WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Capitol complex is full of twists and turns, lengthy corridors rearranged through additions spanning the building’s two centuries of existence to meet the constantly shifting needs of its inhabitants. Go through the tunnel to the Rayburn office building, up the elevators, take a right, another right and a left then down a long hallway tucked near a back corner is the office of the congressman from New York’s 23rd district, Rep. Tom Reed. It’s his second month in this office, apparently an upgrade from his previous one.
Just as he finds himself in a new office, he’s finding himself in a whole new House of Representatives too, one that’s increasingly diverse in ethnicity and gender. Perhaps most importantly though, it’s controlled by Democrats.
“I’m not naive. I’m a realist of the political situation we find ourselves in,” he said in an interview with The Ithaca Voice in his D.C. office.
Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives in last year’s midterms after picking up 40 seats, including several in New York state. With the Senate and White House still in Republican control, the House Democrats are retaliating. H.B. 1, the bill which symbolically is used to convey the ruling party’s priority for the session, featured voting rights reform. House Democrats have also fought through the government shutdown to decrease funding for President Trump’s proposed border wall and buck the administration by voting to pull military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Next week, they’ll bring forward a vote to shoot down the president’s declaration of a national emergency on the border with Mexico.
Reed is currently serving in his fifth term, having beat out Democrat Tracy Mitrano by a 10-point margin despite losing Tompkins county in a landslide of 51 points.
It’s his first real experience serving as a congressman in the minority party. He technically was in the minority after being first elected and filling out the remainder of his predecessor, Eric Massa’s term. There are inconveniences to being in the minority, as other members control who gets time in certain meeting spaces and when votes are scheduled.
While those things are frustrating to Reed, what he said worries him are bigger systematic issues. Reed, who co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of representatives, said he thinks Democrats like House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer won’t be able to use their traditional leadership deal-making abilities to control “the resistance, Indivisible, the progressive democratic socialist label,” and other more liberal-leaning factions of the party.
He thinks his caucus could come into play in this regard.
“At times I feel like we’re Switzerland,” he says about the Problem Solvers. “Trying to get the warring factions to sit down and talk to each other and bring peace to the land.”
He compares the Problem Solvers to the House Freedom Caucus, a band of highly conservative and libertarian minded members known for feuding with Republican leadership. Whereas the Freedom Caucus arguably pushed Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan to move the House’s agenda further to the right, Reed thinks the Problem Solvers could potentially ally with Democratic leadership to ensure the further left-leaning end of their party doesn’t pull them further in that direction.
“When a rule comes up for a vote, and they organize to block that rule because their hard left caucus doesn’t feel as though the policy is appropriate for them, then the floor becomes frozen, becomes part of gridlock, that’s where members like us who are like ‘enough of that,’ maybe we’re a counterweight to that,” Reed says.
However, the Problem Solvers Caucus is facing a controversy of legitimacy. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Ore.), who currently co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, wrote a scathing review of the Problem Solvers and its parent organization, No Labels, saying he was “duped” into believing its stated purpose. “No other current or newly elected member of Congress should fall for its shtick,” he wrote. Other critics have called out its few legislative achievements.
Reed responded to the criticism by noting he thinks the goal for the Problem Solvers isn’t to make big headlines, but is more about underlying substantive initiatives that have impacts “back home.” He admits he and his fellow co-chair, Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), don’t whip votes in the same way some traditional caucuses might and that members don’t have to publicly reveal their level of involvement with the group.
At the end of last year’s session the group did garner a lot of attention going into election season. Thirty-six of its members had signed onto an initiative to change House rules that sought to foster bipartisan initiatives and lessen the power of leadership-driven initiatives. The signers offered to put their support behind any candidate for Speaker of the House who agreed to adopt all the proposals.
Reed specifically made headlines for publicly admitting he would put his support behind Nancy Pelosi if she adopted the reforms, but in the end, he says she didn’t want his vote and so he cast it for Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). He said he doesn’t believe Pelosi snubbed him.
“No, at the end of the day, I think her politics was better suited without me voting for her. She wasn’t looking for it and it is what it is.”
However, as the new Congress came into focus, the group splintered on the rules reforms, too. Some of the members were voted out of office, others didn’t go along because all of their proposed rules weren’t adopted by the Democratic leadership. In the end, only three Republicans, Reed, John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) backed the rules package, which contained only a few of their proposed reforms. Reed considered the move an act of good faith to show he was willing to vote across the aisle.
“This is frowned upon,” he says when asked why more members didn’t join him. “This is treason to some folks in the Republican party. It is seen as a breaking of the herd.”
He says it wasn’t a great position to put himself in personally either — he was approached by leadership and other members who didn’t like his choice to consider Pelosi.
“Obviously there was some expression of discomfort that we were choosing to go down this path,” he said.
In Washington, splintering in such a way can hurt. The very “top-down leadership” Reed says he’s fighting against can silently punish members in a plethora of ways. Ramifications for stepping out of line could lead to less national campaign funding, fewer valuable committee appointments and less pull to get legislation on to the leadership-controlled agenda. He didn’t elaborate but acknowledged there have been repercussions.
“I go in eyes wide open, consequences have occurred, but that’s between me and members and I feel that’s the better way to do it,” he admitted. “I’m not wearing this as a badge of honor.”
Still, that’s not discouraging Reed. During the last session of Congress, a record number of Republicans retired, including some notable moderate-leaning members like Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), and perhaps most notably Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
At the same time, New York is poised to lose at least one, possibly two, congressional seats. The new maps could be disadvantageous to Reed, possibly lumping him into a densely Democratic area like Rochester, Binghamton, or Syracuse and hurting his chances of winning reelection.
Even though moderate Republicans are making for the exits and the 2020 Census threatens the loss of a seat, Reed isn’t looking for the door.
“There’s a timeline with everything, nothing’s for an eternity. We’ll let that take its own course,” he said.
Right now, he’s focused on this session of Congress. He’s been newly appointed as ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee Subcommittee on Social Security– a role he would like to use to possibly bring forward a long-term solution to social security, though he admits this is a lofty goal. Other priorities include lowering healthcare costs, hammering out an infrastructure package and supporting the manufacturing sector.
“I still believe by working hard, rolling up our sleeves, we can find common ground to get things done.”
Featured image: Tom Reed meets with constituents. (Ithaca Voice file photo)