BALTIMORE—Democrats need to shamelessly claim credit for their legislative accomplishments, President Joe Biden lectured House Democrats during their annual retreat on Wednesday night. To emphasize the point, the 46th president had brought a prop.
Stepping away from the lectern, he picked up a red, white, and blue sign, and wryly grinning, held it up for all to see. It read, “PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN. FREDERICK DOUGLASS TUNNEL. BIPARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE LAW.”
You may know the tunnel he’s referencing if you’ve ridden Amtrak through Baltimore: It’s the 150-year-old one that appears booby-trapped to cave in on you at any moment. A fix for this piece of infrastructure, known now as the B&P Tunnel—it will be renamed the Frederick Douglass Tunnel—is one of many, many projects funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed in the previous Congress. And Biden wants to make sure that he, and the House Democrats who supplied the overwhelming bulk of votes for the law, get the credit.
“Folks are going to understand what you’ve done,” Biden said, “and we’re going to make sure of it.”
Biden was speaking to Democrats in a ballroom at the Hyatt in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where Democrats were camping out for their “Issues Conference.” Democratic staffers will be quick to correct you if you dare call it a “retreat.” But members were wearing jeans, sneakers, and Patagonia vests. They were drinking wine and picking at small-plate stations. I spotted goodie bags. They were colorful. The members themselves will call it a “retreat” before correcting themselves.
I came to this Issues Conference looking for answers to the age-old question: What are members of the House minority going to do for the next couple of years? The majority runs the show in the House; there’s no supermajority filibuster rule for the minority to wield for leverage. Aside from yakking it up in the media about how terrible the Republicans are, what is House Democrats’ agenda for the next couple of years?
The answer, as speaker after speaker emphasized, is “implementation”—of the major laws they passed when they had the House majority, in doing what they must to seize the political credit for it, and in not letting Republicans take credit for legislation they didn’t support.
From the beginning of 2021 to the end of 2022, the since-expired Democratic majority, with a smattering of Republican votes on some issues, passed trillions of dollars for infrastructure improvements (the bipartisan infrastructure law), industrial policy (the CHIPS and Science Act), and clean energy projects (the Inflation Reduction Act). Those pots of money are only starting to be released. House Democrats’ job, then—if they want to take back the majority in 2024—is to make sure that money is released a way voters can’t miss, and that they know which party to credit.
“The test of us,” Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer told me in the hallway outside one of the Democrats’ panels, “what matters to our constituents, is them feeling the benefits of these laws, not just that the law is passed.”
“Implementation” is not a sexy word. God help Democrats if they attempt to use it as a rallying cry on the trail.
But ensuring that the implementation of these major laws goes smoothly, and that the money is widely accessible to all communities, is something Democrats view as key to their success in 2024. House Democrats’ purpose these next two years, then, is to work hand in hand with the administration to make sure that they don’t, well, screw it up.
Kilmer, as an example, mentioned how in the past, small, rural communities in his district that suffered severe flooding damage weren’t able to get FEMA funds because they didn’t have the capacity to do so. The funds had gone, as they so often do with large federal disbursements of cash, to those whose profession it is to secure large federal disbursements of cash. House Democrats don’t want that to happen again—not with the once-in-a-generation infrastructure or advanced manufacturing funds they worked so hard to pass.
“I think we have an opportunity to engage the administration to say, hey, so, for example, as you’re rolling out programs, can you take into consideration that some of these programs may be particularly beneficial to small communities that don’t have an army of grant writers,” Kilmer said.
He is one of 12 members of a new group, the Regional Leadership Council, established by House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries to work with the administration to help oversee the equitable release of all this cash. He nominated former Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to chair the group.
When I interviewed Hoyer on Thursday afternoon in a conference room at the Hyatt, he had a prop, too.
“Have you seen this Washington Post poll?” he said, lifting a printout of a chart. He would show it to me several more times.
The poll, conducted in early February, showed that 62 percent of Americans thought Biden had accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” in his time in office.
Hoyer, who’s served in Congress since 1981, felt the previous Congress was “one of, if not the most consequential Congress in which I’ve served.”
“And therefore,” he added, a “poll like that is concerning.” The goal of his council is, in effect, to turn the poll around by “identifying” regional needs, “implementing” the programs, and “informing” people about how to take advantage of them.
“The president is really focused on this,” Hoyer told me, “because he wants to make sure that we just didn’t do it on paper.” He lifted the printout of the poll again. “We need to tell people what we’ve done, because they don’t think we’ve done much!”
And then there is the problem of those who would take credit for that which they opposed.
“Oh, that would be wrong,” Hoyer told me, sarcastically. “They wouldn’t do that, would they?”
Would they ever.
“I am already seeing a number of my Republican colleagues who voted against these historic pieces of legislation want to claim credit,” Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said. “You can’t let that happen. We can’t let that happen. We can’t let them gaslight the American public.”
“None of us are vindictive people,” Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, the DPCC chair, said. And “every American in every zip code” deserves their slice of the pie.
“To the extent I have a wish, it’s a wish that those Republican members will be more honest with their constituencies about the actions they took,” Neguse said. “And rest assured that the DCCC and our colleagues are going to hold those members accountable.”
When Biden speaks about his legislative accomplishments, he’s happy to extend an olive branch to Republicans who opposed them, to make sure they get their share of the loot. “And as I told my Republican friends, we’ll even do their districts, too,” Biden told House Democrats in his speech. “And I’ll be there for the ribbon-cutting.”
Sure, that works for him. He’s the president in every congressional district and can cut ribbons, and claim credit, wherever he likes. For House Democrats trying to take back the majority, though, allowing their Republican counterparts to take credit for projects funded by bills they opposed would be political malpractice.
At least they’re aware of it. But selling their accomplishments requires something that a lot of wonky, policy-minded Democrats are never quite comfortable with: Tacky, braggadocious, almost Trump-like levels of credit-taking.
Also, more props. When a reporter asked Kilmer on Thursday whether we’d see more signs like the one Biden held up in his speech the previous night, he was all-in.
“I may just wear that as, like, a sandwich board,” he said.