For years, Elizabeth Warren has gotten top billing as one of President Trump’s chief critics. But these days, several other Massachusetts Democrats are gaining national attention for their leading roles in the investigatory and legislative assaults on the Trump administration.
Richard Neal is using the power vested in his post as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee to seek Trump’s tax returns. Katherine Clark has drawn the limelight for grilling top administration officials. And Jim McGovern, who functions as the House’s chief legislative gatekeeper, has ushered a string of bills on gun laws, health care, and more that Democrats say demonstrate that they are delivering on the campaign promises that swept them into power in November.
The high profile these Massachusetts politicians are cutting reflects the grip on the levers of power that they gained with the Democratic takeover of the House. Neal, McGovern, and Clark are close allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the trio holds leadership positions that enable them to help shape Democrats’ political and policy strategy.
Combine that leverage with two Massachusetts’ members in the 2020 presidential mix — Warren and Representative Seth Moulton, who’s still exploring a run — plus the star power of Joseph P. Kennedy III, and Ayanna Pressley, who quickly emerged as a prominent member of a historically diverse freshman class, and it’s clear Massachusetts once again has outsized influence.
Even Senator Edward J. Markey, the longest-serving member in the delegation, has gotten fresh notice by partnering with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the ascendant freshman Democrat from New York, to advance the climate-change fighting plan known as the “Green New Deal.”
“The delegation has had some ups and downs when it comes to influence on Capitol Hill” in the decades since the legendary Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. was speaker of the House, said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to another powerful Massachusetts politician, Edward M. Kennedy.
Now, “they’re back in business,” he said.
Not everyone is thrilled with their work. For Neal in particular, the high-profile role has also meant high-profile dissatisfaction from the party’s liberal wing, impatient for him to move more quickly on demanding the tax returns and other liberal priorities.
Republicans are painting House Democrats’ agenda efforts as “radical,” “socialist,” and hyperpartisan, aimed at obstructing and damaging Trump rather than addressing pressing issues such as the undocumented immigrants pouring across the southern border.
“For 100 days the American people have been held hostage by the Democrats’ political ploys and games as they race to appease the far-left fringes of their party,” RNC spokesperson Mandi Merritt said.
Neal has long been the consummate inside player on Capitol Hill, who saw the Ways and Means Committee as a venue for big bipartisan deals on trade, infrastructure, and health care. But his new gavel gave him the unique legal power to demand the president’s tax returns, and Neal pulled the trigger earlier this month.
Trump’s refusal to turn over his returns — despite decades of precedence — guarantees Neal will remain in the headlines, since the tax return request is expected to evolve into a protracted legal battle. Neal touched off the latest round in the tussle with a letter this past weekend that set a new deadline of April 23 for IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to hand over the documents.
Clark, who was elected to the No. 6 leadership spot in the House Democratic caucus, drew widespread attention with her sharp questioning of top Trump officials. In late March, she called for Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to resign over her agency’s use of a purportedly racist study in shaping policy.
Her confrontation of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta at a House Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month became national news, too, as she pressed him on the 2008 plea agreement with a multimillionaire pedophile he negotiated when he was a federal prosecutor. (A judge recently ruled the deal broke the law.)
Behind the scenes, Clark and others in Pelosi’s small circle of advisers advocated for a resolution that condemned the Trump administration for asking a federal appeals court to strike down the health law.
Campaigning on health care helped Democrats win in 2018, and House leaders crafted the nonbinding, mostly symbolic measure to put Republicans on record as against the law’s most popular elements, such as keeping coverage for preexisting conditions.
“Maybe they weren’t paying attention to the last election,” said McGovern of his Republican counterparts. “The people of this country do not want their health care taken away from them.”
As chairman of the Rules Committee, McGovern effectively controls what legislation makes it to the House floor for a vote, working closely with Pelosi and other party leaders to determine priorities.
He’s a constant presence on the House floor, playing one of the most prominent roles in articulating the Democrats’ message and defending their legislation on the floor. And the committee, while obscure to many, possesses broad jurisdiction, enabling McGovern to give a platform to issues about which he personally cares. For instance, he’ll be holding the first hearing on the hot topic of Medicare for All legislation in the coming weeks.
With his help, House Democrats have moved legislation to tighten federal gun laws and background checks, protect women against pay discrimination, strengthen voting rights, and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, among other bills. The package of new rules for the chamber that McGovern assembled at the start of the year included instructions to the House Democrats’ lawyer to get involved in defending the Affordable Care Act in court.
Almost everything the House passes has died in the Republican-controlled Senate. But it’s not for naught, McGovern said. “It shows the American people that they have a choice,” he said.
The delegation’s political swagger extends beyond the trio of lawmakers in House leadership positions. Kennedy, a rising star whom Pelosi tapped to deliver the Democratic response to Trump’s 2018 State of the Union, has had more notable turns in the spotlight. He has emerged as a leading voice protesting the Trump administration’s policies regarding transgender people.
Pressley — the first black woman to serve Massachusetts in Washington— has quickly established herself as one of the break-out players in the large and diverse freshman class.
She leveraged her vote in Pelosi’s battle for speaker into a spot on a House task force aimed at addressing gun violence. Her first floor speech in January railing against Trump earned her a warning for breaking the chamber’s rules of decorum – and lots of press coverage.
As Pressley said on the eve of assuming office: “I was not sent to Washington to play nice.”
Victoria McGrane can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.