raskin’s campaign for a leadership post, in which his opponent is Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, has overtones of the center-left divide coursing through today’s Democratic party. Raskin is currently a vice-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, while Sewell holds a similar post in the House New Democrat Coalition, comprised largely of moderate Democrats.
Asked to handicap this week’s election, Raskin noted that Sewell, just re-elected to her fifth term, “has been in Congress a lot longer than me.” At the same time, he boasted of “very strong support in the mid-Atlantic and I think in New England.”
Two years ago, Raskin organized the Democracy Summer Project, which this past summer sent student interns to help in campaigns in states including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This could give Raskin a boost among newly elected Democrats from those jurisdictions.
Even if Raskin doesn’t get the leadership post, whose occupants are limited to a single two-year term under House Democratic rules, the Democrats’ new majority already has presented him with other avenues for increased influence. He currently serves as the senior Democrat on the Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee and has sufficient seniority to chair that or perhaps another subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel.
A career constitutional law professor, Raskin also serves on the Judiciary Committee. “Depending on what other people do, I might even be able to get [a subcommittee chair] on Judiciary,” he said. But he indicated that the chairmanship of the Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee is likely to be claimed by another legislator with greater seniority.
One option that Raskin has turned aside is a possible seat on the Ways and Means Committee. That could help open the door to Trone. A Marylander has not served on the Ways and Means panel since 2010, when Democratic membership on the panel shrank as the party lost the House majority. Now, with the return to the majority, it is expected that Ways and Means slots available to Democrats will increase. “I was approached about my interest in it,” Raskin acknowledged. “But I think I’m in the right place in terms of my expertise and abilities. I’m very happy and focused in my work on Judiciary and on the Oversight Committee.”
Likewise, none of the other five holdover Maryland House Democrats appear available or interested. That leaves Trone, whose competition could come from members in other mid-Atlantic states, such as Delaware and Virginia, also currently without a seat on Ways and Means. “It would certainly be a great honor to be on one of the exclusive committees, such as Appropriations, Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce. Those are the three committees that freshmen virtually never get on,” Trone said in a telephone interview Sunday. The “exclusive” designation means that members of those panels are generally not allowed to serve on other House committees.
While seating freshmen on these panels is rare, Trone is expected to highlight his business background—he is co-owner of Total Wine & More, a nationwide alcohol beverage retailer—in making his case. Appointment to the Ways and Means panel would allow him to press issues he raised during the recent campaign, including plugging the so-called “carried interest loophole” that allows profits from hedge funds to be taxed at a lower rate.
Closing that loophole would raise $180 billion over 10 years, Trone contended, while advocating spending part of that on a $100 billion program to combat opioid abuse. “I think the most important issue before Congress today is addressing the opioid catastrophe that claimed 72,000 lives last year, and it’s increasing at a 14 percent rate this year,” he said Sunday.
Besides providing a record $17 million in personal funds to his own candidacy, filings with the Federal Election Commission show that Trone donated $790,000 to other House and Senate candidates, along with party committees. This includes $82,000 donated to about 30 of his fellow incoming House Democratic freshmen, as well as donations to another 20 Democratic House candidates who were unsuccessful on Election Day.
“I think the fact that we’re helping out financially across the United States in over 50-plus congressional [races]—my wife and I—should be a positive,” Trone said in an interview during the campaign. “That’s going to give us a little more ability to be successful [in getting] on the right committees.”
A factor in Raskin’s reluctance to entertain an appointment to Ways and Means was that, as an “exclusive” committee, it would force him to leave the Judiciary Committee, which would be the forum for any presidential impeachment proceedings.
“The number one order of business on Judiciary is to defend and protect the special counsel investigation from any further interference by the executive branch,” Raskin said. “We want to wait until the special counsel [Robert Mueller] completes his work before we decide how to respond to the obstruction of justice and the abuse of power we’ve been witnessing.”
But he also gibed: “On the politics of it, I’m not detecting any hurry that anyone is in to call for impeachment. Most Democrats feel that impeachment is way too good for the GOP at this point and Donald Trump is their problem, an albatross around the Republican Party. They’ve made their bed and they’re going to lie in, for a while, anyway.”