U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Melrose played a major role in the Democrats’ recapture of the House, as recruitment vice chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She also thinks that experience gave her a pretty good idea of what her caucus peers need to do with that newfound control: namely, pass legislation following through on promises those successful new members made on the campaign trail.
Clark also thinks it’s important for House Democrats — as the party’s only outlet for playing offense rather than defense on policy — to be aware of image as well as results. She wants to call Republicans’ bluff on policies they claim to support; get newer members more visibly involved with policy-making; and use field hearings to take the discussion right out into congressional districts.
She’ll have a chance to influence all of that as part of the party’s House leadership, after getting elected late last month caucus vice-chair for the coming 2019-2020 congressional session. I sat down with Clark last Friday at Jitters Café near her home, to ask about the task ahead. The transcript below has been edited for length.
Bernstein: You’re now in the leadership of the first Democratic House majority since 2010. What do you see as the party’s agenda in the House, going into the new year?
Clark: I think we have some clear mandates from the midterm election: health care, specifically protecting people with pre-existing conditions; reducing the cost of prescription drugs; climate change, which has risen to the top of the agenda; infrastructure; getting corruption out of politics and protecting the right to vote; and gun violence.
What I see as my role, and what I want to do with this vice chair position, is continue being the convener of ideas. The House is a very seniority-driven place, and we have a lot of talent that isn’t necessarily that senior. People who have been there a few terms like myself, new members, and some who have been there a bit longer but aren’t chairmen yet. I want to use the caucus to bring those ideas, and the perspectives that we have from this very diverse new class, into setting that agenda. I think the parameters are set, but I’m really excited about being able to flush out the details.
Bernstein: It’s going to be difficult to pass things, with a Republican-led Senate and Trump as President. As you put these legislative packages together, to what extent are you trying to craft a public message of what Democrats would like to do, and to what extent will you really try to find middle ground that can actually become law?
Clark: I think it is our responsibility to do both. In forming the anti-corruption/ethics/transparency piece, we have been working in a bipartisan way on this bill for years. Now is the time to bring that together. But ultimately, if the Republicans in the House and in the Senate won’t join us, I also don’t think that we should let that stop us, or make us afraid to go forward.
If they won’t come with us, and say we are as committed as we said we are on the campaign trail, to protecting people with pre-existing conditions, then we should pass that. And if the Senate won’t take it up, then we make that an issue in their re-election in 2020. It is our opportunity to show the American people, that when you put Democrats in charge, we put those issues that are meaningful to you and your family back on the table in Washington.
We have a chance to reach out and find bipartisan support where we can—and I think there will be some surprising support. We have always had great bipartisan support on a universal background check, but we could never get Republican leadership to bring it to the floor. I’m hoping that when those votes actually come to the floor, people will feel free to support them.
Bernstein: A potential government shutdown is coming up later this month, with border security as a sticking point. Have the midterm elections made things worse, for the parties trying to find a solution?
Clark: I don’t think it’s made it worse. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but anecdotally I don’t feel like anybody wants a shutdown over this issue. I think that [Republicans] are smarting from the midterms, and that they see that this would be a terrible way to close out the 115th session. I’m not sure what’s going to happen—there are always hard-liners who want that wall and want that $5 billion, and will be willing to shut down government over it. But I’d be surprised if we don’t come to a compromise soon.
Bernstein: Is there an argument to be made that with this large batch of new members, many of whom you recruited, and with this leadership triumvirate of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn who are effective but old, that there are things that need to be done, changes that need to be made, to help these new voices really have an input?
Clark: Absolutely. And that is really why I ran for the vice chair position: to use the caucus to set the agenda. I think we can do a better job of involving more voices in that process. But we have to be intentional about it. Just electing a very diverse new class isn’t going to be enough, if we’re not giving them opportunities to grow in this position, and to lead.
We’re going to have some tools that we haven’t had in eight years. One of them is field hearings—bringing committees and subcommittees to people’s districts, to highlight the work that new members are doing, and also to listen to people in parts of the country where the Democratic brand needs some help, and some rebuilding.
Bernstein: While you had a lot of success in the midterms, especially in suburban districts, rural areas almost seemed to be retrenching as Republican strongholds. Was that frustrating or discouraging to you? Are Democrats doing something wrong in rural districts?
Clark: I don’t find anything about the midterms discouraging. I think it is a sign of hope and optimism that people who haven’t elected Democrats sometimes in decades, took a chance on these candidates because they are authentic and they are connected to community. But we still have work to do. We have a real responsibility now as the only Democratic-led body to show what it means when you put Democrats in charge, and to show that our focus is on moving forward with an inclusive economy for everyone—whether you’re in the heartland of rural America or you’re in one of our major urban cities.
Bernstein: Many of the districts you picked up and will need to defend in 2020 are moderate swing districts. The bulk of returning, re-elected Democrats are from safe, generally liberal districts. It’s easy to talk about an agenda that everybody is going to agree on, but is it realistic given that tension?
Clark: We are never going to have unanimous agreement across our caucus. But that diversity of geography, perspective, and ideology is also the strength of the caucus, because the more we reflect the American people, the stronger we are as the Democratic representatives in Congress. What I want to work on is how do we find those issues that have something in it for everyone, and unify around them. And have those discussions and disagreements in a respectful way, but come out with an agenda where we can agree. Having a monolithic caucus is not my goal.
There’s so much more that we agree on, even though on different ways of going about it, and the speed of change, we’re gonna have disagreements. That’s not something we should shy away from. We need to embrace it, and be thoughtful about including those voices and discussions within our caucus, to come out with a unified piece of legislation that the majority of our caucus can really support.
Bernstein: I’m sure you’ve been talking with others in the Massachusetts delegation about being in the majority for the first time since 2010. How does it feel, and what does it mean for this delegation?
Clark: For Massachusetts this is an incredible period of time, to have Richie Neal as chair of Ways & Means, Jim McGovern as chair of Rules, to have the most women serving in the delegation at one time, our first African-American woman, first Massachusetts woman in leadership—it’s very exciting.
I also keep catching myself about what it really means. Having sat on Appropriations for the last three years, I loved the chance to be in the mix, to be able to question cabinet members, to drill down into budgets and make plans. Now, to be able to set those funding levels, to bring in the witnesses that we want, to be able to help us to craft how we spend our money in a way that really reflects the values of American families, and my district, and Massachusetts—I don’t think that has really fully set in yet, how exciting and what an opportunity that is going to be.