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House Democrats are frustrated the shutdown is drowning out the rest of their agenda

A government shutdown was a really weird way for the new majority to start.

Female House Democratic members of the 116th Congress prepare for a photo opportunity outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 4, 2019.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

This wasn’t the beginning House Democrats imagined when they won their new majority in November.

Rather than an elegant rollout to their anti-corruption, pro-health care, aggressive-on-climate change agenda, House Democrats have been locked from Day 1 in a fierce partisan fight with President Donald Trump over how to reopen a partially shuttered government. It has been a wake-up call to the ways of Washington particularly for the new members, who are getting a dramatic introduction to government dysfunction.

“I’m frustrated. I came into Congress ready to get stuff done,” Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT), a newly elected member who represents one of the most conservative districts held by a Democrat, told me. “But here we are, two weeks in, and we haven’t been able to turn on the lights. ... Some of the important debates aren’t happening right now because of the shutdown.”

In private conversations with Democratic aides and lawmakers, they sometimes wonder if people surrounding President Donald Trump are perfectly happy to steal Democrats’ thunder while thousands of federal workers go without pay and the economy takes a hit.

Whatever the White House’s intentions, the frustration among Democrats is palpable. This wasn’t what they hoped for or planned for their new majority, and they have a lot of other business they want to get to. Not that they’ll simply capitulate to Trump so they can move on to other issues. But it’s still been a frustrating opening for the new Congress.

Trump craves attention more than anything else. Even if he’s taking the blame for the government shutdown in the public’s eyes, he still might prefer that to letting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and company roll out their plans to expand health care, attack climate change, and investigate his administration’s misdeeds.

Democrats haven’t had time to do much except passing spending bills

For the 60 new members of the Democratic House majority, fighting with the White House just to turn the lights on, as McAdams put it, was not what they came to Washington to do.

So far, most of the House’s floor time so far has been spent debating and passing government spending bills, all of which the Senate refuses to take up because Republican leaders don’t want to cross Trump.

The House has taken 30 roll call votes in 2019. By my count, roughly two-thirds of them have been related in one way or another to the government shutdown. Most of the others have been formalities, like approving the new House rules.

The new majority started by passing an appropriations bill that would have opened the entire government back up. They have since passed bills to fund specific agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, and the USDA. They have approved a bill, also passed by the Senate, to guarantee back pay for federal workers who are missing their paychecks during the shutdown.

Democratic leaders didn’t have much of a choice, of course. They wanted to show they would govern responsibly, in contrast to the outgoing Republican majority that let Trump shut down the government with a last-minute double-cross. The public, hearing more and more stories about federal workers forced to skip medications or find part-time work, probably wouldn’t take too kindly to Democrats sidelining the shutdown talks to pursue their other interests. The current crisis demands their attention.

It’s still undeniably a weird way to start the new Congress.

Democrats are hungry to start enacting their agenda — once the government reopens

Some of this is simply the normal pains of transitioning into the majority. New members have to get their offices set up, figure out how the phones work, and hire up new staff. Committee assignments are still being handed out; some people have to move into new offices.

But the new majority hasn’t been twiddling their thumbs. A proactive agenda is starting to take shape.

Democrats have unveiled their big anti-corruption legislation package already. A slew of bills has been introduced to bring down prescription drug prices. Committees have announced hearings to probe the Trump administration’s policies on climate change and immigration. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, is coming to Capitol Hill to testify about his work on behalf of the president. House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) has said that he wants to put a new budget resolution on the floor in April.

The shutdown is still an unwelcome distraction and a potential delay on getting to the hard work of moving legislation through committees and onto the House floor. Governing is about priorities and right now there is no bigger priority than opening the government.

It is difficult to imagine House Democrats undertaking a major legislative push — like stabilizing the Affordable Care Act, a top campaign promise of many Democrats in 2018 — until federal workers are receiving their paychecks again.

It’s not as if the House would have passed Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal if not for the shutdown. Clearly leaders are taking a very deliberative approach to the coming year, setting up hearings on some of the big-ticket items that progressives want to address while at the same time pursuing more targeted legislation on issues where there is a broad consensus within the party.

That behind-the-scenes work is still continuing. But they will have to reopen the government before they can truly take on the role of a full-throated new Democratic majority.