By John Taraborelli
To call Donald Trump unpredictable or inscrutable would be an understatement. Adding more of a challenge to politicians from a predominantly liberal state are the Republican controlled House and Senate. It all begs the question: how will the members of Rhode Island’s all-Democratic congressional delegation – Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Representatives Cicilline and Langevin – prepare to reckon with a conservative DC and a president who continues to defy every prediction and expectation?
We caught up with each of them in the weeks leading up to the inauguration to find out their biggest concerns, their thoughts on the president’s appointments, and how will they work with or against the new administration. One thing’s for sure: our men in Washington have their work cut out for them.
Senator Jack Reed
The senior senator’s foremost concern is the battle over the Affordable Care Act, which began almost as soon as the 115th congress convened in January. “That could have devastating effects on not only health care, but the economy – particularly in Rhode Island, where our biggest employer is the health care system,” he says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Repeal and replace.’ When they start translating campaign slogans into legislation, that’s where reality sets in.”
Several of the president’s cabinet picks also give Reed pause. “Many of them have either a lack of experience or records that indicate they’re not particularly supportive of basic norms established over many administrations. You have a Labor nominee opposed to basic protections for workers. An Education nominee who has a particular animus towards public education.” He does, however, approve of General James Mattis for Defense Secretary.
Reed does identify some potential areas of common ground between Democrats and the new president, including infrastructure spending and paid family leave, but ultimately he expects they will need to leverage the tools at their disposal, including the filibuster, to stop legislation that they find objectionable. He also sees the bully pulpit as the most important check on the president.
“We have been in minority before. We have used our institutional powers along with the ability to speak out. We’re going to have to do it again with renewed energy. Ultimately our strength as a nation is when people stand up, take a position and take it loudly.”
Representative James Langevin
Of the four members of Rhode Island’s delegation, Langevin seems the most optimistic. While he has been critical of Trump – he signed on to a letter urging him to rescind the White House appointment of Steve Bannon and sent another to House Speaker Paul Ryan urging him to appoint a select committee on Russian hacking – he also sees opportunity in what will undoubtedly be an unconventional Republican administration.
He points to partisan gridlock in the House as one example. “This is one of the areas where I’m hopeful because Trump is not beholden to the Republican establishment. Perhaps he has the flexibility to do things that are bipartisan, chart his own course, and break through logjam.”
However, Langevin’s cautious optimism on particular issues should not be interpreted as a sunny outlook overall. He has grave concerns about attempts to repeal Obamacare and gut the social safety net, as well as several cabinet appointments. While he calls Mattis and Homeland Security nominee General John Kelly “quality individuals,” he notes that Trump’s choice of “climate change deniers at both the Department of Energy and the EPA is not a good way to start out.”
Despite his reservations, Langevin says he’s focused on finding a way to make bipartisanship work. “The reality is the election is over and it’s not the outcome we were hoping for. Now we have to find a way to govern. Whenever possible, we’ll find common ground, but we’re not going to compromise on values or principles.”
Representative David Cicilline
As the newly minted co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, Cicilline will be taking an active role in articulating his caucus’ response to the Republican agenda. He acknowledges that this job is hampered by Trump’s unpredictability. “It will be difficult because he doesn’t really have positions. Ultimately the president will have to make a decision, but until that moment we won’t really know where he is on an issue.”
Like his colleagues, Cicilline is willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, but has been discouraged by the first test of his decision-making: presidential appointments. He wrote the letter that Langevin and 167 other Democrats signed, objecting to Bannon’s appointment. He also finds conflicting signals in some of the cabinet choices. “Trump said, ‘We’re not going to touch Medicare,’ then appoints someone to Health and Human Services who supports privatizing Social Security.”
While the power of the minority party in the House is limited, Cicilline expects that the more parliamentary nature of the Senate will be an important safeguard against a conservative agenda run amok. “It just won’t work if they pass a bill that only Republicans like.” Meanwhile, he believes that House Democrats need to speak out forcefully and communicate the true impact of Trump’s policies to the American people.
Cicilline remains a true believer in the power of government to improve lives and anticipates that Republican overreach will provide an opportunity to show the American people a better way. “In the end, people vote for someone they think is going to change their lives for the better. They ultimately decided Trump was going to do that, but to the extent that it doesn’t happen, people are going to be looking for an alternative.”
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
To say that Sheldon Whitehouse is suspicious of Trump’s cabinet appointments would be putting it mildly. “A man who ran for president on a promise to drain the swamp and disrupt the power structure in Washington appears to be filling his civilian agencies with people who represent the most pernicious special interest in that area,” he says. “Far from draining the swamp, he’s put the chief alligators in charge of it.”
He is equally blunt in his assessment of individual appointees. “Scott Pruitt has probably the worst conflicts of interest of any cabinet nominee in modern history. Jeff Sessions has a history of saying and doing things that may sell in Alabama, but scare an awful lot of people in Rhode Island.” And so on.
The EPA nomination touches a particular nerve for Whitehouse, who has been one of the foremost voices on climate change in the senate. He points out that in 2009, a full-page letter ran in The New York Times demanding urgent action on climate change from President Obama and congress; it was signed by dozens of business leaders, including Donald Trump and his three adult children. “At one point he seemed to understand this issue. We have to do what we can to revert him to that understanding.”
Whitehouse sees Senate Democrats as “the last emergency brake on the train,” and believes that if they can force their Republican colleagues to simply adhere to the norms and traditions that govern the upper house, they can operate as an effective check on the executive branch.
He also sees an important role for citizens in demanding accountability from the Trump administration, and urges people to fight on the issues that matter to them. “The hard work of being a citizen just got harder, but there’s no way to assert your values in a democracy if you’re just on the couch as a consumer of other people’s political output.”