Reasons for Hope

January 4, 2021

The New Congress Can Deliver. Here’s Why.


A new Congress took office yesterday. The weight of responsibility could not be greater. Across the country, overwhelmed hospitals are turning away COVID patients. Millions are jobless and facing financial ruin no stimulus check can remedy.


Americans still believe government can fix problems. More people voted in the November elections than at any time in the history of our country. But whatever happens in the Georgia runoffs tomorrow, neither party will enjoy more than a razor thin majority in the House and Senate.


That’s normally a recipe for low expectations and partisan gridlock. It often means progress comes only in lengthy end-of-term “omnibus”bills few have read. Yet five things give us hope that lawmakers can outperform the odds.


1. Return of Earmarks


Nancy Pelosi narrowly won re-election as Speaker of the House yesterday. She’ll need a full bag of tricks to keep her slim majority in lockstep for key votes on President-Elect Biden’s legislative agenda.


One powerful tool that could make a comeback is the earmark. Before they were eliminated from annual appropriations bills a decade ago,earmarks enabled congressional leaders to keep rank and file members in line by steering federal funds (or not) to pet projects in their states and districts.


Last year, the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress endorsed the return of earmarks under certain conditions. House and Senate leaders have equal incentive to act on that recommendation. So far, the House seems on board. Watch this space.


2.  New PAYGO Exemption


Congressional PAYGO rules limit spending by requiring legislative proposals that would increase the deficit be offset with revenue from other sources. Typically, spending is offset by narrowing or eliminating certain tax loopholes. But loopholes are hard to find and may not generate sufficient revenue to cover all funding needs.


The House rules package for the 117th Congress essentially gives the Budget Committee Chair authority to exempt certain bills from PAYGO rules – including measures designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and to combat climate change.


If it survives a House floor vote today, the rule change could make it easier to pass future COVID relief measures and create new opportunities to advance meaningful climate legislation this year.


3.  Effective White House Legislative Affairs Team


Getting legislation through Congress requires strong relationships, trust and sustained engagement over months and years. No one – even a President – can parachute in at the last minute and expect to have a decisive impact.


Typically, the White House legislative affairs team is responsible for the difficult, day to day work of shepherding an Administration’s priorities on Capitol Hill. But there hasn’t been an effective White House legislative affairs team in years.


That is certainly the case in the current Administration.But even during the Obama years, we remember Democratic Hill staff complaining that they had never spoken to anyone in the White House legislative affairs office. As a former Member of Congress himself, Joe Biden looks determined to change that.


By naming Reema Dodin, Shuwanza Goff, Chris Slevin and others to his legislative affairs team, Biden is building a professional operation staffed by folks with long experience and deep networks on the Hill. They will enable the new Administration to make progress where others have not.


4. Bipartisan COVID relief deal


The COVID relief deal passed at the end of the last Congress and belatedly signed by the President showed bipartisan cooperation is possible and can achieve real results – even though the final package wasn’t perfect.


The story of how a small group of Democratic and Republican Senators came up with a durable COVID relief bill may have been too hyped and over reported. But the details are now a valuable roadmap for others. (Lesson 1: Serve moonshine at your first meeting.)


To be sure, it will be far harder for Democrats to find common ground with Republicans (or even be seen working with them) after the pointless and irresponsible spectacle that will play out Wednesday whenCongress meets to certify President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory.


But there was plenty of mistrust before. In the hours after the compromise COVID relief deal was announced, one newly elected Member of Congress complained on Twitter that a group of white millionaires crafted legislation everyone else had to accept.


She was right. And so is this: If you want to accomplish something in the 117th Congress, find a person you can work with on the other side of the aisle. Then find more.


5.  New Partners in the Administration


President-Elect Biden’s strong cabinet picks are further reason for hope. The outer cabinet nominees have proven the more interesting choices. Although potential hires for many key roles have not yet been named, we are especially heartened to see Jennifer Granholm for Energy, Michael Regan for EPA and Katherine Tai for U.S. Trade Representative.


We know all three would bring deep expertise to their positions and reflect the diversity of our nation. More importantly, we know each cares about the needs and concerns of people beyond the beltway and believes government should work to the benefit of those it serves.


The Senate has not yet confirmed any nominees, and it’s unclear what these picks might mean for future legislation. But having good partners in key Administration roles will maximize opportunities for Congress to advance key policy priorities.


If your organization is looking for help working with the new Congress, contact Ceartas Advisors. We enable non-profits to transform advocacy into action. Join the movement at